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

Dumplin’


Beauty isn’t always just skin-deep.

(2018) Dramedy (NetflixDanielle MacDonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Luke Benward, Georgie Flores, Dove Cameron, Harold Perrineau, Kathy Najimy, Ginger Minj, Hillary Begley, Sam Pancake, Dan Finnerty, Molly McNearney, Tian Richards, Ryan Dinning, Andrew Fletcher, Oscar Gale, Ariana Guerra, Julia Denton, Kaye Singleton. Directed by Anne Fletcher

 

I have to admit, I didn’t have high hope for this Netflix film. For one thing, it’s adapted from a Young Adult novel, a genre that doesn’t exactly scream sophistication. For another thing, the plot sounded pretty pedestrian – and spoiler alert, it is.

And yet, I wound up pleasantly surprised. Danielle MacDonald (Patti Cake$) stars as Willowdean Dickson, a plus-sized gal whose mom Rosie (Aniston) was once a Miss Teen Bluebonnet back in ’91 which is where she pretty much peaked. Rosie runs that same pageant now, the oldest one in Texas. Willowdean, who she called Dumplin’ as a child (a nickname that Willowdean hates with a passion) was essentially raised by her Aunt Lucy (Begley), a fellow plus-sized gal who worships at the altar of Dolly Parton (a religion that Willowdean now shares, along with her bestest friend Ellen (Rush). But Lucy has passed away, forcing Rosie and Willowdean to have to rely on each other, which simply isn’t something they’re used to.

Fed up with feeling alienated because of her size, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant herself, despite the obvious fact that she doesn’t conform to the body type that most pageant girls tend to have. Inspired by her example, Ellen also enlists along with fellow plus-sizer Millie (Baillio) and militant punk feminist Hannah (Taylor-Klaus). The four girls intend to make a statement by virtue of being on the inside, although what exactly they expect to accomplish is a mystery, including Willowdean herself.

The movie is actually pretty warm-hearted and sweet-natured. Willowdean is aided in her subversive act by a group of Dolly Parton female impersonators; she also is dealing with the affections of teen hottie Bo (Benward) with whom Willowdean works at a local diner. It is telling, however, that there is no real villain here; even Rosie basically loves her daughter and wants the best for her. It’s just that Rosie can’t get past Willowdean’s size, nor the notion that fat people can actually be happy.

The movie works well because it takes basic teenage girl issues and tackles them head-on, handling the subject with a rare sensitivity and without taking the temptation to make Willowdean an object of ridicule. She may be full of insecurities – what teenage girl isn’t? – but at the end of the day, Willowdean was taught well by her aunt to love herself for who she is and not because of who she could potentially be.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the real highlight here is MacDonald, who in two short years became a very respected actress who rather than using her size as comic fodder, instead embraces it and allows others to embrace it with her. I’m not kidding when I say that Danielle MacDonald has the talent to become an important actress over the next couple of decades or so, so long as she steers away from movies that use her size as a weapon to heap score on the plus-sized people of the world.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly effective and just offbeat enough to be interesting. MacDonald is absolutely delightful here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a few young adult movie tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, body shaming and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dolly Parton herself doesn’t appear in the film, she did write and record several new songs for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bumblebee

The Mentor (2020)


Art is occasionally confusion.

(2020) Dramedy (Indie Rights) Brandi Nicole Payne, Liz Sklar, Mike Bash, Michael James Kelly, Santiago Rosas, Julie Lockfield, Corey Jackson, Mary Ann Rodgers, Geeta Rai, Ed Berkeley, Robyn Grahn, Sarah Williams, David M. Sandoval Jr., Brian Moran, Colin Johnson, Mark Olsen, James Huston, Audrey Levan. Directed by Moez Solis

 

Making movies is nothing like Andy Hardy exclaiming “Let’s put on a show!” It’s a frustrating and often cutthroat process that rarely has anything to do with art and has everything to do with how much crap you’re willing to put up with in order to get your film made. You have to be a little crazy to want to break into the business.

But that’s just what Nilah Williams (Payne) wants to do. She’s come to California from Georgia to make it as a screenwriter but she hasn’t been able to get a foot in the door just yet. It’s not for a lack of trying, though but her persistence hasn’t paid off. By chance she literally bumps in to indie film darling Claire Adams (Sklar) who is something of an idol for young Nilah and the young wanna-be asks her if she would be willing to mentor her. Claire has no time for such nonsense but after Nilah literally pulls her out of the way of a speeding car and saves her life, Claire feels obligated to give her the benefit of her experience.

Claire is brutally honest about Nilah’s script, which was written using a manual. This doesn’t make Claire happy; no great movie, exclaims Claire, was ever written using a manual. To be different, to create something meaningful, you have to go beyond the book. Before Claire can give her much more than that, the two are kidnapped by a group of people wearing bird masks.

The kidnappers are apparently well-versed in cinema, and have an axe to grind with Claire concerning her behavior towards the writer of her latest film, in which all the dialogue was in German. They force Claire to get a loan from her mother (Rodgers) to help finance a film of their own, which their leader, Mr. Owl (Bash) is constantly on the phone with a big boss about. Escape seems unlikely and as the gang begins to self-destruct, it’s not at all certain this movie is going to have a happy ending for Nilah or Claire.

The film is delightfully off-kilter and Solis, who also wrote and co-produced the movie, has written some pretty impressive dialogue. Sadly, not all of the actors are up to making it sound natural. Some of the actors are on the stiff side and their timing in reciting their lines is just a little off. The exception is Sklar, a veteran stage actress, who gives the most emotive performance and tends to be the one you’ll remember most here, although Payne shows some promise as well. Most of the acting, though, is of film school project level.

Oddly, the movie actually gets better in terms of cohesiveness in the second half, as if the actors are getting used to working with each other and the interplay between them gets better and more honest. The best moments in the film are in the last 20 minutes, so if you’re willing to hang in there for a bit, you might find yourself rewarded.

There’s a satirical element to the film that for the most part I liked, although there is an awful lot of name-dropping which cinephiles might get a kick out of (Werner Herzog should get royalties). The various characters are a little bit arrogant about their art, and while I don’t think that’s true of filmmakers in general these days, I have known a few who are on the pretentious side. Still, I think it’s telling that the movie which is ostensibly about the film business with Claire on her way to take a meeting and Nilah attending a conference of producers and directors, was actually filmed in Oakland and Benicia, not noted as filmmaking hotbeds. That might be because Solis lives in the area and didn’t want to go to the expense of filming in L.A. or it might be a sly wink for those in the know. I would like to believe it’s the latter.

This isn’t for everyone and it does get kind of weird in places. However, I found that I liked it a lot more the day after I saw it than I did while I was watching it, which is an encouraging sign. Processing everything you see here may take some time to catch up. It’s newly available on Amazon so you might want to check this out if you’re up for something a little bit left field. We all need a little bizarre once in a while, no?

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a lot of attention to detail here.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too much cinephile name-dropping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Solis’ first narrative feature film; he has a narrative short (The Beat Down, 2013) and a documentary feature (The Games of These Divers, 2006) previously to his credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Tubi
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Player
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Fairytale

How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The Jesus Rolls


Nobody rolls a ball like Jesus.

 (2019) Dramedy (Screen Media) John Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou, Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Christopher Walken, Jon Hamm, J.B. Smoove, Sable Boykin, Tim Blake Nelson, Margaret Reed, Michael Badalucco, Sonia Braga, Gloria Reuben, Nicolas Reyes, Ken Murach, George Sheanshang, Tonino Ballardo, Matt Lake, Kathryn Kates, Rosa Gilmore. Directed by John Turturro

The Dude abides, but Jesus saves, or so some would have it. The Big Lebowski was a 1998 Coen Brothers cult hit that may have had the most interesting characters in a single cast, so much so that more than 20 years after it was released it is getting its first spin-off. Don’t count on many more happening.

Jesus Quintana (Turturro) is released from Sing Sing on a sex charge that is, to put it mildly, suspicious. The warden (Walken) sends Jesus on his way, Jesus having led the intramural team to the state bowling championship (in one of the film’s most amusing moments, he is literally played out by the Gipsy Kings, who are also behind bars). He is picked up by Petey (Cannavale), his best friend and also an ex-con.

The two promptly go on a spree of petty crime, with temperamental French hairdresser Marie (Tautou) in tow. On a kind of misdemeanor-laden road trip, they go forth to look for America. Along the way they meet a hairdresser with a gun (Hamm), another ex-con (Sarandon), a black market doctor (Nelson), an overzealous convenience store security guard (Badalucco) and Jesus’ sex worker mom (Braga).

And that’s pretty much it, as far as plot goes. The movie is somewhat based on the French director Bertrand Blier 1974 comedy Going Places with Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as a couple of sex-addicted lowlifes on the run, but with the Jesus character from The Big Lebowski in the main roll. Known in the earlier film for licking the ball before he bowls, that scene opens the way for a bowling session with Jesus in which he most definitely licks the ball. Take from that whatever you will.

This is one of those movies where a lot of decent actors make cameo appearances for a few moments and then we move on to another Merry Prankster bit with Turturro and Cannavale, whose character gets shot in the huts by a vengeful hairdresser who cares more for his vintage Duster than for his employee. The movie is mostly a series of stolen vehicles and chases with interludes of sex and not just what the beautiful Tautou either.

The movie suffers from a noticeable lack of the Coen brothers; they are masters at characterization and snappy dialogue. Here, the movie seems forced, rushed and poorly planned out, a very disturbing issue indeed. It’s not nearly as funny as it could have been, or should have been. Turturro is a fine actor, but as a writer he’s no Coen.

Turturro has evidently been thinking about bringing this character back to the screen for some time; I don’t know if anyone was clamoring for a Jesus Quintana spin-off other than Turturro but I suppose if you wait long enough, everything comes back into style.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s John Effin’ Turturro.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as funny as it could be.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of profanity, plenty of sexual content, some nudity, and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turturro has been trying to get a spin-off film about the Jesus Quintana character made since 2005; after several aborted tries he came up with a script that everyone was satisfied with.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic:  44/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

Inside the Rain


Ben is tired of explaining that it’s NOT the Coronavirus.

(2019) Dramedy (Act 13Aaron Fisher, Rosie Perez, Eric Roberts, Ellen Toland, Catherine Curtin, Paul Schulze, Donnell Rawlings, Rita Raider, Natalie Carter, Katie Claire McGrath, Jesse Means, Jaz Goodreau, Ryan Donowho, Kerri Sohn, Thom Niemann, Alex Emanuel, Christina Toth, Jacob Wheeler, Chelsea Watts, Miriam Morales, Jowin Marie Batoon. Directed by Aaron Fisher

 

I always feel a bit guilty reviewing movies that are autobiographical. It’s like reviewing somebody’s life; “Sorry, your life isn’t interesting enough. Your life could have used a few more car chases.”

There are no car chases in Aaron Fisher’s life. Here he plays Ben Glass, a young man who has an amazing array of mental issues, including ADHD, personality disorder, and the crown jewel, bipolar disorder. He takes a staggering array of drugs to essentially function. He is under the care of brash New York psychiatrist Dr. Holloway (Perez) who thinks she can make a significant difference in his life in only six weeks.

While at a party, the often-socially awkward Ben hooks up with Daisy (McGrath), a comely co-ed but when she makes it clear that the one-night stand is just that, he goes into a downward spiral that leads to a suicide attempt. While he is welcomed back to the University following what is, judging from the reaction of his Mom (Curtin) and Dad (Schulze) not the first time he’s tried it, Daisy stops by his dorm room just as Ben is organizing his array of pills into a weekly pill container. She mistakes this for a preparation for another attempt and the police are called. The university, having a strict two-strike policy, moves to expel Ben.

Ben feels the injustice of the thing and won’t go down without a fight, despite advice from his parents and shrink to do just that. Ben plans to appeal and when Dad won’t provide a lawyer, Ben hits upon the idea of filming a dramatic recreation of events which he feels sure will convince the board of appeals of his innocence and get him reinstated immediately. He even has a female lead – Emma (Toland), an escort/stripper/sushi girl who he grows sweet on after rescuing her from some boorish Wall Street types. If Ben’s parents and therapist thought fighting the expulsion was a bad idea, wait until they get a load of this idea…

I’m not sure how much of the material here is fictional and how much is based on actual incidents in Fisher’s life; certainly there are elements of both in the movie. There are times it’s hard to watch Fisher self-destruct as he goes off his meds; it gives viewers a hint of what the families of those with severe mood changes can go through. Amazingly, Fisher remains for the most part sympathetic throughout, although Ben can be profoundly unlikable at times. How willing you are to tolerate those phases are going to really inform how much you like the movie. Some folks simply won’t have the patience for it.

I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation though; at times this feels very much like Fisher made this for himself and without regard for a potential audience. Some of the humor doesn’t exactly hit the target squarely, although there are some really genuinely funny bits here.

In some ways this is a frustrating movie; there is tons of potential here but the missteps and perhaps the ego of the director keep it out of our grasp. Leaving a film feeling frustrated is never a good thing and that’s essentially why I didn’t give the movie higher marks. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect what was being done here.

REASONS TO SEE: A nifty surf guitar soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spending time with Ben can be exhausting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, drug use, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former welterweight world champion Zab Judah makes a cameo as one of Dr. Holloway’s patients, much to the delight of boxing fan Perez who wasn’t aware he would be on set.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Ema