Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

DriverX


After midnight, he’s gonna let it all hang out.

(2018) Drama (Sundance Selects) Patrick Fabian, Tanya Clarke, Desmin Borges, Travis Schuldt, Melissa Fumero, Oscar Nuñez, Nina Senicar, Iqbal Thebal, Max Gail, Josh Fingerhut, Jennifer Cadena, Camille Cregan, Kyra Pringle, Blake Robbins, Alison Trumbull, Tiffany Panhilason, Caitlin Kimball, Anne Moore, Heather Ankeny, Kristina Jimenez. Directed by Henry Barrial

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the workplace is changing. At one time, a single family member – usually the male – was able to support his family from working a job that he would likely stay at for most of his life. People were loyal to their employers and quite frankly, their employers were loyal to them.

Inflation changed all that and soon women were forced to enter the job market rather than their traditional role of staying home and taking care of the house and children. Both parents were working often long hours, giving them less time with the kids and less time for themselves. People were less loyal to their employers as they moved readily to better paying jobs elsewhere when the opportunity arose.

Employers were also less loyal to their employees, ending pensions in favor of 401k plans and slowly but surely cutting down on health care benefits, going for less expensive plans as the price of health insurance skyrocketed. To make matters worse, the availability of jobs that pay decently have dropped in favor of contract work, job sharing and gig employment, forcing a lot of people to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. The fact of the matter is that people are a commodity that have become less valuable over time.

Leonard Moore (Fabian) is a victim of a changing economy. He once was the owner of a thriving record store – back in the day when records came on vinyl – and stayed with it until the bitter end when even compact discs were rendered obsolete. Unemployed, he’s a stay-at-home dad whose wife Dawn (Clarke) is the breadwinner but who is getting stressed as the home insurance bill is coming due and they simply don’t have the funds to cover it. As most homeowners know, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, your mortgage company will foreclose. People can and have lost their homes because of a high insurance bill.

When his extensive vinyl collection proves not to be the financial windfall he was hoping for and an interview with a social media firm ends up fruitless, he does what a lot of people do – he takes up using the family Prius as a taxicab for a (fictional) ridesharing service called DriverX. Leonard stays home with the kids while his wife’s at work and when she gets back home, heads out into the streets of L.A., generally well into the night only to return home after his wife has fallen asleep.

He meets all sorts; drunken millennials riding from party to party and often ralphing in his car or on it which he dutifully cleans up; rude folks who belittle the driver or talk as if he isn’t even in the car and women who come on to him with a thought of a late night cable TV-like experience in the back of his car.

The service is so stingy that riders are unable to tip him, leaving him to rely on good ratings to get customers. Customers complain there’s no complimentary bottled water or charging cords for their phones. Although he is a friendly enough person, that doesn’t seem to factor in to how others relate to him. The middle-aged Leonard also finds it hard to relate to his Millennial customers, most of them more tech-savvy than he and few of them understand him either, seeing him as a relic with an encyclopedic knowledge of bands not relevant to themselves.

Writer-director Barrial based the film on his own experiences as an Uber driver and there is a feeling of genuineness that comes out of it. While there may be a few too many drunken Millennial scenes to do the movie any good – one gets the sense that Barrial isn’t too enamored of that oft-criticized generation – there is a lot of genuine insight into the older generations ability to adapt to a changing world. While the younger passengers are adept with their smart phones and seem to know what to expect from their tech, older passengers seem to struggle and often need instruction from Leonard to get to where they’re going.

Fabian, best known for his work on Better Call Saul, is an engaging presence. It’s a rare opportunity for this veteran character actor to get a lead role and he handles it nicely. The chemistry between Clarke and Fabian is a little weak but then again, their characters are having some fairly serious marital issues so it makes sense that the bond between them feels wonky. Clarke has the unenviable job of playing a bit of a bitch – she rarely gets any sympathetic moments. Few women in the film do, coming off as drunken hoes or cast-iron bee-yatches. A couple of sympathetic female characters would have been nice.

There are some nice cinematic moments as Leonard cruises the post-midnight streets of the City of Angels, his face aglow in the neon “X” that he displays to let all and sundry know he’s a DriverX drone. Although this is essentially a serious drama, there are some light hearted moments as well, as when Leonard gets into a fender bender and tries to resolve the insurance in paying for the damage; the office of DriverX has seemingly no human presence and when he finally speaks to a human being, she is as robotic as the machines that glide about the quiet, dark office of the app giant. I suppose that makes as proper a metaphor for modern society as any.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting points are made about the gig economy, the generation gap and the role of technology in the workplace. Fabian has an engaging screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: There is more vomiting here than any film needs. There are not many sympathetic female characters here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actresses who play Leonard’s daughters are sisters in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taxicab Confessions
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

Support the Girls


The ladies of Double Whammies strike a pose.

(2018) Comedy (Magnolia) Regina Hall, Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, James LeGros, Lea DeLaria, John Elvis, Steve Zapata, Dylan Gelula, Ann McCaskey, Elizabeth Trieu, Zoe Graham, Lawrence Varnado, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker, Lindsay Kent, Jesse Marshall, Luis Olmeda, Krista Hayes, Jermichael Grey, Pete Partida, AnnaClare Hicks. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

 

In 2018 we have seen women in Hollywood stand up to the sexual mistreatment of men – particularly powerful men – in the industry. However, it is not just celebrities who have been the recipients of this shameful treatment; women in all walks of life must endure objectification at the hands of men and even by other women in all strata of society. If you doubt it, have a meal at a Twisted Kilt, Twin Peaks or Hooters sometime.

Double Whammies belongs in that group. It is a sports bar in a suburban Houston strip mall where the waitresses are all women and all wear skimpy uniforms that show off their cleavage, their legs, their butts and their navels (not necessarily in that order) where the customers are mainly there not for the food (a rule of thumb is that most of the restaurants that rely on sex to pull customers in generally have crappy food) and perhaps not even for the beer or the big game on TV but to ogle the waitresses. The girls pretty much accept it; the tips, after all, are better here.

Lisa (Hall) is their manager and den mother. She loves her girls like a mother loves her daughters but the drama of 20-something girls (and there is always drama with 20-something girls) is getting to her, as well as a thousand other things. For instance, her husband (Varnado) has essentially given up, spending his days surfing the net and playing on his laptop, not even able to rouse himself from his rut to go and see an apartment she very much wants to move into (and he very much does not want to). Her boss (LeGros) is a pig who has NO respect for his employees and treats Lisa with bitter condescension which has put her right at the breaking point.

One of her girls (Kramer) has attacked her abusive boyfriend by deliberately hitting him with her truck and is now staying at Lisa’s place. Lisa puts together a charity car wash to pay her legal fees. She’s also coping with a group of new hires who her top waitress Maci (Richardson) is training on the art of flirting just enough to get those high tips but not enough to make the family-friendly dynamic of Double Whammies (and yes, Lisa considers the sports bar as a family establishment) spiral down the toilet. It’s a fine line to walk but Lisa seems to have a handle on it, but on this day when things are beginning to fall apart – from discovering a would-be burglar trapped in the air ducts to having to fire a waitress because of a tattoo of Stephon Curry on her waist to coping with the national franchise “sports bar with curves” Mancave coming into the neighborhood; well, it’s enough to make even the hardiest of women cry in her car in the parking lot before work.

Bujalski who has made some pretty decent films up to now, has a golden opportunity here to really drill down into the plight of working women facing non-stop discrimination and objectification in the workplace and to a certain extent he does, if only obliquely. However, he lacks the courage of his convictions to show the uncomfortable lengths of abuse women endure from both co-workers (especially male managers) and customers who decide if their President can grab genitalia at his own whim, why shouldn’t they get to. We see none of that and most of the abuse that the women face is decidedly non-sexual such as when a biker makes a joke that one of the waitresses is fat when she clearly isn’t and gets marched out by a furiously protective Lisa, backed up by a pair of cops who were there to deal with the burglar but are also regulars at the bar. I get the sense that Bujalski, who also wrote the screenplay, didn’t talk to a lot of women who work in such establishments to find out what sorts of things they have to go through every day.

The thing though that makes this movie is the girls themselves, particularly Regina Hall as Lisa. Hall is a fine actress although not utilized as well as she might be throughout her career. Given a chance to shine here, she nails the part and absolutely takes over the screen. She has star quality but as yet hasn’t gotten a role that really challenges her skills. Her performance here might just lead to such roles. Newcomer McHayle as Lisa’s confidante and closest friend is a real find, both compassionate and kickass at once. I for one would love to see more of her. DeLaria also shines as a butch truck driver who also looks after the girls.

As comedies go, this one is a bit light on laughs but despite some of its flaws managed to capture my heart. I ended up genuinely caring about the characters and wishing I could hang out with them. You end up wanting to spend time at Double Whammies (despite the jerk of an owner) and that’s about all you can ask of a movie like this. Yeah, the postscript of the film goes on way too long (despite a wonderful cameo by Brooklyn Decker) but I found myself liking the film anyway and I suspect you will too – unless you’re one of the misogynist jerks who thinks you’re entitled to grab a waitress’ behind at a place like this. In that case you might end up feeling a bit uncomfortable and deservedly so.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are (mainly) likable. The filmmakers obliquely tackle the way women are regarded in modern society. Regina Hall is at the top of her game.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy falls flat most of the time. The last scene on the roof goes on too long. The movie drops the ball on showing real workplace sexism by whitewashing it a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and mild sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was a Smith family affair, with brothers Josh, Tate and Porter Smith involved both behind and in front of the camera, sister Janelle doing costuming and father David producing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Flixfling, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting…
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mudbound

D-love


Elena Beuca wonders where it all went wrong.

(2017) Drama (Cranky Pants) Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss, Christine Fazzino, Jason Esposito, Alessio Di Giambattista, Michael Monks, Tracey Graves, Giorgio Di Vincenzo, Victoria Palma, Charley Rossman, Angel Villareal, Tim Astor, Ray Ionita, Kerry McGrath. Directed by Elena Beuca

 

It is not easy being married. It’s a lot of work and that’s just if things remain relatively stable. Throw in some personal tragedies – the death of loved ones for instance – and it becomes positively herculean.

Dave (Rogers) and Stefania (Beuca) are returning from a vacation holiday that was meant to rekindle the passion between them but had been woefully unsuccessful. Dave has been wallowing in an unemployed alcoholic haze for more than a year after both of his parents had died within a few months of one another. Stefania had also lost a loved one – her older brother before he had even turned 40 – and was supporting the couple at a job where her bitchy boss Annie (Fazzino) torments her and insults her in what would be an HR specialist’s nightmare. She also wants to have a child but the attempts so far had been unsuccessful although one has to wonder why anyone would want to bring in a child to an environment of constant bickering and belittling.

At the airport on the return home the couple is exhausted and annoyed. The luggage has been lost including Dave’s wallet which included the parking tag to go pick up their car. Stefania is on the far side of enough at this point when they are approached by a handsome long-haired Dane named Ditlev (Darmakaya) who asks for a ride “East.” It’s a little vague but he seems nice enough and Dave, over Stefania’s objections is inclined to give it to him.

When it turns out that there are no buses running to Sedona (where it turns out he wants to go – Burning Man, to be exact) until the next afternoon, Dave offers to let Ditlev crash overnight at their place. However, Dave is having a real hard time pronouncing the Dane’s name so he takes to calling him D-love, which in turn amuses the young Dane. In return, Ditlev gives Dave some yoga lessons and imparts his philosophy about living with love in the moment. He offers to help Dave do some home repair projects that Dave has been avoiding for some time and that Stefania has been nagging him to do. When Stefania comes home from another abusive day at work, she is shocked to find Ditlev still there – and the home repair projects almost all done. She is frightened of being robbed and/or murdered by the stranger but as time goes by she begins to at least accept his presence. In turn Dave is beginning to return to the man he was before his parents died. He has resumed cooking – something he delighted in doing with his dad but had given up on when his dad passed.

Dave is definitely coming out of his funk thanks to the hunky Danish hippie guest but Stefania is reaching a crisis. Things at work are going from bad to worse, and her doctor has discovered something that is absolutely heartbreaking. To make matters worse, the camera that was the last gift to Stefania from her late brother has disappeared and she suspects that D-love has stolen it. She is ready to give up on her life, and certainly on her marriage.

Rogers wrote the film based on events within his own real-life marriage to Beuca who directed the film and took super-8 footage in her native Romania to supplement the L.A.-shot majority of the film. Darmakaya really did approach them at LAX and stay with them briefly. Unlike the married couple, Darmakaya isn’t a professional actor and his performance is a bit wooden but that’s okay; he really is playing something of an archetype – the benevolent stranger. Two of them show up in the film.

There is an authentic feeling to the marital problems Stefania and Dave are experiencing which is no doubt a function of the ones they faced in real life. That helps the movie resonate much more than artificial marital crises in a variety of rom-coms ever could. While Ditlev’s new age-y pronouncements and advice sometimes feel a bit like the love child of an inspirational meme and a Stewart Smalley affirmation, one gets the sense that they are at least heartfelt albeit some might find them preachy.

Despite this being based on real life, the plot feels a bit predictable and the ending a trifle forced. I guess from a certain light it’s a bit comforting that life really does imitate the movies. Beuca and Rogers are actually fine actors although at times their emotional portrayals tend to be somewhat over-the-top. They could have done with a bit more subtlety in their performances.

This is just now getting a limited theatrical run starting at the Laemmle 7 in North Hollywood although the film has spent most of the year on the festival circuit where it has been very well-received, winning numerous awards. Keep an eye out for it at your local arthouse or possibly on your favorite streaming channel in the coming months.

REASONS TO GO: This is an accurate portrayal of a marriage falling apart. There are some really good moments here.
REASONS TO STAY: Emotionally, the movie is a little bit overwrought. The writing tends to be a bit on the preachy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of adult themes as well as some profanity and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Howerdel was a founding member of A Perfect Circle and composed the score for the film as well as playing Sean, Dave’s best friend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Came to Dinner
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets

Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore