Last Night in Rozzie


Reliving one’s childhood is no walk in the park.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Neil Brown Jr., Nicky Whelan, Jeremy Sisto, Kevin Chapman, James DeFillippi, Greyson Cage, Ryan Canale, Maureen Keller, Paris Scott Allen, Jimmy Dunn, Mariela Hill, Ryan McDonough, Cameron Hubbard, Paul Taft, Drew DeSimone, Mary Kate McDonald. Directed by Sean Gannet

 

Childhood scars us. It’s just a matter of degree. The simple truth is, idyllic childhoods are rare. We are beset by things that shape us, not always for the better – bad parental decisions, traumas, even terrors of our own making. They remain with us, and over time we continue to pay for them. If that sounds bleak, it’s not meant to, but for some, we continue to be trapped by our past.

Ronnie Russo (Brown) is a successful corporate New York lawyer working on a complicated deal for his firm. He is right in the most critical phase of it when he gets a call from an old friend – Joey Donovan (Sisto) who isn’t doing very well. He’s back in Boston, in Roslindale (the titular “Rozzie”) where they both grew up. And he’s dying of liver cancer. You can tell by the steady stream of phlegm-caked coughs.

So Ronnie drops everything ad drives up the coast to Rozzie. It turns out his old buddy has one last request – to meet his son JJ (DeFillippi), whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was an infant. As it turns out, Joey was married once upon a time to Pattie Barry (Whelan), who happened to be Ronnie’s boyhood crush, one he was too shy to do anything about. The two had a bitter break-up and Pattie has refused to let her son have any contact with his father – or so Joey says. Joey isn’t the most dependable source of information.

So Ronnie, despite being under the gun with work pressures, decides to work a convoluted plan to win Pattie’s trust and get JJ to see his father before it’s too late. But there are secrets between the three of them, and secrets have a way of coming out…

Although McDonough grew up in Roslindale, the movie doesn’t really give us a sense of the place. It feels pretty much like any other suburb, with old houses, ballfields, and what have you. None of the characters here speak with a Boston accent which makes it further less believable.

The writing choices are a bit strange. Instead of coming out and telling Pattie the truth – which would have made this a ten minute short – we are treated to the most time-consuming and unrealistic plan imaginable, which involve lies that anyone with the sense of a seven-year-old could see through. There is also a reunion with Ronnie’s mom (Keller) which is staged awkwardly and feels like filler.

But to be fair, the ending is killer and the best part of the movie occurs in the last ten to fifteen minutes. Fortunately, it’s a pretty short movie so you only have to sit through about an hour of less memorable material to get to the good part, but that’s still an hour you’re never going to get back and I’m not sure that the last fifteen minutes, good as they are, make up for the time beforehand. Personally, I don’t think so.

REASONS TO SEE: I’m always up to see Sisto perform, even if he is under-utilized.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks heat and passion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is based on a short film that Gannet previously made with McDonough, who also wrote and produced this one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic River
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Luzzu

Cry Macho


The lion in winter.

(2021) Drama (Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Dwight Yoakam, Eduardo Minnett, Natalia Traven, Horacio Garcia Rojas, Fernanda Urrejola, Brytnee Ratledge, Paul Alayo, Daniel V. Graulau, Alexandra Ruddy, Ivan Hernandez, Lincoln A. Castellanos, Marco Rodriguez, Jorge-Luis Pallo, Rocko Reyes, Abiah Martinez, Ramona Thornton, Elida Munoz, Cesia Isabel Rosales, Ana Rey. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

There’s no doubt that Clint Eastwood is a national treasure. Seventy years (!) into his career in Hollywood and ninety-one years of life aside, he has consistently made movies as an actor and a director that contribute to the cultural identity of the United States – even when he was making spaghetti westerns.

His latest feature – the 39th he’s directed and a number too high to count that he’s acted in – sees him as Mike Milo, a former rodeo star who had to retire due to a back injury. He’s been a horse trainer ever since. As the movie begins, he’s being fired by his longtime boss, Howard (Yoakam). Too much booze, too much age have both caught up with Mike. However, he isn’t unemployed long when Mike comes back, asking Mike to do something else for him – to go to Mexico and fetch his boy, whom he has not had much contact with, from his abusive mother and bring him back to Texas to live with his dad.

Seems simple enough, so Mike gets into his battered truck, pulls on his cowboy hat, turns on some twangin’ tunes and heads for the border. It’s 1980, so it’s still morning in America and the hordes of rapists and murderers haven’t started knocking on our doors quite yet. When Mike arrives in Mexico City, he discovers that the boy – Rafo (Minnett) has run away from home and his mom it turns out is a crime boss, something ol’ Howard neglected to mention (he also neglected to mention that he has ulterior motives in wanting his son back, but that will wait for a later reveal). The kid is on the mean streets making his way by his wits and by entering his pet rooster Macho in cockfights and apparently winning – there are two places in a cockfight, y’know: winner, and arroz con pollo.

The kids is intrigued by the notion of starting a new life with a father he’s never met – which makes him a damn sight better than I might be in those circumstances – so off they go, back to the U.S. of A. However, Mamacita (Urrejola) has sent some goons to get her son back. Mike and Rafo end up hiding out at the ranch of Marta (Traven) who lives in  the Mexican equivalent of BFE. There, she and Mike bond, Mike and Rafo bond and the kid comes closer to learning that toxic masculinity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and that 91 isn’t too late to be a chick magnet.

This isn’t Eastwood’s best work by a country mile, nor did anyone really expect it to be. The bar is generally set high for his work and he usually delivers and that’s why even his lesser works are often more worthwhile than the best work of lesser directors. Every movie he makes feels like some kind of farewell; some are saying this might be his last movie, but I’ve been hearing that back since Gran Torino (and yes, I was one of those saying it) so I’ve learned never to bet that the prolific Eastwood has hung up his director’s spurs.

Eastwood, national treasure that he is, dominates the screen even if he’s long in the tooth for this kind of role. You have to feel for young Minnett who spends the most time onscreen with him; he’s a young actor not equal to the task, which is to say that even much more experienced actors would not be equal to the task. Eastwood is a legitimate movie star from an era when that meant something, and he is going to overwhelm just about anyone he’s paired with.

This isn’t the best-written film Eastwood has ever directed, unfortunately. Many of the plot points are cliches, and feel like their in there for their own sake rather than in serving the story. That’s not to say that there aren’t some really memorable moments here; there’s a scene in which Eastwood talks about his wife and son and as he does, a tear slowly rolls down his cheek. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by that moment and I wish the movie had more of them.

Alas, no. This is more a movie in which Eastwood acts like a sensei to a young student who is at a point in his life where he can either lead a good life or make some can’t-come-back-from-those types of mistakes. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – older men mentoring young boys have made some great movies over the years, from Karate Kid on down. It’s just this one feels particularly flat. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to be said on the subject of toxic masculinity.

In the end, it’s still an Eastwood movie and there’s something valuable to be gleaned from that. However, this won’t be remembered as one of his finest works. In fact, it will likely be well down his list when ranked from best to worst. That, as I said, doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: Even on work that isn’t his best Eastwood remains a solid reason to see a movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the plot points feel a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Eastwood-directed film since 2010 (Hereafter) that isn’t based on or inspired by a true story.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through October 17)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night in Old Mexico
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wife of a Spy

Godavari


Nishikant is so angry even the masks are amused.

(2021) Drama (Blue Drop) Jitendra Joshi, Vikendra Gokhale, Neena Kulkarni, Gauri Nalawade, Priyadarshan Jadhav, Sanjay Mone, Saniya Bhandare, Mohit Takalkar. Directed by Nikhil Mahajan

 

Rivers can feel timeless; moving majestically in their way, they can be a comfort. But rivers can be soiled, made filthy. Rivers can be dammed and forced into different pathways. Thus can the will of man overpower the inexorable flow.

Nishikant (Joshi) would love to exert his will over the Godavari River that flows alongside his home in Nashik, a city about 98 miles northeast of Mumbai. He is a landlord, the son of a well-off family with a pleasant home overlooking the river, but he chooses not to live there even though he is welcome. He spends his time collecting rent from the many tenants in his buildings. He responds to them with scorn and annoyance, which is pretty much how he responds to everybody, including his mother (Kulkarni), his bedridden and dementia-ridden grandfather (Mone) and even his devoted wife (Nalawade). He seems to only show tenderness towards his young daughter (Bhandare) who alone shines joy in his life. He somewhat tolerates his friend Kasaav (Jadhav). His father (Gokhale) he doesn’t even tolerate and the two don’t speak.

Nishikant has a pair of life-changing events staring him in the face. One, I will not reveal here. The second is an offer from a developer to buy some of his riverside property, which would involve the eviction of a number of tenants but would fetch the family a tidy profit. His mother is against the idea but Nishikant is resolute.

This is unusual for Indian films in that it is more of a character study. Most Indian films that make it to the States (and Canada) are either Bollywood musicals with bright colors and much spontaneous street dancing, or rip-roaring action movies with tough guy heroes and many explosions. Nishikant seems to be something of a sourpuss from the beginning and one wonders what on earth he has to be so enraged about, but it is rage he feels. Rage at the river that is so polluted that its waters are unsafe to drink; rage at his station in life that hems him in to a job he can’t stand; rage at his family which seems to be caught in an inertia-free existence. At times it feels like that rage is going to break free and Nishikant is going to just snap.

Joshi does a pretty credible job in humanizing a character that is hard to like. He chain-smokes, often in the privacy of the small apartment he has exiled himself to. He likes to spend time by the river, despite all of his vitriol directed against it and those tend to be some of the more quietly effective scenes in the film. He has good chemistry with Jadhav whose Kasaav, while remaining a peripheral character, nonetheless seems to understand Nishikant the most clearly.

The soundtrack is also somewhat unusual for an Indian film in that composer Av Prafullachandra has written a score that seems to blend Western hard rock (or more accurately, classic rock) with traditional Indian melodies and instrumentation. The mash-up isn’t as jarring as you might think.

My one issue with the film is that Mahajan at times seems to be more intent on bringing in visual metaphors rather than sticking to the story. The pacing is slow (again, unusual for Indian films which tend to move along at breakneck speed) but Mahajan does a terrific job of developing his characters, particularly that of Nishikant.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and it does require some patience, but for those who are willing to invest the time and attention, the movie is a rewarding one. Unusual can also be good.

The movie is making it’s world premiere tomorrow at the Vancouver International Film Festival, although it is currently available online at the Festival website in Canada only through October 11. It is set to debut in India in December and may possibly hit North American theaters around the same time.

REASONS TO SEE: Like India herself, there is a mixture of beauty and filth.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times seems to go for visual symbolism at the expense of story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Making its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival.BEYOND THE THEATERS: VIFF online site (Canada only – through October 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ikiro
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Be Still

The Magnificent Meyersons


Just a walk in the park.

(2021) Drama (Argot) Kate Mulgrew, Richard Kind, Ian Kahn, Jackie Burns, Daniel Eric Gold, Shoshannah Stern, Barbara Barrie, Lauren Ridloff, Melissa Errico, Greg Keller, Neal Huff, Lilly Stein, Kate MacCluggage, Ajay Naidu, Terrence Gray, Talia Oppenheimer, Sarah Nealis, Andrew Hovelson, Allyson Morgan, Bryan Fitzgerald, Anna Dale Robinson, Athan Sporek, Henny Russell. Directed by Evan Oppenheimer

 

Through thick and thin, we rely on our family to provide support and stability. Even when the family is beset by traumatic circumstances, we cling to those that we can be certain still love us. It is as a life raft on a stormy sea.

Dr. Terri Meyerson (Mulgrew) is a pediatric oncologist and the matriarch of the Meyerson family. She sometimes wonders why on earth she took a job that sometimes entails telling parents that their child is about to die, but she manages to take her role with as much grace and dignity as she can muster, both of which were once stripped from her when her husband, Morty (Kind), deserted the family to deal with a mental illness. At the time, he flippantly told her “see you in a few days” but has been gone for decades.

She has her mother Celeste (Barrie), an acerbic sharp-tongued octogenarian who loves her grandkids (and great-grandkids) but that doesn’t keep her from taking jabs at them. And of course, Terri has her kids; Roland (Kahn), the eldest, a successful businessman and a bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to his daughter Stefania (T. Oppenheimer); Daphne (Burns), a publisher married to Alan (Keller) who has just terminated her pregnancy without consulting her husband, a source of contention between them; Susie (Stern), a deaf real-estate agent who is in a relationship with Tammy (Ridloff), and finally Daniel (Gold), who is studying to be a rabbi and often gets into theological discussions with Catholic priest Father Joe (Duff).

It seems to be an ordinary day in New York City, but events turn it into an extraordinary one; the first affects all New Yorkers (heck, it affects everyone) and the second, just the Meyersons. Both seem to be unlikely, but both are events that all the Meyersons will have to deal with – in each his or her own way.

This is a movie very much influenced by New York City. The Meyersons are well-educated, literate and thoughtful, one and all. They talk about meaningful things and ask deep questions of one another. They are, in short, searching for answers to imponderable questions and understand deep down that they aren’t likely to get any. The dialogue they speak reflects that literacy, and may at times be too smart for its own good – the Meyersons can come off as pretentious from time to time, which let’s face it can be true of an awful lot of New Yorkers, but that’s what comes from living in a city like New York. They at least come by it honestly.

The ensemble cast is, as is normally the case with ensembles, dominated by the more experienced actors. The most delightful is Barrie, who has already been nominated for nearly every major acting award at one time or another. She is the scene-stealer here, and you end up looking forward to her every appearance. Mulgrew does nearly as well in her most Janeway-like role since Star Trek: Voyager ended. Terri is a little more vulnerable than the starship captain, however, although she covers it with a patina of competency that comes from her profession. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that side of her though. Kind also does well here, being genuinely cuddly when he needs to be and somewhat lost and befudled when he has to be. He doesn’t overdo the pathos, which lesser actors might have done.

The actors playing the kids get the lions share of the screen time though, and while they all submit strong performances, none really stand out the way the other three do. They are given a lot of fairly lofty dialogue, discussing their place in the universe, relationships with God, with each other, and from time to time, the open wound that was left by their father leaving the family.

And I wish they had stuck to that story. The first “event” I referred to earlier – the one that affects “everyone,” seems terribly out of place in the movie. I understand the reason that they chose to do it, but it flat-out doesn’t work. It ends up being a massive distraction and strays away from the more important themes here – specifically, the ability to reconcile when one is wounded by someone beyond forgiveness, and whether those who stray from the family can find their way back again. Those are subjects far more in tune with the tone of the movie and had writer/director Evan Oppenheimer opted to stick with just that, he would have had a terrific film on his hands. He still does, but not quite as terrific as it might have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart dialogue gives hints of deep conversations. Strong performances by most of the ensemble, with Barbara Barrie emerging from the pack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The midpoint plot twist was regrettable and unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mulgrew, who originated the role of Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, will be reprising the role in the new children’s animated series Star Trek: Prodigy, debuting next month on Paramount Plus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

Confetti (2020)


For a mother trying to raise a special needs child in a strange land, even colors don’t bring joy.

(2020) Drama (Dada) Zhu Zhu, Amy Irving, Yanan Li, Harmonie He, George Christopher, Helen Slater, Robyn Payne, Meryl Jones Williams, Yi Liu, Nikolai Tsankov, DL Sams, Joe Holt, Ian Unterman, Kira Visser, Marissa McGowan, Tracy Ifeachor, Teresa Meza, Vivian Chiu, Tom Galantich, Amanda Chen, Zhuo Shunguo, Ruiyu Yang, Jia Chuanxi. Directed by Ann Hu

 

As parents, we want to see our children find the excellence in themselves. Sometimes, it’s more about finding the happiness within themselves. For a lot of kids, that means fitting in with the pack and not standing out too much (although so many teens complain that nobody understands the uniqueness in them). But some are most certainly NOT a part of the pack, and that can lead to difficulties.

Meimei (He) is a nine-year-old girl living with her two lower class parents Chen (Li) and Lan (Zhu), in a small Chinese city in 1989. Her mom, Lan, is the custodian at her school. Meimei is a sweet, adorable girl who is ostensibly happy and good-natured, although she is finding it difficult at school. The other children tease her mercilessly and the adult teachers have lost all patience with her. The reason? She can neither read nor write.

The American-born English teacher, Thomas (Christopher) figures out that the culprit is dyslexia Meimei sees letters as “confetti” but could retrain her brain to learn differently, if only she could get the right kind of education. Unfortunately, there isn’t that kind of education available in China at that time, with the emphasis on group achievement.

With Thomas’ help, Lan takes her daughter to New York City where they move in with a friend (maybe his mom?) of Thomas, wheelchair-bound writer Helen (Irving). She’s at first taken aback when she discovers that Lan speaks not a word of English and Meimei speaks it only somewhat. Helen is busy working on a book, has deadlines to meet and doesn’t have the time to hold the hands of two Chinese immigrants. Lan doesn’t even have a green card or work permit, so she gets a job at a garment factory being paid under the table.

But the school that they place Meimei in, which is supposedly inclusive of kids with learning disabilities, isn’t helping. If anything, Meimei is getting worse. She needs a private special needs school, an expensive one where Dr. Wurmer (Slater) is president. It seems to be an impossible dream, but with the feisty Helen championing them, maybe there’s a chance.

There is an air of improbability to the film that is sometimes hard to get past. Both Chen and Lan are unskilled laborers, definitely part of the poor class in China. How can she afford to move to New York? Problems that seem insurmountable are routinely overcome, or sometimes, just plain ignored.

The Chinese cast is strong; Zhu (whom some might remember from Cloud Atlas) shows fierce determination as the tiger mom who absolutely refuses to give up on her daughter, for good reason as is revealed later on in the film. Her chemistry with Li is natural and completely believable. And He? She’s absolutely charming, refreshingly so for an actor of her tender years. It is also nice to see actresses Amy Irving and Helen Slater, who had good runs in the Eighties and Nineties, onscreen again. Both respond with memorable performances.

While the movie does point out the obstacles that parents of children with severe dyslexia (and other learning disabilities) face not just in China but here, It also portrays a mother’s fierce determination to make the best life possible for her daughter in a world which is completely indifferent to her daughter’s present situation, let alone any future she might have. And while the plot might be something of a fantasy fulfillment, there is enough warmth here to overcome the raised eyebrows in all but the most jaded, crusty, curmudgeonly viewers. Which lets out most critics.

REASONS TO SEE: Harmonie He is about as adorable as it gets. Good to see Slater and Irving in a movie again.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on Hu’s own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautifully Broken
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Malignant

Azor


Banking on Argentina.

(2021) Drama (MUBI) Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Elli Medeiros, Alexandre Trocki, Pablo Torre Nilson, Juan Pablo Geretto, Gilles Privat, Carmen Iriondo, Yvain Julliard, Juan Trench. Directed by Andreas Fontana

 

The veneer of gentility is often thin indeed, particularly in an atmosphere dominated by uncertainty and fear. In Argentina as the 20th century turned into its eighth decade, a brutal military junta had begun a period of repression in which thousands disappeared. Not all of these were from the poor classes; anyone who expressed disagreement with the regime might find themselves gone, even those from the aristocracy.

Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) has arrived in Buenos Aires along with his sophisticated wife Ines (Cléau). He’s a third-generation partner in a Swiss private bank – one only open to the super rich. They are there to reassure their clients that all is well after his partner Rene Keys disappears. Yvan travels from board rooms to opulent gardens, from oak-paneled studies to modern offices, meeting with Argentina’s elite.

Conversations rotate around small talk, rarely lingering long on Argentina’s political situation. People are disappearing and there is palpable fear underneath the genteel world of cocktails, formal dresses, palatial homes and luxury cars. As Yvan quietly investigates the disappearance of his more passionate partner (Yvan is low-key to the point of stupor), he comes more and more into the orbit of those near the junta who are behind the repression and brutality. Especially threatening is the Monsignor Tatosky (Nilson), who purrs “Parasites must be eradicated, even from the best families.” It chills one to the bone.

This is not the kind of movie that has a machine-gun pace; it’s a slow burn, so much so that the viewer might get a chill from time to time. Fontana keeps the tension high without resorting to anything overt; everything is done with subtle glances here, an oblique camera angle there, a pregnant silence over there. In fact, I don’t thin there are many films that have utilized silence as well as this one does; it is the things unsaid in this film that matter almost more than the things that are said.

He gets stellar performances from his two leads who are perfectly cast; Cléau eggs her husband on much like Lady Macbeth, only more cultured and urbane, picking out his suit so as to impress but not outshine. She advises him on matters of decorum and is anything but a conscience; more like a cattle prod, in that regard, urging him to do whatever is necessary to maintain the couple’s status and privilege. “Your father was right; your weakness makes you mediocre,” she observes at one point. It is her way of motivating him, because Yvan is just filled up with self-doubt enough not to trust in his own competence.

In some publications, there are comparisons for the final act with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and there is certainly some justification for that. It involves a river journey that…well, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say is the heart of this film’s darkness. This is a movie chilling in ways that horror films are not, nor can they be. This is the banality of evil, on display in the latest Armani suits.

REASONS TO SEE: Elevates the tension nicely under the thin veneer of gentility. Fine performances throughout the ensemble cast. Captures a period in Argentine history not well-chronicled in the States.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too slow of a burn for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fontana’s grandfather was a Swiss private banker; the film is loosely inspired by his experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Missing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
I Love Us

Language Lessons


Beauty and the beast.

(2021) Drama (Shout!) Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales, Desean Terry, Christine Quesada. Directed by Natalie Morales

 

Friendships can develop in unlikely places, and in unlikely ways. In this modern age of communication, we don’t even need to live in the same hemisphere to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with someone else. That can be a double-edged sword.

Cariño (Morales) is a Spanish teacher living in Costa Rica when she dials into a Zoom meeting with a new student. That turns out to be middle aged Adam (Duplass), who received 100 lessons in Spanish as a birthday gift from his husband Will (Terry). Adam and Will live in a rambling mansion in the Oakland hills and fairly drip with wealth and privilege. Cariño lives in an area of much natural beauty that she likes to show off to her students. As it turns out, Adam already speaks Spanish fairly fluently, but had mentioned offhandedly that he was rusty and needed an immersion course to get him back to fluency. Will pounced on that tidbit of information, as married partners will, and voila.

But the situation turns on a dime when Adam informs her of a personal tragedy. He is numb, bewildered and somewhat lost. Cariño, who barely knows him, is nevertheless kind, sympathetic and comforting and Adam begins to feel a real friendship with her.

As the lessons progress, we see that the two people from apparently disparate backgrounds begin to bond, and despite the reluctance of Cariño to let her walls down, the teacher and student become friends. But isn’t it true that some boundaries shouldn’t be crossed? Not in this case.

I think it’s safe to say that this movie is long on charm and short on production values; it’s essentially filmed as a series of Zoom calls and while the two stars are almost always onscreen together, they’re never physically in the same place until the very final scene. Even so, there’s a great deal of chemistry between the two. Both Morales and Duplass have a great deal of onscreen charm and charisma, and both utilize both of those traits to the hilt here. Duplass, in particular, delivers a performance that is often raw and emotional, although Morales gets a few juicy scenes of her own. However, the one thing that is the center of the film – the friendship between the two – is believable every second that it develops.

There is a bit of fantasy indulgence here – I wonder if the movie would have fared a little bit better had Adam been not so wealthy, although two years’ worth of weekly Spanish lessons might be an indulgence only a wealthy person would consider. It’s just that the ending felt a little contrived because of it, and might have been a bit more realistic had the writers not been given too easy of an out.

One thing I really liked about the movie is that you never know where it’s going next. Too often, movies follow familiar formulae and tread well-travelled trails. Not so this one; even though there are a few tropes here and there, they feel like they belong rather than they were inserted for convenience or as cinematic shorthand. You do have to work for this one a little bit, but in a pleasant way and that is certainly not often the case, even for a lot of independent films.

Most of the movie is in Spanish, although it is amusing to note that the subtitles also reflect Adam’s grammatical errors as well. And while the movie is about the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, there is also dealing with loss and disappointment, but in the grand tradition of movies dealing with grief, it ends up being a life-affirming experience.

Some might be suffering from Zoom fatigue and may not necessarily want to spend an hour and a half watching someone else’s Zoom conversation, but that would be a shame because this is a deeply emotional movie that delivers all the feels, something all of us can use lately. Also, as an additional bonus, it doesn’t mention COVID at all, although clearly the pandemic had a lot to do with the way this was filmed. While it’s playing exclusively in theaters at the moment, it will doubtlessly be available to stream soon. And although I find myself writing a closing sentence I never thought I’d ever use, you may want to wait for it to hit a streaming or VOD service – if ever a movie was meant to be seen on a laptop, it’s this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Duplass and Morales are both incredibly charming and deliver powerful performances. You never know where the movie is going. Like most films about loss, it’s very life-affirming.
REASONS TO AVOID: People might be a little burned out by communicating via Zoom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Morales’ first feature film as a director; she also directed several episodes of Duplass’ anthology TV series Room 104.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Italian for Beginners
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Azor

Good


Talking – and dining – at cross purposes.

(2020) Drama (Gravitas) Keith David, Justin Etheredge, Nefetari Spencer, Kali Racquel, Christen Roberts, Sarah Scott-Davis, Ken Colquitt, Aaron Nayer, Gwen Cesta-Persichetti, Harrison Rodriguez, Lettye Smith, Aiden Weems, Kyle L. Jacobs, Jeff G. Mungai, Elizabeth Capps. Directed by Justin Etheredge

 

Parenthood is not something to be entered into lightly. It is so easy to mess up a child’s future without meaning to. It is also true that we can mess up a child’s future simply by not being there. Nothing says “you don’t matter” as much as a parent who chooses not to be a part of their offspring’s life.

Peyton Poitier – “no relation,” he is quick to point out while watching In the Heat of the Night starring Sidney Poitier – has lived such a life. His father was never in the picture, and his mother died when he was young. He was mostly raised by his grandma, who passed away herself recently. He sometimes goes to her favorite diner where she used to take him as a child.

That’s where he meets Gregory Devereaux (James), an old man who likes to eat at that particular diner because they remember his name and call him by it. He is a curmudgeonly sort who takes guff from nobody, and he recognizes b.s. when he hears it. But he recognizes something of himself in Peyton, and has Peyton drive him home so they can share a drink or two and watch the aforementioned In the Heat of the Night.

Peyton is at what you might call a crossroads of his life. He has some potential but has never fulfilled it, but now things seem to be looking up. He’s engaged to marry Shannon Kitzmiller (Racquel) who is beautiful, a little bit self-absorbed and from wealthy parents. However, there’s a blip on that radar. It turns out that his girlfriend before Shannon, Jeneta (Roberts) is in a family way and Peyton is the baby daddy. This couldn’t come at a worse time for him. He’s convinced that Shannon will drop him like a cheap cell phone if she finds out about his predicament. And in the meantime, Gregory’s estranged daughter Barbara (Spencer) has hired Peyton to be Gregory’s caretaker because most of the nurses that have seen to his needs recently have been chased off by the grumpy growly antics of her dad. And she finds Peyton to be like sexual catnip as well. What’s a man to do?

Etheredge wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, and it is never a good thing when someone wearing  all three of those hats posits that the main character is absolutely irresistible to women. Not to comment on the desirability of Etheredge, but I think it’s safe to say that Mike Colter he is not. Every one of the women in this movie other than the extras has been or currently is willing to hop into bed with Peyton at a moment’s notice; there’s a little bit of ego there that is a bit of a turn-off, frankly. Justin, if you’re reading this, don’t just chalk it up to jealousy on my part (although day-um!) but take it to heart that the subplot of having Barbara come on to Peyton was completely unneeded.

That said, there is some charm here and Etheredge is actually a pretty likable lead. David has the stentorian authority of a James Earl Jones and lends gravitas to a role that sometimes gets played for laughs. Gregory is far too Old Testament for that.

The commentary here is on parental responsibility and taking responsibility in one’s own life. When Gregory thunders, “Just another young black man making babies he won’t raise,” he’s leveling an accusation that is often made against young African-American men. There are those who protest that as a racist trope that isn’t as true now as it was twenty or thirty years ago, so that could be a hot button item for some who are sensitive about such things.

In general, my main issue with the movie is the pacing, which is a mite on the slow side; also, some of the plot points seem a bit forced, maudlin and contrived. It felt a little bit unconvincing and all the charm in the world isn’t going to rescue a movie with those sorts of issues. All in all, not a horrible movie but a deeply flawed one.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes on how families can screw up their children.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving, maudlin and soapy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed and set in Atlanta.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Upside
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
499

CODA


Ruby sings the blues.

(2021) Drama (Apple) Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth, Courland Jones, Molly Beth Thomas, John Fiore, Jose Gonsalves, Armen Garo, Garrett McKechnie, Rebecca Gibel, Lonnie Farmer, Kevin Chapman, Owen Burke, Lance Norris, Jared Voss, Emilia Faucher, Marilyn Busch. Directed by Sian Heder

 

CODA stands for “child of deaf adults.” It also is a musical term which signals the cessation of a piece of music. Both terms are apt for this new movie, which is playing currently at the Enzian but also concurrently on the Apple Plus streaming service (see below for link).

The titular child is Ruby Rossi (Jones), a high school senior in Gloucester, Massachusetts (and who will ever hear the name of that fine town without thinking of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer in The Perfect Storm grumping “Gloucester! It’s always some guy from Gloucester!”) whose father Frank (Kotsur) is deaf, as is her older brother Leo (Durant). Every morning she goes out on their fishing boat and helps sell their catch to the local broker before heading off to school. Her mother Jackie (Matlin) is also deaf. In fact, Ruby is the only one in the family who hears and acts as the official family interpreter, signing what others are saying so that her parents can understand what’s going on.

Times are hard and new government regulations is cutting down the profit margin to the breaking point. Ruby is hoping that the family business will sustain them as she expects to be part of it after she graduates high school. However, on a lark, she decides to join the school choir.

It’s not as outrageous a thought as you might think. With her brother and father silent on the boat, she often sings along to the radio or by herself just to hear something, but she is naturally shy and was bullied as a child for smelling like fish when she got to school (which shouldn’t seem to be a big deal in a town like Gloucester whose economy is so wrapped up in fishing) but also because as a child she didn’t have someone to help her learn to talk other than her parents, who speak in the flat tones that deaf people take. She panics at the audition and flees, much to the bemusement of Mr. Villalobos (Mexican comedy star Derbez), the grouch of a choir director – but with the requisite soft heart.

But when she auditions for him privately, he begins to realize that she has a true gift and urges her to apply to the prestigious Berklee School of Music, which he himself is an alum of – but only if she’s willing to take singing lessons from him. This adds a burden onto her already full schedule of working and school, and it seems, something has to break.

She’s also been paired up with comely senior Miles (Walsh-Peelo) to do a duet of the Marvin Gaye-Tammy Terrell classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Sparks fly, and as time wears down and they come closer to the big recital (and Ruby’s big audition at Berklee), things begin to get more desperate for the family fishing business, and Ruby is needed more than ever, but will she – can she – give up on her dream in order to help her family?

Now, I’m going to say a few things about the movie and it’s going to sound like this is going to be a real negative review. The plot has been done many times before and there aren’t a lot of chances taken with the narrative or the character development. Particularly in the third act of the movie, there are a whole raft of different emotional peaks that are blindingly, unapologetically manipulative – but fuck if it doesn’t work.

The family dynamic between Jones, Matlin, Kotsur and Durant feels genuine and warm. Yes, there is much bickering but that only serves to make that dynamic feel more realistic. There is an ongoing joke about the parents having loud sex at inappropriate moments which is a nightmare every kid dreads, but even that feels less raunchy than it does affectionate.

Part of the charm are the performances by the principles; Matlin has already won an Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God (a movie that should be considered a classic but for some bizarre reason isn’t) and yes, Jackie is having a very hard time with the notion that her baby girl is ready to leave the nest. Rather than playing it shrilly for laughs, Matlin gives it a gentle, wistful clinginess that she eventually realizes she must put aside; it’s a fine moment in the film (one of many) when she realizes that she must. Kotsur is a bit gruff as Frank, but Frank is a fiercely devoted father and that shines through in Kotsur’s performance.

Jones, an English actress, had to learn American sign language for the part as well as the mechanics of working on a fishing boat; in fact, Kotsur, Durant and her are actually fishing (and in a somewhat surreal trivia fact, on one of the shooting trips they had to take a Fish & Game observer with them, similar to what occurs in the movie). The final scenes – particularly her audition at Berklee – is so magically handled that you don’t mind that you’ve been toyed with, so full of the warm fuzzies you’ll be.

The movie played Sundance earlier this year and was subject of a fierce bidding war. Apple won that, paying out $25 million for the rights to the movie and they should be more than happy with their purchase; this is by far the best movie playing on Apple Plus from an original standpoint. And for those Apple Plus subscribers wondering if they should go out and see it in the theater, by all means do; films like this should be supported as much as possible.

As surrounded by uncertainty as we all are in these times, there’s something comforting in the familiar. You know exactly where this film is headed and pretty much how it’s going to get there, but that’s not the point; like a visit to an oft-visited beloved grandparent’s house, the way there may be familiar but the arrival at the destination is guaranteed to make you feel warm and happy inside.

REASONS TO SEE: The final act is mesmerizing. Matlin and Kotsur deliver terrific performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unapologetically, outrageously manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlike the French film this is based on, all of the deaf characters in the film were played by deaf actors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Apple Plus
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pitch Perfect
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Outsider

The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

(2020) Drama (Charades) Viola Pusatieri, Eleonora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiario, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna, Bruno Di Chiara. Directed by Emma Dante

 

One of life’s few universal truths is that we all experience both joy and sadness; triumph and loss. Those things mold us, shape us into the people we become; some through the memory of golden moments, other through the bittersweet acrimony of what might have been.

The five Macaluso sisters live in a shabby but spacious top-floor apartment in Palermo, Sicily. They keep doves in what had once been a playroom long ago, doves that they rent out for parties, weddings, magic shows and so on. The doves return back to their nest once they’ve finished with whatever spectacle they’ve been rented to. The sisters have been orphaned but don’t seem terribly traumatized by it.

Maria (De Luca) is the oldest and most responsible; she handles the business and for the most part keeps the lights on and the pantry from being bare. Next is vain Pinuccia (Pomario) who is all about make-up and flirting with boys. Then there’s bookish Lia (Piraino) who squabbles endlessly wth Pinuccia. Plump Katia (Orlando) is next and the youngest is Antonella (Pusatieri), who although five is ready to be a big girl. She begs Pinuccia to dab some lipstick on her mouth, which Pinuccia does in an affecting scene – the first of many.

Once the business is done for the day, Maria gets the girls ready for a day at the beach. Not being very well-off, they mostly walk there, finding a field full of plaster dinosaurs to play in, and once they get to the beach which is fronted by an exclusive club to which they are not invited, they lead the bathers in an impromptu dance. But the day’s joy turns to tragedy.

The rest of the film is all about how the sisters deal with that tragedy, and is told in three acts; the first is the day at the beach, the second takes place about twenty years later as the girls are now adult women, at which an adult Maria (Malato) has some startling news, and an adult Katia (Giordani) tries to convince the stubborn adult Lia (Barone) – in whose name the apartment is – to sell the crumbling apartment so that each of the sisters might get something to help them out financially.

The third and final act is the shortest and takes place when the sisters are elderly women. Throughout the apartment remains, growing shabbier as time passes. The doves also remain, much to Katia’s annoyance. Dante (no relation to the American director Joe Dante) gives the movie a fairly sad, bittersweet tone which only increases as the film goes on. The younger Macaluso sisters get the most screen time as their section is essentially the film’s longest, as they show up in flashbacks throughout the film. The nature of the tragedy which essentially shapes the lives of the sisters is hinted at throughout the movie, but shown in full near the end in perhaps the only misstep of the film; I don’t think it was necessary to show it, to be honest. There is also a scene in the idle of Lia, who is apparently studying to be a veterinarian, dissecting a cow which might set off alarm bells for the squeamish.

Dante uses Erik Satie’s elegiac Gymnopédie No. 1 throughout, mostly sourced as the music for a clock that plays the well-known tune, and then in the piano version most of us are familiar with. The piece is often used in cinema as a metaphor for growing old, and its use here is fitting.

Although most of the action takes place in the apartment, the movie never feels claustrophobic. The first third is incredibly joyful which makes the second and third acts all the more poignant; Dante does a wonderful job using tone throughout the movie. And while the metaphor of the doves may be a bit overdone here, it isn’t so overdone as to become monotonous and quite frankly the relationships between the sisters at various times in their lives was absolutely compelling for me.

The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is probably not on the radar of a lot of cinephiles since it isn’t getting distribution by one of the more noted arthouse labels, and that’s a shame because this is an absolute gift of a movie. It’s playing in New York and Los Angeles only at the moment, but there are plans to release it in select theaters around the United States throughout August. Hopefully, it will be playing in a theater near you but certainly keep an eye out for it on VOD when it becomes available there if not.

REASONS TO SEE: Intensely, powerfully emotional. A realistic examination of sisterhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally melodramatic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexual content, adult themes and an animal dissection.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play, also written by Dante.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Suicide Squad