Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden Left Behind


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words on Bathroom Walls


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Candidate


Roles in Saudi Arabia are changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again Once Again (De nuevo otra vez)


Hugs communicate so much.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cuban


The memories of when we were young.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summerland


A brief respite before the war.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Dominic McGreevy, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, David Horovitch, Aoibhine Flynn, Amanda Lawrence, Casper Allpress, Toby Osmond, Joshua Riley, Sally Scott, David Ajao, Nina Beagley, Sian Phillips, Daniel Eghan, Ty Hurley, Marie Hamm. Directed by Jessica Swale

We are increasingly reminded, in these days of pandemic and political divisiveness, that there was a time when everybody was expected to Do Their Bit. People made sacrifices for the greater good. Oh, how times have changed.

Cranky author Alice Lamb (Wilton) despises children. She types away on her “academic treatises” on British and Celtic mythology in her cottage in Kent. However, the Alice of 35 years earlier (Arterton) was….still in the same cottage and still despised children and still typing away at her academic treatises. That’s when Frank (Bond) shows up at her door. He’s an evacuee from London in need of a temporary guardian while his RAF pilot father and Ministry of Defense mother are busy fighting the war, each in their own way. Alice is flummoxed; she had no idea that a kid was coming to live with her but she is gently reminded that she volunteered, even though she doesn’t remember volunteering. In fact, she wants the boy taken somewhere else at once. The authorities promise to look into finding him a place to live, but it will take about a week and she needs to suck it up until then.

Alice is obviously not fond of people in general, and perceptive Frank realizes that there is something that caused this self-imposed solitude. He is not necessarily a brilliant child, but he has a good heart and keen observational powers and soon he begins to thaw out the chilly Miss Lamb, whom is thought to be a witch by the village kids and maybe even a Nazi spy. As such, she is often the butt of childish pranks, which further makes her despise the younger set.

But Frank is so genuine and so willing to please that eventually Alice begins to care for him – so much so that she begins to open up about her past, and the relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw) that dare not speak its name, but which was nevertheless the love of Alice’s life. Unfortunately, Alice is terribly inexperienced at the whole parenting thing and makes a huge mistake when faced with a terrible situation and ends up making a discovery about the identity of Franks’ mother that will shock her to her very core and nearly lose her relationship with Frank in the bargain.

One of the first things you will notice about the film is the absolutely lovely cinematography of Laurie Rose – although I am of the considered opinion that it is nearly impossible to make an English village look ugly. Nearly every shot is picture perfect, from the wild seaside to the snug interiors to the waving fields of wheat. You may end up considering a vacation to Kent somewhere down the line after seeing this.

The second thing you’ll notice is the strength of the performances here. Gemma Arterton is one of those actresses who seems to always turn in a strong performance but never gets the kind of credit she deserves. She certainly has the talent of an Anne Hathaway or an Emma Stone and those are the sorts of roles and movies she should be getting. It’s a shame that she isn’t. As for veteran Tom Courtenay, I could be perfectly happy of an entire film of him reciting the collected works of William Wordsworth; he’s the kind of actor that you fall in love with each and every performance. He has a small but important role here and he makes the most of it.

The flaw here is that the twist, when it comes late in the movie, is jaw-dropping and not in a good way. It will leave veteran cinema buffs shaking their heads and muttering “Really? You went there? REALLY?!?” However, getting to that point is so enjoyable and so beautiful to watch that at least in my case, I was in a forgiving mood by the end of the film.

Although available on VOD at present, it will be playing at the Florida Film Festival on Saturday, August 8th at 5:45pm at the Enzian. Tickets may be purchased here. It is not a part of the Virtual Festival selections, so if you are planning on only attending the Festival this year by remote viewing, you’ll have to pay the additional rental fees to your streaming platform of choice. It is, however, worth it. For those outside of Florida, it is also playing at selected theaters as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent performances by Arterton and Courtenay in particular. Goes to unexpected places occasionally. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is somewhat preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has no relation to the 2003-2005 TV series of the same name that starred Lori Loughlin, Zac Efron and Ryan Kwanten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77/100, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guernsey Literary and Eel Pie Society
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Apollo 11

Opus of an Angel


The blind leading the bland.

(2017) Drama (Random) William McNamara, Cindy Pickett, Kaylynn Kubeldis, Sofya Skya, Destiny Austin, Lee Kholafai, Leila Ciancaglini, Nadja Hussein Camper, Will C, Marjo-Rikka Makela, Cristian Fagins, Don DiPaolo, Marisa Lopez, Ellison Julia, Jamison Newlander, Jon Peacy, Micah Fitzgerald, Joan Benedict Steiger, Mikul Robins, Said William Legue, Christine Kent, Sara Terho. Directed by Ali Zamani

 

What is an angel? Most of us don’t really believe in angels to begin with – whether you are religious or not. It goes without saying that nobody has ever seen one, or will willingly admit to it since if you DID admit to having seen one, chances are people are going to be quietly backing away from you. Angels are the servants of God, right? Or are they ageless creatures sent to watch over us in our hour of need? Or are they merely observers of the human condition? Wings and halos notwithstanding, we may want to believe in angels deep down even if we think they don’t exist.

When it comes to faith, Dr. Stephen Murphy (McNamara) gave at the office. He was once a successful cardiac surgeon, a happy father and husband, celebrating his little girl’s tenth birthday with a picnic at her favorite park, when his cell phone rings – an emergency surgery is necessary, life or death. And the patient is a kid just about his daughter’s age.

We catch up to Stephen a year later on his daughter’s eleventh birthday. His home is tidy, but empty; the only thing that looks out of place is the noose hanging in the kitchen. Stephen has decided that he can’t take the pain of life anymore and is going to finish himself off just as soon as he runs a final few errands. However, before he has been gone from the house very long, he sees a blind little girl (Kubeldis) knocked over by a car driven by a group of hoodlums. She’s okay, but has been separated from her classmates who are out and about on a field trip. Unable to contact her mother, he allows her to tag along on his last day. Might as well have some company, right? Besides, his paternal instincts kick in – you can’t exactly leave a blind girl alone in the city to fend for herself.

The two actually end up bonding. Stephen, initially morose and almost robotic, begins to respond to the girl’s – her name is Maria, by the way – infectious attitude. One of the most touching scenes in the film involves Stephen taking her to a movie theater playing a classic Buster Keaton silent comedy, with Stephen describing what’s happening on the screen to the blind girl. Stephen is plagued by memories, though, that soon explain what happened to his family and to Stephen, and why he is no longer interested in living. Is Maria just a blind little girl who happened to cross paths with Stephen, or is there something more going on here?

The script plays it coy, but I think its obvious by the end of the film that there is an otherworldly aspect to the movie. This is not exactly a faith-based drama – although there are elements of that, but the filmmakers choose not to hit you in the face with the faith aspects of the film. Militant atheists, however, may find some offense to be taken.

For cinema buffs, this is a movie with tons of heart but lacking in execution. Much of the movie is shot on handheld camera, and often the camera sways like the operator is having an attack of vertigo, or wants the viewer to. The performances here are stiff and the dialogue contrived.

I felt bad for Kubeldis; she’s given a difficult role to work with and her inexperience shows through, most notably in her line reading which sounds forced and not at all natural. It’s the kind of part that would be difficult for a trained professional; for a tyro making her first film appearance, it’s nearly impossible and at the very least, a hell of a lot to ask of a novice. Kubeldis has some moments where her naturally sunny disposition are infectious, but she can’t really maintain it enough to elevate the movie, which sorely needed it. She shows plenty of potential though so I hope she doesn’t get discouraged after making this film.

There are enough moments in the movie that are worthwhile that I can barely recommend it, but just barely. There are an awful lot of rookie mistakes both behind the camera and in front of it too. You can’t deny, though, that the intentions of the filmmakers were at least honorable and this is the kind of movie that we do need more of; I just would have appreciated a little more attention to detail though.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that shine.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kubeldis, who plays the blind Maria, is blind herself in real life and makes her onscreen acting debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Touched By an Angel
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Summerland

Days of the Whale (Los dias de la ballena)


Taking it to the streets.

(2019) Drama (OutsiderLaura Tobón Ochoa, David Escallón Orrego, Carlos Fonnegra, Christian Táppan, Julian Giraldo, Diego Alejandro Samacá, Margarita Celene Restrepo, Valeria Castaño, Fajardo. Directed by Catalina Arroyave Restrepo

Art is a universal, something that reaches across cultural and social lines, be they class distinctions, or international borders. What makes film so universal is that we can often recognize the same issues that we ourselves face or have faced while watching those who live thousands of miles from us undergo the same tribulations.

Cris (Ochoa) and Simon (Orrego) are about as disparate as you can get; Cris is a college student from a well-off family. She lives with her father (Táppan), who has remarried a much younger woman (Fajardo) who doesn’t get along well with Cris, who isn’t much younger than her stepmom. Her actual mom (M. Restrepo), an investigative journalist, has had to flee to Spain after running afoul of the local criminal gang that runs the streets of Medellin, Colombia where Cris and her dad live.

Simon is from a working-class family; he is close to his grandmother who tolerates his frequent absences and always has a home-cooked meal at the ready for him. Both Simon and Cris spend a lot of their time in an art collective run by Lucas (Fonnegra). The same gang that ran off Cris’ mother is extorting protection money from the collective as they are from most of the small businesses in the area. Simon, something of a risk-taker, goes out at night as a graffiti artist, using Medellin as his canvas.

At first, Cris goes out with him to paint as well, but their platonic relationship grows closer and more intimate. As that occurs, the collective, unable to pay the protection money, is getting sinister messages spray painted on the wall across the street from their front door. Simon, who once ran with some of the boys in the gang, decides to paint over the warning and put up a mural of a whale to cover it. Cris, much more cautious as she has seen first-hand just how vicious the gang can be, urges him to back off, but that’s not in Simon’s vocabulary. Whether you consider his actions to be bravery or bravado, those actions will have consequences.

I debated summarizing the plot because it might lead you to believe that this is a crime thriller, and it is far from that. The movie is about the coming of age of Cris and Simon, and of their budding relationship. There is a sweetness between the two, a shy awkwardness that goes with two young people exploring feelings that they’ve never had before, but this isn’t exploitative in the least either – while most American coming-of-age films tend to be more raunchy recently than in the past, this one is more gentle.

Most of the cast are not professionals and while the down side of that is that inexperience can sometimes lead to poor acting choices, there is also a naturalness to the performances that is appealing, particularly in Ochoa who like many Latin women her age, seem to have absolutely no clue how incredibly gorgeous they are.

The ending was a little unrealistic to my thinking; criminal gangs are not noted for their forgiving nature and while there are some tense moments, the resolution felt a little too fairy tale-like. But then again, I don’t think Restrepo is going for gritty realism here; she is capturing feelings and situations that are common to most of us even if the situation is uncommon. Most of us don’t live our lives controlled by criminal gangs.

Even so, this is an impressive debut and although it hasn’t made much of a splash in terms of buzz on the indie circuit, it is well worth your effort to look into it. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that films like this are getting more widespread exposure as this one gets a Virtual Cinematic release. Florida theaters benefiting from VOD rentals include the Tropic Cinema in Key West and the Tallahassee Film Society. Click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link below for a complete list of theaters that are running the movie on demand – if there isn’t a theater near you on the list, you might choose another theater deserving of your support. It’s a win-win for you in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The performances are pretty much natural and well-received.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little too Hollywood for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use, profanity, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Catalina Restrepo.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Photographer of Malthausen