Uppercase Print


You will write “I will not post graffiti” in Romanian four thousand times on the wall.

(2020) Drama (Big World) Serban Lazarovici, Nicolae Ceausescu, Bogdan Zamfir, Ioana Iacob, Serban Pavlu, Alexandru Porocean, Silvian Vâlcu, Constantin Dogioiu, Doru Catanescu. Directed by Radu Jude

 

These days, the left rails against authoritarianism around the globe and frets that it is coming to the United States. The right often pooh-poohs such notions and, in some cases, embraces authoritarian leaders such as Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin. But nobody really discusses what life in an authoritarian state looks like, and the consequences of such on individuals who live in them.

Romania in the 1980s under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was such a state. In October 1981 in the city of Botosani, chalked statements calling for free trade unions such as the then-nascent Solidarity union that was rising in Poland, and expressing frustration at the scarcity of food and services for the general public began to appear on the walls of the Communist party headquarters and other government buildings around the city.

The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, went to work immediately, mobilizing an army of informants and agents to discover who was behind what they considered terrorist acts. The culprit was caught within a few weeks and turned out to be a 17-year-old high school student named Mugur Calinescu (Lazarovici). The boy was interrogated and eventually released without being jailed, but the consequences against him and his family were appalling.

Jude based the movie on a stage play by Gianina Carbunariu, what she called a “documentary play” (she also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jude). The dialogue was taken directly from the testimony and reports that was recorded by the Securitate around the incident. Actors playing various Securitate agents read their reports against stylized stage-like backgrounds, lit by bright and garish lights, with gigantic television screens, tape recorders and the symbol of the Securitate in the background. Interspersed with the testimony are excerpts from Romanian state television of the period, showing the propaganda that depicted Romania as a happy, prosperous place even though those making the television programs knew it wasn’t so (their fixed smiles betray them) and of course the people watching them knew better as well.

This results in an innovative and interesting narrative, but despite the subject matter, this is not a story of a brave young man standing up so much as it is about how easily those in an authoritarian nation turn on one another. The film continues through the suspicious death of Calinescu just four years later, apparently from leukemia, at the age of 21 (it wasn’t uncommon for the secret police to expose Romanian citizens to lethal radioactive isotopes in order to silence them without appearing to murder them, although it was, of course, the kind of state-sanctioned murder that continues in Putin’s Russia even now). The final act jumps ahead to modern days, where the unrepentant agents of the Securitate insist they worked for the good of the state and that they never harmed anyone.

The film takes an awful long time to get going, although as it continues through the saga the movie gets more and more intense. Jude might have benefitted from a judicious hand in the editing bay, perhaps cutting down on some of the testimony (and accompanying cheesy television clips) and tightened the storytelling just a hair.

What we’re left with is a chilling look at life in an authoritarian state, and the movie does end with a gut punch – monochromatic photos of the real Mugur and the chalk graffiti he left, which look terribly innocent by any standards, but especially given the tragic consequences those chalk writings created.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique method of telling the story. Somewhat surreal, although it may not be quite so much to those who lived in Romania at the time.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit slow for a two-hour movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
=TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, one of two films Jude debuted there that year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/23/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V for Vendetta
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Laureate

Diane


Mary Kay Place knows she won’t get an Oscar for her performance here, even though she deserves one.

(2018) Drama (IFC) Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Deidre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce an Patten, Kerry Flanagan, Phyllis Somerville, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Ray Iannicelli, David Tuttle, Marcia Haufrecht, Mike Hartman, Cara Yeates, Gabriella Rhodeen, Charles Weldon, Paul McIsaac, Laura Knight, Teri Gibson, Ann Osmond, Dierdre Friel. Directed by Kent Jones

The movies that often affect us the most deeply are the ones that are quiet little slices of life. So, that would describe Diane to a “T.” Set in rural Massachusetts, Diane (Place) is a retired widow who spends most of her days caring for others – her cousin (O’Connell) dying of cervical hospital in a sterile hospital, her son Brian (Lacy), killing himself with a drug habit, her aging friends and the homeless, to whom she serves food at the local shelter.

We see Diane driving around the area down beautiful, snow-covered roads that look like a cinematic Currier and Ives Christmas card, but as we watch her go through her appointed rounds we begin to unravel the fact that despite the veneer of caring and compassion, Diane is a broken soul, carrying around burdens of guilt that any Catholic would understand.

Place gives the kind of performance that wins awards although, sadly, she was overlooed for most of the major ones. 70 years old at the time of filming, Place gives the kind of dogged characterization that we unwrap layer by layer until we are left with the core of the woman as the film comes to a breathtaking end. While the movie never got the acclaim it was due in many ways, you can happily rectify that situation by giving it a watch yourself. This is a gem of a movie that should be on every cinema buff’s radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Despite the sometimes-painful subject matter, the film is nevertheless full of warmth. Place gives a career-best performance. Strong interpersonal dynamics throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally a bit too stark.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and drug use here.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jones, a film critic of note, wrote the title role with Place specifically in mind for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC Plus, AppleTV, Curia, DirecTV, Google Play, Hulu, Roku Channel, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Time Out of Mind
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Uppercase Print

Who is Amos Otis?


The revolution is already underway.

(2021) Courtroom Drama (Gravitas) Josh Katawick, Rico Reid, Derek Snow, A.J. Ford, Christine Brunner, Mike Dennis, Peggy S. Allen, Donald John Volpenhein, Denise Del Vera, Christine Jones, Moulay Essakalli, Rajiim A. Gross, Paul Morris, Carol Brammer. Directed by Greg Newberry

 

In a world as polarized as ours is, it is perhaps understandable that people might wonder – to themselves, or even out loud – if the world might not be a better place if this public figure or that public figure got whacked. I imagine that’s fairly common fantasy fodder on both sides of the political aisle.

But a man has gone and made it a reality. Using a sniper rifle, he has assassinated a highly divisive President (who isn’t named but is meant to resemble Trump). Captured afterwards, he identifies himself as Amos Otis (Katawick) but it soon becomes apparent that he isn’t him; Amos Otis, the owner of the truck that this man was driving, was most assuredly an elderly African-American man whereas this man using his identity is a 30-something white male (and baseball fans, the movie nor either character has anything to do with Hall of Fame ballplayer Amos Otis of the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals).

Jake Johnson (Reid), a court-appointed attorney doesn’t particularly want the job. Amos is a man who doesn’t exist and he doesn’t seem particularly disposed to informing his attorney too much on what his motivations are, or even who he really is. Jake is like a blind man in a room full of pitfalls, trying to navigate his way through without any input whatsoever.

The odds against him are overwhelming. The prosecutor (Snow) has videotape of Otis taking the two shots – one that injured a secret service agent, the second blowing the head clear off of the President’s neck. Johnson knows that it is almost impossible to keep his client out of death row, so he wants to plead insanity, which his client is very much against, so he reluctantly argues a self-defense case that will not hold water, until the story takes an unexpected hard turn into the Twilight Zone.

For being based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, there are an awful lot of factual errors about courtroom procedures and even about the laws governing them. The bulk of the film is the trial of Amos Otis, prefaced by jailhouse interviews by his lawyer. This gives the movie a bit of a stage-y feel, which the director – who wrote the original play – doesn’t do much to dispel. But the trial looks like it came out of a bad 80s courtroom drama – actual trials tend to be far less interesting and dramatic than they are portrayed here, and lawyers are more scholarly sorts who get their clients off (or convict them) based on examination of the evidence and knowledge of the law. There is little bombast in a court of law and if there were, no judge would let it continue.

But for all that, the movie is appealing as it gives us an opportunity to examine our own prejudices. The thought that using violence to achieve a political goal is one that is getting increasing scrutiny on both sides of the political divide, and talk of civil war in this country has taken the chilling overtones that it is actually becoming not only possible, but possibly likely that such a thing could come to pass.

I do think that it was a mistake to make the assassinated President so obviously based on Trump. Most obviously, that is going to alienate basically anyone who leans even a little bit to the right, but also a few lefties as well – I found it abhorrent that the movie seems to take the viewpoint that the end justifies the means in order to save the country. In all likelihood, if some nut case with a gun and an idea actually pulled off an assassination of the former President (and it would be so difficult as to be nearly impossible to do so given the type of protection Presidents and former Presidents enjoy these days) it would do more harm than good to the liberal cause for more reasons than I’m willing to go into here, but the one that I will bring up is that it would do something terrible to our nation’s soul.

It would have been more effective to make the fictional President’s politics more anonymous here, only giving the assassin the motivation that his policies will destroy our Democracy without saying how in much detail. Not only does that make the movie more palatable to larger audiences, but it remains timely so long as you show the nation being further polarized by the assassination.

The premise here is an interesting one and while it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to go with the big twist, and to accept the movies factual as well as logical shortcomings, one is left with some food for thought that might require a little bit of time to digest.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating subject. Flawed for the most part, but succeeds where it isn’t.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a little stiff and the politics may offend some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newberry originally wrote this as a stage play, for which it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/15/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stoker Hills

The Novice


Practice makes perfect.

(2021) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Fuhrmann, Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, Kate Drummond, Charlotte Ubben, Sage Irvine, Chantelle Bishop, Jeni Ross, Nikki Duval, Eve Kanyo, Al Bernstein, Robert Ifedi, David Guthrie. Directed by Lauren Hadaway

 

There is a fine line between determination to attain a goal, and obsession. Determination is to be admired; it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. Obsession, though, is terrifying to behold; all logic and reason go out the window in a single-minded quest to achieve that goal, regardless of the cost.

Alex Dall (Fuhrmann) is a college freshman in an unnamed Northeastern university who is majoring in physics – which is not only not her best subject but it is, in fact, her worst. She is on a full ride scholarship, but she works like a demon, taking tests over and over (and sometimes, over) again in a  quest to be the very best. On apparent impulse, she signs up to try out for the novice rowing team.

Alex has absolutely no experience in rowing, nor does she have any in any sport at all. Her body is soft and non-muscular; this would seem to be a lark – except Alex is determined not only to make the novice team but also the varsity. Only two novices are selected by the easygoing Coach Pete (Cherry) to try out for the varsity; naturally gifted athlete Jamie Brill (Forsyth) and Alex.

There she is greeted by derisive and often profane criticisms, and overhears the praise given to Jamie, which inspires her to work harder. On the ERG (stationary rowing) machines, she takes the instructions given to her by Coach Pete – “legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs” – as a kind of a mantra, working out often to the point of retching. She develops sores on her hands, ribs and thighs – some self-inflicted – from her workouts. Her work ethic impresses Head Coach Edwards (Drummond) but her manic attitude serves to turn off most of her fellow rowers, although Jamie and pretty teachers assistant Dani (fashion model turned actress Dilone) who try to figure out the complicated Alex, who perhaps doesn’t know herself what drives her, although later evidence proves that she does and it is revealed to the audience, although I won’t get into it here. But as Alex’s drive descends into mania, her body and mind begin to show dangerous signs of cracking.

First-time feature director Hadaway turns to the director’s chair after a fine career as a sound editor, and bases her debut on her own experiences as a collegiate rower, which lends a good deal of realism and authenticity to the film. There have been films about rowing before – Varsity Blues comes to mind – but few films on obsessive goal-seeking have reached the heights of this one.

Part of the reason is Fuhrmann, who turns in a performance that is already attracting attention. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing her up for major roles in important movies in the next couple of years; she absolutely dominates the screen and has some really nice chemistry with Forsyth. Cinematographer Todd Martin also does some innovative work here, although from time to time Hadaway tends to get a bit cutesy with her framing and camera effects, a sin that first-time directors often commit. When those things happen, we are drawn out of the story and aware that there is someone directing – and there’s no better way to kill a cinematic mood than that.

The Novice has already been nominated for five Independent Spirit awards and Fuhrmann has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination, although she’ll have an uphill battle to get one. This is one of those indie films that isn’t always a pleasure to watch – but when the end credits begin, you are left with the realization you have just watched a terrific movie. This is one you won’t want to miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Fuhrmann gives a career-establishing performance. The cinematography is innovative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to temptation to get too artsy, pulling us out of the story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won best American Narrative Feature at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
8-Bit Christmas

Son of Monarchs


We all yearn thttps://sonofmonarchs.com/o emerge from childhood as a beautiful butterfly.

(2021) Drama (Warner Media/150) Tenoch Huerta, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, Juan Ugarte, Electra Avellán, Angelina Peláez, Emily Keefe, Jay Potter, Jarod Lindsey, Wendy Heagy, Daniel Fuentes Lobo, Gadi Rubin, Rich Miglio, Gisell Rodriguez, Maia Vogel, Fernanda Rivera, Maria Luiza Ceglia. Directed by Alexis Gambis

 

Butterflies are creatures of intense beauty and fragility. Their colorful wings delight us, and their migratory patterns can astound us. Butterflies have always been used as a metaphor, a desire that we harbor to emerge from our chrysalis – whatever it may be – as a beautiful, bejeweled butterfly and (hopefully) not as a dull, drab moth.

The parents of Mendel (Huerta) must have had great expectations for their son, naming him for a Czech scientist, but they didn’t live to see it happen, dying senselessly during a flood. This left Mendel and his older brother Simon (Hernández) orphaned, to be raised by their grandmother (Peláez) and a assortment of uncles. Mendel eventually left the tiny village nestled in the mountains of Michoacán where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter to study the butterflies as a biologist for a lab in New York. Simon stayed to work in the mines and raise a family; Simon hasn’t forgiven Mendel for leaving Mexico and leaving Simon alone to cope with the grief.

But Mendel returns for the funeral of his grandmother to find that while most of his family is overjoyed to see him, particularly his niece Lucia (Avellan) who wants very much for her uncle to return for her wedding later in the year. Her father, Simon, is less happy to see Mendel and can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when his brother is around.

Back in New York, Mendel is introduced to Sarah (Rasmussen) who works for a non-profit and is a recreational trapeze artist (is that really a thing?) and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Mendel can’t get over the ease with which Sarah flies through the air; this must be what it’s like to be a human butterfly. He also begins to experience vivid flashbacks of the horrible day in which his parents perished.

Although Mendel is reluctant to return to Michoacán, he eventually decides to do so, knowing that he and his brother must confront the things separating them that keep them from soaring through the winds like the brightly colored insects they both love.

Gambis, who is not only a filmmaker but also holds a PhD in biology, has a lyrical bent that is shown at various times in the film, as when a young Mendel is covered in a sea of orange and brown monarchs, or showing the beauty of the landscape surrounded by desolation wrought by the greed of men.

His script has some interesting points, but has a tendency to get bogged down on minutiae, so there isn’t the kind of flow you would like to see in a film like this. He is constantly throwing in dream sequences and flashbacks which also disrupt a film that needed a gentle rhythm. Finally, the whole use of butterflies as a metaphor is overused to the point of dreariness.

And these are large issues indeed, but not insurmountable ones and in fact the movie more than makes up for them with compelling performances by Huerta and Hernández, whose chemistry as two brothers, once close but now wary of each other and unsure not only how they got to this point but whether they can get back to what they once were at all. The two have a confrontation near the end of the film that is absolutely riveting and highly emotional; it is the highlight of the film and the centerpiece for it in many ways.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia fills the screen with bright butterfly-like colors, while Cristóbal Maryán contributes a score that is delicate and beautiful. The simplicity of life in the village is alluring when contrasted with the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple, although some may find that more to their liking. I found myself succumbing to the charms of the film despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them. This is a very impressive first film for Gambis.

The movie is in the midst of a brief limited run in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other cities. It will arrive on HBO Max on November 2nd.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, beautifully scored. The heat between Huerta and Hernández is realistic and powerful. The sequences of village life are lovely. A wonderful examination of the difficulties for even legal immigrants in America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leans a little bit too much on flashbacks, butterfly metaphors and dream sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is given annually to the festival entry that focuses on science as a central theme or scientists as central characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (starting November 2nd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identifying Features
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

Luzzu


Fishing as it has been done for centuries.

(2021) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jesmark Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Michaela Farrugia, Uday McLean, Yuric Allison, Paul Cilia, Reece Vella, Marcelle Theuma, David Scicluna, Marta Vella, Stephen Buhagiar, Noel Grech, Adrian Farrugia, Thelma Abela, Joseph Scicluna, Michael Sciortino, Sonia Cassar, Dianna Bonnici, Joseph Schiavone, Yorgen Vella, Emmanuel Muscat. Directed by Alex Camilleri

 

The Mediterranean island of Malta is not exactly a film hotspot. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe by land area, and is full of traditions that go back centuries. Like many other countries, though, it is finding that its traditions are under siege by the economic realities of modern geopolitics.

Jesmark (Je. Scicluna) is a fisherman. He, like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, have fished from a small, brightly painted wooden boat called a luzzu. However, Jesmark has found, like many of his compatriots, that fishing has been less successful as he is competing with vast trawlers that are able to catch thousands of fish in a single trip where he is struggling to net three or four. He adheres to the rules of the local fisheries board, and works hard. However, he is disquieted by the local fish auctioneers consistently selling his fish below what they are worth, and he is unable to find other buyers for his catch.

To make matters worse, Jesmark has a baby with his girlfriend Denise (M. Farrugia) and that baby is having growth issues, necessitating some expensive baby food, visits to specialists and medications – all expensive and all putting a strain on what little money they are able to save. And to top things off, his beloved boat, the Te Palma, has developed a leak that will not be cheap to repair. “Without a boat, you’ll lose your way,” a fellow fisherman warns. These things have driven a wedge between Jesmark and Denise, and she moves out with his son to live with her mother, who already has a strained relationship with Jesmark, whom she disapproves of.

Jesmark is forced to compromise his ethics, working on the black market selling fish illicitly, some out of season, some off the books. Jesmark indeed feels that he has lost his way, and with the European Union putting pressure on local fishermen to buy back their luzzus and move them into different occupations which Jesmark is extremely reluctant to do, it is looking more and more like he will have little choice if his small family is to survive.

It is unsurprising that Camilleri has a background in documentaries, for this has the look and feel of one. The marketing material describes the film as “neorealist” or “hyper-realistic” and both monikers are true; there is a very authentic vibe here – you can almost smell the salt air and the rotting wood of the docks. That is the mark of a good documentary.

Jesmark Scicluna, who is not a professional actor, is a real find here. Ruggedly handsome with a sober mien (he rarely smiles in the movie nor is there much reason for him to), he has a charismatic personality that leaps off the screen as he fights forces that he doesn’t understand and are way out of his control. It’s an extremely effective performance that is bound to resonate among those who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet even with a good job. If the fishing industry is really as bad as it is made out to be here, he could have a legitimate shot at a career in front of the camera.

The story moves effortlessly from the documentary-like first act into the second act which is more of a crime drama, although one that has little suspense. We feel more the economic squeeze on Jesmark than we do any sort of fear of the consequences if he is to be caught. This leads to an ending that is poignant and well-earned.

Camilleri is a protege of Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) who also produced the film. Like some of his mentor’s best films, Camilleri infuses this film with a sense of how difficult it is to survive when everything is stacked against you, as it is these days. This isn’t an easy movie to watch in the sense that it will take you out of your own troubles; chances are you’ll recognize some of your own troubles in the film. However, the movie is brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, wonderfully shot by Léo Lefevre, and certainly worth your time and trouble to seek it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Jesmark is an absolutely magnetic presence. An engaging story that has universal appeal. Perfectly captures the desperation of those living on the edge of a financial abyss.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too quiet and slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesmark Scicluna is an actual fisherman in Malta who was cast by Camilleri for the film, along with a number of other fishermen playing – you guessed it, fishermen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CODA
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Son of Monarchs

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)