Out of the Fight


As American as appletinis.

(2020) Drama (GravitasRandy Wayne, Jordan Jude, Chris Mullinax, Judy Norton, Robert Miano, Carle Atwater, Corie Robinson, Lily Thomas, Ron Chevalier, Tisa Key, Michael Aaron Milligan, Jon-Paul Gates, Paul Sampson, Aaron Mitchell, Rob Wolfe, Beejan Land, Curtis Nichouls, Holdyn Barder, Christopher Heskey, David William Arnott, Russell Snipes, Talia Andrews. Directed by Steve Moon

It’s a familiar story as America continues to deal with the longest armed conflict in its history; soldiers are trained to go out into the field to defend….well, our way of life ostensibly, although I think most soldiers would be hard-pressed to say what our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has to do with protecting the American way. Superman would weep. Politics aside, we send these young men and women out to fight and die, but those who survive are dumped back into civilian life, often in the grip of PTSD and barely able to cope with life back home.

Jason Pete (Wayne) has served three tours in Afghanistan and has returned home to a loving wife Emily (Jude) and a four-year-old daughter. His body is scarred with wounds received in service, but it is his mind that is more deeply wounded and less apparently so. The VA provices him with a psychiatrist (Norton) but the sessions don’t appear to give him much peace. He turns to drinking and pills to ease his inner pain, but it doesn’t help. A friendly local police officer (Mullinax) tries to guide him through, but will it be enough?

The movie makes us aware – if you weren’t already – that our vets are committing suicide in terrifying numbers. It doesn’t directly address the question, but certainly most of us will hbe thinking it – if we can afford to spend money on new tanks and planes and battleships we don’t need, why can’t we spend the money to give our servicemen and women the post-deployment care they need and deserve? It is truly a national scandal.

It is a truly worthy subject for a film, but the execution is a bit lacking. Much of this is due to the low budget, which is readily apparent in the action scenes. Filmed locally in Alabama with a local crew and cast, there is some inexperience showing in terms of on-camera performances, which tend to be a litte wooden. There are a few relatively well-known names in the cast, including former Waltons star Judy Norton as the psychiatrist (she also co-wrote the script with the director), and veteran character actor Robert Miano as Jason’s commanding officer, but while their performances are more relaxed, there are a number of performers who don’t look comfortable in front of the camera.

The filmmakers talked to more than fifty veterans and their families to get their impressions of how they coped with the return of warriors to civilian life; every one of them, it was reported, had served with someone who had killed themselves, attempted to or was dealing with severe PTSD. I assume they used some of those stories here, and to be truthful, there are some moments that are incredibly gripping and harrowing, but more often than not, this feels like other films on the subject that have dealt with the same topic. I’m wondering if the filmmakers might not have served the subject better by making a documentary and interviewing the various family members on-camera rather than create a drama around it; something tells me the real stories would be far more compelling than this.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers admirably turn their camera on a still very real and serious problem that has yet to be effectively addressed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard issue for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pete house in the film was demolished after filming was completed to make way for a new road.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When I Came Home
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Team Marco

Martin Eden


Brave workers, unite against the evil bourgeosie!

(2019) Drama (Kino LorberLuca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Marco Leonardi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecci, Autilla Ranieri, Elisabetta Valgoi, Pietro Ragusa, Savino Paparella, Vincenza Modica, Giustiniano Alpi, Giuseppe Iuliano, Peppe Maggio, Maurizio Donadoni, Gaetano Bruno, Franco Pinelli, Anna Patierno, Lana Vlady. Directed by Pietro Marcello

 

2020 has given us not one but two films based on novels by Jack London, the Harrison Ford-led Call of the Wild and this one. They couldn’t be two more different films.

The titular Martin (Marinelli) doesn’t toil as a longshoreman in Oakland as was the case in the original 1909 novel, but as a sailor in the Mediterranean. When he saves a young boy from a beating on the pier, it turns out that the boy is the scion of a wealthy family, the Orsini clan. Their comely daughter Elena (Cressy) is well-educated, intelligent, witty and an angelic beauty. She falls for the ruggedly handsome Martin much to the dismay of her bourgeois family.

Martin is equally smitten but realizes that any kind of relationship between the two of them is impossible so long as he is poor. He determines to make his fortune as a writer, and as a writer he follows the dictum to write what he knows. Unfortunately, what he mainly knows is rage against the machine, as he becomes slowly more radicalized. He moves from menial job to menial job, scraping by, while his writing career goes nowhere. He perseveres and Elena hangs in there, but as Martin finally finds success, he changes and slowly the thing he wanted most begins to slip away, furthering his rage.

There is an epic quality to the film as we watch the arc of Martin’s life, his involvement with intellectuals, with the wealthy Orsini family and with radical socialists who seek to make sweeping changes in Italy. Much of what Martin communicates in the second half of the film is half-screamed as he rails at socialists whom he sees as doomed to fail, but more so at capitalists who exploit people like himself. Soon, all he has is that anger.

Marcello, better known for his documentaries although he has an excellent narrative feature (Lost and Beautiful) on his resume, has a good eye. He intersperses archival footage of turn-of-the-century Italy as well as faux archival footage of a magnificent sailing ship which seems to be a metaphor for Martin’s success…or ambitions…or dreams; take your pick.

The movie is extremely well-acted as Marinelli does his best to make a character who slowly becomes consumed with fury likable and relatable and, for the most part, succeeds. Cressy is luminous and radiates intelligence; in many ways, she’s a more interesting character than Martin is although his story is a tragic one.

I suspect conservative-leaning readers may shudder at the thought of a movie that looks at socialists but they are not romanticized in the least. However, it doesn’t sugarcoat the snobbery of the Orsinis. Painting both sides as equally non-admirable. London wrote the novel as a means to reconcile his success (the novel was written after the bulk of his most successful novels had made London a wealthy man) with his socialist leanings. I don’t know if London had an inner uncontrollable rage that characterizes Martin (at the time he wrote it he was suffering from the kidney disease that would become nearly unbearable in the later stages of his life) but certainly there’s a lot of Martin Eden in Jack London, and vice versa. Success comes with its own measures and they don’t always have to do with the size of the paycheck.

REASONS TO SEE: A lyrically photographed tale that is epic in scope and feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: Turns into a socialist polemic at times as Martin becomes more unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and sexual content..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the novel led to speculation that London’s death may not have been accidental.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Linda and the Mockingbirds

The Artist’s Wife


Bruce Dern at work on another masterpiece.

(2019) Drama (StrandLena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stefanie Powers, Tonya Pinkins, Catherine Curtin, Lukas Hassel, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Elise Santora, Clare Louise Frost, Meadow Tien Nguy, Josh Mowery, Robert Myers, Gabriel Millman, Laura Chaneski, Peter Albrink, Alexandre Bagot, Gerardo Rodriguez, Dan Truman, Lyssa Mandel. Directed by Tom Dolby

 

Our country is aging, and as we do, we become more concerned with the problems of age – dementia being one of them. Most of us have known someone affected by it, either directly, or suffering because of a loved one affected by it. Hollywood finds this a particularly fertile ground for dramas, particularly of the Oscar-bait sort.

Richard Smythson (Dern) is one of the country’s pre-eminent artists, a man whose paintings routinely fetch six figures and whose name on the faculty alone can grant legitimacy to a college or university, but as lions go, he is feeling the chill of an oncoming winter. He is forgetful, and inspiration has fled, even as he prepares to what might very well be his final gallery show.

His second wife Claire (Olin) tries to keep things together, dealing with all the irritating issues of life which frees Richard to concentrate on his painting; as he says during an interview, “I create the art – Claire takes care of everything else.” The thing is, he means it as a compliment although most modern women probably would raise an eyebrow at that.

Claire is fully aware that her husband’s memory and talent are slipping away. She decides that she should reunite him with his daughter Angela (Rylance) and his grandson Diego (Cabot-Conyers) whom neither of them has met. In fact, Claire was ignorant of Angela’s sexual preference not to mention that her partner had recently left her for someone else.

And Angela is not just estranged from her dad, she’s really estranged from her dad. She wants nothing to do with him, no matter how long he may have left. Her life isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t need further drama that her often-cantankerous father sometimes creates. She reluctantly gets to know the persistent Claire a little better, and eventually agrees to come to their modernist house in the middle of nowhere for Christmas. But Richard being who he is, it becomes the most awkward Christmas celebration ever.

But as Richard is slowly disappearing, Claire – who was an artist herself before giving it up to be with Richard – is beginning to rediscover herself and in that rediscovery, just might find a way through the encroaching night which is falling on Richard and their life together.

The entire movie takes place in winter and cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker nicely utilizes snowy, white landscapes to great effect, reminding us that Richard is in the winter of his life. Dern, who has made a cottage industry of playing irascible old men of late, is never better, playing Richard with equal parts egotism, rage and eye-twinkling charm. Dolby doesn’t shy away from allowing Dern and Olin express the couple’s sexuality on the screen, something which Hollywood has a tendency to shy away from (except as a punch line).

But despite having Oscar nominee Dern front and center, this is not about Richard – the movie is called The Artist’s Wife, after all, not The Artist – but about Claire and Olin, a Swedish actress who has been almost criminally underrated for the most part, generates a performance that has to be one of the best of her career.

There is a consistency problem here; some of the situations feel very unlike how you’d expect the characters to react, which is puzzling because Dolby – one of the co-writers of the film – doesn’t turn away from his character’s foibles and issues. They are all fully human, but when Angela relents and brings her son and their calming babysitter Danny (Jogia) to visit, it feels forced, as if the script required a confrontation and this was the most expedient way to create one. The ending of the movie isn’t exactly what I expected, and in some ways felt like a cop-out, but it does remind us that love sometimes is about doing the hardest thing, and occasionally, the most unlikely.

There are moments that are maudlin, but Dolby largely avoids those sorts of opportunities; his own father passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s in 2013 and certainly that experience likely played a role in the script-writing here. Those who have loved ones going through the process of memory and personality change may find this a painful watch, but those looking for some strong acting performances and a drama that doesn’t necessarily take the easiest road to the finish might well look into this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Dern is reliably captivating and Olin gives one of the best performances of her career. A portrait of love that transcends standard boundaries.
REASONS TO AVOID: Goes off the rails from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Olin initially went to university to study medicine and briefly worked as a nurse before moving into acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wife
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are Many

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

The Garden Left Behind


Tina looks out at a world that isn’t kind to trans women.

(2019) Drama (Uncork’d) Carlie Guevara, Edward Asner, Michael Madsen, Danny Flaherty, Anthony Abdo, Alex Kruz, Tamara M. Williams, Miriam Cruz, Dawn Young, Bernadette Quigley, Brock Yurich, Sidiki Fofana, Amanda M. Rodriguez, Pablo González, Ivana Black, Lea Nayeli, Tym Moss, Kristen Parker Lovell, Devin Michael Lowe, Christine Nyland, Adam Kee, Sarah Skeist. Directed by Flavio Alves

 

Some of the most vulnerable members of our society are trans women of color (see Trivial Pursuit below) as well as undocumented immigrants. Both are subject to discrimination and sometimes, even violence.

Tina (Guevara) is transitioning woman who is in the early stages of the process. She lives with her arbuela (grandmother), Elaina (Cruz), in New York City. Tina supports them driving an unlicensed cab. Her grandmother is having a hard time coming to terms with her grandchild’s journey, often referring to her as Antonio, her birth name, but Tina seems to accept that her grandmother is set in her ways; besides, there is undeniably much love between the two of them. It literally is them against the world.

Tina does have a support system of trans friends, particularly Carol (Williams) who is outspoken, particularly when one of their group is brutally beaten up by cops. As Carol shepherds Tina through the process of interviews with an older white doctor (Asner) who Tina doesn’t quite trust enough to open up to, she also infuses Tina with her activism.

A good thing too, because Tina’s long-term boyfriend (Kruz), a Wall Street jerk, is mainly there for the sex and is somewhat ashamed of Tina or more properly, ashamed of his own desires. Tina is also unknowingly being stalked by a bodega clerk (Abdo) who has issues of his own, which inevitably comes to a head.

The film definitely has its heart in the right place as it looks realistically and unflinchingly at the issues besetting both trans women and undocumented immigrants, from the uncertainty about getting insurance and employment, to the ever-present specter of violence; there is a segment when Tina is selling her car that drips with menace. It isn’t that the buyer is overtly aggressive, it’s just the potential for violence seems very close to the surface. These sorts of things are what trans gender women live with daily, and the movie is at its best when it puts its emphasis on these.

I also give the film kudos for casting trans actors in trans roles; it is refreshing that a low-budget indie film is able to do that when much larger Hollywood productions seem uninterested in doing so. Perhaps the AMPAS inclusion guidelines will change that, something I wholeheartedly endorse.

But with inexperienced actors comes another set of problems. Guevara is a very expressive and passionate actress, but her line readings can be stiff and the timing a little off. This is mostly an inexperience thing and I do believe that as she gets more comfortable in front of the camera, she’ll start loosening up somewhat but for now, it is noticeable.

The climax is quite moving, and I loved the relationship between Tina and Elaina; Miriam Cruz does a wonderful job portraying the kind of Latin grandmother I’m very familiar with. The characters are very realistic, although I think that the character of Chris was sadly underdeveloped, considering the part he has to play in the film. Another review I read suggested that Chris shouldn’t have been developed at all but rather just show up at the end, an idea I found intriguing. It certainly would have been more effective than the half-assed development he got.

This is a flawed film, but most of its flaws are honestly made; there is also a good deal here to recommend it. The movie is certainly topical, and while the ending is rather dramatic, it is nonetheless a sad fact of life in the trans community. I look forward to bigger and better things coming from the filmmakers as well as the cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Covers issues of two groups that are badly discriminated against.
REASONS TO AVOID: Guevara’s line reading is fairly stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including gay slurs, violence, sex, nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 2018, the year this was filmed, was the deadliest year for transgenders ever; nearly all the victims were women of color.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DirecTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lingua Franca
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bombardier Blood

Words on Bathroom Walls


(2020) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Andy Garcia, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, Evan Whitten, Drew Schend, Jared Bankens, Reinaldo Faberlie, Aaron Dominguez, Cruz Abelita, Ellie Dusek, Sean Michael Weber, Dominique Hayes, Linzi Gray, Julianna Barkas, Ashley Victoria. Directed by Thor Freudenthal

There was a time when made-for-TV movies tended to feature a “disease of the week.” That trend has finally made it to Young Adult novels and the movies based on them.

Here the disease is treatment-resistant schizophrenia. It’s the sort that manifests itself in sounds nobody else can hear and sights nobody else can see – visual and auditory hallucinations. The condition is admittedly fairly rare, but as it is a fairly dramatic mental disease, makes for good fictional fodder by author Julia Walton, adapted here by screenwriter Nick Naveda.

The afflicted party is Adam (Plummer), a high school senior with aspirations towards culinary school. For Adam, the hallucinations take the shape of three humans – the oily Joaquin (Bostick) who represents his libido, the free-spirited Earth mama Rebecca (Robb) who represents his good intentions, the burly bodyguard (Sebastian) who represents his fear, and a swirling black cloud that represents the chaos inside him.

He has successfully hidden his condition from friends and school administrators until a breakdown in a chemistry class leads to a horrific accident. Adam is summarily expelled as a danger to other students, and eventually ends up in a strict Catholic school, whose principal Sister Catherine (Grant) informs Charlie and his desperate mom (Parker) and her new boyfriend Paul (Goggins) that the condition for acceptance into the school is that Adam stay on his new drug treatment, and keep the school apprised of his progress in therapy sessions (in a nifty twist, Plummer plays the therapy sessions to the camera, putting the audience in the role of psychiatrist – well, at least we critics had pen and notepad handy to further reinforce the illusion).

Adam aims to lay low and keep his head down until graduation so that he can achieve his dreams, but he is having issues with his math class. Enter Maya (Russell), the class valedictorian who has some hidden issues of her own, who agrees to tutor Adam for a princely sum. Teen hormones being what they are, Adam soon falls for the fetching Maya who in turn begins to develop some affections for the good-hearted Adam.

But the meds that Adam is on are affecting his taste buds, and a budding chef can’t have that, so he ditches the meds which is the kind of decision you’d expect a teen to make – with predictable results. With Adam teetering on the edge of losing everything, can he keep it together long enough to get through to graduation?

The movie plays it safe on most subjects, preferring feel-good moments to gritty realism with some exceptions (as when Adam encounters a clearly potential older version of himself on a bus, talking to himself). Throw in the usual teen movie clichés – the feeling of being an outsider, the different-is-okay message that goes against the teen instinct for conformity, the awkward attempts at romantic connection, the prom disaster, and the graduation speech that Solves Everything. There are the straight-arrow adults who Don’t Understand, and the unexpectedly hip adult mentor/role model – in this case, Andy Garcia as Father Patrick, a combination of Sigmund Freud, Yoda and Father O’Malley of The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The movie is largely saved by an attractive cast. Plummer and Russell are two of the better actors in the teen movie genre, and they not only deliver solid performances separately, they also have great chemistry together. Parker is terrific as the mama bear who fiercely defends her cub, even against himself, and Goggins is particularly wonderful in a small but important role as the stepdad with whom Adam has a contentious relationship. It is also nice (and fitting) to see Robb and Bostick, both teen movie mainstays not long ago but who have moved on to more adult roles.

One of my issues with the film is that it uses Adam’s mental disease as almost a gimmick; yes, there are those who suffer through these sorts of hallucinations but I would have liked to see a more common form of schizophrenia that more kids suffer from and that they might relate to better. It’s a very difficult subject to tackle, mental illness is, and I’m not sure there’s a good way to do so without feeling like exploitation.

This is one of the first films back in theaters after the major theater chains have reopened, which will work in the film’s bottom line favor. Likely it would have been lost in the late summer shuffle of blockbusters and back-to-school releases. Currently, it is only available in theaters so for those in places that have not allowed theaters to reopen, or for those who are not comfortable with going out to theaters quite yet, you’ll have to wait a bit to catch this one at home.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances by Plummer and Russell particularly, but also Goggins and Parker.
REASONS TO AVOID: Full of teen movie clichés while at times trivializing the mental illness subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and serious adult themes regarding mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker and Russell play mother and daughter on the Netflix series reboot of Lost in Space.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ravage

The Perfect Candidate


Roles in Saudi Arabia are changing.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Ahmed Al-Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th, Rakan Abdulrahman, Nojoud Ahmed, Naser Al Algeel, Saeed Almana, Ahmad Alsulaimy, Reem Fahad, Bandar Hadadi, Bandar Alkhudair, Hamad Almuzainy, Ismaee Nasser, Muhammad Shaman, Abdullah Ateeg, Reema Mohammed. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enigma to Western minds. While it remains one of the most pro-Western governments in the Middle East, its government remains at times painfully repressive of women, although it did lift the ban on them driving by themselves in 2018 – not even two years ago. Lifting the veil, so to speak, on the lives of women in the Kingdom is no easy matter.

But who better to do so than Al-Mansour, who was the first Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film with the wonderful Wadjda back in 2012. Her protagonist, Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Al Zahrani) has a medical degree and works at a small hospital in a small town near Riyadh. She is constantly belittled by male colleagues, and encounters an elderly patient (Almuzainy) who refuses treatment by a female doctor. When Maryam refuses to back down, her hospital administrator (Hadadi) orders that the man be treated by the male nurses.
Back at home, she helps her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Al Awad) prepare a Ramadan meal for their father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), one of the country’s most gifted oud players. He is still mourning the untimely death of their mother, a beautiful wedding singer whose unusual choice of vocation (for Saudi women, unusual) had made things difficult at times, particularly for the sensitive Sara who disapproves of anything that might bring scrutiny down on the little family.

With Abdulaziz leaving on a national tour, Maryam uses the opportunity to attend a medical conference in Dubai where she is more likely to be noticed and find herself a new, more prestigious job. But there’s a problem; as an unmarried Saudi woman, she needs the permission of her father to travel, and his signature is apparently out of date. Stuck at the airport, desperately trying to get approval to fly to Dubai and with her father unreachable, she tries a cousin (Alsulaimy) to fix the problem. The trouble is, the supercilious administrative assistant won’t let Maryam see him unless she is planning on running for a municipal council office, and she grumpily declares that she is and then is told that her cousin isn’t willing to break the law on behalf, but she decides to make a serious run at it, even though she is told that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of defeating the incumbent. With the support of Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, and the surly resentment of her younger sister Sara, who remembers the difficulties her mom’s profession brought on the family,

While the movie is ostensibly a drama, it is lighthearted enough so that there’s never a sense of gloom or hopelessness. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and, apparently, even women themselves seem to think that progress might be taking place too quickly. We see the ladies taking off their niqab – a mask-like veil that only allows the eyes to be seen – in their homes, and gathering in gender-segregated halls in western dress, something unthinkable not so long ago.

This isn’t the kind of political underdog film that Frank Capra might have made; one gets the sense that Al-Mansour has to tread a very tricky line in order not to be overly critical of her government (she isn’t) while allowing the changes to be celebrated, yet there is certainly an underlying feeling  that more needs to be done. At times the way women are treated is positively medieval.

Both Al Zahrani and Dhay are wonderful performers; Al Zahrani makes Maryam a force of nature when she gets a head of steam going, although early on in the film she is fairly subservient. Dhay, though, is a remarkable burst of fresh air, so joyful and supportive that you’ll want to be her sister too. g

At times, the story moves along at a snail’s pace and there is little in the way of dramatic tension, which you wouldn’t think for a movie with the kind of issues this one raises. It feels virtually sedentary, but perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a Saudi female filmmaker; I imagine she would have to tread fairly lightly if she wants to continue making movies in her own country (although she has established a career in the States as well by now). There are some delightful moments and others that are pedantic; they about even each other out. So, not the triumph that Wadjda was, but certainly not a failure either.

REASONS TO SEE: Al Zahrani is a formidable presence and Dhay injects much vitality into the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times it lacks dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some misogyny on display.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official Saudi entry in the Best International Film category for the 92nd Academy Awards last spring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saudi Women’s Driving School
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Uncle Peckerhead

Again Once Again (De nuevo otra vez)


Hugs communicate so much.

(2019) Drama (MUBIRomina Paula, Monica Rank, Ramón Cohen, Mariana Chaud, Pablo Sigal, Denise Groesman, Esteban Bigliardi. Directed by Romina Paula and Rosario Cervio

 

Motherhood is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Most women aspire to it, and most women who become mothers will tell you that as difficult as it is, it is something they wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But that difficult part…it can be overwhelming, especially for first-time mothers. Every mom wants to be the perfect mom, but there really is no such thing – but that doesn’t mean the attempt isn’t made. Women submerge their own needs into the needs of their child and their families until it’s hard to tell if they even exist as an individual anymore. Sometimes, it feels to them like they don’t.

Romina (Paula) who lives in Cordoba, Argentina with her boyfriend and son, has taken her son (Cohen) to Buenos Aires to visit her mother (Rank) – but she’s not sure if this is just a visit, or a signal that her relationship with her boyfriend (Bigliardi) is over. Although her son is three, she feels like she has disappeared – “I can’t see myself,” she admits to her mother.

Her mother, who raised her speaking German as her mom’s family had emigrated from Germany in the early 20th century and spoke it in the home, is only too happy to have her grandson and her daughter back. “Stay as long as you need,” she urges and Romina takes her up on it. Her mom urges her to go out, take some time for herself – and she does, going to parties with her friends Mariana (Chaud) and Denise (Groesman). She dances, flirts, and has deep discussions about her feelings. Her mother from time to time criticizes Romina in that passive-aggressive way mothers do with their daughters, but Romina feels adrift, trying to find herself, wondering if it is even possible.

This is one of those rare films that has to do with a woman’s mid-life crisis. It looks at the feelings with no little bit of intellectual discussion This is a largely autobiographical film – Paula plays a fairly thinly veiled version of herself, and one gets the sense that she’s using this film somewhat as therapy. It’s not easy to resent the effect a child has on your life, as much as she clearly loves her son. When her mother gently prods her daughter that her son needs to socialize with other children as well as her socializing with her friends, you get the sense that this is a discussion the two women have had in real life.

The performances here are pretty solid, from a largely non-professional cast (Paula herself is the exception). The situations are mainly mundane and there isn’t a whole lot of action, although there is  lot of talking and inner monologues are displayed in clunky fashion against slide shows as Romina narrates her family history and talks about her relationships. We could have done without those.

For a first-time film director, Paula does a pretty good job, and delivers a rarity – a great ending. It symbolizes her change from a woman who is following in the shadow of her man, to a woman embarking on a new and unknown journey on her own. As she turns to walk away from the camera, she flashes an enigmatic little smile. It’s just perfect.

There isn’t a lot of catharsis here, and as far as insights go, the film requires you to work for them a little bit, which is something American audiences aren’t always willing to do. However, this is a very strong debut and a very interesting movie that held my attention for its entire length, not an easy thing to do these days. I highly recommend it, and MUBI subscribers, who already tend to be fairly adventurous in their film choices, are going to love it.

REASONS TO SEE: Very thoughtful very smart. A wonderful final scene.
REASONS TO AVOID: Romina’s uncertainty can be maddening.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references as well as some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romina’s mother and son are played by her real-life mother and son.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75/100, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
CREEM: America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine

Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

(2018) Drama (1091) Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Ennis Esmer, Salvatore Antonio, Brandon McKnight, Genevieve Kang, Caroline Bartczak, Lauren Collins, Jason Tome, Cody Black, Robert B. Kennedy, Brock Morgan, Rufio Luey. Directed by Jesse Zigelstein

 

In recent years, chefs have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming rock stars in their own right. A celebrity chef can pretty much write their own ticket, able to command the attention of foodies the world over who will walk across hot coals to get a table at their restaurant. For this, we sometimes excuse behavior we wouldn’t accept in our own workplace. If Gordon Ramsey were my boss, I’d be sitting him down in HR with a lawyer handy after one of his tirades.

Danny (Abrams) has gone from being the darling of hipster foodies, the hot young chef to being a dinosaur in his own bistro. His restaurant is hemorrhaging money and his past due bills are piling up; even though his restaurant is packed night after night, he is drowning in debt. The only life preserver on the horizon is his school chum Mark (Esmer) who has agreed to come to his restaurant for a meal with a group of potential investors who might prove to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He needs to wow the table or face the closure of a business he has spent ten years building.

The film chronicles the day of that dinner. Danny is already in hot water with Chloe (Chorostecki), his house manager and sometime lover who he stood up the night previous. He is perturbed because the new hot food truck with the new hip not chef (Tome) is parked cross the street from his eatery. His sommelier (Antonio) reports that none of his wine providers will extend any credit to him any longer. His landlord (Kennedy) has had it up to here with missed rental payments and bounced checks; he has to the end of the month to get caught up or Danny will be evicted.

To make matters worse, a supercilious food blogger (Collins) informs Danny that his talented sous chef Keith (McKnight) is jumping ship for the chance to become an executive chef in his own restaurant. And Danny has forgotten that his ex-wife (Bartczak) is bringing his son (Black) over because it is his day to watch him. Along the way, Danny will rant, scream, and berate his put-upon staff while pushing away the one person who seems to believe in him at all. As the night progresses, Danny seems to be falling apart. Can he pull it together to save his restaurant?

First-time feature director Zigelstein paints a realistic portrait of life in an upscale bistro, and of the challenges (that are sometimes insurmountable) that independent restaurants face. It is no secret that restaurants fail at a staggering rate; it is one of the toughest businesses to succeed at.

Abrams does strong work as Danny, a man whose own hubris is his own worst enemy. Danny believes that he is still the biggest and brightest star in Toronto; that belief has become increasingly delusional and everyone knows it except Danny. He’s not a pleasant person to be around and he’s certainly not a pleasant person to work for. He’s the stereotype of an asshole chef, the kind we see on TV and in the movies and whose behavior may be amusing from a distance, but if you are forced to deal with it day after day would no doubt provoke PTSD in a major way. Danny’s tirades and tantrums eventually grow wearying and by the time the movie comes to an end you may not give a ratatouille whether Danny saves his bistro or not.

That aside, the movie feels pretty authentic to me, but as I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen myself you might want to take that with a grain of salt. This is definitely not a film for Vegans (there’s a scene that is critical to the plot that involves the butchering of a hog, and it appears they use an actual hog carcass or at least a realistic facsimile of same) nor is it a film for those whose idea of a high class meal is the daily special at Appleby’s. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to merit a look-see and as the rental fee is extremely reasonable ($3.99 at most streaming services), you really can’t go wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at some of the obstacles restaurants face.
REASONS TO AVOID: There comes a point where the tantrums become tiresome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of profanity and some brief violence. There are also images of meat being butchered that may upset vegans or those sensitive to such scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Abrams and Chorostecki had supporting roles on the excellent but lamentably canceled Hannibal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Made in Italy

The Cuban


The memories of when we were young.

(2019) Drama (Brainstorm) Louis Gossett Jr., Ana Golja, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly, Giacomo Gianniotti, Shiva Negar, Jonathan Keltz, Layla Alizada, Kane Mahon, Tabby Johnson, Margaret Lamarre, Gerry Mendicino, Richard Chevolleau, Emily Piggford, Mazida Soroor, Paulbaum Wildbaum, Wajma Soroor, Nadine Roden, Pazz Neglia, Olga Consorti. Directed by Sergio Navarretta

 

Our culture is remarkably cruel to the elderly. We have a tendency to shut them away in warehouses for the old, out of sight and out of mind. We sigh and tell ourselves that it is in the best interests of those whose golden years are tinged with rusted iron; in reality it is as often a convenience for ourselves.

Young Mina Ayoub (Golja) is a pre-med student starting her first day on the job in an extended care facility. One of her assignments, as passed on to her by head Nurse Baker (Holly) is to care for Luis Garcia (Gossett), a cantankerous gentleman who is in the throes of vascular dementia and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He refuses to eat the dietitian-prescribed food that is supposed to be good for his ailing heart. She notices a poster of Benny Moré on the wall, a legendary Cuban trumpeter. Her late father had introduced her to Cuban music so she has a bit more familiarity with it than the average Afghan immigrant.

She also lives with her Aunt Bana (Aghdashloo), who as an administrator for the facility, is watching Mina like a hawk. Bana had a career as a physician in Kabul before the violence there forced her to move to Canada but it meant giving up her career and taking care of her niece, who by then had been orphaned

Mina is oddly drawn to Luis and decides to play some Cuban jazz records to see if they would stimulate something more than the vacant stare he gives (when he’s not throwing plates in her general direction when she tries to get him to eat). She also discovers that Luis is willing to eat Cuban food that he remembers fondly, so she begins cooking some for him and bringing it in.

Gradually we discover that Luis was one of the most revered guitar players in Cuba, whose band Los Cubanos played all over the world and shared the stage with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie. He also was deeply in love with Elena (Golja in a dual role), the band’s singer. The food and the music begin to awaken Luis and he and Mina begin to bond. She also begins a romance with Kris (Gianniotti), a teacher’s assistant at her college who is studying psychology and has some insight into Luis’ condition, as well as a guitar. Soon, it appears Luis is coming out of his shell, but that generally means that the other shoe is about to drop.

Navarretta, whose career spans 20 years although he has mostly directed short films, is a bit heavy-handed in places; for example, the flashback scenes of Luis in Havana are vibrant and colorful; the scenes in the nursing home drab and colorless. We get that Luis’ life is more vivid in his memory than in his intolerable present, but I don’t think it was necessary to make the home look like Alcatraz.

The performances here are strong with the 84-year-old Gossett showing that he won an Oscar for a reason; he imbues Luis with humanity and dignity, despite the fact that his dementia is robbing him of both. Luis is often volatile, his moods swinging wildly from violence to joy to child-like to weary, sometimes within the confines of a single conversation. Although his Cuban accent slips from time to time, his chemistry with Golja is undeniable and she brings a great deal of life to the film; she’s another veteran of the DeGrassi series that seems to have employed nearly every actor in Canada at one time or another.

Although the movie is low-key, it does show a genuine affection for Cuban music and culture, not to mention a valid point to make about how the elderly are treated in modern Western society. I could have done without the subplot of the romance between Mina and Kris; it distracts from the real story which is the relationships between Mina and Luis, and between Mina and her family, which is also an important commentary on the expectations of immigrant families which I could relate to directly. This is a movie that some might write off as a Hallmark channel type of film, but I can assure you that it is much, much more – it is a hidden gem that film buffs would do well to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: A love letter to Cuban music as well as an indictment of how we warehouse the elderly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Mina and Kris feels unnecessary
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was written by Hilario Duran, a veteran Cuban pianist whose own life story has many similarities to that of Luis Garcia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rebuilding Paradise