Amnesia


Sitting out in the warm sun can be a kind of amnesia.

(2015) Drama (Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemell, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermi Reixach, Marie Leuenberger, Félix Pons, Florentin Groll, Eva Barceló, Lluis Altés, Rick Zingale, Kate Ashcroft, Joel Rice, Alfie Davies Man, Fabian Krüger, Joel Basman. Directed by Barbet Schroeder

 

It is said that the sea has no memory; if that is true, an island is the perfect place to forget.

Marthe (Keller) lives a kind of idyllic life in Ibiza. It is 1990 and the Berlin Wall has just fallen. Her house is absolutely charming with a breathtaking view. There is no electricity but she is absolutely fine with that. She grows many of her own vegetables and goes fishing when she is hungry. That which she can’t get from the sea or grow herself she picks up at the local market. One of her cousins is visiting and urging her to return to Germany to dispose of a property for which her presence is required. She politely declines.

Shortly thereafter, a new neighbor moves in to the house just above hers on the hillside. He is Jo (Riemell), a German musician/composer who has been drawn by Ibiza’s burgeoning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene. His stage name is DJ Gello and he is angling for a gig at Amnesia, the 800 pound gorilla of EDM clubs on Ibiza (and yes, this is a real club which is still open today). Jo is a pleasant sort who shows up at her door requesting first aid after badly burning his hand accidentally. She gives him an herbal cream rather than a bag of ice and the two strike up a friendship.

Marthe is in her 70s and Jo in his 20s but the two hit it off. They become fast friends, Marthe introducing Jo to the laid-back Ibiza life, Jo introducing Marthe to the hypnotic sway of EDM which Marthe actually finds compelling. There are a lot of things Marthe isn’t talking about; the cello that she never plays, the reason she won’t drink German wine or ride in Jo’s Volkswagen. He also is upset when he discovers that Marthe, who claimed to be unable to speak German, turns out to be fluent in that language.

In fact, it turns out that Marthe is in fact German. She left Germany shortly before World War II broke out and fled to Switzerland with her love, a Jewish cellist. Disgusted by what her country did and became, she has renounced all things German, affecting a sort of amnesia by choice of her native country, her native language and everything relating to it.

When Jo’s parents visit, his doctor mother (Leuenberger) and his beloved grandfather (Ganz) are trying very hard to convince Jo to return and take part in the historic reunification between East and West Germany. As the two enjoy a paella on Marthe’s patio on a sunlit afternoon, the grandfather’s harmless stories – which had evolved over the years – under Marthe’s persistent questioning begins to crumble until a stark truth remains. Grandpa Bruno’s own stories had formed a kind of amnesia for events too terrible to contemplate.

Schroeder has made some wonderful films in his storied career (his first effort in the director’s chair came back in 1969) as well as a few turkeys but this one tends towards the former more than the latter. A lot of his films feature people dealing with an unsavory past and this one does so indirectly (and directly in the case of Grandpa Bruno). Marthe, as Jo’s mom points out near the end of the film, is dealing with her issues with her homeland by running away from her feelings. It’s hard not to blame her; in an era when Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the direction that their country is taking. While we don’t have evil on the scale of the Nazis running the United States, there are certainly a lot of reasons not to like the way our country is shaping up. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to move to Ibiza and never speak English again – well, maybe I’m ready to move to Ibiza.

The cinematography here might just make you want to move to Ibiza. There are some beautiful vistas of gorgeous sunsets, stunning views and charming marketplaces. While this is mainly the Ibiza of 20 years ago (other than two framing scenes at the beginning and end), my understanding is that it hasn’t changed all that much.

The writing here is very simple in terms of storyline and although the plot takes awhile to get moving it does eventually do so. Yes, some of the dialogue is a little clunky (as when Jo explains to Marthe what looping is) but by and large this feels a lot like real people conversing with one another albeit people conversing in a language not native to them.

Marthe Keller was a big European star in the 70s along the lines of Charlotte Rampling who has had a bit of a late career renaissance. A performance like this could get Keller a resurgence of her own; the septuagenarian is charming and natural, never rushing her delivery. She’s not so much grandmotherly as she is a bit of a recluse; her origins are kept secret early on giving her an air of mystery but gradually as her story is unveiled we get to understand her better. The relationship between Marthe and Jo is platonic although Jo hints that his feelings run deeper, and the chemistry between the two is at the heart of the film. Both of these people are somewhat wounded and need each other and in the end we see that they are good for each other in ways movies don’t often explore.

This isn’t slated to get a very wide release although if it does well in the cities it is playing in we might see it get more screens, so it behooves you to make plans to see it if it does show up in your neck of the woods. It’s also already on Google Play and should be out on other streaming services before too long. In any case, this is a worthwhile effort from a director who has helped shape the course of film over the past 50 years – that in itself should be incentive enough.

REASONS TO GO: The vistas of Ibiza are enchanting. The story is simple but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The story takes a little bit of time to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Marthe lives in here was also used by Schroeder in More (1969) and is owned by the Schroeder family (his mother bought it in 1951).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Born in China

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story

Burning Sands


Here’s a different kind of human centipede

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodward, DeRon Horton, Octavius J. Johnson, Trevante Rhodes, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Racquel Bianca John, Steve Harris, Adriyan Rae, Quentin Plair, Christian Robinson, Nafessa Williams, Davyon St. Usaire, Rotimi, Serayah, Daimion Johnson, Tosin Cole, Imami Hakim, Segun Akande, Sidney Freeman. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

Fraternities and sororities have a time-honored place in the environment of higher education. They are brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) that develop outstanding young men and women, developing them for leadership positions in the future. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great deal of self-discipline and inner fortitude to gain admittance to these institutions.

Zurich (Jackson) is trying to do just that. Pledging the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity at historically black Frederick Douglass University which claims Dean Richardson (Harris) as an alumnus, he and his four fellow pledges including Square (Horton) and Frank (Cole) undergo ferocious beatings and ritual humiliations that push their endurance beyond their limits. All of them endure these things with near-animal grimaces, telling one another that the rewards will be worth it. Dean Richardson tells Zurich that he is one in a long line of fine gentlemen to survive these rituals and that they serve to toughen them and give them the resilience he needs to be successful in life.

Zurich is not so sure. He suffers a broken rib during one of the beatings and is having increasing trouble with his breathing. His steady girlfriend Rochon (Hakim) is having problems with the amount of time he is devoting to his pledge brothers and is suspicious that he is cheating on her, although Zurich has not been. Keeping up his studies has also been difficult during Hell Week, a fact not unnoticed by his English professor (Woodward).

Each of the pledges has their reasons why becoming accepted by the fraternity is important to them. Zurich just wants to make it through Hell Night, which will end their pledge status and make them full-fledged Lambda Phi brothers but the Hell Night ritual is the most dangerous of all and the five young men will end up risking much more than their dignity to make it through.

While hazing has been outlawed by most colleges and universities, it still exists and there have been instances where students have died as a direct result of hazing rituals. These types of films are an opportunity to examine the mob mentality of human beings and how the desire to fit in sometimes overrules even the most basic of common sense. Sadly, Burning Sands doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as it might.

That isn’t to say that the movie is a failure – far from it, in fact. There are some really outstanding performances here, particularly from Jackson and Horton who not uncoincidentally have the most well-written characters. The movie is mostly Zurich’s point of view as a matter of fact and this is his story much more than it is the other young men. Woodward, one of the best actresses of her generation doesn’t get a lot of screen time but utilizes every moment to weave a most satisfactory appearance in the film.

The women here are essentially ornaments which has been a disturbing trend lately; their characters are given little to do but kvetch at their boyfriends or screw whoever happens to be handy; harridans or whores is what they boil down to here and neither characteristic is particularly flattering. The not-so-subtle sexism dilutes the message somewhat.

Despite these glaring issues I still recommend the movie highly. There is an emotional payoff that ends up being earned – more than that I will not say so as to allow the movie to have maximum impact upon its viewer. While it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out well ahead of time that the pledges of Lambda Phi are headed down a road that leads to nothing good, how that plays out grips the viewer tightly even though it isn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of plot.

Sometimes a movie is greater than the sum of its parts and this is one of those occasions. The movie is flawed, certainly but strong performances can overcome a lot of sins. McMurray, one of the producers on Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Fruitvale Station, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but tells the story well and show’s not a little potential in the process. While some of the violence may make those sensitive to such things a little faint, the rest of us will be left to wonder why such promising young men are willing to endure so much. There is a fine line between sadism and character-building and established ritual doesn’t excuse crossing that line. This isn’t always easy to watch but it is worth watching all the same.

REASONS TO GO: Jackson, Woodward and Horton all deliver fine performances. The movie takes on a very real issue of fraternity hazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the things the pledges go through are sadistic and disgusting; the sensitive viewer may have trouble watching these.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of violence, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goat
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal