Max Rose


September of his years.

September of his years.

(2015) Drama (Paladin) Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Claire Bloom, Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Dean Stockwell, Illeana Douglas, Fred Willard, Stephanie Katherine Grant, Mort Sahl, Valerie Hurt, Jodie Mann, Joe Frank, Oliver Max, Jonathan Downs, Sarah Waisman. Directed by Daniel Noah

 

From the moment we are born, we begin our (hopefully) long journey down the road to old age and mortality. For those who are closer to the end of that road, the perspective can change and often with it comes bitterness, regret and remorse.

Max Rose (Lewis) is in mourning. His wife of 65 years, Eva (Bloom) has passed away, leaving him lost and empty. However, there is also a rage in him; shortly before her death, Max glanced inside her compact only to find a romantic inscription to his wife, written on November 5, 1959 when the former jazz pianist was in New York recording his one and only record while she remained in Los Angeles. It was a bitter revelation for Max, who now wonders if the only thing in his life he can be proud of – his marriage – was a complete failure like so much else in his life.

His bitterness seems mainly directed at his son Chris (Pollak) whom Max considers to have wasted his life, having gone through one divorce and is beginning a second. The only person Max seems to have any regard for is his granddaughter Annie (Bishé) and who has a relationship with her grandfather that is almost fatherly. Annie’s boyfriend Scott is in Chicago playing with the Philharmonic but Annie is reluctant to join him and Max counsels her to go. Annie for her part finds excuses not to – her job, her father’s health and so on.

After Max has a heart issue, Chris and Annie realize that they need to put him somewhere he can get the medical care he needs and the house is put up on the market much to Max’s contempt. It proves the excuse for Max and Chris to have one confrontation, but there are no fireworks; just surrender. Even Annie thinks Max is being harsh.

But the thing sticking in Max’s craw is the identity of the man who may have been having an affair with his wife. Was it a one-time occurrence or a long-term relationship? Was Max the love of Eva’s life, or the ball and chain that kept her from her one true love? And how was Max going to carry on without the love of his life?

I was looking forward to this film to see Lewis in a rare dramatic role, and the nonagenarian delivers with a frail but forceful performance that shows that the man who has been in show biz for 70 years has the ability to show his teeth once in awhile. There are times that Lewis literally looks lost in the role, which isn’t a bad thing. There are also times where he just seems lost, which is a bad thing. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a capable cast that performs admirably here.

Sadly, the script isn’t worthy of its cast. The dialogue sounds written rather than spoken and overly dramatic more often than not. There is a kind of flat tone to the film that gives me the sense that the filmmakers thought they would attract a much older demographic and is talking down to them like they all have ear horns sticking out of their skulls and have not a square inch of unwrinkled skin. It is painful to see a film so obviously aimed at a specific demographic that is so contemptuous of it.

What the film does get right is the dynamics between Chris, Max and Annie. This feels like real relationship issues and not just a bunch of people reading from a script. The filmmakers understand very well that the dynamics of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within. They don’t explain what the source of the conflict is between Max and his son, and they don’t even try to; the important thing is that the dynamic of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within it.

The ending features a confrontation between Max and his wife’s potential lover (Stockwell) but what should have been an emotionally charged scene comes off bland and proceeds directly into an ending that will leave you shaking your head if not your fist. I will admit that seeing Lewis onscreen was worth it for me specifically, and that Bishé and Pollak both deliver strong performances, as does Bloom in flashbacks where she injects some needed life into the film. Too bad she couldn’t resurrect as a zombie; even a zombie would have more life than most of this disappointing film.

REASONS TO GO: The family dynamics feel authentic. Some fine acting from the leads in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A schmaltzy ending that sabotages any good will the movie had to begin with. Noah tries too hard to make the movie feel heartwarming.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (oh, those French sure love Jerry Lewis) but it wasn’t until this year at the New York Museum of Modern Art’s celebration of Lewis on the occasion of his 90th birthday that the movie was first seen in the United States.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

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Life, Animated


The world is Owen Suskind's oyster.

The world is Owen Suskind’s oyster.

(2016) Documentary (The Orchard) Owen Suskind, Ross Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walt Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman, Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, Emily, Michelle Garcia Winner. Directed by Roger Ross Williams

 

Autism can be a frightening thing to both parents and the children afflicted with it, and of course to the siblings not afflicted who only know their brother or sister is “different.” The thing is that there’s no one way to treat it and no right thing to do; it’s trial and error and sometimes, just error.

Writer Ross Suskind of the Wall Street Journal got to learn this first-hand when his son Owen was diagnosed at three with autism. He had been a normal toddler up to then, but all of a sudden he became withdrawn. Instead of communicating normally, he spoke in a kind of gibberish. His motor skills deteriorated. His mother Cornelia was frantic; his older brother Walt wasn’t sure what was going on with his brother. When the doctor made his diagnosis, the family was devastated. Nobody knew what to expect next.

It was years of silence; Owen was unable to communicate with his family normally and no matter what they did Owen seemingly couldn’t understand what they were trying to get across. It was a frustrating time for the entire family but they hung in there. There came a few years later an unusual breakthrough; Owen repeated dialogue from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. At first Ron and Carnelia were ecstatic but their doctor warned them that this was likely just echolalia, vocal parroting and somewhat common among autism sufferers.

But Ron figured out differently; he used a puppet of Iago from Aladdin to actually have a conversation with his son. Eventually the family and therapists used the Disney animations as a means to help find a way into Owen’s world. Owen, for his part, used the animations to help make sense of the world. They were timeless and unchanging in a world that was changing rapidly.

Most of the film, we see Owen at 23, getting ready to graduate to independent living in an apartment complex that his girlfriend Emily – also autistic – lives in. Owen seems on the surface like an attractive, normal guy until you hear him muttering gibberish to himself. He runs a club for like-minded autistics who connect to the world through Disney – there are a lot more of them than you’d think.

The heart of the movie is the connection between Owen and his family; clearly the love and patience that they have for each other are extraordinary and it does this jaded critic’s heart good to see it. Older brother Walt expresses concern about Owen’s future; when Ron and Cornelia pass away, who will take care of Owen? Walt knows it will be him and frankly, is more than willing but certainly not looking forward to the prospect.

The movie uses animation effectively; it is kind of stream-of-consciousness and generally depicts what Owen’s world looks like inside his head. There is an almost impressionist look to the animation which I found truly effective; in them Owen is always depicted as a little boy, and I found that somewhat apropos. I’ve always felt the use of animation to enhance documentaries was a brilliant idea, although it has been somewhat overused of late. In this instance, it truly does enhance the experience in that it gives us insight into Owen and how he views the world.

There are plenty of Disney clips used in the film, and Disneyphiles are going to love this; in a lot of ways, it confirms the healing power of movies, although in a kind of unquestioning manner. The book that Ron wrote that this is based upon also mentions that the Disney therapy is just one of many things that Owen responded to over his years of learning how to function despite the noise going on in his head. The movie gives the impression that Disney saved Owen and quite frankly that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I have to wonder what Owen made of the cameras. Clearly some of the scenes are staged, as when Owen watches Disney films in his room. While his actions of delight are genuine, it seems a bit too contrived for my comfort. The movie works best when it is simply capturing what happens in Owen’s daily life, including a lovely moment when Aladdin voice actors Gottfried and Freeman attend one of the meetings of Owen’s Disney club.

This shouldn’t be taken as a primer on how to deal with autistic family members – there is, as has been mentioned, no one right way. This also isn’t a movie about how Disney can be used to save autistic children; there’s no real telling what things autistic kids will focus in on, be it trains, baseball, playing cards or grocery stores.

What it is in reality is an account of how one kid made it through and how his family loved and nurtured him despite everything. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of movie that is well worth watching and the best part of what I get to do for a living.

REASONS TO GO: This is an unexpected, life-affirming treasure. Disneyphiles will dig this hard.
REASONS TO STAY: Leads one to wonder how much the presence of the cameras affected what we saw on the screen.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animations are supplied by the French animation firm Mac Guff.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Hollywood Beauty Salon

This Narrow Place


This Narrow Place

Sammy Sheikh and Jonathan Stanley affect Motor City tough guy poses.

(2011) Drama (Self-Released) Sammy Sheikh, Jonathan Stanley, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi, Lonette McKee, Val Howard, Rita Khori, Oscar Brown, Mike Batayeh. Directed by Sooney Kadouh

 

Anger can only take you so far. When you are wounded as deeply as it’s possible to be, your first instinct is to lash out. Sometimes that may take you on a journey you never intended it to.

Hassan (Sheikh) is on a mission. His little brother died in a bombing in Beirut. He has entered the United States illegally to plant a bomb, using parts manufactured at the same plant where the bomb that killed his brother was manufactured. While stuck in an unsavory part of town, he meets Chris (Stanley), a drug addict who lives on his own in Detroit. Chris gives Hassan a ride to the home of Hassan’s Uncle Aziz (Badreya).

At the urging of his aunt, Hassan invites Chris over for dinner and weaves a tale about his attending Wayne State, where Hassan’s sister Nadia (Khori) is also attending (Nadia has been staying with Aziz for some time). As Hassan spends more time with Chris, he begins to see a side to America and Americans that he hadn’t planned on. The drug addict and would-be bomber begin to form an unlikely friendship, to the point where Hassan begs Tina (Howard), Chris’ drug connection, to “let him go.” Chris also develops affection for Nadia, not a welcome thing to her conservative Muslim family.

However with terrorist Faoud (Azizi) breathing down his neck, Hassan must make a choice between carrying out his plans and avenging his brother, or letting his rage go and perhaps creating an entirely different legacy for his brother and himself.

There are a lot of “fish out of water” buddy movies out there but this is unusual in that both the main characters are fish out of water, as it were. Hassan is from a completely different world; the life of a suburban Detroit family is like an entirely different planet to him. He is conflicted by his need to avenge his brother and by his own decency. He genuinely wants to help Chris kick his habit and uses the fasting of Ramadan to help him find some self-discipline.

Chris lives on the fringes of society, shunned by his own family who have declared him dead in order to deal with his situation. As the family life he never knew begins to give him new strength, he begins to change – becomes less the hustler, less the hedonist and finding more important things to focus his attention on.

There are some grungy neighborhoods on display here, both in Detroit and Beirut – I suspect the filmmaker was trying to draw a line between the two. There are also some nice neighborhoods and families that are welcoming and caring. The two worlds are in the same city but completely alien to one another. It’s hard to imagine they exist so close together.

Both Sheikh and Stanley are engaging, charismatic performers. It is their job to carry the film and it is their relationship that drives it. I’m not familiar with either actor, but I would venture to say that not only do they have good chemistry together they also individually do striking jobs to make their characters memorable and realistic.

They have a surprisingly good supporting cast. Often in indie movies, the acting chops begin and end at the leads but here, it’s uniformly there from top to bottom. That’s simply gold for a young director trying to establish a reputation.

I was a little bit unsure of the kicking of Chris’ drug habit; it seemed a little bit too pat and too clean and as we all know kicking that kind of habit is generally horribly painful. I also have to admit the ending was a little bit to the Hollywood side, but that’s all right; I liked it anyway. Indie movies often try to go out of their way to make their endings dark and depressing, but this one would probably have made a studio marketing chief sigh blissfully – and there’s not necessarily a bad thing. I do think that they could have used a bit of a trim on some of the subplots – was it really necessary to visit Chris’ mother and discover that he’s literally dead to her? – but all in all this is a pretty well-crafted movie with enough strong moments to make it recommendable to anyone, even those who might not necessarily be indie film fanatics.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances from the leads and an interesting story. I liked the ending although it might have had some “Hollywood” overtones to it.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the subplots could have been trimmed or cut altogether.

FAMILY VALUES: Some drug use, some foul language and a bit of violence.

HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeing in either venue.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Dog Sweat

The Boys Are Back


The Boys Are Back

A man's home is his castle; Clive Owen's home is hog heaven.

(2009) Drama (Miramax) Clive Owens, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty, Julia Blake, Chris Haywood, Erik Thomson, Natasha Little. Directed by Scott Hicks

Men, as a rule, are not the best parents in a husband-wife relationship. Women, who are nurturers by nature, tend to be more attuned to parenting in a general way; while that doesn’t mean that men can’t be good at it, they have a harder time being single parents than women do – again, a generalization but more or less true.

Joe Warr (Owens) hasn’t exactly been the best husband either. He had sex with Katy (Fraser), a beautiful equestrienne while married to another woman and eventually got her pregnant, leaving his wife and young son in England to be with Katy in Australia. Katy and Joe have a son, Artie (McAnulty), Joe has a job as a sportswriter and becomes one of the best in Australia, and they buy a home in a particularly idyllic meadow near Adelaide, South Australia. Life is good; Joe globe-hops attending tennis matches, swim meets and football games while Katy holds down the home front.

Then Katy gets a stomach ache which turns out to be cancer. Joe stays home to care for her but she doesn’t survive. Joe is left to care for a six-year-old son who has difficulty accepting that his mummy’s gone, and acts out in sometimes particularly venal ways. At first Joe fights Artie’s anger, being too filled with his own grief to sort out his son’s; eventually, he gives in and lets Artie do his own thing. Cannonball into a hotel bathtub? Sure! Ride on the hood of a Range Rover his dad is driving down the beach? Why not?

Then, Joe’s son Harry (MacKay) from his first marriage comes to Australia to spend time with his dad and the dynamic changes. At first, Harry doesn’t approve too much of Joe’s “Just Say Yes” philosophy of child-rearing but eventually comes around, particularly when Joe shows far more trust than his mum (Little) ever did.

However his methods don’t meet with the approval of everyone. Katy’s mom Barbara (Blake) is aghast and eventually takes steps to assume custody of Artie herself. In the meantime, Joe has met a fellow single parent, Laura (Booth) who babysits Artie from time to time and a romance begins to blossom. Still, Joe’s attempts to juggle his kids, his home and his job are beginning to run him ragged; something has to give, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. The movie got a round critical excoriating when it was released here in the states, which once again leaves me befuddled. Maybe I’m missing something, y’know? Most of the reviews I’ve read have tended to be about Joe’s parenting skills rather than about the movie. Sure, maybe you’re scoring brownie points with the P.T.A. to show your haughty disapproval of such a free-wheeling parenting style, but it’s not my job to review the choices that Joe makes – particularly since they’re based on the actual choices a real person made. I have no idea how I’d cope with a six year old boy if my wife died and left me with one. Fortunately for me, that scenario is never going to come to pass since my own son is essentially grown up. So that makes me quite frankly unqualified to render my opinion about how Joe relates to his children. I haven’t walked even a centimeter in Joe’s shoes, which is what someone who is passing judgment on a person is supposed to do. Maybe in some distant future, that will be a requirement to give an opinion on the subject.

Somehow, I doubt it however. Hicks, who helmed the Oscar-winning Shine, wisely keeps the movie from going too maudlin and keeps the relationship between Joe and his sons evolving, which is the way real relationships work. Owens gives a restrained performance here and it is nice to see him in a movie that doesn’t require him to shoot anybody, or shove a carrot through their eye socket.

The use of the Australian location is glorious and helps create an idyllic picture of the Warr home which may be a bit too idyllic in places; then again, once Joe gives up on housecleaning and the house stacks up with pizza boxes and dirty laundry, hog heaven turns into a pigsty. That has a tendency to burst an idyll or two.

I would have liked to see a different ending, to be truthful; the relationship between Joe and Laura is kind of left dangling and things are resolved in a way that is a bit pat and a bit sugary all at once. That aside, this is a genuinely affecting work that examines a rarely seen dynamic; an all-male household dealing with the loss of the lone woman in the home. That was the part that interested me the most about the movie.

Would I make the same choices Joe made in dealing with his sons? Probably not – my temperament isn’t nearly as easy-going as his. Still, it is a rather novel way of dealing with the situation, and if the movie gets a little testy about those who disagree with Joe’s methods, well judging on the critical reaction the movie got it might be well-earned.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Owens’ most genuine performances and Hicks resists the temptation to turn this into an out-and-out tearjerker.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit pat, while the relationship between Joe and Laura is left essentially unresolved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has its share of foul words, many of them sexually related. The theme might be a little too mature for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The nine Sigur Ros songs used in the film were originally meant to be placeholders for the score; however, Hicks felt so strongly that the songs worked better than any score that could be written that he travelled to Iceland personally to get permission to use the songs in the final film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Author Simon Carr, whose story this is based on, and his two sons, spent a day on the set. There’s a featurette that follows them around as they try to wrap their heads around the idea that a movie is being made about their life.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.2M on an unreported production budget; the film was likely not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Fired Up