The Boy Downstairs


The park is a good place for old friends.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (FilmRise) Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear, Deidre O’Connell, Sarah Ramos, Diana Irvine, Arliss Howard, Deborah Offner, David Wohl, Jeff Ward, Theo Stockman, Liz Larsen, Sabina Friedman-Seitz, Fabrizio Brienza, Jamie Fernandez, Peter Oliver, Natalie Hall. Directed by Sophie Brooks

 

People come in and out of our lives which is just the nature of life. Sometimes people who we thought gone from our lives come back into them unexpectedly which always gives us pause to wonder why we let them out of our lives in the first place.

Diana (Mamet) has just returned to New York after two years in London. She’s an aspiring writer trying to get a book written. She takes a job in a bridal shop to pay the bills and uses realtor Meg (Ramos) to help her find an apartment which she does; after interviewing with landlord Amy (O’Connell) Diana has a new place to live.

However, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend whom she left to move to London for – Ben (Shear) – lives in the apartment downstairs from her which she didn’t know beforehand. At first things are excessively awkward; Diana wants to be on friendly terms with him but Ben doesn’t want anything to do with her. Besides, he is seeing someone else – ironically, the realtor Meg. Diana is reminded of her relationship with Ben at almost every turn and begins to wonder why…well, I think we already covered that. In any case, she begins to think that there’s still a spark there but is it too late to fan those flames?

There are a lot of problems I have here. There are way too many clichés in the script from the artistic bent of the two leads (Ben is an aspiring musician) to the way more than they should be able to afford apartment in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood to the character of Diana which is quirky and borderline manic pixie dream girl, a character type which has become the annoying pixie dream girl which is exactly how Mamet plays her.

Brooks uses (some might say over-uses) flashbacks to show what’s in Diana’s mind and illustrating how her relationship with Ben rose and fell. Unfortunately it can be hard at times to tell which is flashback and which is set in contemporary Brooklyn. At a certain point, the viewer doesn’t care. Flashbacks like any other cinematic tool should be used sparingly and only when truly necessary; after awhile the flashbacks actually hinder the progress of the story.

This is seriously a movie about people I can’t care about doing things I don’t have any interest in. There are fortunately some good background performances, particularly O’Connell and Irvine as Diana’s BFF who has far more of a believable personality than Diana herself.

There is some decent urban cinematography but then it isn’t really all that difficult to make New York look enchanting. It’s just that this is another indie film chock full of stock indie film characters whose shallowness and quirkiness have become like nails on a chalkboard after you’ve seen enough of them which sadly, I have. If you haven’t seen a lot of indie rom coms set in New York City with quirky female leads, you might find this enjoyable. If you’ve seen every Greta Gerwig film ever, you may have the same reaction I did. If you’re in the latter group and ended up seeing this, we need to go drown our sorrows together; just not in the hipster bars of the type Diana and her friends hang out in.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are for the most part pretty good.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fails to rise above its own limitations. These are characters I don’t care about doing things that don’t interest me.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mamet, best known for her role in the TV series Girls, is the daughter of playwright David Mamet.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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Supergirl (2016)


A young woman who is strong as she is beautiful.

(2016) Documentary (FilmRise) Naomi Kutin, Ed Kutin, Neshama Kutin, Ari Kutin, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin. Directed by Jessie Auritt

Sometimes young people come along who are just extraordinary. They stand out as having passions, being goal-oriented, natural leaders. Naomi Kutin is just such a person.

When we meet her in this documentary she is just 10 years old but she already owns the power lifting world record in the 97 pound class. She routinely beats people twice her age. During the course of the film we watch in awe as she lifts three times their own body weight. To quote the title of a mostly-forgotten 70s television show, that’s incredible.

Her parents are extremely supportive. Her father Ed is a power lifter as well and often competes in the master class at the same meets his daughter does. He has been training her from the time she expressed interest in the sport. Her mother Neshama who converted to Judaism is also extremely supportive but is very careful to make sure Naomi gets to express other sides of her personality as well. In the meantime, she goes to all of the competitions her daughter lifts at and shouts encouragement from the sideline; “Go Supergirl,” the nickname that she and Naomi’s friends have bestowed upon her. There is also her younger brother Ari who is in the autistic spectrum but who clearly adores his big sister – a feeling that is amply returned by Naomi. She is protective of him and encourages him when he also takes up an interest in power lifting.

In fact Naomi and Supergirl are almost two different people. Naomi is a devout Orthodox Jew but also a modern little girl who titters over boys with her friends, likes bright colors and is aware of all the pop culture touchstones that girls her age are into. Supergirl is a dedicated and focused athlete who spends most of her time training and before lifting psychs herself up with primal screams and grunts that you wouldn’t expect coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old…or anyone else.

Auritt shot the documentary over the course of three years, from the triumphs of re-setting the power lifting record for her weight class to her struggles to stay in that class even as she is growing out of it. Much of Naomi’s self-identity, at least early on, is wrapped up in her world records. As it becomes clear that her body is growing into the next weight class, Naomi is dead set on keeping her weight at 97 pounds even though she is taller and not as centered as she was before her growth spurt.

Even as Naomi is wrestling with the inevitability of her weight increase, she is dealt a devastating blow as she begins to get terrible migraines. Soon it becomes clear that the cause of her migraines is her training and weightlifting; the doctors advise her to give it up but Naomi doesn’t want to. At first she fights through the pain but when she can no longer do that, she tries to find alternative solutions to maintain her health and still compete in the sport she loves at the level she is used to. As we watch, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to have what she wants.

What the movie makes clear is that Naomi is not the victim of stage parents who live vicariously through her achievements; nobody who is this dedicated and this focused does what Naomi does because they’re trying to please their parents. Her passion for power lifting comes straight from the heart. I’m sure there will be people who see this who will criticize the parenting going on, but personally I don’t think that’s valid. There are trolls all over the Internet as we see when Naomi reads some cruel comments that appear on her Facebook page. People really do suck sometimes.

It is also fascinating to watch how the Kutin family reconciles the weightlifting with their religious beliefs, although there are a few questions I have; their faith requires that there can be no electrical devices used during the Sabbath but we watch them on one occasion observing the Sabbath as a family; isn’t the camera an electronic device? Perhaps I’m ignorant of what is allowed on the Sabbath and what is not. Still, it is refreshing to see just how normal this family is other than the constant training. Watching Naomi and her mom go dress shopping for Naomi’s bat mizvah is about as fun as being there with them. In a sense, we are although of course we get no input into the dress Naomi chooses. Pity, that, because I have excellent taste in dresses. Moving along….

It is clear that the director has a good deal of affection for the subject of her documentary and who can blame her? Naomi is an extraordinary little girl. And for the record, she’s a beautiful girl who is going to grow to be a beautiful woman. She may power lift but she’s not sacrificing an iota of her femininity for it. I sense that her mother is seeing to that to a certain degree, but the fact is that Naomi just plain likes being a girl.

The story is pretty straightforward and told in a manner that is easily followed; Auritt doesn’t augment her film with animations or graphics for the most part other than the bare minimum. This is a traditional documentary style which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Auritt wisely chooses not to reinvent the wheel and just presents Naomi’s story mainly in Naomi’s own words. The talking heads mainly belong to her parents.

This isn’t the kind of documentary that is going to change your life for the most part. It is the story of a focused and special young woman and to be fair it will be inspirational to many. The takeaway is that those who are willing to put in the time, discipline and work to achieve their dreams can achieve them regardless of their age or size. That’s a good lesson, but not one that hasn’t been given in other films as well. Naomi Kutin is a special little girl and I think you’ll enjoy watching her story. You might even be inspired to go beyond your own limits in the thing your passionate about. And that, as it turns out, is what life is all about.

REASONS TO GO: Naomi is an impressive young person. The film gives us a glimpse into the daily life of an Orthodox Jewish family in a way that is very simple and direct.
REASONS TO STAY: The film isn’t as compelling as it might be. There are some incongruous moments.
FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that I wouldn’t feel concerned about allowing children or young people to see.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Auritt got the inspiration to do the film after reading a profile of Naomi online.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tickled

A Faster Horse


All the kings horses.

All the kings horses.

(2012) Documentary (Film Rise) Dave Pericak, Tom Barnes, Hau Thau Tang, Hal Sperlich, Gale Halderman, Edsel Ford II, Art Hyde, Jack Telnack, Prakash Patel, Julie Rochner, Kemal Cucic, Frank Davis, Steve Denby, Bob Fria, Carroll Shelby, Arjay Miller, Bob Kreipke, Henry Ford II, Marcy Fisher, John Clor. Directed by David Gelb

Americans love their cars. It’s an affection that borders on obsession with some (and crosses well past the line for others). It’s true that for a fairly significant segment of the population a car is a conveyance, a means of getting from one place to another. It’s a machine and most don’t obsess over their toasters or vacuum cleaners, am I right?

But for many, a car is an extension of themselves, their souls made steel. It isn’t necessarily just a means of getting from one place to another but a style of getting there. For many Americans, the Ford Mustang represents the pinnacle of cars.

The Mustang came into being for a lot of reasons. One was the Edsel, a massive failure that put the Ford Motor Company into a tailspin. When a young Lee Iacocca approached Henry Ford II with the idea of the Mustang as a performance car that was fast, fun and affordable, Ford was at first not impressed; this went against all the established thinking in the automotive industry; cars were then massive monstrosities in which bigger is better and the more metal the better. Innovation was not Job One at Ford back then.

But Iacocca, a master salesman, persisted and eventually Ford grudgingly agreed to give him half the normal seed money for bringing a car to market. Iacocca turned the project to Donald Frey and history was made. The release of the Mustang would be the most successful launch for Ford since the Model A. It continues to be maybe the most well-known model in the line; it certainly has some of the most cache.

When Ford decided to redesign the car (only the fifth in the model’s history) to celebrate the Mustang’s 50th anniversary this year, they turned the project over to Chief Engineer Dave Pericak. Documentary filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) was given unprecedented access to Ford’s design labs, testing facilities and production facilities. We become flies on the wall as the new model is designed and slowly shaped into being.

Gelb gives us a great deal of context, showing the Mustang in all its incarnations using car commercials, home movies and iconic clips from movies like Bullitt (whose iconic car chase helped make the Mustang Steve McQueen-cool). He also gives us a sense of how important the car is to the American self-image. In many ways the Mustang symbolizes American freedom, American strength and American individualism.

The distinctive engine sound of the Mustang is used to great effect here, merging with the Philip Glass-like score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans to make an eclectic noise. By the time the movie finishes up you’re bound to have an emotional reaction – in fact Pericak discusses the emotional response to the release of the car at length.

It is mind-boggling at how much has to be done for a car to make it from the drawing board to the dealership, but you get a sense of it here and of the pressure that the Chief Engineer is under. Ford invested an enormous amount of money to make this car at a time when America was in its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and car companies were being bailed out by the U.S. government. Even now, seven years later, Detroit is still suffering but Ford is one of the shining lights in the automotive industry, thanks largely to the success of the new Mustang.

Even those who don’t love cars – and I’m one of those – will find this a fascinating film. I can only imagine those who are car enthusiasts will find this to be catnip. Either way, this is a terrific documentary that is definitely worth your time to seek out and view.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what it takes to get a car from concept to market. Underscores the importance of the Mustang to the American psyche.
REASONS TO STAY: Bogs down a little bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing really that should disturb anyone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2015 Mustang is, as of this writing, a finalist for Car of the Year from Motor Trend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THEATERS: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How It’s Made
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sleeping With Other People

Hank and Asha


The movie fails to explore Asha's alcohol issues, alas.

The movie fails to explore Asha’s alcohol issues, alas.

(2013) Romance (FilmRise) Mahira Kakkar, Andrew Pastides, Brian Sloan, Ken Butler, Brian Patrick Murphy, Robyn Kerr, Jean-Baptiste Moreau, Samuel Beckwith, Margot Duff, Jiri Dular, Vaiva Katinaityte, Anna Tydlitatova, Bianca Butti. Directed by James E. Duff

In the 21st century courtship is changing. Once upon a time everything was done face to face. Long distance romance involved writing letters which took days to arrive. Yes, the dark ages of the 1980s when computers were just becoming prevalent in society we resorted to phone calls and letters, as well as actual dates. These days, our communication methods have changed as our technology as changed. Video calls, e-mails and social media have replaced earlier means of communication and thus courtship as well. We get to know each other in different ways than we once did.

Hank (Pastides) is a young man from North Carolina who moved to New York to pursue a career in film making. He managed to make a documentary about ballroom dancing that is making the rounds at festivals around the world, but his main income comes from being a production assistant on a reality show in which spoiled rich kids change their identities for a day. Mainly he sits in a van waiting for his walkie talky to summon him to fetch coffee or chauffeur cast or crew.

Asha (Kakkar) is a woman of Indian background who is studying film in Prague. She caught Hank’s documentary at a film festival there and was much taken by it. She had hoped that he would be present for a Q&A afterwards and was disappointed that he was not, so she decided to ask him a few questions anyway via video mail. She is very pleased to find out he’s a handsome young man and not, as she puts it, a crusty old documentarian which is what she assumed he was.

Hank responds in kind, answering her questions and asking a few of his own. Soon they are corresponding regularly and giving each other video tours of their apartments, of Asha’s film school and Hank’s “office” (the van he drives). They become friends, looking forward to their messages and becoming concerned when there are gaps in the other’s replies. The friendship begins to deepen as they start to make plans to meet in Paris, a place Asha has always wanted to visit. However, like most relationships, making it to Paris requires that a big dose of reality has to be addressed first.

I found the structure of the movie somewhat innovative – basically the movie consists of the exchanged video messages. At no point do the two ever converse directly with each other via video chat, which seems to be something Asha is reluctant to do after Hank suggests it early on. We find out why later on, but that does add a degree of difficulty to the movie in that it becomes something of a found footage romance. Keeping it interesting can be a challenge but the filmmakers actually manage to do that, engaging in a commentary on modern romance via technology along the way.

Hank and Asha make an engaging couple. They mesh well together and are exceedingly cute, not only physically. Asha has a sweet smile and her expression as she samples world famous Czech beer is absolutely precious – beer is most definitely an acquired taste, even excellent beer. There haven’t been many instances I’m aware of where someone tasted beer for the first time and exclaimed “Wow! That’s really delicious!”

For his part, Pastides is a charismatic presence. His face is very expressive and at times he’s required to express frustration, confusion, hurt and goofy charm and often does so wordlessly. He has a sequence that’s essentially a take-off on the Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business that is lovely, although it does go on a bit too long.

The problem with the movie is that it’s essentially an hour and a half of, if you’ll forgive the use of an industry term, meet cute. Montages of them travelling around their respective cities set to jangly indie rock is a bit cliche and a bit of a cheat as well, even though these are sequences supposedly created by Hank and Asha themselves. I found that they stop the movie in their tracks and forced me to grouse about indie film cliches until the movie resumed its conversational tone.

Another thing I would have liked to have seen is the two characters reveal a bit more about themselves. Of course, that might be a point the filmmakers are trying to get across – that modern technology puts up different kinds of walls, allowing us to show only our surface selves and nothing of who we truly are. And that’s a perfectly valid point, to be sure. Yes, Hank talks about his relationship with his parents and Asha has a brief moment where she feels like she doesn’t belong because she’s the only Indian student in the school and so she’s completely out of place but those are fleeting insights and are not really followed up upon. We never truly see Hank and Asha with any depth and quite frankly, the surface aspects of both of them are so engaging that I would have liked to get to know them better. Alas, that is the curse of modern life I suppose.

REASONS TO GO: The couple is utterly adorable. Nice commentary on modern romance.
REASONS TO STAY: Descends into the realm of too cute occasionally..
FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hank and Asha debuted at Slamdance in the dramatic film competition.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time Next Year
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skin I Live In