Tiger Within


The eye (and teeth) of the tiger.

(2020) Drama (Film ArtEdward Asner, Margot Josefsohn, Diego Josef, Taylor Nichols, Luke Eisner, Julie Dolan, Jade Weber, Joey Dedio, James C. Victor, Mikul Robins, Zachary Mooren, Frank Miranda, Csynbidium, Angelee Vera, Mark Dippolito, Sabastian Neudeck, Sam Thakur, Liam Fountain, Ryan Simantel, Jonathan Brooks, Linda Rich, Charee Devon, Erica Piccinnini. Directed by Rafal Zielinski

 

Once in awhile, you encounter a film that has its heart in the right place, but lacks the execution to pull off its intentions. That’s this Tiger to a “T”.

Casey (Josefsohn) is an angry 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose parents are divorced. She lives with her feckless mom (Piccinnini) in Ohio along with mom’s unsavory boyfriend (Brooks); she decides it’s time to head to L.A. to be with her Dad (Victor) except that he has a new family of his own and his shrewish wife wants no reminders of his old life anywhere near her daughters. Overhearing her stepmother’s tirade, she walks off and decides to make her own way in the City of Angels.

Easier said that done and she ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where she is discovered by Samuel (Asner), a Holocaust survivor leaving a stone on the memorial to his wife. Even though she has a swastika spray painted on her black leather jacket, he takes pity on her and buys her a meal, which leads to an offer for a place to stay. Casey has been brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax and the swastika is largely for shock value, which in the early 80s (when this was apparently set – more on that later) might have worked but even at that point there were plenty of people utilizing Nazi symbology for shock value.

The two end up forging a bond that is surprisingly strong; she sees in him the parental guidance that she never had; he sees in her the child he never got to raise (his own offspring were killed in the camps during the war). Together, they turn out to be really good for each other.

The makings for a good movie are definitely here. Unfortunately, there are some script choices that tell me that writer Gina Wendkos doesn’t trust her own story; for example, she tacks on an unnecessary and pointless romance for Casey – after we’ve seen her employed as a sex worker (!) in Hollywood. There is also precious little character development and the story often relies on predictable tropes that give the viewers death by cliché.

Asner can be a force of nature as an actor, but he has mellowed somewhat since his Emmy-winning days as Lou Grant. It might well be age, but he is far more subtle here. While I thought his German-Yiddish accent a little over-the-top, he does his best to dispense wisdom to a young woman who isn’t always receptive to it. On the other hand, there’s Josefsohn who has the thankless task of playing a belligerent punk chick with a chip on her shoulder and making her relatable. That Josefsohn pulls it off is impressive; that she holds her own with Asner is not only a testament to her talent but also a tribute to Asner’s generosity as an actor.

The film seems to be set in the early 80s, but there are a lot of anachronisms (all the cars are modern and the Los Angeles location looks contemporary. Making a period piece is a lot more than hitting the thrift store; you need to see to all sorts of details, otherwise the viewer is pulled out of the illusion. The problem is that if the film were set even a few years ago, for Samuel to be married with children in the concentration camps would put him well over the century mark in years. Still, considering Asner’s actual age, they could have set the film just after the millennium turned and it likely would have been acceptable.

The movie’s themes of forgiveness, family and education are certainly laudable, but the movie is really about the relationship between Samuel and Casey; the extra stuff is just padding and just cluttered up the story. If only the filmmakers trusted the story and the characters to be compelling, they might have made a compelling film. Instead, we get a well-intentioned miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Josefsohn has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexuality – involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asner was 90 when the movie was filmed: Josefsohn was 14.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wonder Woman 1984

The Garden Left Behind


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olympia (2018)


A true American original.

(2018) Biographical Documentary (AbramoramaOlympia Dukakis, Louis Zorich, Rocco Sisto, Armistead Maupin, Alan Poul, Edward Asner, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Dukakis, Austin Pendleton, Laura Linney, Norman Jewison, Lainie Kazan, Diane Ladd, Christina Zorich, Apollo Dukakis, Thomas Kean, Peter Zorich, Lynn Cohen, Stefan Zorich, Alexandra Dukakis, Bonnie Low Kramen . Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

 

Many casual filmgoers of a certain age group will know Olympia Dukakis only for her Oscar-winning role as Cher’s mother in Moonstruck. Some will remember her for her role as transgender Anna Madrigal in the groundbreaking Tales from the City PBS miniseries back in 1993. Theatergoers in the Northeast and in particular New Jersey may even be aware that she founded her own theater group – the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, NJ back in 1973 – because she was tired of being passed over for roles because of her ethnicity.

This documentary takes a fairly comprehensive look at her career and personal life and the first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that Dukakis embodies the truism “what you see is what you get.” The feistiness, brashness, outspokenness of her film roles are very much part of who Dukakis is offscreen. She is salty, outspoken about her opinions, sometimes crudely expressed (“When you get to a certain age you realize how much you take a good hard prick for granted” she confesses).

Amidst the celebrity testimonials from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney and Diane Ladd (which are strangely devoid of any personal connection to Dukakis; they could have easily been talking about any other actress), we hear some candid, occasionally vulnerable confessions about her sexuality, her drug abuse, suicidal feelings, her failings as a mother, her sometimes rocky relationship with her own mother. Dukakis is forthcoming but sometimes you get the sense if she wonders she shared too much.

We see Dukakis hard at work, not only practicing her craft but teaching it as well. We also meet her husband Louis Zorich, a fellow actor (who sadly passed away in 2018, shortly before the film first started screening on the festival circuit) who was her better half for a half century. Before that, she says glibly, “I was the queen of one-night stands.”

The movie isn’t edited well, unfortunately. Some sequences seem to be too brief to make an impression, while we see others that extend for a long time without really being very informative at all. We see Dukakis in a grocery store getting recognized by fans but this smacks of being staged, even though I get the sense that Dukakis herself is above such shenanigans.

Dukakis is without doubt an American original. She is entertaining both on and off-screen, and spending time with her is an absolute joy. I just wish the director had given the movie a smoother flow and spent more time letting Dukakis tell her own story, rather than listening to empty testimonials or take part in scenes that don’t add anything to her story. I almost would have preferred a two-hour one-on-one interview with Dukakis and an expert interviewer. That would have been just as entertaining if not more so.

REASONS TO SEE: Dukakis is an American treasure. he
REASONS TO AVOID: Some odd decisions in the editing bay.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some smoking, a few drug and sexual references as well
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis is her cousin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Battle Angel: Alita

M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)


Being a mom means knowing how to D.I.Y.

(2020) Suspense (Indie Rights) Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Edward Asner, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle. Directed by Tucia Lyman

 

Every mom thinks her child is an absolute angel, right? There’s that unbreakable bond between mother and son that is maybe one of the most beautiful relationships there are. But what happens when a mom begins to suspect that her little angel is in fact potentially a homicidal monster?

That’s the situation that Abbey (Hamilton) finds herself in. Throughout his childhood, young Jacob (Edwards) has had anger management issues and has acted out in troubling ways. Now that he’s a teen, Jacob’s rages have grown in scope and he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in guns and Nazi symbology. His acting out is getting increasingly violent. Abbey is calling out in the wilderness, to school officials who see a different side of Jacob, and a psychiatrist (Asner) who believes that Abbey is the one who’s losing it. And maybe he’s right; living in a constant state of terror is taking its toll.

This found footage film, mostly video confessionals, security cam footage, cell phone footage, laptop cam footage and home movies, is woven together by veteran TV showrunner and first-time feature director Lyman, perhaps not seamlessly but close enough.

She does a masterful job of building up the tension in the film, giving the viewer a feeling that they can’t look away even for a moment. It’s not exactly like a train wreck; it’s more like hearing noises outside your window and staring out to see if there’s something out there. You know there is and you’re just waiting for it to make its move.

The movie does move into a psychological horror mode in the last half which is a bit weaker than the first; the movie would have benefitted by exploring Abbey’s mental state a little bit more as well, because part of the movie’s strength is that you’re never quite certain whether Jacob is the monster his mommy thinks he is, or whether Abbey – herself traumatized by a childhood incident which is only revealed near the end of the film – is the one who is losing her mind. That question is sorta kinda settled in the shocking ending, but not really. You are left wondering which one of the two needed professional help. Maybe both of them.

The film benefits from strong lead performances by both Hamilton and Edwards. Edwards projects menace, occasionally staring at the camera with an utterly blank expression that screams “psychopath,” whereas Abbey seems to be growing more and more brittle as the film goes along, a tribute to Hamilton who manages to be both sympathetic and yet leaving room for the audience to question her own sanity. In that sense, the film is well-written.

The movie has a lot of resonance in an era where kids shoot up schools for no apparent reason other than that they can. I think a case could be made that we’re all suffering from PTSD given the national obsession with guns and how often we have a mass shooting dominating the headlines. Many parents of teens (or parents who survived their children’s teen years) will find some empathy for Abbey, while younger viewers may actually identify with Jacob, whose issues have him taking all sorts of meds and whose dad is not really in the picture, not to mention Abbey can be a bit on the controlling side at times.

Still, this is a powerful movie that flew under the radar but definitely has the chops to be worth your while. It’s not on a whole lot of streaming services at the moment, but that may change once people are clued in to how good this movie is. However, if you’re practicing social distancing with a teen in the house, you might want to think twice before watching this. You could end up with all sorts of paranoid nightmares.

REASONS TO SEE: Genuinely chilling. Leaves you feeling like you can’t look away for even a moment. Strong performances by Hamilton and Edwards.
REASONS TO AVOID: The middle third drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Lyman, whose background is in television..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Need to Talk About Kevin
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Pacified