The Nowhere Inn


St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein don’t always see eye-to-eye.

(2021) Musical Dramedy (IFC) St. Vincent (Annie Clark), Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Michael Bofshever, John Aylward, Cass Bugge, Tema Sall, Erica Acevedo, Ezra Buzzington, Rya Kilstedt, Nancy Daly, Gabriela Flores, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquillino, Drew Connick, Asha Dee, Robert Miano, Shae D’lyn, Linda Carola, Steve Rankin, David Shorr, Becky Poole, Rachel Rosenbloom, Kaitlin Huwe. Directed by Bill Benz

 

If you haven’t heard of the indie singer-songwriter St. Vincent, shame on you. She is one of the best in the world at what she does, and while she may not be the household name that, say, Arianna Grande is, she certainly has the talent to not only move the soul but to leave a mark on music itself.

This is presented as a documentary that went South and was never completed. What it actually is can be classified as a parody of rock documentaries that seamlessly meshes the old VH1 Behind the Music series with a heaping helping of farcical self-deprecation. Think of it as what This is Spinal Tap would have been like if directed by Wes Anderson.

Grammy-winning indie rock chanteuse St. Vincent (the stage name of Annie Clark, once a member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band) is on tour for her 2017 album Masseducation. We first meet her in a stretch limo, motoring through the California desert with a driver (Buzzington) who has no idea who she is. We ae aware by that point that the movie we’re about to see (which was intended to be a concert movie) was never completed.

Long-time BFF Carrie Brownstein, guitarist for Sleater-Kinney but probably as well-known these days for co-creating Portlandia, had been Clark’s choice to make the movie. However, when she tries to differentiate between the striking, seductive onstage persona of St. Vincent and the offstage persona of Annie Clark, it turns out that Annie Clark is actually, well, pretty boring.

As attempts to make Clark look more interesting offstage continue to meet with resistance, eventually hands are thrown up and she decides to embrace her St. Vincent persona offstage, and we get to see some diva-esque behavior. Clark’s behavior becomes more bizarre and off-putting. She is cold and downright rude to Brownstein whose father (Bofshever) is undergoing chemo for cancer, and whose survival chances aren’t encouraging, although he is exceedingly proud of his daughter’s latest project which, considering her accomplishments, seems a little strange.

But then, that seems to be this movie’s calling card. It is decidedly meta – most of the roles are played by actors, and those playing themselves are playing fictional versions. At least, I hope so.

There are plenty of cringeworthy moments here, as Brownstein and Clark (who co-wrote the script) seem to be going for humor that is hellbent on making the viewer uncomfortable. This might well be their revenge for the effects on their lives that being in the spotlight have had. Or just a smartass commentary on what documentaries about the life tend to portray.

There are short snippets of St. Vincent performing in concert, or singing acoustic songs; certainly not enough to make her fans happy, but enough to entice non-fans to check out her catalogue – as well they should. She is a marvelous singer and songwriter, and she has some amazing songs on her resume. However, keep in mind that as much as this is a movie starring St. Vincent, this isn’t a movie about her, not in a real sense.

Rather, this is a movie about what St. Vincent could become if she were to allow it to happen. I imagine it’s not easy to restrain one’s ego when one exists in an industry that on the one hand tends to stroke the egos of its star performers while at the same time doing everything in its power to crush them. It’s an odd dichotomy that makes the reason that rock stars have a tendency to self-medicate somewhat understandable.

I will say that this movie isn’t for everybody. At times the film feels a little bit scattershot, like a bunch of scenes in search of a unifying theme. It is a little bit out there and requires that you be patient and wait for it to make its point and once it does, understand that it will leave the interpretation of that point (or those points) entirely up to you. Don’t expect to be spoon-fed, in other words. But speaking for myself only, I find movies like that to be more challenging, and more rewarding in the end. I’m betting that you will, too.

REASONS TO SEE: Different and interesting. Pokes fun at rock docs and music stardom in general.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattered in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: St. Vincent was at one time a member of the Polyphonic Spree (“Light and Day”).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTubeCRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is Spinal Tap
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

Together


Apparently the pandemic CAN be used as couples therapy.

(2021) Drama (Bleecker Street) James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin

 

The pandemic is, in some ways, a screenwriter’s dream. It is a situation everyone on the planet is affected by, something we all can relate to. As more and more movies come out set during lockdowns and quarantines, the question becomes whether we are exploring the topic too soon (as even now we are suffering through a surge in Delta variant cases) or whether what we have to say at this point is premature.

A brief rant before I commence – I have always found the trope of not naming the characters to be more pretentious than anything. Yes, I get that they are supposed to be “everymen” and “everywomen” for the sake of the narrative, but it’s more or less a cop-out these days. Give your characters names, and not just for the convenience of the critics either – it’s disrespectful to the audience. End rant.

An unnamed couple (grrr!), played by Horgan and McAvoy, are thrown together by the lockdown in England. They are an upper middle class couple who couldn’t be more different; he’s a conservative entrepreneur who doesn’t have much use for what he calls “the chattering class,” while she’s a progressive liberal who is an executive for a non-profit. But they have a young ten-year-old special needs kid named Artie (Logan) together, and – not for nothing – they hate each other’s guts. The only thing keeping them from going their separate ways is Artie.

The movie takes place from day one of the English lockdown into the spring of 2021. Things are divided into chapters which are delineated by what day of the lockdown it is, and how many deaths from COVID have been recorded in England by that date, which seems to be a not-so-veiled swipe at the Boris Johnson administration (it gets not-so-veiled during a Horgan monologue later in the movie).

Most of the dialogue is delivered at the camera, as if you’re a friend or relative on Zoom, and the couple are making their case for why the other one is the reason the marriage is in trouble. That is punctuated with often heart-rending monologues – in Horgan’s case, the absolutely horrific treatment her mother receives in a care home, while in McEvoy’s an encounter with an anti-masker that causes him to rethink things.

The acting here is superb. Given dialogue that is worthy of Aaron Sorkin. There is some snappy repartee and plenty of back-and-forth between the couple, who are often talking over each other in the way that couples do. That gives the film a kind of naturality that brings more authenticity to the movie than it otherwise might have. The screenplay was originally meant to be a stage play, but the practical complications of mounting a stage production during a pandemic led this to be turned into a movie, but it still retains some of its stage-y qualities. You don’t really notice them, however, because the acting and writing are both so damn good.

I’m not sure if this will end up being a time capsule of this period in history, or something that speaks to deeper truths in relationships. I tend to subscribe to the latter; there is a timelessness about the issues between the couple that are only framed by the pandemic rather than are caused by it. I was completely blown away by the emotional resonance that the film brought and recommend it thoroughly as one of the best movies of the year. If ever you needed an excuse to get out to the theaters, this movie is it.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior writing and direction. Natural performances from Morgan and McElroy, who is particularly impressive. A powerful, emotional time capsule of 2020-21.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so sure using a pandemic as couples therapy is appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in only ten days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scenes from a Marriage
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Fatal Raid

Fatherhood


You and me against the world.

(2021) Dramedy (Columbia/Netflix) Kevin Hart, Alfre Woodard, Lil Rel Howley, DeWanda Wine, Melody Hurd, Paul Reiser, Anthony Carrigan, Deborah Ayorinde, Frankie R. Faison, Thedra Porter, Holly Gauthier-Franel, Ellen David, Julie Trépanier, Julian Casey, Anne Day-Jones, Teneisha Collins, Maria Herrera, Anthony Kavanaugh, Puja Uppal. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Some actors fill a niche, and pretty much stick to it their entire careers. Most actors, however, feel a need to branch out, to flex their dramatic (or comedic) wings and fly out into uncertain winds. Sometimes the result is a steep drop into a faceplant on the tarmac. However, when the landing is stuck, the actor then faces the double-edge sword of raised bars and higher expectations.

Kevin Hart has mostly played irascible immature men conning their way through life, but in this film, based on the experiences of author Matthew Logelin as chronicled in his book Two Kisses for Maddy, Hart plays Logelin, a tech engineer in Boston who is about to be a dad. His wife Liz (Ayorinde) gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, but a pulmonary embolism cuts short her life.

Now Matt faces the daunting task of being a single father and a grieving widower. He is devastated by the grief, but doesn’t have time to let it be front and center; he’s got a career to deal with and a baby to take care of, even though he doesn’t have a clue how to do it. Initially, he gets help from his mom (Porter) and his somewhat overbearing other-in-law Marion (Woodard) who are willing to stay much longer than they are welcome, but Matt is firm; he can do this, although Marion has her doubts. She exacts from him a promise that if it gets to be too much that he’ll move back to Minnesota – where he met his wife – and where Marion can keep a better eye on him.

Hart delivers a career-defining performance here. He dials back the volume and emphasizes Matt’s loneliness and humanity without sacrificing the confusion and loneliness he feels. He’s so unprepared for being a dad that he doesn’t even know what colic is – and let’s not get started about the joys of assembling a stroller. His Matt has skated through, notorious for procrastinating until he realizes he is in a situation where he simply can’t afford to put anything off, particularly when it comes to his daughter. And the love he feels for Maddy (Hurd) shows through in every frame.

Movies like this can easily become maudlin and manipulative but with the sure hand of Weitz (About a Boy) at the helm, it never descends into either pitfall. The movie does occasionally stumble; the character of Jordan (Howley), Matt’s immature best friend, is a little too over-the-top for the film. However, it does better in pointing out the difference in the ways men and women approach parenthood; women get it far more intuitively than men do (for the most part – there are always exceptions) but Weitz wisely doesn’t let this descend into a “men are buffoons who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without women” tone that movies sometimes descend into.

What we have here is a really good movie about the challenges of facing single fatherhood alone. It is well-acted with a great ensemble cast and the interplay between Hart and Woodard is priceless. This is easily one of the best movies that the streamer has delivered to its subscribers (although to be fair the movie was originally intended for theatrical release until COVID put a stop to it) and if you have a Netflix subscription, this one should be on your radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Hart gives his best performance by a mile. Great chemistry between Woodard and Hart. Really gets how men fumble around for what women understand intuitively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Howley’s Jordan character may be a bit TOO inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing Tatum was originally going to play the role of Matt when the project was first announced in 2015, but couldn’t get it to work in his schedule; he remained on board as an executive producer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bring Your Own Brigade

Never Gonna Snow Again (Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie)


Zhnia knows where his massages rank.

(2020) Dramedy (Kino Lorber) Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostraszewska, Agata Kulesza, Veronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Andrzej Chyra, Krzyfsztof Czeczot, Maciej Drosio, Olaf Marchwicki, Astrid Nanowska, Wojciech Starostecki, Jerzy Nasierowski, Konstantin Solowiow, Blanka Burzynska, Adrian Podlaski, Lena Wochal, Casper Richard Petersen, Maria Seweryn. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert

 

Remember when it seemed as if everyone in the movies was wealthy and white? The pendulum has swung in a differing direction and now it feels like movies tend to be about marginalized groups more often than not, superhero movies notwithstanding.

Into a toney, gated community on the edge of a big Polish city, comes Zhenia (Utgoff), a handsome, enigmatic young man from the Ukraine with a serene smile and the magic hands of a trained masseuse. He speaks Russian, and as he gets a residents permit for plying his trade in the development he informs the bureaucrat that he lived in Pripyat, the village just outside of Chernobyl. Zhenia was just seven years old when the reactors blew.

He is accepted in the community as not only a wonderful masseuse but an excellent listener, even if some of the residents are concerned that he might be radioactive. He does seem to have some supernatural ability to take away pain and anxiety, even for a little while. He also can hypnotize his clients and from time to time move objects with the power of his mind.

Several of the middle-aged women in the community have become infatuated with Zhenia, including Maria (Ostraszewska), an exhausted mother whose children are contemptuous of her, Wika (Rosati) whose husband (Simlat) is dying of cancer although with almost blind optimism he assures everyone around him that he is indeed getting better, and a woman (Figura) whose devotion to her bulldogs approaches a kind of mania. But who is Zhenia, why is he there, and what does he hope to accomplish before the demons of his past catch up with him?

Movies like this can go one of two ways; one is the mythic, which is not the way Never Gonna Snow Again goes. The filmmakers, veteran Polish auteur Szumowska and her longtime cinematographer Englert, who shares directing credit with her here. While Zhenia has at times some Christ-like qualities, this really isn’t a Christian parable. Instead, there is a lovely bittersweet feeling here, almost elegiac in places. The greys and blues that are the bulk of the palate that Englert uses make this ideal rainy-day viewing.

\Utgoff is tremendous here. Zhenia is a bit of a cypher, releasing information about himself in dribs and drabs, but Utgoff makes him compelling. He moves with a dancer’s grace (and in fact, Zhenia dances a ballet at a couple of points in the movie) and with an impressive physique is bound to make a few hearts of those who find such men attractive go pitter pat. Utgoff has a good deal of charisma, but wisely knows when to use it and when to be less forthcoming. The end result is that Zhenia turns out to be something of a blank slate that the other characters (and the viewers) project their own interpretations on.

And Englert is nothing less than spectacular as a cinematographer here. If he toiled in Hollywood, he’d be getting regular Oscar nominations – his shot compositions are some of the finest you’ll ever see in a movie. Szumowska has the experience to know when to let the images speak for themselves and doesn’t always clutter them with dialogue. It makes for an almost spiritual feeling in certain places.

The one criticism I’d make about the movie is that the plotting sometimes feels too static; we get these wonderful images and some compelling business but it doesn’t always take us anywhere. In that sense, this is a movie that is better experienced than watched passively. Let it wash over you and make you a part of it rather than trying to figure it out might be the best way to go, because if you choose the latter course, you may end up feeling frustrated at several points in the movie.

There is some satire here, and some pointed, sharp humor as well as some social commentary (the title itself is a reference to climate change) and some thoughts about Polish nationalism – a trend which seems to be running in a number of Western nations lately, including our own. However, the points are rarely made more than gently and subtly, and while some characters appear to be taking stands in favor or against one cause or another, we are never preached to, at least overtly.

\All in all, this is the kind of movie that weaves its own magic and you’ll either be enchanted by it, or you won’t. I do think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it (which, I suppose, is true for any movie) but it is worth the effort. This is the kind of movie that will stay with you for a long while afterwards.

REASONS TO SEE: Utgoff is compelling. Beautiful shot composition. A wonderfully bittersweet tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is kind of static in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, some profanity, sexual overtones, and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Poland’s official submission for the most recent Best International Feature Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS:As of 8/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teorema
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Who Are You, Charlie Brown?

Welcome Matt


Life is a beach.

(2021) Dramedy (Gravitas) Tahj Mowry, G.G. Townson, Jazsmin Lewis, Deon Cole, Adriyan Rae, Aaron Grady, Malik S, Phil Biedron, Andria B. Langston, Janelle Marie, Derrick A. King, Dorien Wilson, Johnny Marques, Bentley Kyle Evans, Ocean Glapion, Leon Pierce Jr., Kenry Hutchinson, Melvin Jackson Jr., David Beeks, Merlin White, Kristen Hurt, Rosetta Tate. Directed by Leon Pierce Jr.

 

During the pandemic, we have all had to face being cooped up inside. For some, that has translated into a fear of going back outside into the world, but as the vaccination process brings us closer to normalcy, it feels hard for many of us to walk out that door and resume our lives.

In Matt’s (Mowry) case, he has an extra built-in reason to stay inside; he’s agoraphobic. He is a young African-American filmmaker who found success with his first film, Life’s a Beach. However, a trauma that took place shortly after his film was released has put him in the throes of the phobia that has rendered him all but dysfunctional. Matt is busy trying to make a film in his apartment, but nobody is buying it. His girlfriend, Samantha (Rae), has grown tired of being home night after night – you can only Netflix and chill so much – and has begun fooling around with another man. Cedric (Grady), Matt’s production partner, has got an offer from the studio to do a sequel to their first film together, but Matt is in no shape to make

Angela (Lewis), his mom, is busy travelling around the world but she wants to see her son get healthy, so she arranges for a therapist to visit him at home. That therapist, Lisa (Townson), has issues of her own – she gets too emotionally involved easily – but she is willing to give it a a try, and while Matt is affable, he isn’t willing to talk about the things that really are bothering him, even though his life is falling to pieces – his girlfriend is gone, his landlord is threatening to foreclose and all anyone wants to see is a sequel to his last film. When he auditions actors for his in-apartment passion project, one of them (Biedron) threatens him with physical harm. No wonder he doesn’t want to go out into the big world.

There are the basics for a good movie here, starting with the lead. Mowry is an extremely likable actor who reminded me of a young Good Morning, Vietnam-era Forest Whitaker with Will Smith’s sly wink that lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. He’s very much the best thing about the movie, which is a good thing because he’s in every moment of it. Deon Cole is also impressive as a washed up standup comic who accidentally stumbles into Matt’s apartment and ends up writing his next movie and becoming a source of tough love.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. The humor doesn’t always connect; at times, the jokes feel kind of forced. That would be a lot more glaring if this were strictly a comedy, but the edge is blunted a bit because of the dramatic elements introduced by Matt’s mental illness. However, the agoraphobia isn’t treated realistically which left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly near the end of the movie when Matt finally gets around to discussing with Lisa the nature of the trauma that has kept him a virtual prisoner in his apartment – having panic attacks even when he has to take his trash out to the garbage can. That trauma is mentioned in an almost casual, offhand manner with almost no detail – and just like that, Matt is cured. It really doesn’t work that way – what Matt does is merely the first step in getting better, and the movie does a disservice in portraying Matt’s triumph over his own fear that way.

Still, if you can get past those things, the movie has a lot of charm, much of it due to Mowry, and was a bit of a pleasant surprise for me. It’s not getting a lot of coverage, so you might want to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Mowry is genuinely likable.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor is hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear, Love and Agoraphobia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
City of Ali

My Wonderful Wanda (Wanda, mein Wunder)


Not your typical family gathering.

(2020) Dramedy (Zeitgeist) Agnieszka Grochowska, Marthe Keller, André Jung, Jacob Matschenz, Birgit Minichmayr, Bruno Rajski, Iwo Rajski, Anatole Taubman, Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewki, Gottfried Breitfuss. Directed by Bettina Oberli

 

In recent years, women from Eastern Europe have flocked to wealthier countries in Western Europe to act as in-home caregivers for wealthy families. Often, these women are the sole breadwinners for their families and are away from their children often for months at a time.

Wanda (Grochowska) is one such, a Polish woman who travels by bus to Switzerland where she works for the industrialist Wegmeister-Gloor family who have a gorgeous home on the shores of Lake Zurich. Patriarch Josef (Jung) has been laid up by a stroke and needs Wanda to stretch his atrophied limbs, help him go to the bathroom, bring meals and whatever else needs doing. She does so with quiet competence and compassion. Josef is fond of her, but perhaps not so fond as his 28-year-old son Gregi (Matschenz) is, although Gregi lacks the intestinal fortitude to act on his desires. Daughter Sophie (Minichmayr), a redheaded hurricane who is petulant and paranoid, and says all the wrong things, arrives with her lawyer husband Manfred (Taubman), while regal Elsa (Keller) presides over all with elegance and warmth.

Wanda also has a less savory side deal going on with Josef that yields unforeseen consequences and throws the delicate family dynamic into chaos. Sophie, already convinced that Wanda is out to screw the family over, is livid and while a compromise is worked out that will theoretically make everyone happy, nobody consults those most affected by the situation.

While there are elements of a class war farce going on here, the movie is really about family dynamics and although there is a good deal of eccentricity in this particular family, there is something realistic about them as well. Oberli, who co-wrote the film along with Cooky Ziesche, takes great pains to give the family members distinctive personalities and backgrounds. Oddly enough, that is not the case for the title character whose motivations and feelings are rarely expressed in the movie, and while some of her backstory is given through Zoom conversations with her kids back in Warsaw, Wanda remains the most enigmatic character in the movie.

The acting is strong here, but none stronger than Keller, who like Charlotte Rampling, was a big star in Europe who was imported to Hollywood in the 1970s and then after a brief run as a leading lady, returned back to European movies. She remains an engaging screen presence and is the emotional center of this particular film, and for those like me who got to know her in films like Bobby Deerfield and Marathon Man, it is wonderful seeing her again, particularly in a role that utilizes her talents nicely.

The movie tends to be at its weakest when it goes for farce, particularly in the third act. It does run a little bit long for American audiences and some of the action tends to be a little bit soap opera-esque in places, but overall this is a strong film with some terrific performances that while not particularly illuminating, is at least a bit different than what we’re used to.

REASONS TO SEE: Keller is a regal presence, and it’s wonderful to see her onscreen again.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the soapy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keller trained as a ballet dancer before a skiing accident at age 16 forced her to change her emphasis to acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being There
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Fiona

The Outside Story


From the inside out.

(2020) Dramedy (Sub-Genre MediaBrian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Cyril Creighton, Matthew Maher, Hannah Bos, Maria Dizzia, Jordan Carlos, Lynda Gravatt, Paul Thureen, Nadia Bowers, John Esposito, Fernando Mateo Jr., Chris Roberti, Rick D. Wasserman, Jordan Kenneth Camp, Suzette Gunn. Directed by Casimir Nozkowski

Our society has become increasingly introverted. Socializing has almost become anathema, especially now that there’s a deadly virus out there (which wasn’t the case when this was filmed). We live and die by our smart phones; we eat meals that are delivered to us. Our groceries are delivered to us. Many of us work at home, even before the pandemic. The need to be around other people is seemingly being bred out of us.

Charles Young (Henry) is at a crossroads in his life. He’s a film editor who works for TCM; whenever a star of yesteryear dies, he’s the one who assembles an “In Memoriam” feature to run for the channel. In a particularly morbid twist, the network keeps a number of these features on hand for stars who are aged enough or infirm enough that they might be next for the “In Memoriam” treatment. Charles finds this morbid, but not enough to switch jobs.

He once was a documentary film maker and has started avoiding friends who ask about the project he was working on. That’s kind of a sore point with him. He has a nice brownstone in Brooklyn where he lives and works. His girlfriend, Isha (Martin-Green) also lives there – until today. You see, she cheated on Charles, which she admitted to and apologized for. “It was a mistake,” she noted. Charles, however, can’t get past the thought of her with – in this case – another woman, and has broken up with her and asked her to move out.

Charles has been tasked with moving her car regularly so she doesn’t get a parking ticket until she comes to fetch her car and her things. When a delivery man (Carlos) brings over his favorite take-out Mexican, he accidentally brings her car keys instead of the house keys and ends up locked out of his apartment. With Isha possessing the other set of keys and not available until later, he at first tries climbing out on the fire escape to get in his window, but it’s locked. About to break his way in, the police officer (Mani) who has been issuing parking tickets all up and down the street stops him. Having run out without shoes or identification, he finds himself having to reach out to strangers – that he has lived alongside for years but never bothered to meet – to help him get in, especially since he has a deadline fast approaching.

Henry is a big, likable teddy bear of  a guy and after years of being a supporting player gets to shine on his own, and he makes the most of his opportunity. His comic timing is right on (he gets the best line of the film, as he is being arrested for trying to sneak into his own apartment before being rescued at the last minute and exclaiming “I couldn’t hear you over the injustice,” which about sums up our times). I hope Hollywood casting directors sit up and take notice; he should be getting bigger roles and more lead roles as well.

Usually one doesn’t notice the editing of a film, but it is surprisingly noticeable here – maybe because the lead character is a film editor. It’s choppy and abrupt, which is jarring at times. With a little bit of care, it wouldn’t have been a problem and when your lead character is in that particular line of work, it calls attention to the deficiency a little more broadly.

Star Trek fans will note the presence of Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery in the cast, but she is sadly underutilized here – perhaps she was busy filming Season 3 of the CBS All-Access series at the time. She shines when she’s onscreen, and hopefully we’ll see more of her in coming years. For my money, she’s even better here than she is as the cold, logical Burnham.

The movie does point out how isolated we’ve become as a society, with neighbors scarcely knowing each other (although everyone seems to know the more outgoing Isha). Even in New York, perhaps the most densely packed city in the country, there is that sense of people living in cocoons. That tendency has been exacerbated lately; chances are that it is going to continue to evolve in that direction, at least for the time being. At some point, the human need for socializing is going to outweigh the need for convenience.

Some movies are suited for rainy day viewing, and this one fits the bill to a “T.” It’s the kind of movie you want to watch in your stocking feet, with a warm blanket pulled over you and a bowl of your favorite snacks within arm’s length – and perhaps with your own sweetie cuddled against you. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon.

REASONS TO SEE: Henry is extremely likable. A great commentary on how isolated our lives have become even before the pandemic.
REASONS TO AVOID: The editing is a bit choppy, which is somewhat ironic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sparrow’s Dance
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Greta

Made in Italy


The love between father and son withstands all obstacles.

(2020) Dramedy (IFC) Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Marco Quaglia, Gian Marco Tavani, Helena Antonio, Lavinia Biagi, Gabriele Tozzi, Souad Faress, Claire Dyson, Costanza Amati, Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden, Chelsea Fitgerald, Deborah Vale, Flaminia Cinque. Directed by James D’Arcy

I have come to a conclusion about my film critic colleagues: they really, really hate (in general) movies that make you feel. They much prefer (again, in general) movies that make you think. There’s nothing wrong with having your thoughts provoked, mind you – but not everyone goes to the multiplex to exercise their mind, and learning isn’t always a function of thought and rationality. Sometimes, it’s a process of intuition and emotion.

London-based art gallery manager Jack Foster (Richardson) is going through a painful divorce from his wife (Kettle) whose family, unfortunately for Jack, owns the gallery. Now that the couple is Splitsville, they want to sell the building and turn a tidy profit. Jack, who has worked hard to build the gallery into something, wants to buy it. But how to come up with the cast? Well there’s the house he co-owns with his dad Robert (Neeson) in Tuscany which should be able to provide the funds Jack needs in a quick sale.

Robert was once one of those artists who were the talk of the art world, whose artwork commanded astronomical sums in auctions and sales. But after the death of his wife (Jack’s mother) in a tragic accident twenty years prior, he’s stopped painting and has opted for the life of a ladies man, hopping into bed with young women whose names he can scarcely remember, much to the disgust of his son.

The trip to Tuscany is awkward and when they arrive at the house, the decades of neglect is very much evident – a family of weasels has taken up residence and they’re not willing to give up their squatters’ rights. Drill sergeant-like realtor Kate (Duncan) has a laundry list of must-dos in order to sell the house, although the plumbing is pretty good (that matters a lot, according to Kate) and so Jack, who is much more gung-ho about selling the place than his dad, gets to fixing the place up. Robert seems to be dragging his feet, even though he wants his son to have the cash, at the same time he is having trouble letting go. Jack is having trouble letting go of his anger towards his dad, who shipped him off to school just when Jack needed support the most.

Jack finds romance with a local trattoria owner named Natalia (Bilello) who is undergoing marital troubles of her own. However even as Kate finds a couple of boorish American boobs who are willing to buy the house that they clearly could never appreciate properly, the gulf between Robert and Jack reaches a boiling point with perhaps surprising results (or perhaps not).

If the renovation of a house belonging to a beloved deceased relative in one of the loveliest places on Earth sounds like the plot to another movie, that’s because it is – remember Russell Crowe extolling the charms of Provence in A Good Year? Just as that film activated many dream vacations to France, so too this one may give you the yen to visit Florence and environs.

This couldn’t have been an easy movie for Neeson and Richardson to make. Neeson’s wife – actress Natasha Richardson – and Michael’s mother, passed away far too young in 2009. I couldn’t say if the father and son in real life mirrored the strained relations that they portray onscreen, but the pain of loss that both men surely feel hangs over the production like smog on a hot summer day. There is a scene where the two confront each other over the death of the mom/wife that is especially poignant when you realize that the two have an emotional connection to the material.

Nonetheless, both men have some truly powerful scenes together and those alone are worth the price of admission (or rental in these days of pandemic). So, too, are the lovely golden-hued shots of the Tuscan countryside that has been long a favorite of filmmakers ever since cameras were invented.

First-time writer-director D’Arcy gets few points for originality here; much of the script is predictable and while the movie hits all the right feels, there are times that it comes off as derivative and not terribly original. However, wonderful performances from the leads (and Bilello is absolutely delightful as well), some magnificent cinematography and some nice foodie moments make this a movie guaranteed to make you want to head off to Tuscany yourself – or at least indulge in a really good bowl of risotto.

REASONS TO SEE: Lovely Tuscan vistas on display. Some very good work between father and son.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable and occasionally bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neeson and Richardson are father and son in real life. This is the second time they’ve appeared in the same movie together (the first was Cold Pursuit).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 54/100, Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Shine Your Eyes

Sometimes Always Never (Triple Word Score)


This is the most English photo you will ever see.

(2019) Dramedy (Blue FoxBill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Alice Lowe, Tim McInnerny, John Westley, Oliver Sindcup, Louis Healy, Elia Grace Gregoire, Alan Williams, Ethne Browne, Alexei Sayle, Andrew Shim, Kadrolsha Ona Carole. Directed by Carl Hunter

 

Absence may make the heart grow fonder; it can also leave a massive hole. Sometimes, when someone exits from our lives, carrying on isn’t an option.

Alan (Nighy) is a retired tailor. Fastidious in all things, his great obsession is Scrabble; he loves words, and has an enviable vocabulary. During a particularly tense game, his 19-year-old son Michael walked out the door, never to return. Michael hasn’t made any attempt to make any sort of contact in the intervening years.

Now, he has been called to the Midlands to see if a body that has been discovered there is that of his lost son. Driving him there is his remaining son Peter (Riley). The car ride is quieter than it should be; Alan is more interested in playing online Scrabble than in conversing with the son who has remained, but it is frustrated that he can’t seem to communicate with his father.

While spending the night before seeing the coroner in the morning, Alan and Peter meet an older couple (McInnerny, Agutter) whom Alan maneuvers into a game of Scrabble; as it turns out, they’ve been called to view the same body, having a missing 19-year-old son of their own.

When the body proves to be not Michael, Alan goes to stay with Peter and his wife (Lowe) and son (Healy). He also suspects that the person he’s playing online Scrabble with and is eerily familiar strategy may be Michael, reaching out in his own way.

The humor is bone-dry and the overall tone is droll; this is a quintessential English movie for which Nighy is ideally cast. Nobody, but nobody does droll as well as Nighy. Riley has been a terrific actor for decades; it’s absolutely criminal that he isn’t a bigger star than he is. Once again, he does an inspiring turn here as a son who is frustrated with a father who seems to have more affection for the son that ran away than he does for the sun who is still there. He feels as if he is continually finishing in second place to the memory of Michael, and its an observation that has some merit.

First-time feature director Hunter, who has up to now primarily worked in the documentary field, utilizes this late 70s-set dramedy with bright colors and the somewhat dodgy hair and fashion of the era. Despite the era this is set in, the film still fields strangely modern. There is a period when Nighy is absent from the film, and the movie does lose momentum. Riley does his best, but he isn’t given the kind of material that Nighy is here. There is a third-act reveal that’s not entirely unexpected but still effective. Watch for it.

There’s a bit of Wes Anderson in the influences here and that’s not a bad thing. The movie is pleasant enough, but nothing that is going to particularly excite anyone – and it may be a bit too British for American audiences who may prefer a little less “Keep calm” and a little more “stiff upper lip.”

REASONS TO SEE: Nighy is perfect for the droll, dry tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The balance between comedy and drama doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of  the film, Alan remarks that Marmite is not available in Canada. In fact, it is readily available there and has been for some time.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Theatrical Release
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Infiltrators