The Samuel Project


here’s still a little bit of Barney Miller in Hal linden.

(2018) Family Drama (In8 Releasing) Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Ken Davitian, Phillippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Pia Thrasher, Callie Gilbert, Malina Moye, Lilinda Camaisa, Robert Ochoa, Casey Nicholas Price, Anahid Avanesian, Ken Venzke, Lauro Rocha, Filippo Duelk, Patee Spurlock, Liza Lapira. Directed by Marc Fusco

Back in my day, they called it the “generation gap” – the increasingly difficulty between older generations and younger generations to communicate with each other and understand one another. These days that gap appears to be wider than ever with folks from my generation having a hard time with Millennials and Post-Millennials. I can only imagine that to my parent’s generation Millennials might as well be from Mars.

Eli (Ryan Ochoa) is a teen who is nearing graduation from his suburban San Diego high school. His passion is not girls nor sports but art. He loves to draw, particularly fantasy scenes not unlike heavy metal album covers. He wants to go to art school to his father’s (Silver) chagrin; basically art school is completely out of reach financially. In any case, there’s no money in it; Eli would be better served going to a community college, taking some business courses and with his Associate Degree in hand get himself some paper-pushing job that pays real money.

Eli is also tasked with visiting his grandfather who is essentially estranged from his son, Eli’s father. Grandpa Samuel (Linden) owns a neighborhood dry cleaning business and is more or less content with his life. He is friendly and outgoing but only with his customers; with his own family he tends to be close-mouthed about his past.

When his close friend Uma (Thrasher) arrives in town, very ill, he is thrilled to go see her and takes Eli along because he needs someone to drive him. Shortly after the visit, word reaches Samuel that Uma has passed away. When Eli asks about Uma, Samuel becomes very terse and refuses to talk about her.

At about that time Eli’s media teacher (Bowgen) assigns the class a project to do a multi-media presentation based on something in history that affects them directly. Eli realizes that his grandfather’s story would be perfect. The pot is sweetened that the best entries would be presented at a local competition where they would be seen by those in the business and in education. Eli’s future is suddenly riding on this project, but can he get his reluctant grandfather to talk?

This has a very family-friendly vibe and is meant to be something of a parable about the inability of various generations to connect and see each other as individuals. That’s not a message that has gone unsent by Hollywood films previously, but this one shows a good deal of charm in sending it.

The chief reason why that is so is the presence of Hal Linden. Best known for the cop sitcom Barney Miller, Linden has always been a gifted actor with seven Primetime Emmy nominations and Four Golden Globe nominations to prove it. He shows here that he still has it at 87 years of age; there is that eye twinkle that made Barney such a revered character. Linden’s charm and his ability to communicate so much with small gestures makes this performance well worth seeing for those of my generation and those who just like seeing a master at work.

His chemistry with Disney Kid Ochoa is rocky in places but it’s still there. Ochoa does better with Linden than he does with Arias who plays Kasim, Eli’s metalhead friend from school. Unfortunately, Kasim’s role is completely superfluous and his monosyllabic dialogue does nothing for the movie. The film would have been better off concentrating more on Eli’s relationship with Samuel – or perhaps with a prospective girlfriend, although the filmmakers didn’t choose to go that way.

The ending is definitely a heartstring-tugger even though you can see it coming a mile away. In fact the story is fairly rote throughout with plenty of family film clichés to spare but the cast is charming enough that one can overlook it – although not enough to prevent me from giving it only a mild recommendation. While it’s worth seeing because of Linden, the story around which Linden is given to perform isn’t sadly on par with his talents.

REASONS TO GO: Hal Linden is still a very good actor who has decent chemistry with Ochoa.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a fairly rote generation gap-type of film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some teen smoking and a few adult themes about the brutality of the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 87-year-old Linden recently won the lifetime achievement award at the Heartland Film Festival where this film was shown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Akeelah and the Bee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Free Solo

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Columbus (2017)


Art and architecture don’t always mix necessarily.

(2017) Drama (Superlative) John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Rosalyn R. Ross, Erin Allegretti, Jim Dougherty, Lindsey Shope, Shani Salyers Stiles, William Willet, Reen Vogel, Wynn Reichert, Alphaeus Green Jr., Caitlin Ewald. Directed by Kogonada

 

There are times in our lives when we are in a place that we don’t want to be; we are there because we are obligated to be there. Upon reflection however it generally turns out that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be. Realizing it at the time is pretty much always another matter.

Jin (Cho) finds himself in Columbus, Indiana. Not because he has any great desire to be there but because his father, a scholar on architecture, was to deliver a lecture there but collapsed and went into a coma. Jin and his father have barely spoken for a long time but Jin is the only blood relative his father has, so he goes at the behest of his dad’s protégé Eleanor (Posey) whom not uncoincidentally he had a crush on as a teen.

Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. She’s whip-smart and has a passion for architecture, so living in Columbus is a great thing for her – the town is known for its striking modernist architecture designed by some of the greatest architects in history – I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and John Carl Warnecke among them – and while volunteering at the local library also gives tours of the city’s landmarks. She has had offers to go to college (she just graduated high school) but has quietly turned them down, preferring to stay at home and take care of her recovering drug addict mother (Forbes) who is in a fragile emotional state and probably wouldn’t be able to care for herself without Casey.

Jin and Casey meet and one would think initially that they wouldn’t hit it off much; Jin doesn’t care much for architecture, a field which essentially took his workaholic father away from him and Casey is nuts about it but hit it off they do. At first Casey seems content to give her tour guide opinions of the buildings that catch Jin’s eye but as Jin gently digs she begins to open up to him. Pretty sure, he’s opening up to her right back.

That’s really all the plot there is to this movie. Normally I don’t mind a movie that is all middle without a beginning or an end; I love movies that grasp the ebb and flow of life. That’s not really the case here. First time director Kogonada has a brilliant visual sense and a real eye for shot composition, but utilizes it to excess here. I do appreciate his use of water and rain as a motif and his use of geometric shapes amid natural environments but after awhile one becomes dulled to the images. We are made aware at nearly every moment that each scene is an artificial setting, not an organic function of the scene. For example, there’s a scene in a hotel room where Jin and Eleanor are talking about his feelings for her growing up; the entire scene is shot viewing the reflection of two mirrors which act almost as television screens. Don’t get me wrong – It’s a clever shot – but in a highly charged emotional scene we don’t get to see the emotions of the actors. This is the very epitome of a director’s creativity undermining his own film.

And that really is one of the major faults of the film – we never get connected to the characters because we’re constantly aware of the director behind them. He frames them in corridors in which, we can’t fail to notice, the columns on one side are square and on the other side round. We see oblique shots in which forced perspective puts two characters sitting on the steps close together but we also notice that the dialogue is done with one character’s back to the other the entire time. That’s not a natural conversation; people tend to want to turn and face their partner when they are conversing.

One of the other fundamental flaws is that we never really care about any of the characters. Kogonada seems to keep them at arm’s length and even though they are talking about some fairly in depth background, it is all couched in self-absorbed and pretentious terms and after awhile we begin to tune out.

Maybe if the dialogue were scintillating enough I might forgive the film a bit more but it’s comparable to a couple of self-absorbed college students who are a lot less insightful than they think they are having a conversation about something esoteric without really understanding the subject completely. I get that Casey is a college-age character who fits that description (as is the Rory Culkin character whom I’ll get to in a moment) but there are also older characters who have more maturity at least but they still sound like 19-year-olds. Not that there’s anything wrong with 19-year-olds nor is it impossible for a college student to show insight but it is also possible for college students to be arrogant and condescending as well, and one feels talked down to throughout.

There is also a lot of material here that is unnecessary, brief throwaway moments that add nothing to the story or to your understanding of the characters – Casey has a conversation with her mother about not having eggs and needing to go to the grocery store to get some, for example. A good storyteller will use that as a springboard to get Casey to the grocery store so that something germane could occur but she never goes to the store nor is the egg shortage anything more than throwaway conversation – and the movie is full of these sorts of moments. I mentioned Rory Culkin’s character a moment ago and you might notice that he doesn’t appear in the plot synopsis. That’s because he doesn’t need to. His character is completely unnecessary and were his scenes to end up on the cutting room floor it wouldn’t affect the movie in any significant way. Much of this movie appears to be about how much our lives are consumed with things that don’t matter in the long run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is completely devoid of merit – although Da Queen might argue that point. Afterwards she told me she would rather have sucked her own eyeballs out with a straw than watch this movie again. I can understand that – the movie commits the cardinal sin of being boring, although those who love shot composition will look at this movie and be fascinated, but a movie is more than a series of shots or at least it should be. A movie needs momentum, a sense of movement from one place or tone to another and this movie has all the inertia of Mount Rushmore. Columbus requires a great deal of patience to appreciate and these days that’s in very short supply. It’s a movie that I would actually encourage viewers to text and talk during which is completely anathema to the movie experience I expect but then again this isn’t a movie that maybe a traditional environment isn’t suitable for.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the shots here are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a movie that is self-absorbed and pretentious. None of the characters are worth caring about. There’s too much extraneous business and too many unnecessary characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vice-President Mike Pence grew up in Columbus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Literally, Right Before Aaron

Kensho at the Bedfellow


New York can be a real lonely zip code.

New York can be a real lonely zip code.

(2015) Romance (Kensho Films) Brad Raider, Kaley Ronayne, Steven Klein, Grainger Hines, Kathryn Erbe, Sahr Ngaujah, Christina Brucato, Dana Ashbrook, Kiran Merchant, Danny Deferrari, Madison McKinley, Mara Davi, Shyaporn Theerakulstit, Matt Burns, Michelle Cameron, Meliki Hurd, Chaka Desilva, Sally Gifford, Michael Hogan, Maximilian Frey, Lindsey Gates. Directed by Brad Raider

Discovering who we are is never an easy process. Sometimes we are taken in by easy joys – sex, drugs, alcohol – and we end up losing our way. Sometimes that’s because we can’t bear the pain.

Dan Bender (Raider) at 33 years old is stuck in a rut. Once a promising playwright, he works the overnight shift at the Bedfellow Hotel with his roommate Max (Klein) who is in the midst of presenting a seven night stage festival of seven different seven minute long plays each night. Dan, who hasn’t written a thing in years, at least since his sister April (Cameron) died of a drug overdose, for which he blames his father (Hines) who used to do drugs with her when she was a teen. That event has been a central milestone of his life; he continues to talk to April and occasionally, she talks back. His inability to form lasting relationships with others can be traced directly to her passing.

The Bedfellow is full of characters – Darpak (Merchant) who talks to his cat and seems overly enthusiastic about fresh towels just out of the dryer; there’s also Byron (Theerakulstit), the hotel’s security chief who is a Korean who converted over to Judaism, which Dan, a natural-born Jew, is entirely skeptical about. He also hangs out with Ashley (Brucato), his former girlfriend who isn’t quite convinced they’re broken up. She manipulates him somewhat, but he also doesn’t mind having sex with her now and again.

After a sexual encounter with a hotel guest (Davi) gets him fired from his job, Dan begins to spiral into complete emotional chaos. Already on the edge financially, with Max having had to cover his rent already, the self-absorbed Dan begins to alienate the few friends he still has. Then, he encounters Kate (Ronayne), an old friend from his childhood who is back in New York working with an aid organization that reunites families torn apart by civil wars in Africa. Kate finds this work appealing, while Dan who is becoming very attracted to her, lies about his situation in order to keep from scaring her away. Of course the truth eventually comes out, especially when Dan pilfers some drugs from his dealer (Ashbrook) which is probably not a very good idea. In fact, it certainly isn’t.

When Dan hits rock bottom, having lost everything, an unexpected act of kindness from an unexpected source leads to something of a spiritual experience for Dan. The trouble is, how is he going to share his new-found wisdom with the world when the world basically has no desire to hear anything he has to say anymore?

This micro-budgeted indie was shot on the RED Epic camera in both the New York City area, but also in L.A. where Raider now calls home. For tyro filmmakers just starting out, a viewing of this film should be a good primer as to what is possible with almost no budget but with the right equipment, the right cast and the right crew. This is an exceptional looking film that looks like it was shot on much more expensive equipment with a professional crew.

The cast is also quite professional; most have a fair amount of experience (although Erbe, as Kate’s boss for the non-profit is the best-known for her work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent) there are also actors here who had regular roles on shows like Twin Peaks, Public Morals and Last Resort. Usually it’s not a good sign when you see someone who is directing, writing and starring in the same movie; more often than not they end up putting more focus on one or two of the roles at the expense of the third. That doesn’t happen here; the writing is pretty strong (although there are a few areas in which it seems that Raider was utilizing some indie tropes), the direction assured and the acting – well, let’s just say that Raider looks like the love child of Tom Cruise and Zachary Quinto and has the chiseled features of a superhero. He has all the elements he needs to be successful in this business.

Raider is trying to write a movie that explores our own self-awareness and that’s not an easy feat and it can be forgiven if there are a few stumbles along the way; however, he does seem in places to be striving too hard to be deep and I think that hurts the film a little bit. Towards the end, Dan ends up in a hotel room with a giant cat who leads him on a psychedelic journey of discovery which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it just comes out of left field and is a bit too 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque for my tastes. While I admire the imagination, it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie.

All in all, this is a solid feature. It’s just beginning to hit the festival circuit as we speak and hopefully it will make it to a festival near you. Keep an eye on their website (you can get there by clicking on the photo above) for future screenings. In any case, this is a surprising but solid debut by someone I think we’re going to hear a lot more of in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Raider is a star in the making. Surrounded by good acting.
REASONS TO STAY: Psychedelic sequence comes out of left field. Reaches a bit too hard for depth.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality, as well as a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Racing Extinction

People Like Us (2012)


Down but not out.

Down but not out.

(2012) Drama (DreamWorks) Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Hall D’Addario, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sara Mornell, Philip Baker Hall, Dean Chekvala, Barbara Eve Harris, David Burrus, Joseph Wise, Devin Brochu, Gabriela Milia, Abhi Sinha, Jon Favreau, Rob Brownstein, Christiann Castellanos, Pippa Hinchley. Directed by Alex Kurtzman

It is said that money changes everything. Sometimes for the better, in fact but there are in truth things more important than money. Family, for one thing – even family you never even knew you had.

Sam (Pine) is having a truly awful day. A truly gifted salesman, the deal which was to save his financial bacon has collapsed. His shenanigans and wheeler-dealer moves have brought a federal investigator turning a suspicious eye towards him. His job is essentially being taken from him. And he discovers that his father has passed away.

The latter is, as far as Sam is concerned, the least troubling of the lot. He and his dad have been estranged for years which has in turn kept Sam apart from his mother. When Sam deliberately misses a plane which would have gotten him home in time to make his dad’s funeral, his mother – knowing that the dick move was done on purpose – greets him with a slap to the face and an icy “the linens are in the upstairs closet.”

At lunch the next day with old family friend and lawyer Ike Rafferty (Hall), Sam discovers that his dad has left about $150,000 in an old shaving kit – but not for Sam. Instead, he’s supposed to give it to a bartender named Frankie who turns out to be a hottie who looks a lot like Elizabeth Banks. Not knowing who she is or what her relationship to his father was, Sam supposes that she was some floozy that dear old dad cheated on his mother with. Sam couldn’t be more wrong about that and therein lies the crux of the film’s drama, which is spoiled in the movie’s trailer.

If ever there was a film that was ineptly marketed, it’s this one. Despite being from the Kurtzman/Orci team that had been responsible for writing some of the biggest movies in Hollywood over the previous five years (a collaboration which has since split up), the studios completely botched the directorial debut of Kurtzman starting with the forgettable title for the movie and running through the marketing that gives away the film’s central plot twist.

Pine and Banks try gamely here, and they are so naturally charismatic that they nearly pull it off. It doesn’t hurt that they are supported by Wilde, who has quietly become one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood, and Pfeiffer who has been not just one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood but one of her ablest performers as well.

There are hints of incestuous feelings between at least two of the characters which is a bit off-putting, although it never becomes an overt issue so in that sense they don’t have the courage of their own convictions.  Even more annoying, there is Frankie’s son Josh (D’Addario) who is wounded, extremely precocious and de rigueur for this kind of Hollywood production. Nothing against D’Addario but Josh really serves no useful purpose in the story and could have easily have been left off the script entirely.

As I said earlier, the movie’s marketing campaign was staggeringly unsuccessful; DreamWorks even chose to release it roughly during the same period as summer blockbusters like Magic Mike, Ted, Brave and The Amazing Spider-Man, leaving virtually no screens for People Like Us. As you can see from the box office numbers, it never resonated with the movie-going audience and hasn’t found one in home video either.

While I’ve delineated many of the movie’s faults, there still is a charm to it thanks mainly to the three leads, particularly Pfeiffer who brings a lot of dignity and pathos to her role as Sam’s mom and widow to a man who couldn’t have been easy to live with. However, be warned that this is a very flawed movie and that it is something like a bad-tempered Golden Retriever; hard to love but some may well find it worth the effort.

WHY RENT THIS: Pine and Banks are engaging leads. Pfeiffer dazzles.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Super-creepy incestuous references. Requisite precocious child that captivates leading man.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing, some sensuality and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pfeiffer was extremely uncomfortable with a scene in which she slaps her son across the face, feeling that it would alienate her from the audience but despite her objections the scene remained in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and footage of Pine and Banks improvising with one another in an attempt to define the relationship between their characters.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on a $16M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Millionaire
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Wild Tales

My Old Lady


That moment when you realize your drinking buddy is a boar.

That moment when you realize your drinking buddy is a boar.

(2014) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Stephane De Groodt, Noemie Lvovsky, Sophie Touitou, Christian Rauth, Jean-Christophe Allais, Stephane Freiss, Nathalie Newman, Alexandra Chandler, Jocelyne Bernas, Delphine Lanson, Elie Wajeman, Michael Burstin. Directed by Israel Horovitz

Before seeing this film, I’d never heard of the French term “viager.” Chances are, you haven’t either. It is an actual thing, although I can’t imagine who thought this thing up. A viager is a French real estate transaction in which the seller remains on the property until they die and only then does the seller take possession. In the meantime, the buyer pays the seller a monthly fee. In some cases, the seller outlives the buyer.

Matthias Gold (Kline) is a penniless New Yorker in his 50s who has only three failed marriages and three unpublished novels to show for his life. That and a parade of empty bottles although he is on the wagon at present. He has inherited a gorgeous apartment in Paris (the La Marais district) with a lovely garden and enormous space from his estranged father. That and a gold watch. The apartment however has Matthias’ interest; it could be the key to his financial solvency. With every penny to his name, he purchases an airline ticket to Paris.  When he meets realtor Lefebvre (Pinon) he finds out he could make as much as $12 million on the open market.

Sadly for him, however 92-year-old Mathilde Girard (Smith) is comfortably ensconced in the apartment and has – yes, that’s right – a viager contract with Matthias’ father. Which means that he hasn’t inherited an apartment, he’s inherited a debt. One that he can’t afford to pay. Madame Girard offers to let Matthias stay in a spare room until he can figure out a way to sell the viager. Madame Girard’s daughter Chloe (Thomas) however is not so sanguine about having Matthias there, particularly as she will be thrown out on her ass the second her mother shuffles this mortal coil.

Matthias though has a French developer (Freiss) lined up to buy the apartment – in fact, he’s already bought up all the other units in the building. His plans are to put in a luxury hotel or condominiums on the location and make a killing. Either way, there goes the neighborhood.

However, Matthias and Chloe – who detest each other – turn out to be much more closely linked than Matthias could have imagined and an old family secret resurfaces. Matthias is devastated by revelations made by Madame Girard and as his money dwindles down to nothing and time begins to run out, he finds himself in a quandary in which the right choice may be impossible to make.

Horovitz is in his 70s and has written almost 75 different plays and screenplays; this one is based on a 2002 play of his. There is a bit of a theatrical feel to it – there are really only three essential characters and most of the action takes place in the apartment. Horovitz does take us out into the streets of Paris occasionally and it is clear he has a love for the city – for example, Matthias while walking alongside the Seine discovers a female opera singer practicing by the waters. That adds the kind of charm that makes the city come to life for us.

He also casts this perfectly. All three of the main actors are among the best there are; Kline can be charming even when he’s an utter bastard (remember A Fish Called Wanda?) and Matthias often is, yet thanks to Kline we end up identifying with him anyway. Smith is beguiling as the occasionally befuddled but iron at the core Mathilde while Thomas, who has essentially become a French actress, makes Chloe very much her mother’s child.

Pinon  may be best known to American audiences as Vriess in Alien: Resurrection but he has appeared in more than a hundred films and is better-known in France for his comedic acting but he is marvelous pretty much in everything he does. He’s one of those actors who enhances every movie he’s in.

There are some cliche moves here – the old saw of two people detesting each other so much that you know eventually they are going to fall in love – but for the most part this is compelling fare. There are some pretty rough moments here, particularly when Matthias tells Chloe about a horrible childhood incident, and the message is that the consequences of our actions can be far-reaching and devastating to those closest to us. It does take the plot awhile to unfold and some might not be patient enough for it. Still, I found this to be highly enjoyable and one of those lovely unexpected treasures that surface from time to time that come at you without warning. This is likely not playing anywhere near you for now but do catch it on home video when you can.

REASONS TO GO: A reminder of what a lovely place Paris is. Kline, Smith, Thomas and Pinon are always strong performers.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little slow. Utilizes the hoary “I-hate-you-no-I-love-you” cliche.
FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are very adult, and there are some frank sexual moments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film as a director for playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gone Girl