Tommaso


Meet Tommaso.

(2019) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Lorenzo Piazzoni, Alessandro Prato, Alessandra Camilla-Scarci. Directed by Abel Ferrara

 

Self-portraits can be extremely revealing; they can also be the product of an ego run amok. When art imitates life, you never quite know what you’re going to get; unflinching honesty, or fawning self-aggrandizement or something in between.

Tommaso (Dafoe) is an American ex-pat living in Rome with his much younger wife Nikki (Chiriac) and his three-year-old daughter DeeDee (Anna Ferrara). He is six years sober after years abusing alcohol, drugs and anyone unfortunate enough to be in his orbit. He is working on a sci-fi script about a man living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who learns to love again, attends regular AA meetings, and runs drama classes when he’s not being tutored into learning the Italian language. He seems to dote on his daughter and is deeply in love with his wife, even though sex with a toddler in the house is nearly impossible.

Cracks begin to show in the façade; the more we learn about Tommaso, the more we see that he has a dark side that wasn’t entirely due to the drugs and booze. We also begin to understand that we are seeing events through Tommaso’s lens; not everything we see is real. He sees his wife with another man and soon becomes paranoid to the point where his wife begins to draw away from him. Tommaso has always been a womanizer; he begins to come on to one of his students who isn’t exactly against the idea. However, as much as he regrets the mistakes he’s made in his life and as open as he is to discussing them, he certainly isn’t above repeating them – or making all-new mistakes.

Dafoe as Tommaso is at the center of all the action here and Ferraro couldn’t have put his film in better hands. Dafoe is an actor who seems to be getting better with age, and while he doesn’t have the mystique of a Pacino or De Niro, he is every bit as good. Tommaso is one of his best performances ever, manic and soulful, good-hearted and yet demonic. Through Dafoe, Ferrara is able to ruminate on the nature of happiness and what it means to make yourself a better person – and how truly difficult that is.

Unfortunately, the choice to make this an internal point of view means that we never know if what we are seeing is real, or a dream, or madness. In one shocking scene, Tommaso imagines seeing his daughter crossing the street and getting hit by a taxi. It turns out that was a paranoid delusion, but was it? Maybe the scenes thereafter where the daughter lives are the illusion.

When Dafoe ends up crucified (an obvious nod to The Last Temptation of Christ), I really had to question if this wasn’t a vanity project after all. I’m no psychiatrist but imagining your cinematic avatar in a Christ-like pose seems to be a cry for years of therapy at the very least.

The movie goes off the rails near the end and by that point I was wishing that the film had not been quite so long. Ferrara is a gifted director and maybe this is his way of baring his soul and making amends. I don’t know. But I’m not sure if I’m up to giving absolution after two hours of mea culpas. I’m not sure anybody is, these days.

REASONS TO SEE: Dafoe continues to turn in magnificent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat pretentious and self-absorbed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as a fair amount of sex and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife and daughter of Tommaso are played by director Abel Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Embraces
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Serenity (2019)

Extra Ordinary


Will Forte goes all satanic on your ass.

(2019) Comedy (Good DeedMaeve Higgins, Barry Ward, Will Forte, Claudia O’Doherty, Jamie Beamish, Terri Chandler, Risteard Cooper, Emma Coleman, Carrie Crowley, Mary McEvoy, Sarah O’Farrell, Agatha Ellis, Jon Cheung, Valerie O’Connor, Siobhan Sweeney, Paul Holmes, Eamon Morrissey, Jed Murray, Mike Ahern, Daniel Reardon, Alison Spittle. Directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman

 

I’ve heard that Ireland may be haunted, and that’s my weak attempt at sarcasm. The truth is, you can’t swing a dead cat (although why would you want to) without hitting a ghost, a banshee or some other spook.

Rose Dooley (Higgins) knows all about it and she has the dead cat to prove it (figuratively speaking, PETA – this isn’t that kind of movie). Her father Vincent (Cooper) hosted a paranormal direct-to-VHS series when Rose was a wee lass, before he met a tragic end that Rose blames herself for.

You see, Rose has a special talent; she can perceive ghosts and even communicate with them. After the passing of her father, Rose determined to ignore her gift, although it’s kind of hard to do when sometimes you can’t tell the living from the dead. So, Rose keeps mostly to herself, only her pregnant sister Sailor (Chandler) really having any sort of ongoing relationship with her. Rose runs a driving school in her tiny town which seems to suit her just fine.

Martin Martin (Ward) whose parents must have waned him to get beat up in school, has a different problem. His wife Bonnie may have passed on but she hasn’t moved on; she still picks out the clothes he’s to wear and sends messages like “The Dog has worms” burned into the toast and from time to time hits him in the face with a cabinet door when he shows any sort of sign of defiance. Their daughter Sarah (Coleman) is fed up; she can’t find closure until her mom’s spirit is at rest and she basically gives her pa an ultimatum; get help or I’m gone.

Sarah is aware of Rose’s past and gives Martin her business card. Martin, wary and kind of spineless, signs up for Rose’s driving course – even though he passed his exam years before. When he finally confesses his real reason for seeking her out, she orders him out of her car. Still, Rose feels a connection with the distraught man and eventually agrees to help.

In doing so, she inadvertently puts herself in the crosshairs of dark forces. You see, American ex-pat Christian Winter (Forte) was once a pop phenom, but after his big hit “Cosmic Woman” put him on top was unable to capitalize on the momentum and now has become a has-been staring at financial ruin. He needs a comeback album and makes a deal with the devil, who needs a virgin to be sacrificed. There really aren’t many of them in town though, but Sarah is one and Christian marks her for sacrifice to the demon Astaroth (Murray).

Rose knows that stopping Christian won’t be easy. She needs the ectoplasm of seven ghosts to do it but fortunately Martin has a talent of his own – ghosts can easily possess him, after which he ends up vomiting up (literally) ectoplasm. Unfortunately, the blood moon is approaching and the sacrifice is nigh. Can Rose and Martin figure out a way to save Sarah and also the world?

The Irish are nothing if not charming and this movie has oodles of that. Higgins is extremely likable as is Ward; they make a cute if awkward couple. Ahern and Loughman, who in addition to co-directing the film also co-wrote the screenplay, never let the horror elements (and there are some) overwhelm the comedy, nor do they let the humor go too over-the-top. This is about as laid back as a movie gets.

The special effects are pretty rudimentary although the appearance of Astaroth near the end of the movie is cleverly done. While the movie loses its momentum in the middle section, it grabs it back once Martin and Rose start tracking down ghosts. Ward gets a chance to show off his chops, taking on the persona of the ghost each time he’s possessed, often to hilarious effect. One of my favorite bits of business is that whenever his late wife Bonnie resides in him, an unlit cigarette dangles from his lips as it did with her while she was alive. How did it get there? Who cares, it works!

And that sums up how I feel about the movie. There’s a specific mythology that the movie builds as it goes along, but don’t be intimidated; it makes good sense and the background is accessed in painless ways, often by showing clips from Vincent’s low-budget show. This film is pleasant, inoffensive and should elicit a smile from all but the most jaded of filmgoers. In an age of pandemics, politics and climate change, heaven knows we can all use a bit of inoffensive pleasantness.

REASONS TO SEE: A very droll sense of humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a little bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a bit of sexuality, horror violence and some gross images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Higgins, who plays a driving instructor, didn’t know how to drive before filming started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Workforce

Bored in the U.S.A.


Just sittin’ and talkin’ ’bout things.

(2018) Drama (Old Academy) Kelly Lloyd, Chris Milner, Bryan Preston. Directed by Mike Finazzo

 

Sometimes what we need is to just talk. Not just talk, but also listen – an actual adult conversation about things that are important. You know, life things. Relationships, dreams, disappointments – the things that keep us going and the things that keep us crying.

Kelly (Lloyd) is married. She stays at home and takes care of the house; she and her husband Bryan (Preston) don’t have kids and there doesn’t seem to be a horizon where that is likely. Their sex is desultory and passionless. Kelly is filling her days as best she can but her friends are busy with their own lives, lives that make hers seem empty and small.

Chris (Milner) is a Londoner living in Baltimore but he’s preparing to return to the UK. He’s engaged to be married and is joining his fiancée back at home. He is in the process of selling his things in preparation for his departure. Despite this, he feels some uncertainty that he is making the right decision.

Kelly and Chris had met years earlier at a party. When they bump into each other, they remember their initial meeting. They get to talking and a cup of coffee turns into spending the day together. Their reflections on how their lives turned out force them to evaluate their past and the decisions they’ve made – as well as their futures.

This is a quiet film that mostly relies on the chemistry and conversational skills of the two leads. For the most part, it works. These are discussions that most of us have had at one time or another, or at least on the subject matter. Of course, your wording may vary. As someone who is interested in words, I enjoyed the ones that Kelly and Chris were uttering in general, and well-written dialogue is always a plus especially in indie films that rely on it. The exception is that Kelly is constantly making reference to the fact that this is set in Baltimore. I get the love Finazzo has for the place – Baltimore ain’t called Charm City for nothin’ – but it’s unnecessary and distracting.

There is a little bit of pretentiousness here; the decision to film the movie in black and white really doesn’t add anything to the film but it doesn’t take anything away. At one point, one of the characters says that “life is simpler in black and white” and that may be, but simpler isn’t necessarily better. Also the soundtrack is littered with French pop songs, bringing to mind film students arguing the merits of Jacques Tati while smoking clove cigarettes and drinking overpriced coffee.

That pretension will likely turn some people off but if you can get past that, this is actually a delightful little film. I wouldn’t say it’s terribly insightful; what you’re getting here are more experiential observations and they may not match your interpretation of them but that’s fine. It’s a healthy thing once in awhile to hear some differing opinions of the things you are going through, have been through or might someday go through.

REASONS TO SEE: The conversational aspect works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is on the pretentious side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex, drug use and crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a filmmaker, Finazzo is also a standup comedian.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Reinventing Rosalee

Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale