Butter (2020)


The intensity of a teen boy confronting his own end.

(2020) Dramedy (Blue Fox) Alex Kersting, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, McKaley Miller, Annabeth Gish, Brian Van Holt, Jack Griffo, Monte Markham, Ravi Patel, John Kassir, Jake Austin Walker, Rachel Wotherspoon, Adain Bradley, Natalie Valerin, Matthew Gold, Nikki Tuazon, Jessie Rabideau, Danielle Langlois, Walker Barnes, Shannon Kiely, Taj Speights, Olivia Baptista. Directed by Paul A. Kaufman

 

We are a society that demands conformity and regards those who fail to conform with suspicion and, just as often, with derision. Nowhere is that more apparent than in high schools, where those who don’t “fit in” often become the targets of bullying. Sometimes, just getting out of bed and going to school can be an at of heroism.

Butter (Kersting) is a morbidly obese high school junior in a suburban high school in Phoenix, where his parents lead more-than-comfortable lives. His mom (Sorvino) adores him and is his rock; she is also his enabler, often soothing his depression with his favorite food. To his dad (Van Holt), Butter is a disappointment, when he bothers to notice him at all. Oh, and the name? It’s an unwelcome nickname foisted on him after a group of bullies forced him to eat a whole stick of butter. Like most things, Butter just accepts it and lives with it.

He yearns for friendships, particularly from Anna (Miller), the prettiest girl in school whom he has a major crush on. He is a talented musician, a soulful sax player which his music teacher (Williamson) has noticed; he tries to get Butter to join the jazz band but Butter isn’t interested in standing in front of people and giving them another opportunity to make him a target. He is content to stay at home on the Internet, where he can create his own persona as a sensitive jock from another school, which enables him to chat with Anna, whom he believes wouldn’t give him the time of day if she knew who he really was.

After one lunch room humiliation too many, Butter reaches a breaking point (or, perhaps more aptly, a melting point). He creates a website where he announces his intention to eat himself to death on live stream on New Year’s Eve at midnight. He figures nobody will care anyway.

A curious thing happens, though; when he arrives at school the next day, people are treating him differently, like a hero rather than a target. A couple of popular boys take him under their wing and introduce him to others in their circle. For the first time in his life, he feels accepted and it changes his outlook on things. He even begins to lose weight, quite unintentionally.

But nobody is trying to convince him to change his mind. Nobody seems to think he’ll actually go through with it, and nobody reports his intentions to an adult – in fact, they advise him to password-protect the site so that adults can’t access it. In fact, his friends somewhat ghoulishly help him plan the menu for his final meal. But will Butter go through with it, now that he has something to live for? And if he doesn’t go through with it, will things end up being worse than before?

The issue of teen bullying has been tackled in documentaries and films for quite a while now; Erin Jade Lange, who wrote the book that this is based on, has written several that include teen bullying as a central theme. In that sense, there isn’t a lot of subject matter that’s particularly new here. That said, though, the movie packed a lot of resonance in it, especially for those who have endured the kind of hazing both physical and psychological that Butter endures (his real name, by the way, isn’t revealed until near the end of the film, and I won’t tell you what it is here). I have to admit, for the sake of transparency, that I was bullied during that time in my life, although not as severely as depicted here. I often felt the same way Butter did, and can relate to him eating to relieve the pain. To this day, I use food as a means of self-medication.

And to be honest, this isn’t to point fingers at anyone; I’ve forgiven those who were mean to me back then and moved on long ago. This just is to explain why I do feel an empathy for Butter – not just the character, but the film – that others might not. And quite frankly, there are some moments in the movie that brought tears to my eyes, including one in which Butter’s mother realizes the depth of his pain and how she has failed to see it. It’s a credit to Kersting and Sorvino that the scene works so well; it could have been a moment that came off as maudlin (and, to be fair, others do come off that way) but it winds up being absolutely heartbreaking and cathartic. Kersting, in his first lead role, gives Butter a great deal of personality. He feels like a real kid with real suffering. Miller also does a good job with Anna, who turns out to have more depth to her than even Butter gave her credit for.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and at some times it tries to use a light touch when a heavier hand would have done, and vice versa, but it does hit the mark more often than it misses, and becomes, overall, a really moving film. Not everyone will be as affected by it as I have, but those who can look back at (or are right in the middle of) their high school years with bittersweet, conflicting feelings may well find this movie just what they need to get by.

REASONS TO SEE: Really speaks to the outsider in all of us, particularly those who have been teased for their weight. Kersting is very personable. The cast is strong throughout, particularly Sorvino who has a wonderful relationship with Kersting. Some very wrenching moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some serious adult themes involving teen suicide, profanity, violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2012 young adult novel by Erin Jade Lange.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Virgin Suicides
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Creation Stories

Brighton 4th


You don’t want to piss off Dad if he is an ex-Olympic wrestler.

(2021) Dramedy (Kino Lorber) Levan Tedaishvili, Giorgi Tabidze, Nadezhda Mikhalkova, Kakhi Kavsadze, Laura Rekhviashvili, Tsutsa Kapanadze, Irakli Kavsadze, Tolepbergen Baisakalov, Temur Gvalia, Irma Gachechiladze, Mary Caputo, Lew Gardner, Giorgi Kipshidze, Yuri Zur, Artur Dubetskiy, Vsevolod Berkolayko, Aleksandr Karlov, Tornike Bziava, Anastasia Romashko. Directed by Levan Koguashvili

We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our family. Most of us are aware of people in our lives who simply seem incapable of making a good decision. We watch, often helplessly, as they self-destruct, often sucking in all those around them into the vortex of their weakness. Despite our best efforts, often we can’t do much to help them without falling into the whirlwind ourselves.

Kakhi (Tedaishvili) is an aging former Olympic wrestler from the Republic of Georgia. He lives a quiet life, quietly saving his money and bailing out his brother (Gvalia) who has lost his apartment in Tblisi to a gambling addiction. But at least Kakhi’s son Soso (Tabidze) is living in New York City, preparing to go to medical school, and marrying Lena (Mikhalkova) which would net him the green card he desperately needs.

Instead, he finds out that Soso has a gambling problem of his own, and is $14,000 in debt to the local mob. All the money that Kakhi had sent his son to pay his medical school tuition – gone. The good-hearted Kakhi can’t turn away from his son, even though he knows that he will continue to make foolish mistakes, but something must be done.

Most often, this film is described as a slow burn, which is absolutely accurate. The 90 minute film is in no particular hurry to get to where it’s going, and you may well find yourself being thankful for that, for the characters here – even the peripheral ones – are richly drawn and so human they almost leap out of the screen and shake your hand.

At the heart of everything is Tedaishvili, who is actually an ex-Olympic wrestler as Kakhi is. This is his second acting performance and his first since 1987. He imbues Kakhi with a gentle wit, and a gruff kindness. He has a way of seeing through people – even his own son – and being able to forgive their foibles. Tedaishvili brings an inner strength that makes Kakhi a formidable presence. It’s a magnificent performance that utterly captivates.

In fact, many of those in the film are non-professional actors from the Brighton Beach area, the enclave in Brooklyn where a substantial Russian and Eastern European (mainly former Soviet bloc countries) population rules the roost. Their ties to their culture gives the film a genuineness that you simply can’t fake.

The going is terribly slow at times, and younger viewers (and some older ones) may have a hard time keeping their focus on the film, which is why seeing it in a movie theater would be more ideal than on a laptop or streaming device where there is plenty of distractions to take you away from the lovely spell that Koguashvili weaves. Georgian cinema doesn’t get a great deal of respect from American cinephiles, which is a crying shame because there are some really outstanding films coming out of that country. It is worth noting that the film contains the final performance of Kakhi Kavsadze, one of the most respected and acclaimed actors in his country, passing away two months before the film’s debut at Tribeca. He left us with a role of great dignity and pathos, a worthy send-off for a great actor.

REASONS TO SEE: Full of life and liveliness. The performances are natural and genuine. There is a gentle tone to the humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not the fastest-paced movie you’ll ever see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It was the official submission for Georgia for the 94th Academy Awards for Best International Picture.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moscow on the Hudson
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Puff: The Magic of the Reef

Off the Rails


A European vacation that has absolutely nothing to do with National Lampoon.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jenny Seagrove, Sally Phillips, Kelly Preston, Andrea Corr, Judi Dench, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips, Ben Miller, Ledwin Vega Paez, Alessio Pecorari, Catalina Florit Llinas, Pedro Victory Ramos, Franco Nero, Martin Shaw, Peter Bowles, Ismael Calvillo Millán, Eva González Corpas, Alex Tejedor Andersen, Jordan Waller, Uve Barker. Directed by Jules Williamson

 

]At a certain age, we begin to reflect more on what came before than where we are headed. We examine the roads not taken, the paths we did take and the reasons we are where we are. These examinations tend to be melancholy and bittersweet, because humans almost universally tend to focus on regrets ahead of the things we did right.

]Three 50-something women – control freak Kate (Seagrove), uber-mom Liz (Phillips) and wise-cracking actress Cassie (Preston) have been hit by bad news; their close friend Anna has passed away. At her funeral, Anna’s mom (Dench) plops three Interrail passes in their hands and commands them to take Anna’s teenage daughter Maddie (Dormer-Phillips) along for the ride, retracing their steps on a holiday taken thirty years earlier, culminating in an appearance at the Cathedral in Parma, Italy, where twice a year the light hits the stained glass just so, creating an effect known as “God’s Disco Ball,” a spectacle they missed the first time around and which is due to appear five days hence.

]This would be a good occasion to reflect on their friendship, the things that have separated (including the fact that one of them slept with the husband of another) them, and the things that draw them closer together. Of course, no holiday ever goes exactly the way its planned, but given the penchant these women have for getting into mischief, it’s a given that getting to Parma on the day indicated is no certain thing.

We’ve seen these sorts of movies before, where the death of a good friend causes those that survived to reconnect and become stronger and closer than ever, but this isn’t quite like that. It’s equal parts road movie and reflection, all held together by a soundtrack of Blondie music – essentially every song Blondie ever recorded appears at one point or another on the soundtrack, some more than once. It actually becomes distracting and gimmicky, and this coming from someone who might just love Blondie’s music as much as these characters supposedly do. File it under “too much of a good thing.”

]The thing about a movie like this is that in order to see any character growth, you have to get to know who the characters are and we never really do, beyond two-dimensional personality quirks. I don’t have an objection to watching middle-aged women act like hormonal teens (heaven knows we’ve seen enough movies with middle-aged men acting like hormonal teens) but this doesn’t serve to empower the women in the film, but rather just makes them less admirable. I would rather have seen these middle-aged women act like middle-aged women. It’s rare enough we see films with women of that particular age group as the focus; why can’t we just let them be themselves? *end rant*

]Dench, in a cameo appearance, just about steals the movie as she is capable of doing every time she steps in front of the camera. Preston, in her final screen appearance, acquits herself the most notably. I’m not sure she realized how sick she was at the time, but it seems ironic that her final role was about saying goodbye; one wonders if she knew that was exactly what she was doing herself.

I really hoped this movie would be better than it is, but too many cliches spoil the plot, and the lack of character development and the surfeit of Blondie music doom it. Something tells me when the filmmakers reach the point that they are looking back at their regrets, this movie will be among them.

REASONS TO SEE: Focuses on a demographic often ignored by the movies.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last movie Preston made before her untimely death from breast cancer in 2020. The movie is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crossroads
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Triple Frontier

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