Beautiful Boy (2018)


A father and child reunion.

(2018) Biographical Drama (AmazonSteve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Amy Aquino, Timothy Hutton, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, LisaGay Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Oakley Bull, Christian Convery, Carlton Wilborn, Stefanie Scott, Marypat Ferrell, Amy Forsyth, Kue Lawrence, Brandon Cienfuegos, Cheska Corona, Mandeiya Flory, Martha T. Newman. Directed by Felix van Groeningen

 

Drug addiction remains a problem for humankind; as a species we seem driven to do things we know are bad for us because they feel good. Nic Sheff (Chalamet) is a white, upper middle-class teen who seems to have everything; a loving family, particularly his father and two half-siblings he adores. He’s super-bright, having been accepted at every college he has applied to. His future looks exceedingly bright.

But for whatever reason Nic turns to drugs; what drives him there is never really explored in the film. Perhaps it was the divorce of his dad David (Carrell) – a respected journalist who was one of the last to interview John Lennon before his untimely death – from his mom (Ryan) who lives in L.A. David is remarried to Karen (Tierney) who struggles to understand her stepson.

Nic’s addiction takes the family on a roller coaster ride of disappearances, binge drug use, periods of sobriety, then repeating the cycle again. David grows more desperate, trying to figure out what is driving his son; the two fight a lot but David is fiercely protective of his son, refusing to give up on him. This puts strain on his marriage as his wife begins to feel that he’s neglecting his current family for his ailing son. At last, with Nic fast approaching rock bottom, David is forced to make a terrible choice.

The movie is based on two books – one written by David, the other by Nic – and uses both to get the viewpoints of both characters. Van Groeningen seems pretty even-handed here; he doesn’t make amy judgements but presents the behaviors for the audience to come to their own conclusions. It’s hard at times not to get angry with Nic, who at times seems to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. There is a wrenching scene in a diner when Nic, who is showing signs of relapsing, asks his father for money so he can move to New York. David begs him to stay in Northern California but Nic doesn’t like the vibe. Things escalate and it ends badly for both men. There is also a scene very late in the movie where David, following a phone call from Nic, finally accepts that he can’t help his son. After giving Nic some tough love, David breaks down and slowly starts taking the pictures of his son down from his office. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that families of addicts may well identify with.

I can’t say enough about the performances of both Carrell and Chalamet. Carrell, like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks before him, has morphed from a zany comic actor to an outstanding dramatic actor. I think he’s a role or two away from being a regular part of the Oscar conversation. As for Chalamet, after an unforgettable performance in Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the brightest young actors in Hollywood. He may well be the best young actor since Pacino.

The movie also benefits by one of the most fascinating and most diverse soundtracks I’ve ever seen. It has everything from opera to punk to ambient pop to jazz to classic rock to folk to easy listening. On the negative side, the movie from time to time (albeit rarely) descends into maudlin territory. Van Groeningen also likes to employ flashbacks to help explain the actions going on.

This can be very hard to watch at times; nearly unbearable. There are also some moments that are incredibly tender. Father-son relationships often get the shaft when it comes to Hollywood; dads are often portrayed as lovable but befuddled buffoons who have no clue what’s going on. This is a very real and very touching portrayal of a close father-son relationship that is put to the most torturous test imaginable.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling performances by Carrell and Chalamet. A fascinating and diverse soundtrack enhances the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashbacks are sometimes intrusive and hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly straightforward drug content, plenty of profanity and some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Royo, who plays Nic’s AA sponsor, also played a drug addict himself on The wire.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ben is Back
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Camp Cold Brook

Dean


Life is a day at the beach for Demetri Martin.

(2016) Dramedy (CBS) Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, Ginger Gonzaga, Luka Jones, Briga Heelan, Levi MacDougall, Rory Scovel, Drew Tarver, Barry Rothbert, Meryl Hathaway, Nicholas Delany, Kate Berlant, Asif Ali, Florence Marcisak, Pierce Minor, Michael Oberholtzer, Victoria Vitkowski-Bennett, Reid Scott, Jamila Webb, Jessica Ruane. Directed by Demetri Martin

You never know when your life is going to change irrevocably – or how. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a romance that will turn out to last a lifetime. When it comes right down to it, life is a roller coaster ride we take while blindfolded.

Dean (Martin) is a cartoonist (and by the way, Demetri Martin drew the New Yorker-style cartoons seen throughout the movie) who lives in New York City. He has just broken up with his fiancée (Vitkowski-Bennett) and he is having trouble finishing his second book of toons. One of the reasons for that is he is still grieving for his mother (Marcisak) who recently passed away unexpectedly.

His life is in a bit of a stall. His relationship with his father Robert (Kline) is tenuous to say the least; neither man approves of how the other is grieving. When Robert drops the bombshell that he plans to sell the family home that Dean grew up in, Dean refuses to even discuss the matter and when Robert insists that he start clearing out his room, Dean flees to Los Angeles, ostensibly to listen to a job offer (that he never really took seriously to begin with) but more to hang out with his buddy Eric (Scovel) who takes him to a party where he meets Nicky (Jacobs), an Angelino whom he falls head over heels for – literally. His first act when he makes eye contact with her is to do a face plant on the floor.

Nonetheless their relationship starts to take off. Meanwhile, back in New York City, Robert is developing feelings for his real estate agent Carol (Steenburgen) that he’s not ready to act on, or at least thinks he isn’t. They do go out but the date ends disastrously. Both men are at a crossroads and need to get on with their lives, but do they have the will to move on?

If the movie sounds like something Woody Allen might have done back in the 70s, you’re probably right. Martin’s sensibility as a writer seems to fall in line with that of the Great Neurotic. However, this isn’t straight rip-off by any means; while Martin is almost certainly influenced by Allen, he isn’t slavish about it. Dean is certainly somewhat neurotic (his cartoons since his mother passed all have to do with the Grim Reaper) but not of the “ohmygawd he needs therapy” variety, which was where Allen mined much of his best material.

Martin is definitely a multi-threat performer; not only is he a terrific stand-up but he shows that he has the ability to be a lead in a theatrical narrative. Yes, the Beatles haircut is distracting but no more than some of the crazy hair-dos of comic actors we’ve seen of late. Martin’s delivery is a little sad sack (which fits the circumstances) but he has a kind of puppy dog cuteness that will certainly win him some fans. As a director he’s still learning his craft, but this is an effort that is impressive for a first full-length feature.

While Martin has a promising future, there are some cast members who are terrific now. Casting Kline and Steenburgen – so wonderful together in My Life as a House – was inspired and the two still have tons of chemistry. Some critics have found the storyline involving the two of them more interesting than the one between Martin and Jacobs and I can’t say as I disagree. I wouldn’t mind seeing more movies with Kline and Steenburgen in them. I would also like to see Jacobs’ role a little more fleshed out. Like Martin, she also has a bunch of screen presence and could be an onscreen force someday.

While the film wasn’t as consistently funny as I might have liked, it had enough humor in it to tickle the funny bone yet didn’t sink into parody or low comedy. The humor is, like Martin’s stand-up act, intelligent and a bit off-kilter. While this isn’t a movie that is going to make big waves on the Hollywood ocean, it should get enough notice to further the careers of everyone involved, or at least I hope so. It certainly is worth indie film lovers taking the time to check out.

REASONS TO GO: Martin has a whole lot of potential. A stellar supporting cast helps power the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film comes off in places as a knockoff of Woody Allen.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs and Heelan also star together in the Netflix series Love.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleepwalk With Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Journey

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen seite)


The Edge of Heaven

Tuncel Kuritz listens raptly as Nurgul Yesilcay explains the Zorba the Greek reference.

(2007) Drama (Strand) Nurgul Yesilcay, Baki Devrak, Tuncel Kuritz, Hannah Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Nunsel Kose, Asuman Altinay, Onder Cakar, Emre Cosar, Nurten Guner, Elcim Eroglu, Sevilay Demirci, Yelda Reynaud, Turgay Tanulku. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

The one truth about life is that none of us survive it. Along the way to our inevitable destination we suffer bumps, bruises and sometimes whole amputations that make many of us, at one time or another, wonder if it’s possible to go another step. Yet it’s the joys, both large and small, that get us through the rough patches.

Ali (Kuritz) is an elderly Turk living in Bremen, Germany. He is alone; he is occasionally visited by his son Nejat (Devrak) who is a professor of German literature at a German university, but the two have only an uneasy connection. Neither one can really relate to the other, let alone understand one another. The gulf between father and son, already deep as with all fathers and their sons, is made wider by the cultural differences they grew up with. Ali is still at heart a Turk and Nejat is essentially a German.

Ali, being a lonely man, sometimes purchases himself a prostitute. One in particular, Yeter (Kose), is a favorite. She, like Ali, is a Turkish expatriate and is doing  the best she can to survive. She misses her daughter Ayten (Yesilcay) who is still in Turkey and is ashamed of her mother. Ayten is also a revolutionary whom the Turkish government is after.

Muslims in Bremen are not too thrilled with Yeter’s profession of choice and urge her, in no uncertain terms, to think about a career change or face the wrath of their community. Ali, discovering this, invites her to live with him so that she might continue to practice her profession (and this isn’t all altruistic – Ali wants her to provide her professional services in exchange for the room and board). It’s a pretty sweet arrangement for Ali but a momentary loss of control leads to a tragedy that has life-altering consequences for the both of them.

Nejat, horrified at what has occurred, travels to Turkey to find Ayten so that he may tell her what has happened and, if needed, do whatever he can to help. He is taken by his homeland which he has never seen and winds up impulsively buying a German-language bookstore in Istanbul which comes with two apartments over the store. He lives in one and rents the other to Susanne (Schygulla).

Susanne is a German mother who is in Turkey for her daughter Charlotte (Ziolkowska) who has travelled to Turkey for…well, let’s backtrack a moment. You see, even as Nejat had travelled to Istanbul, Ayten had fled to Germany to find her mom and to escape arrest. She hooks up with Charlotte, whose relationship with her mom is – you guessed it – strained. Susanne is an ex-hippie who went from that lifestyle to becoming a more bourgeois woman in order to provide for her daughter for which Charlotte has never forgiven her. Charlotte is fascinated with Ayten, whose status as a revolutionary on the run excites Charlotte’s sense of political romanticism. However, when Ayten is arrested, she is deported back to Turkey to be arrested. Charlotte goes to Istanbul to try and help Ayten be freed and then….life happens.

Akin, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents, presents a film with three distinct storylines. All of them are linked but ingeniously enough, none of the characters are aware of how closely linked they are. All of them crisscross their way through the various storylines without knowing their effect on each skein of the tapestry. This takes some pretty sophisticated writing and directing to pull off without throwing in serendipitous devices that exist only to move the plot from A to B. Here, you feel an organic flow and nothing ever seems forced.

The mood here as you can tell is somewhat bittersweet. None of these characters has easy lives or make the right choices in every case. They, as we alluded to earlier, suffer bumps, bruises and amputations and not all of them will be alive when the end credits roll. While the movie can get heavy-handed with the tragedies to the point where you want to scream “We get it! Life sucks! Let’s move on shall we” at the screen (or monitor if that’s your means of viewing).

There are some very nice performances. Many of the actors are well-known in Turkey but almost completely unknown here. Schygulla might be remembered by older readers as the muse of Rainier Warner Fassbinder, one of Germany’s legendary directors of the 70s and 80s. She lends some grace and gravitas to the movie and serves as the audience surrogate to a large extent. She is unfamiliar with Turkish culture (which we get a nice deep look at here) and navigates through a tricky emotional maze with her daughter.

This is the kind of film that will stay with you for a long time unless you’re the sort that don’t like to use a lot of grey matter when it comes to watching movies. There are a lot of themes to consider here, a lot of intellectual fodder for the engine. It is a film that sets out deeply drawn characters and allows them to interact and breathe. You’ll feel like you know all of them, see them at the market and run into them on the street for a 5 minute conversation about trivial things. But there’s nothing trivial about this film. Nothing at all.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing, bittersweet mood. A look inside Turkish culture. Solidly acted.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed in places, particularly in the Job-like suffering.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, as well as adult themes, language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the police officers in the film are actual cops.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.8M on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Janie Jones

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Just a couple of hotties.

(1989) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Allison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix, Kevork Malikyan, Robert Eddison, Richard Young, Alexei Sayle, Alex Hyde-White, Paul Maxwell, Isla Blair. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In the third film in the series Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Spielberg and producer George Lucas wisely returned to the elements that made the first movie great. The movie opens with a prologue that shows Indy as a teenager (Phoenix) trying to foil grave robbers from stealing Coronado’s Cross. Much of his backstory is explained, including how he got the scar on his chin, where he acquired his fedora and the genesis of his phobia of snakes. We also see some of the dynamics of the relationship between Indy and his father, Dr. Henry Jones (Connery) who is obsessed by the legend of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be a real artifact.

After retrieving the Cross as an adult, Indy (Ford) receives a strange package at his office in the University from his father . He is then summoned by wealthy industrialist Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), Indy learns there is an expedition underway to retrieve the Holy Grail itself. That expedition’s leader has disappeared; and the leader turns out to be Indy’s father. Indy and Brody go to Venice, to meet up with his father’s colleague on the team Dr. Schneider (Doody), who turns out to be a she, and together they find the missing information needed to locate the resting place of the Grail.

First, however, Indy is determined to rescue his father, whom he discovers is being held in a castle in Austria. Indy arrives there only to discover that not everyone he has been trusting should be trusted and that some of them are in league with the Nazis (them again). Once again, with Brody and now Sallah (Rhys-Davies), Indy and his father set out to rescue the Grail in a race against the Nazis.

The chemistry between Connery and Ford is absolutely awesome; the two often communicate with merely a glance or a stern look. Their relationship becomes so well defined because of the natural qualities of their by-play. The two spar with each other verbally, with Ford as the son trying to please his father who may well be unpleasable. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (who to that point had done Innerspace and The Lost Boys) gives Ford and Connery a slambang story to work with, and the two run with it. Spielberg provides some stunning visuals, and John Williams provided one of his best scores in any film ever.

Doody is an appealing blonde who may well be the prettiest of Indy’s love interests; she is his intellectual equal and is stronger a character than either Karen Allen’s Marion or Kate Capshaw’s Willie from the first two movies. Rhys-Davis and Elliott turn in strong performances and prove why they were so instrumental to the success of the first movie.

The third installment of the Indiana Jones films is almost as good as the first, and in some ways, better. There are some wonderful action sequences (such as a fight in the canals of Venice, a rescue from an Austrian castle and subsequent motorcycle chase and a daring desert rescue from a tank. At the center of the movie however is the relationship between father and son and Connery and Ford, two of the best in the business, make it believable; touching at times, funny at others but authentic in every moment. It is a little ironic that the measure of success for a big summer blockbuster lay in the details of the relationship between father and son, but it is true here. Hollywood could learn a lesson there in how to make a summer film timeless, as this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Great chemistry between Ford and Connery. Excellent action sequences. A slambang story that has familiarity to the legend. A lighter touch than the last.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The villains are a little less vicious in some ways than the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sensuality as well as a bit of action violence. There are a couple of disturbing images as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Fedora (Young), the character who chases the teenaged Indy through the Utah desert, was originally meant to be Abner Ravenwood, the father of Marion and Indy’s mentor.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $474.2M on a $48M production budget; by any standards the movie was yet another blockbuster in the trilogy.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raiders of the Lost Ark

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Strangers

Footnote (Hearat Shulayim)


Footnote

Like father like son?

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Shlomo Bar Aba, Lior Ashkenazi, Alisa Rosen, Alma Zak, Daniel Markowich, Micah Lewensohn, Yuval Scharf, Nevo Kimchi, Albert Iluz, Idit Teperson, Shmuel Shiloh, Michal Koresh, Daria Robichek, Dana Glozman, Jackey Levi. Directed by Joseph Cedar

 

Fathers and sons are often the most competitive of men. Sons spend their entire lives trying not just to live up to their fathers but to exceed them. Fathers are often wary of their sons attempts to do just that and can come to resent the success of their sons, particularly when it overshadows their own.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Bar Aba) is a Talmudic scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is well-known for his meticulous nature and his eye for detail. He spent decades examining various versions of the Talmud in order to explain their changes, coming to a radical solution. However, just before he was to publish his results, a rival academic stumbled onto the same conclusions – not by doing the same methodical research but by finding a note in a copy of a European Talmud from the 16th century that led him to the same place. The rival published first and all of Eliezer’s work went for naught.

His son Uriel (Ashkenazi) has also entered the family business, so to speak. Rather than being a plodder, like his father, Uriel is more of a modern academic, publishing best-selling books and being invited to join prestigious societies and boards, honors denied his father. At one such ceremony, the father watches his son’s big moment with a dour expression, his humiliation furthered by his son’s tribute to him that ends up being a pointed reminder of his failures.

So it is surprising when Eliezer gets a call from the Israeli Minister of Education congratulating him on the receipt of the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the Jewish academic world. This is a validation on Eliezer’s entire career and this belated recognition transforms the dour old man.

Except that it isn’t real. A hasty convening of the board of judges for the prize reveals to Uriel the truth – the wrong Professor Shkolnik got the call. It was not the meticulous old man whose greatest achievement to that point was to have been a footnote in a respected work on Talmudic research by Israel’s most beloved scholar who was to be honored, it was his superstar, best-selling son who was in reality the face of Israeli academia.

But what to do? Taking the prize away from his dad would be the ultimate slap in the face and as a son Uriel couldn’t bear to be the object of his father’s humiliation but to allow his father to receive an undeserved award would be not only an invalidation of the prestigious award itself but also a violation of the very Talmudic scripture that he had spent his life researching.

The heart of the movie is not the Talmud itself, although it figures in peripherally. No, the rivalry between father and son is what Cedar is interested in examining in this Oscar nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film) work. While father and son are cordial, the tension between them is palpable. Uriel considers his father a dinosaur, a man who has spent a lifetime researching the equivalent of finding the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. Eliezer sees his son as the embodiment of everything that has corrupted academics; desiring of fame, laziness in research and hasty in conclusion. His son is a rock star in academics, which the father agrees with and not in a good way.

Cedar enlisted two fine actors for the roles of father and son; although the physical resemblance is barely superficial at best, the two create a relationship that is highly believable. Bar Aba spends most of the movie with a disapproving glower, which any son will tell you is an expression they are used to from their fathers. Ashkenazi is a shaggy bear of a man, far more sociable and articulate than his father, able to take esoteric ideas and make them accessible, a gift that his father neither possesses nor wants. Uriel’s classes are well-attended and as a professor he is encouraging. Eliezer’s classes rarely have more than a handful of students and as a professor he is hyper-critical and demeaning. On the surface, the father seems to be a bitter curmudgeon, the son a nicer, sweeter man.

The genius of this film is that we get beneath the surface. We discover that Grossman (Lewensohn), the chairman of the Israel Prize committee, has a bitter rivalry with Eliezer and has been holding his career back at every turn. We also see that as the film goes on and Eliezer finally feels the vindication he has been seeking for so long that his son becomes bitter for reasons I won’t detail here as to not spoil the film.

The humor here is very low-key and well-choreographed, such as a meeting that takes place in a conference room far too small for the number of people inside it, with jockeying for position whenever someone needs to move. That scene, like most of the others in the movie, carries an innate quirkiness that one associates with academics to begin with; it is almost Wes Anderson-like in scope, with clever graphics and clever dialogue.

However keep in mind that like the subject itself, often the movie can get a little dry. Like Eliezer, the audience needs to have an eye (and ear) for detail and a bit of patience. Still, this is a film that has a fresh viewpoint on a subject as old as mankind itself (and I’m not talking about the Talmud) and gives some insight into the relationship between fathers and sons that perhaps most fathers and sons – not to mention wives and daughters – could benefit from.

REASONS TO GO: The highly competitive nature of the father-son dynamic is highlighted. Low-key hilarity.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of dry in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity and a bit of smoking. There are a few harsh words but mostly the thematic element might be a little bit over the head of most kids..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bar Aba is actually a stage comedian; this is his first film in 20 years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100. The film has been embraced by critics.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums

ACADEMIC LOVERS: Nearly every character in the film is involved with academic research in some way and the movie shows the lifestyle of a university academic from the houses full of books to the recesses of the university libraries to the social life of professors and students at the school.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Headhunters

La Mission


La Mission

Benjamin Bratt as an aging homeboy.

(2009) Drama (Screen Media Ventures) Benjamin Bratt, Erika Alexander, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Jesse Borrego, Talisa Soto Bratt, Tina Huang, Kevin Michael Richardson, Tatiana Rivas, Cesar Gomez, Neo Veavea, Cathleen Ridley, Max Rosenak. Directed by Peter Bratt

When it comes down to it, pride can be the defining force of a man. Pride is what makes him walk tall, gives him the sense that he is king of all he surveys. Pride can also kill the things he loves most.

Che Rivera (B. Bratt) is one of the cornerstones of his neighborhood in the San Francisco Mission District. He is an ex-con and recovering alcoholic who drives a local bus and in his spare time, details lowrider cars. He is respected and maybe a little bit feared as well. His swagger has caught the attention of Lena (Alexander), a new neighborhood and not in a good way. However as she gets to know Che better, her attitude changes (as does his towards her) and a tentative, awkward romance develops.

His world is his son Jesse (Valdez) who is a straight-A student with a scholarship to UCLA in the offing. Jesse has indeed made his father proud but has a secret – he’s gay. When Che discovers pictures of Jesse and his lover Jordan (Rosenak) in an – ahem – compromising position, Che goes ballistic. He throws his son out of the house and engages in a beatdown that alerts the neighborhood to Jesse’s sexual tendencies.

This shocks and horrifies Lena, who knows men like this through her job. The anger and rage that bubbles just below the surface and erupts into violence that could well one day be directed at her. The homophobia of Che also doesn’t fit well in her ideal. While this is going on, Jesse is undergoing trials of his own. The Latino community, heavily vested in machismo, doesn’t take kindly to gay men and he is harassed – sometimes violently – which Che is very well aware of. Gay or not, he is still his son but can Che find a way past his own pride, past his own cultural prejudices to bridge the gap with his son – and his girlfriend?

This is very much a love story but not between Lena and Che so much or even between Jesse and Jordan but between director Bratt and this neighborhood. The genuine affection and understanding for the culture is exuded palpably throughout the movie. The camaraderie between neighborhood homeboys is organic and even if the dialogue is sometimes clumsy, the feelings between the lines are not.

Benjamin Bratt made a name for himself on the original “Law and Order” series, and has since developed into a fine actor in his own right. Here he captures both the inner rage of Che, the conflict between his heritage and the love for his son but also his natural affability and charm. If you were part of the neighborhood, no doubt you’d be looking up to this man; he is generous with his friends and that friendship isn’t given easily.

Alexander, who was a cousin on “The Cosby Show”, is beautiful still as she was a decade ago in her TV days. She also “gets” the mentality of a Bay Area citizen with all that implies – the liberal mindset and the inclusive behavior. Having lived there for nearly two decades, I have known hundreds of people just like her there; not saints so much as they are passionate in their beliefs. She makes a fine counterpoint to Che’s macho ways.

There is an authenticity here that has been lauded by Latin critics as well as honesty in the depiction of the rejection of the gay son that the gay community knows all too well. There is a dignity here that is augmented by genuine warmth that even though not every aspect of the neighborhood is beautiful, it at least fees like home.

Love may not conquer all but it is a sure route to overcoming anything. The message of La Mission is not always clearly stated, but seems to be genuinely felt and in an era where moviegoers are often hammered over the head with platitudes that seem to be added to movies out of a need to have some sort of moral center, is a refreshing change of pace. It ain’t perfect, but it’s home.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at the neighborhood, its multi-ethnic culture and specifically the Hispanic lowrider culture. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending takes a little long to arrive. The dialogue is a bit clumsy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty rough here; there’s also some violence and a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star and the director are brothers and both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the soundtrack of the film that gives insight not only into the process of selecting the music but the exacting standards that were used in getting the music of the neighborhood right.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or maybe even made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Splice

Stuff


Stuff

Dinner at the Johnsons.

(2011) Documentary (Self-Released) Lawrence Johnson, Phil Wilson, Olin Johnson. Directed by Lawrence Johnson

We are all of us defined as not just who we are but as what we have as well. We are all collections of stuff; physical things, emotional things, memories…stuff.

Portland, Oregon-area filmmaker Lawrence Johnson is going through some issues. His father, Olin, has recently passed away from liver cancer. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility. His marriage is crumbling and he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his soon to be ex-wife, his things left out in the yard along with his father’s things. Stuff.

His friend Phil Wilson, a carpenter, has also lost his father recently and means to inter his ashes in a grave next to Phil’s mom. She’s buried in Iowa, so a road trip is necessary. Lawrence asks to tag along and uses Phil more or less as a proxy for his own feelings towards his dad. After some time he allows himself to be interviewed and to a certain extent things come out but Lawrence is still keeping things inside. You know. Stuff.

Eventually the unemployed Lawrence who is deeply depressed after the twin losses of his father and marriage becomes homeless, living with his dog out of his van. He sells his book collection all the books of philosophy and psychology that has helped make him who he is. He feels a failure, estranged from his children, his friends, his life. Why not make a movie about it? A movie about…stuff.

So Johnson did just that. He mixed in some original animations to signify his thoughts and dreams (and nightmares), as well as home movies his dad, who was one of those home movie junkies back in the day, took of various family events from vacations to parties. His father was also a relentless collector of kitsch, from the logos of car manufacturers to…crap he might have been assured would appreciate over time but never did. Stuff.

The movie has a tendency to meander. I suspect that the movie wound up being about something different than what Johnson initially intended it to be. It went from being about his dad and Lawrence’s relationship to him to being about the things that tie us down. That kind of lack of focus isn’t surprising when you title your movie Stuff.

Lawrence is never truly liberated until the movie’s last reel when things begin to get disposed of. He also find a niche for himself and his movie begins to act as a sort of catharsis therapy for him. In a sense, what we’re watching is a condensed hour and a half long therapy session that took place over the course of years as Lawrence comes to terms with his own failings, those of his parents and of his place in society in general. That kind of stuff.

Lawrence narrates the movie and at times expresses some pretty deep and thought-provoking sentiments. He is most successful when he is discussing the dynamic between himself and his parents, particularly his father. That struck a chord in me – but then again, I live for that kind of stuff.

This is a very personal movie and those types of things will be successful to you depending on how much you connect with the person making the movie. Lawrence isn’t always the easiest person to connect with, having spent much of the movie expressing himself through animation, his own rambling narration and through other people. I can’t say that it always hits the mark, but it gives you something to think about and what more can you ask for? After all, it’s only stuff.

REASONS TO GO: Some interesting thoughts and some wonderful animation. Father-son relationship dynamic struck a chord with me.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on narration. The film seemed a bit unfocused and meanders quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: A little mild bad language and a few images that might be somewhat disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer John R. Smith was a member of the 1980s pop band NuShooz.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that will be even more intimate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Potiche

How Do You Know


How Do You Know

Paul Rudd comforts Reese Witherspoon who has just realized that she's made a bomb.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Columbia) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker, Lenny Venito, Ron McLarty, Molly Price, John Tormey, Tony Shalhoub, Dean Norris, Teyonah Parris, Shelley Conn. Directed by James L. Brooks

Love is like the wind. You can’t hold it easily in your hands and sometimes you’re not even sure it’s there at all. Is that breeze you’re feeling the beginnings of love or just the air conditioning?

Lisa (Witherspoon) sure doesn’t know. Once the face of the U.S. Softball Team, she’s won Olympic gold and world championships. Now, she’s in the twilight of her career and as the 2011 team is being selected, a jerk of a coach (Norris) decides that her best days are behind her.

She hooks up with Matty (Wilson) after being set up by a friend. He is a pitcher for the major league Washington Nationals who is good looking, charming and completely self-obsessed. Maybe this is what Lisa needs to get out of her funk; her good friend Sally (Price) doesn’t think so but hey, you always support your teammate no matter what.

George (Rudd) is going through some tough times of his own. He is being investigated by the federal government for something he didn’t do, although it happened on his watch. He had taken over the reins of his father’s company and dear old dad (Nicholson) is being left with the terrible choice of supporting his son or the company he spent a lifetime building. The law specifies that he has to do the latter, so the lawyer (Linn-Baker) that George would have chosen can’t represent him because he’s being paid by the company and there’s a conflict of interest.

George and Lisa go out on a blind date on the worst day of both of their lives, set up by one of Lisa’s teammates who knew George. The first time they were to get together, George was already dating Terry (Conn) who was throwing herself into her work as a scientist more than she was throwing herself into the relationship. When the feces hit the fan for George, she distanced herself from him, not wanting the drama to get in the way of her work. Ain’t modern relationships grand? However, now that Terry’s out of the picture and George is feeling particularly lonely, he decides to take a shot at the blind date, urged on by his assistant Annie (Hahn) who seems to have a weird fixation on him, despite being pregnant by a guy she loves very much.

Anyway, by all measures the date between George and Lisa is a complete disaster except that for George, it’s just what the doctor ordered. He falls hard for Lisa, who in the meantime is getting closer to Matty who treats her nicely and despite being more of a narcissist than most of us will ever be, is at least trying to be the right guy for her. George’s persistence pays off as his woebegone puppy charm begins to wear her down.

So Lisa is faced with George and Matty. Both good men, both clearly in love with her, but which one is she in love with? Or maybe she doesn’t love either of them? What is her future going to bring? Why did her agent get her into this movie? 

This is one of the cases where a fine cast, a terrific director and an interesting idea for a movie turn out to be disappointing. It has all the ingredients – Brooks, whose pedigree include classics like Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets, for example. Obviously he has a knack for directing romantic comedies. A terrific cast of very likable actors doesn’t hurt either. I even like the love triangle concept. So why don’t I love this movie?

One of the problems I have with it is that it treats its viewers like five-year-olds. It constantly re-emphasizes that George and Lisa are at a crisis in their lives, and that Matty is self-centered. It belabors the point so much you just want to get out of your seat, run up to the projection booth, grab the projectionist by the neck and scream into his face “WE GET IT! WE UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY! NOW MOVE ON, WOULD YOU PLEASE?!?”

Of course, that would never happen – most movies are shown digitally these days anyway, so projectionists are going the way of ushers. Be that as it may, that leaves the performances and for the most part they’re pretty good. There’s a terrific scene near the end of the movie when Lisa makes her choice and the spurned suitor hugs her and says quietly “What did I do wrong?” The heartbreak is very evident in his voice and it is one of the finest acting moments of his career (won’t tell you who it is in case you plan to see the movie, although you can probably guess who it is).

Nicholson is always entertaining and he blusters his way through this, although you never get the impression he really believes that he’s making a great movie but is more doing a favor for a friend. Witherspoon is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she’s quite accomplished at the romantic comedy genre; she is not at the top of her game here, but close enough that she performs solidly. Owen Wilson is also pretty good in his role. I might have liked the movie if his character hadn’t been quite so self-centered. It would seem, on paper, an easy call for Lisa to make; I would have liked it if both of the guys that were falling for her were less projects and more really good guys who each deserved her and whom she cared for. That would have made the difficulty of her position more pronounced and, dare I say it, more realistic. At least, I would have found it more entertaining that way.

Another problem is Rudd’s character. Not because of his performance, which captures the neuroses of the character nicely; the problem is that the character is poorly written. He seems to be incapable of taking any bad news, but yet he was running what apparently was a very large and profitable company. Bad news kind of comes with that kind of territory, you know? He’s also supposed to be a “good man” – and he is, but good doesn’t mean wimpy. He apparently doesn’t have any sort of spine whatsoever, making it very tough to identify with him despite all of Rudd’s best efforts to make him charming.

The main problem I have with the movie is its length. Due to all the overemphasis on the movie’s main plot points, it feels like the movie runs long by a good half hour if not more. I was definitely getting fidgety at the end, something I don’t normally do for good movies.

The crying shame is that this could have been a good movie, and I really wanted it to be. The cast is likable, the behind the camera talent is extremely strong and the concept could have made for a good movie. One suspects that unseen hands were tinkering with this movie, particularly in the editing phase. A stronger hand on the scissors might have made this sleeker, leaner and more entertaining. Ah well, there’s always the fast forward button when this comes out on home video; that way you can make your own edit.

REASONS TO GO: Reese Witherspoon is a very beautiful woman. Jack Nicholson is worth seeing whenever you get the opportunity.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a good half hour too long. Far too much dithering going on here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some mildly bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of the father was originally offered to Bill Murray who turned it down.

HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The King’s Speech