Oh Lucy!


Luuuuuuuucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!

(2017) Dramedy (Film Movement) Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Köji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Ayelsworth, Nick Gracer, Liz Bolton, Miyoko Yamaguchi, Hajime Inoue, Hiroaki Miyagawa, Stephanie A, Leni Ito, Calvin Winbush, Eddie Hassell, Todd Giebenhain, Tre Hale, Noelani Dacascos, Kimie Tanaka. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi

 

We don’t always end up where we expect to in our lives – in fact we rarely do. The bright promise of youth often gives way to the dreary reality of middle age. Sometimes it just takes the smallest of changes for us to recapture some of that bright promise and make a go of changing that dreary reality.

Setsuko (Terajima) is in that place where she goes through life almost as an automaton. Shuffling through the streets of Tokyo with a white surgical mask obscuring her features, she trudges day after day to a job in a nondescript office as a fabled Office Lady, working for a boss (Inoue) who has no respect for her in an office of shallow lab rats who sneer at their colleagues (always behind their backs) and don’t quite see that they are no different than they. One day, Setsuko witnesses something horrible on the way to work but it doesn’t seem to faze her at all.

Setsuko dotes on her niece Mika (Kutsuna) who dressed up as a sexy maid for her waitressing job in one of those Tokyo themed restaurants and whose enthusiasm for life is like a tonic to Setsuko who lives in what could charitably be called a hole in the wall apartment that from its slovenly appearance seems to be the residence of someone who has given up. Perpetually dealing with money problems, Mika asks her aunt to take over payment on an English language lesson. Setsuko doesn’t really want to but Mika charms her into it by telling her about a free sample lesson.

The lesson is taught by John (Hartnett), an ex-pat American whose methods are to say the least unorthodox. He is a hugger, which is something that the stoic Japanese are not. He assigns Setsuko an identity of an American; he bestows on her a blonde wig and the name of Lucy. Surprisingly Setsuko enjoys the lesson and she decides to come back. Perhaps Tom (Yakusho), a widower who is also taking English lessons and turns out to be a kind and sweet fellow, is one big reason why but it might be more that John’s hug has awakened something in Setsuko.

But it all comes to a screeching halt when John resigns and goes back home to America. To make matters worse for Setsuko, he takes Mika with him – the two had been having a romance. Setsuko eventually gets a postcard from Mika inviting her to visit her niece in sunny Southern California. Following the awkward and dispiriting retirement party of a colleague who was a particular target of behind the back abuse, Setsuko determines to take her niece up on the offer.

Joining her is her bitchy sister Ayako (Minami) with whom Setsuko bickers incessantly. The two women despite their sibling ties don’t seem to like each other very much and we eventually find out why. Ayako seems to be bitter, demanding and rude. The two Japanese ladies greet a bewildered John who greets them with equally bewildering news that Mika broke up with him and took the car to drive down to San Diego. There’s only one thing to do – the two Japanese women and John set out on a road trip in which Setsuko will try on the Lucy persona for a test spin.

Hirayanagi developed this from a short film she created that made the festival rounds a couple of years ago, including SXSW and Toronto. However, this is substantially different from the short which was much more of a comedy than this is. That said, this is a very, very, VERY good film.

The humor is low-key and a bit quirky, giving the film an off-beat charm that keeps the more dramatic sequences from being overwhelming. Don’t be fooled by the charm however; this is a very human film with all that implies with highs and lows (and sometimes very low lows) that when pen is put to paper describing the plot, it makes this movie sound like it should be a downer but curiously, it isn’t.

Part of the reason for that is a terrific performance by Terajima. She imbues Setsuko with a near-impenetrable mask but the sadness that Setsuko carries in her is very close to the surface and becomes apparent from her body language and especially her eyes. Setsuko has spent her life just accepting the lot given her like the sweets given to her by her colleagues to help her over her smoker’s cough that go straight into a drawer in her desk and stay there. Now, she is ready to change her lot and change is never an easy process. It’s terrifying and dangerous.

One of the highlights of the movie is the way American and Japanese cultures are juxtaposed and how mystifying they are to one another. I suspect neither Setsuko nor Ayako are truly representative of Japanese culture any more than John is representative of American culture; John is not at all as he represents himself to be and the more time we spend with him, the more we realize his facade is a front. By the end of the movie, our appraisal of John changes a good deal.

Suicide is a major theme in the movie which for some viewers might be difficult. Caution should be taken if you’re the sort who gets extremely bothered by onscreen suicide attempts. There are three in the movie and they aren’t done for laughs. At least two are pretty shocking so be aware of that. Nonetheless this is the first indie movie of 2018 to carry on last year’s parade of high quality indie films that made 2017 one of the best years for indie films in recent memory. If this is indication, 2018 may be as good or perhaps even better.

REASONS TO GO: This is an off-beat film but in a very good way. The humor is low-key and subtle for the most part. Terajima is an absolute gem. The movie makes great use of cultural differences.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who have issues with suicide may find this a hard film to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, disturbing images, drug use and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hirayanagi originally developed this as a short film; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay took it to the branch of their Gary Sanchez Productions headed by Ferrell’s former assistant Jessica Elbaum (called Gloria Sanchez Productions) which specializes on movies made by and/or about women.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in Translation
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Vanishing of Sidney White

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Shadowman


Me…and my shaaa-dow…

(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby

 

An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.

Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.

But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.

During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.

Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.

In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.

REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aida’s Secrets

Amnesia


Sitting out in the warm sun can be a kind of amnesia.

(2015) Drama (Film Movement) Marthe Keller, Max Riemell, Bruno Ganz, Corinna Kirchhoff, Fermi Reixach, Marie Leuenberger, Félix Pons, Florentin Groll, Eva Barceló, Lluis Altés, Rick Zingale, Kate Ashcroft, Joel Rice, Alfie Davies Man, Fabian Krüger, Joel Basman. Directed by Barbet Schroeder

 

It is said that the sea has no memory; if that is true, an island is the perfect place to forget.

Marthe (Keller) lives a kind of idyllic life in Ibiza. It is 1990 and the Berlin Wall has just fallen. Her house is absolutely charming with a breathtaking view. There is no electricity but she is absolutely fine with that. She grows many of her own vegetables and goes fishing when she is hungry. That which she can’t get from the sea or grow herself she picks up at the local market. One of her cousins is visiting and urging her to return to Germany to dispose of a property for which her presence is required. She politely declines.

Shortly thereafter, a new neighbor moves in to the house just above hers on the hillside. He is Jo (Riemell), a German musician/composer who has been drawn by Ibiza’s burgeoning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene. His stage name is DJ Gello and he is angling for a gig at Amnesia, the 800 pound gorilla of EDM clubs on Ibiza (and yes, this is a real club which is still open today). Jo is a pleasant sort who shows up at her door requesting first aid after badly burning his hand accidentally. She gives him an herbal cream rather than a bag of ice and the two strike up a friendship.

Marthe is in her 70s and Jo in his 20s but the two hit it off. They become fast friends, Marthe introducing Jo to the laid-back Ibiza life, Jo introducing Marthe to the hypnotic sway of EDM which Marthe actually finds compelling. There are a lot of things Marthe isn’t talking about; the cello that she never plays, the reason she won’t drink German wine or ride in Jo’s Volkswagen. He also is upset when he discovers that Marthe, who claimed to be unable to speak German, turns out to be fluent in that language.

In fact, it turns out that Marthe is in fact German. She left Germany shortly before World War II broke out and fled to Switzerland with her love, a Jewish cellist. Disgusted by what her country did and became, she has renounced all things German, affecting a sort of amnesia by choice of her native country, her native language and everything relating to it.

When Jo’s parents visit, his doctor mother (Leuenberger) and his beloved grandfather (Ganz) are trying very hard to convince Jo to return and take part in the historic reunification between East and West Germany. As the two enjoy a paella on Marthe’s patio on a sunlit afternoon, the grandfather’s harmless stories – which had evolved over the years – under Marthe’s persistent questioning begins to crumble until a stark truth remains. Grandpa Bruno’s own stories had formed a kind of amnesia for events too terrible to contemplate.

Schroeder has made some wonderful films in his storied career (his first effort in the director’s chair came back in 1969) as well as a few turkeys but this one tends towards the former more than the latter. A lot of his films feature people dealing with an unsavory past and this one does so indirectly (and directly in the case of Grandpa Bruno). Marthe, as Jo’s mom points out near the end of the film, is dealing with her issues with her homeland by running away from her feelings. It’s hard not to blame her; in an era when Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the direction that their country is taking. While we don’t have evil on the scale of the Nazis running the United States, there are certainly a lot of reasons not to like the way our country is shaping up. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to move to Ibiza and never speak English again – well, maybe I’m ready to move to Ibiza.

The cinematography here might just make you want to move to Ibiza. There are some beautiful vistas of gorgeous sunsets, stunning views and charming marketplaces. While this is mainly the Ibiza of 20 years ago (other than two framing scenes at the beginning and end), my understanding is that it hasn’t changed all that much.

The writing here is very simple in terms of storyline and although the plot takes awhile to get moving it does eventually do so. Yes, some of the dialogue is a little clunky (as when Jo explains to Marthe what looping is) but by and large this feels a lot like real people conversing with one another albeit people conversing in a language not native to them.

Marthe Keller was a big European star in the 70s along the lines of Charlotte Rampling who has had a bit of a late career renaissance. A performance like this could get Keller a resurgence of her own; the septuagenarian is charming and natural, never rushing her delivery. She’s not so much grandmotherly as she is a bit of a recluse; her origins are kept secret early on giving her an air of mystery but gradually as her story is unveiled we get to understand her better. The relationship between Marthe and Jo is platonic although Jo hints that his feelings run deeper, and the chemistry between the two is at the heart of the film. Both of these people are somewhat wounded and need each other and in the end we see that they are good for each other in ways movies don’t often explore.

This isn’t slated to get a very wide release although if it does well in the cities it is playing in we might see it get more screens, so it behooves you to make plans to see it if it does show up in your neck of the woods. It’s also already on Google Play and should be out on other streaming services before too long. In any case, this is a worthwhile effort from a director who has helped shape the course of film over the past 50 years – that in itself should be incentive enough.

REASONS TO GO: The vistas of Ibiza are enchanting. The story is simple but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The story takes a little bit of time to get moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Marthe lives in here was also used by Schroeder in More (1969) and is owned by the Schroeder family (his mother bought it in 1951).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Born in China

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)


A family portrait on the beach.

(2016) Drama (Film Movement) Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Taiga, Takahiro Miura. Directed by Kôji Fukada

Family dynamics are ever changing, evolving things. What appears to be on the outside may not necessarily be what circumstances are behind closed doors. The whole thing about happy families is that they are in reality a myth for the most part – they are even rarer than a unicorn.

On the surface, Toshio (Furutachi) has a good life. He and his family live quietly in apartments above the machine shop he runs and inherited from his father. If he seems a bit distracted at the breakfast table, he nonetheless provides for his family as best he can. His wife Akie (Tsutsui) is a good Christian woman and a doting mother on their daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa). She is sweet and high-spirited in the way of some children; she is also learning to play the harmonium with indifferent success.

Into the mix comes Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of Toshio. It is apparent he has just been released from prison and Toshio offers him a job and a place to live on the spot. This surprises Akie who knows that the business is struggling but being the polite Japanese wife that she is she says nothing. As the days go by she gets to know Yasaka a little better and her initial reservations seem to be abating and when he shares with her details of his crime she does not recoil. Rather, she is turned on or at least isn’t turned off by the idea of having an affair with him. When they do get physical it’s difficult to know who’s seducing who.

But a tragedy occurs that devastates the family and Yasaka disappears. Eight years later the family is still recovering, if you can call it that. Akie has lost much of her faith and Toshio has become fixated on finding Yasaka, the architect of his sorrow. A new worker joins the family – Takashi (Taiga) – who is eager to help the family heal, but when karma comes to roost it may completely destroy what little unity the family has left.

The movie is presented in two distinct sections; the first is dominated by Yasaka who is like a time bomb waiting to explode; the second is the aftermath eight years later in which the parents are trying to pick up the pieces and cope. It’s quite a bit harder to watch the second half as the emotions in it are so raw and almost overwhelming. What goes on in the first is more of a prelude, a dance around the underlying issues. The second is the after-effect, when the bomb has exploded on the dance floor.

The performances are very measured in the first part. Yasaka is stiff as a board and generally clad in white; Toshio always seems distracted and lost in his own world. Akie has the smile and the charm that she shows to the world but when she is at home she knows her marriage has crumbled into ashes and she tastes the bitterness of them in her mouth.

In the second half Akie and Toshio are still closed off to an extent but the pretenses are gone. Toshio smolders with a desire for vengeance; Akie is protective of what’s left of her family and feels her own share of guilt as to what happened. I won’t say the performances are night and day because they are not – what they are is what you’d expect how people would react to a life-changing tragedy eight years afterwards.

Fukada is one of Japan’s most promising directorial talents and this is the kind of film that shows why many think he may eventually revolutionize Japanese cinema. He has a reputation for being an outside-the-box kind of guy and while it might be difficult for those of us watching with Western eyes, he is truly turning Japanese culture inside out in this film. In its own way it is much like Luis Brunel slicing open an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou.

This is a  truly strong effort that is going to be riding the festival circuit for a short time until it gets a limited release in June (as of this writing). It would be worth seeking out at your local art house, film festival or eventually on whatever streaming service this winds up on. This is a look at changing family dynamics in Japan and what lies beneath the surface of even the happiest of families. It’s absolutely unforgettable and even if it is a little bit on the long side (particularly during the first portion of the film) you won’t be sorry you sought it out.

REASONS TO GO: There is an underlying tension that starts off quietly and slowly builds to a crescendo. The end mirrors the beginning in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Another movie that’s too long for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sensuality as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the Jury Prize winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guest
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Are We Not Cats?

My Love, Don’t Cross That River


Love transcends everything.

Love transcends everything.

(2014) Documentary (Film Movement) Byeong-man Jo, Gye-Yeol Kang, Doh-yeong Jo, Kaum-yeo Hyun, Daeh-yeong Jo, Bong-nam Kim, Keum-ja Jo, Sang-hyeong Jo, Ho-soon Cheon, Myeong-ja Jo, Myung-kyu Eom, Soo-yeong Jo, Yeong-whan Song, Seong-baek Jo, Seong-do Jo, Myeong-wha Jo, Seong-eun Jo, Soo-ah Kim. Directed by Mo-Young Jin

 

Seneca once wrote that “life, if well lived, is long enough.”  The truth is that a life well lived need not be an extraordinary one. It need not be world-changing. Sometimes, a simple life is the most well lived life of all.

Byeong-man Jo and Gye-Yeol Kang have been married for 75 years, give or take when this documentary was filmed. He was pushing the century mark, she was turning 90. The two “100-year-old lovebirds” as they are described, live in a rural village in the Gangwon Province of South Korea in a small but cozy home. They gather firewood for heat during the fall to prepare for the winter; they rake leaves from their doorstep. They care for their dogs and they cook rice in an electric rice cooker. They go on picnics with their local senior center. He sings songs for her and the two do traditional Korean dances.

They wear clothes in matching colors and they are almost always touching. He can’t sleep if he isn’t touching her. They cuddle and their love for each other is palpable, so true and quiet that it you can’t help but smile. As you watch them assist each other with their chores, it’s not just like seeing your own grandparents but much-beloved ones. You can’t help but love them both.

Filmmaker Mo-young Jin followed the couple for 15 months starting in 2012 through 2013, watching the changing of the seasons through their eyes. Both of them are aware that their time on this Earth is winding down but it becomes much more real when one of them develops health problems. This leads to anguish in the other, knowing that they will have to carry on without someone who has been right by their side for three quarters of a century.

This is a beautiful movie in every sense of the spectrum. The emotional core of the movie is the love between Kang and Jo, and that emotion is so obvious that you get caught up in it. Those who have someone special in their lives will be reminded of them; those that don’t will long for someone like that. I jotted down in my notes as I watched my screener that “this is what growing old together is supposed to be” and that’s exactly the case. It’s what all of us dream of when we find someone we want to spend the rest of our lives with. This is what it looks like.

All the senses are excited, from the achingly beautiful score by Min-woo Jeong to the often breathtaking cinematography of Jin. There are some sad moments, like an argument that breaks out between two of their six surviving children (six others were lost to the measles in childhood) on Kang’s birthday, causing her to break into tears until a grandchild comforts her. There are some cute moments, as when one of their dogs has a litter of some of the cutest puppies you’ll ever see. They have two dogs – Kiddo, who has the puppies, and Freebie who they paid nothing for. Jo further endeared himself to me by being a dog person, and clearly he has a deep connection with our canine friends.

This is a movie that reminds us that the things in life that are most important are those we love. It is a movie that stands as a testament to the endurance of that love. There is nothing loud or cantankerous about this movie; it washes over you like a gentle wave, guiding you to a shore where loved ones await. You will cry a lot during this film – often tears of joy, but certainly tears of catharsis. This movie will make you feel.

Some people don’t like that. I read in a couple of reviews accusations that the movie was staged, that the couple were too perfect to be real. I don’t know – there’s no concrete evidence other than a reviewer’s suspicions. Me, if I were going to accuse a documentarian of staging scenes for the camera, I’d want to have a little more evidence before throwing opinions around as if they are facts. I personally think that some reviewers don’t like to feel deep emotions during a movie, so they find ways to dis a film that makes them feel. Of course, I have no evidence that it’s true in these specific cases, but I have my suspicions.

That bad juju aside, I have to confess that I didn’t just cry watching this movie; I bawled. I was a blubbering, puddle of goo in front of my laptop, leaving a puddle of salty tears on my keyboard. I’m quite frankly surprised I didn’t short out my laptop. But thinking about this film makes me misty again. It reminds me of the good things that I have in my life and the good things to look forward to. It reminds me that it is the little things, the simple things that are important. It also reminds me that if you have somebody who loves you, even if you have no money at all you’re still wealthier than Donald Trump will ever be. This is the movie to beat for the best film of 2016 as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO GO: Renews your hope for humanity. The beautiful score enhances the entire film. Revels in the simplicity of life. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it too emotional and low-key for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is the most successful independently released feature in South Korea to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message From Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Lobster

The Automatic Hate


Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

(2015) Dramedy (Film Movement) Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell, Darren MacDonald, Vienna Stampeen, Travis Quentin Young, George Riddle, Sea McHale, Matthew Fahey, Jozef Fahey, Craig Wesley Divino, Mark Andrews, Brooke Stone. Directed by Justin Lerner

All families have secrets; skeletons in their closets that once let out affect the dynamic of the family in unexpected and often unintended ways. Those secrets sometimes die with those who were there but there are occasions when the consequences are passed down the generations.

Davis Green (Cross) is a head chef at a Boston restaurant, but as well as his culinary career is going, there is a lot less to desire in his private life. His emotional girlfriend Cassie (Woll), however, locks him out of the bathroom and can’t stop sobbing. She needs alone time and Davis is inclined to give it to you, especially after he hears why she’s sobbing (although we don’t find out until later). He heads down to his favorite bar to hang out with some friends, when he notices a beautiful blonde there who acts like she knows him. When he approaches her though, she runs away.

She shows up later at his apartment and introduces herself as Alexis (Clemens). She tells him that she’s his cousin, but that can’t be right – his dad was an only child. Nonetheless, she insists that’s who she is. When Davis confronts his dad Ronald (Schiff), at first his dad – a respected Yale-educated developmental psychologist – denies the existence of a sibling. Not one to simply take the word of his own dad who has always expressed disappointment in Davis’ career choice (and choice of girlfriend for that matter), Davis goes to talk to his grandfather (Riddle) who seems to confirm that there’s a long lost brother – “we don’t talk about Josh” he croaks before having a panic attack.

Once again, Davis confronts his dad who reluctantly admits to the existence of Josh (Jay) but won’t explain why the two are estranged. Devastated by this and by a revelation from his girlfriend, Davis decides to take a break from everything and find his cousins.

That’s right, plural. It turns out Alexis has two sisters – Annie (Y. Zima) and Vanessa (V. Zima) and they live on a bucolic farm in upstate New York, although it is not super successful. They live a kind of hippie existence, even to the marijuana dispensary in the consignment store the girls run. It turns out that the feelings Davis’ dad has for Josh are reciprocated. Davis and Alexis try to figure out what would cause such a rift between brothers – and all the while Davis is developing feelings of his own for his first cousin. When a family tragedy forces the two families together, what comes next is inevitable – and awkward.

This is not your average family drama nor is it your average romantic comedy. It falls somewhere in between and is seriously bent, in a good way. It is also bent enough that it may make some feel a little bit squeamish, particularly when you learn exactly what drove the brothers apart. However there is a real heart at the center of the movie that kind of helps drive through the less savory feelings that may occur.

The mystery of that estrangement could easily be a MacGuffin or become a distraction but Lerner never allows it to do so. The casting of veterans Schiff (The West Wing) and Jay (tons of David Mamet films) is brilliant; the two have a bit of resemblance facially and in vocal mannerisms. The two feel like brothers, which is important here, although brothers who have not seen each other in 20 years and have lived separate lives. Everything works here.

The cousins are all extremely beautiful blondes, which makes for a happy reviewer. There’s also some nice cinematic scenery in the upstate New York countryside. While there are a few hiccups – the hoary plot-advancing device of finding home movies in an attic seems a little bit beneath this film – this is one of those gems that come along every once in awhile that flies under the radar and is far more impressive than you would think. However, those who are easily squeamish about unorthodox romantic and sexual relationships should be on notice that this film may be a little bit uncomfortable for them.

REASONS TO GO: Handles the mystery adroitly. The cousins are gorgeous. A lot of heart (oddly enough) at the center.
REASONS TO STAY: The adult relationships are a bit uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, graphic nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in and about Mt. Vernon, New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Eddie the Eagle

Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!