My Life in China


Father knows best.

Father knows best.

(2014) Documentary (Killer Bunny) Yau King Eng, Kenneth Eng. Directed by Kenneth Eng

Florida Film Festival 2015

Everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere is that more true than the United States. Even the Native Americans migrated over the land bridge from Asia to get here. All of us have a history that begins somewhere else.

Yau King Eng’s story began in China where he grew up under a repressive communist regime. In 1966, he made the decision to leave his impoverished village, his beloved family and everything familiar in his life to make a new and better life for himself in America. The journey was a dangerous one, involving a swim from the mainland to Macau and avoiding Chinese soldiers who weren’t above killing anyone who had the gall to want to leave.

But leave he did and to Boston he did go. At first, finding work was difficult but like many Chinese immigrants he found work in Chinese restaurants, washing dishes and sweeping floors. He worked two and sometimes more jobs, trying to make a better life for his family, eventually saving up enough to buy  a restaurant of his own.

Unfortunately, the American dream didn’t work out the way he thought it would. The restaurant business is a capricious one and a difficult one to find success in. He didn’t find that success, and the restaurant went bankrupt. To this day he continues to work for others in the restaurant business, but deep down he considers himself a failure because his restaurant didn’t make it.

In the meantime, China has prospered and the economic situation there is in many ways better than it is here. Yau decided that he would live the rest of his life out in the land where he was born, but first he would pay it a visit to make sure that this decision was a sound one. His visit back home, to the places that mattered to him, would be chronicled by his son Kenneth, a documentary filmmaker. The two of them together would experience modern China – Kenneth through fresh eyes, his father through the eyes of 1966. Their varying perspectives don’t really constitute the subject here; rather, it is more a journey of discovery for Kenneth as the tales of his father’s struggles in his homeland come to life and he develops a new perspective – and a new respect – for his dad.

Some of the film is quite heartwarming as we witness father and son develop new and stronger bonds between them. Some of the film is a bit harrowing as we are treated to the story of Yau King Eng’s defection and the courage and perseverance it took for him to make the journey. Much of the film, however, is a bit like watching home movies as we see relatives and friends gather, some of whom have found success and even wealth at home, another dagger in the heart of the prodigal son who left. The old men, smoking in kitchens while the women prepare feasts of welcoming, the elders reminiscing about times gone by. In short, very much what happens in YOUR living room when an out-of-town relative visits.

The home movie feel I think is deliberate as Eng not only makes his father’s story an individual one, but connects his family’s story with our own. Yes, ostensibly Eng is trying to tell a singular story but what makes this film successful is that he is able to relate much of it to our own situations, our own families, our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of movie that trumpets thunderous anthems from mountaintops (although the music in the film is quite beautiful), but rather quietly works its way into our hearts and finds the common ground that binds us all. Every family has stories; watching this movie prompting me to ask my mom about hers. Yes, I’m a child of immigrants as well so the movie hit home a lot closer than it might those who are farther removed from their own family’s immigrant experience. Even so, it is the stories of our mothers and fathers that are part of our own stories; understanding those stories help us understand who we are and where we’re from. For that alone, this is must-see viewing. While the movie is just starting to show up on the festival circuit, hopefully it’ll soon play at a film festival near you, or eventually make it onto a broadcast medium. I sure hope so; I’d love to see this movie again.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely illustrates the dichotomy of culture in China. Tells a moving and compelling story. Heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a home movie feel to it, although I think that’s appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eng’s last feature-length film, Kokoyaku: High School Baseball received an airing on PBS’ POV series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romantico
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Infini

The Farewell Party (Mita Tova)


You're never too old to multitask!

You’re never too old to multitask!

(2014) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkleshtein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar, Raffi Tabor, Josef Carmon, Hilla Surjon, Assaf Ben Shimon, Illanit Dado Lansky, Ruth Farhi, Ruth Geller, May Katan, Orly Katan, Jameel Khoury, Itzik Konfino, Michael Koresh, Kobi Maymon, Aviva Paz, Hanna Rieber, Hezi Saddik, Sigal Shimoni, Idit Teperson, Samuel Wolf, Annabella Yaacov. Directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon

Florida Film Festival 2015

Offshoring

Euthanasia remains a controversial subject around the world. Those who face terminal illnesses, excruciating pain and the loss of their own identity through diseases like Alzheimer’s are not legally given the opportunity to end their lives with dignity, something that we afford to animals but not humans. There are few societies enlightened enough to allow it; most take the religious view that suicide is a crime against God.

Yehekzel (Revach) is a tinkerer, and a good one. He also has a bit of a puckish sense of humor; he calls a friend and using an electronic voice distortion device pretends that he is God, telling her to hang in there. His wife Levana (Finkleshtein) puts up with his nonsense affectionately.

But one of his friends at the retirement home in which he lives wants to die. He is in the throes of a painful and terminal illness. The patient’s wife Yana (Rosen) desperately wants her husband to be put out of his misery, but of course such things are illegal. Yehekzel comes up with a plan; he can build a machine that will administer drugs; the first a sedative, the second something to stop his heart. Yana and Yehekzel enlist the help of Dr. Daniel (Dar) to help come up with the right drugs and the right dosages. Yehekzel even makes it easy for the patient to actually control when he or she wants the injection. Dr. Kevorkian would be proud.

But word spreads about the machine. Levana is horrified; she sees it as murder, plain and simple, even though the patients themselves want to die. Soon Yehekzel and his little crew are getting plenty of requests for the use of the machine. Yehekzel feels like he’s providing a much-needed service and despite his wife’s objections is pretty proud of what he’s doing.

Then Levana begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s and is truly terrified that in a short time she will be in the grip of that horrible disease. Now that her viewpoint has changed, she wants Yehekzel to use the machine on her. This is a horse of a different color for Yehekzel; can he use the machine on someone he loves?

Euthanasia doesn’t get much play in movies and with good reason; it’s a hideously depressing subject. Here, however, it is handled with a good deal of sensitivity and humor; not that the filmmakers and actors don’t take the subject seriously but they don’t make it a grim death march either.

The cast is made up of some of Israel’s most respected actors, in a large sense an all-star gathering although most are largely not well-known in America. They all do crackerjack jobs; there’s not a false note in the bunch. Each character fits into the puzzle nicely and you get the sense that these are all old friends. The cast meshes together well.

The only quibble I have here is a musical number that doesn’t quite fit in. It comes off as something that they grabbed from a production of Fiddler on the Roof and even though the singing is fine, I found the scene a bit jarring considering the rest of the movie. It’s somber and while I get it is there to tell us what’s going on internally with the characters, it was unsuccessful at least in my case.

This is a gem of a movie that is likely going to appeal more to older audiences than to younger other than those who are in to good movies and different viewpoints. It likely won’t convert those who are against euthanasia to the cause, but it certainly offers a point of view that is at least respectful. Definitely one to keep an eye out for when Goldwyn releases this in a limited run throughout the U.S. in late May.

REASONS TO GO: Tackles old age, death and euthanasia sensitively. Moving in places, beautiful in places, sweet in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Musical number hits the wrong notes.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was nominated for Best Picture at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars but lost to Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Offshoring 2015


Offshoring

Every year at about this time, shortly after the Florida Film Festival has ended, we like to present a collection of reviews for films that come to us from beyond America. We call it Offshoring and it’s one of our favorite mini-festivals of the year.

The variety and quality of films that come from around the world is improving rapidly with the cost of good quality equipment also coming down in price, becoming more affordable. These days you can see films that are absolutely riveting from every continent on Earth save Antarctica.

This year we have one of the movies that played this year’s Florida Film Festival among the five that we’re presenting. The movies that we’re reviewing come from Israel, Spain, France, Australia and Japan. The diversity of viewpoints that these films give us enriches us and helps us see things with a different perspective. Things including ourselves.

A lot of people dislike foreign movies because of subtitles and, in the case of English language films from foreign countries, accents that can be hard for Americans to decipher. That being the case, you should really rethink your prejudices because you’re cheating yourself out of some of the best movies you’re likely to see in your life. One of the films we’re reviewing this time out is one of the best animated features ever made and quite frankly one of the best movies ever made period.

So if you’re in an adventurous mood, you might give these movies a try. Not all of them are instant classics; some of them may have to grow on you a little. But I think that each of these movies gives you a glimpse not only of different ways of thinking, but at all the things that unite us as well. So hope to see you right here tomorrow when our mini-festival begins.

New Releases for the Week of May 1, 2015


Avengers Age of UltronTHE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

(Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, James Spader. Directed by Joss Whedon.

The summer blockbuster season is upon us and what better way to kick it off than with the latest Marvel extravaganza? In this one, the World’s Mightiest Heroes are faced with an artificial intelligence, one that was created to defend the planet if the Avengers weren’t available but one that also decided that the best way to defend the planet was to remove the human parasites. Now up against a foe that may be stronger and smarter than they are, they also must battle their own internal division if they are to save the world.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, featurettes, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)

Cheatin’

(Plymptoons) Jake and Ella are the happiest and most romantic couple in the history of romance, but like all good things it can’t last. A jealous, scheming woman plots to drive a wedge between them, breaking Jake’s heart and sending him off on a succession of loveless trysts. With the help of a disgraced magician, Ella desperately fights to reclaim her lover and find the happiness they are both destined to receive. This played the 2014 Florida Film Festival and is only now getting a theatrical release; you can read my festival review of the film here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Dior & I

(The Orchard) Raf Simons, Marion Cotillard, Anna Wintour, Jennifer Lawrence. The legendary house of fashion that is Christian Dior has a new artistic director who is preparing his very first Haute Couture line for the venerable fashion icon. The pressure is on as we are given a fly-on-the-wall view of the entire creative process, giving us an insight into what it takes to work for one of the great fashion houses of the world.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fashion Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

The Search for General Tso

(Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin. One of the most popular entrees to be served in American restaurants is General Tso’s chicken. Americans eat it up like crazy. But who is General Tso? Who created his namesake dish? And is it even Chinese at all? The answers may surprise you in this documentary guaranteed to make you hungry. This played the Florida Film Festival this year and you can read my review of it here.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Food Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

The Overnight


Peep show.

Peep show.

(2015) Sex Comedy (The Orchard) Jason Schwartzman, Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godreche, Max Moritt, R.J. Hermes, Kyle Field, Sarah DeVincentis. Directed by Patrick Brice

Florida Film Festival 2015

Moving to a new city can be a daunting experience, particularly when you don’t know anyone there. We all need a social outlet and finding one in a new place can be something of a priority.

That’s the situation that Alex (Scott) and Emily (Schilling) find themselves in when they relocate from Seattle to the trendy Silver Lake section of L.A. She’s the breadwinner and he works from home and watches their young son R.J. (Hermes). He needs some adult conversation. While at a party for another kid, R.J. hits it off with Max (Moritt). Max’s dad, Kurt (Schwartzman) comes on a little strong at first but he seems to think that the two of them should be friends with he and his wife Charlotte (Godreche). He invites them over for a casual pizza dinner and some playtime for the kids. Alex and Emily readily agree.

It turns out that Kurt has quite the McMansion, more or less tastefully furnished. Everything starts out pretty mellow with plenty of pizza and wine, with Kurt turning out to have a pretty natural rapport with kids. It’s after the kids go to bed that things start to get weird. Turns out that Kurt, who fancies himself something of a renaissance man, has a talent for painting anuses. No, you read that right. He’s got dozens of paintings of bungholes (mostly Charlotte’s) in his studio.

And as Emily discovers, Charlotte is quite the free spirit. She dabbles in massage, but not the kind you find in your local spa – the kind with happy endings, as Emily is shocked to discover. While Emily and Alex aren’t necessarily prudes, they’re both a little bit on the uptight side. Alex is fairly sensitive about the size of his junk, and is especially intimidated when he discovers that in addition to everything else, Kurt is also hung like a horse.

Still with enough pot and champagne swimming in their bloodstreams, Emily and Alex are able to let loose a bit. Then a bit more. And then things get really strange.

Sex comedies have a tendency these days to be focused on horny teens trying to get laid (generally for the first time) so it’s kind of refreshing to have a sex comedy aimed for adults with adult sensibilities.  Writer/director Brice does get a bit into Apatow territory when he goes the penis size route but that’s really not the bulk of the material here. There’s a fish out of water element – the newcomers in hedonistic L.A. – but mainly this is a romp between the sheets.

What works here is the chemistry between the leads. In particular, Schwartzman does some of the best work of his career as the somewhat pompous and out there Kurt who is basically a decent guy who has kind of bought into the whole L.A. thing – it’s an easy temptation, I can tell you – and is kind of a douchebag because of it, but he’s not really a douchebag deep down. That’s fairly complex, but Schwartzman pulls it off.

Scott is becoming a very reliable comic actor with big things ahead of him. I liked him a lot in A.C.O.D. and I like him a lot here as well. He is pleasant enough even when the situation around him is crazy as can be but he seems nonplussed by the insanity. He also makes a very attractive couple with Schilling, who is a versatile actress who is mainly the straight woman here but she has her comedic moments as well.

This is definitely L.A.-centric and those who delight in dissing the City of Angels will have a field day here. Those who love the city as I do will be reminded of summer nights in the City, which can be among the nicest things you can experience in life. Still, the movie is anything but laid-back.

Much of the humor comes from awkward situations which can be…awkward. Still you have to admire a movie in which characters utter the lines “giant horse cock” and “I have an abnormally small cock” in the same scene. You just can’t get that anywhere else but here.

Like most movies, this one knows that the world’s most dangerous question is “Do you find me attractive” and that there’s no answer that doesn’t end badly once it is asked. Not all of the humor works here but when it does it is big laughs. On the balance, this is a rare breed of movie that walks the tightrope that is adult sex comedies. It occasionally falls off the wire but to its credit it gets back on and starts walking forward again, and that’s worthy of respect. This is solidly entertaining, rather funny and likely to be one of those movies that people will look at when Schwartzman, Scott and Schilling become A-list stars.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry among four leads. Very funny when it’s funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the humor works. Definitely awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sexual situations and foul language..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place over a mere 15 days, very quick for a feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ex-Machina

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

(2014) Drama (Amplify) Rinko Kikuchi, Noboyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Kanako Higashi, Ichi Kyokaku, Ayaka Ohnishi, Mayuko Kawakita, Takao Kinoshita, Yumiko Hioki, Natsuki Kanno, Brad Prather, Earl Milton, Madde Gibba, Phil Hall, Ravi Jasthi, Lucy Luu, Jim Wescott, John Edel, Fredrika Dukes, Kirsten Gregerson. Directed by David Zellner

Florida Film Festival 2015

We are all searching for something. Be it a spiritual goal, an esoteric concept or something concrete, we spend most of our lives in search of something. Usually that search is just a part of who we are, a means of achieving some sort of meaning. Sometimes, however, the search consumes us.

Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a Tokyo office lady, a kind of executive assistant. Like many things in the world of Japanese business, her role is heavily choreographed, from the hierarchy within the office, to the role she is expected to play to even the clothes she must wear – black skirt, white blouse, plaid vest. There are those who would say that it is a sexualizing of the position, taking women fulfilling valuable support roles and reducing them to little more than a pornographic icon.

Kumiko trudges through life in a kind of a daze, as if she’s drugged. She communicates in barely audible muttering, commits small acts of anonymous defiance (like spitting into her boss’s tea) and accepting the abuse of both her boss and her overbearing mother.

In a sea cave she discovers a buried tape of the Coen Brothers brilliant Fargo and gets the idea that the suitcase full of money that is buried near an anonymous fence post in the film by Carl Showalter (the Steve Buscemi character) is really still there, waiting for her to dig up. The idea takes root in her and becomes impossible to dislodge; it consumes her attention.

When the opportunity presents itself for her to flee to America, she takes it, leaving her beloved bunny Bunzo in a subway car (an earlier attempt to set Bunzo free in a park didn’t go the way Kumiko planned when Bunzo refused to hop off to freedom). Once in America, completely broke, she single-mindedly makes her way in the general direction of Fargo, with and sometimes despite the help of well-meaning Americans with whom she communicates in broken English. One well-meaning and generous deputy sheriff (D. Zellner) tries to tell her that the movie isn’t a documentary and the treasure isn’t really there but she refuses to believe it and freaks out about it a little. To Kumiko, there is nothing more real than the treasure which she believes is the ticket out of her terrible, constricting life and the way to true happiness.

This movie played the recent Florida Film Festival and received mostly positive response although there were some who felt differently. In all honesty, I can see both points and how you respond to this movie is going to depend on your point of view about a few things.

However, I don’t think anyone is going to deny that Kikuchi is brilliant in this movie. She doesn’t play Kumiko’s gradual downward spiral broadly; instead, it is a subtle thing, a gradual loosening of grasp on reality. She seems to realize that life is passing her by but is uncomfortable talking about such unpleasant things; when her boss asks her how old she is, she responds 29 but in truth she looks much older and this isn’t to say that Kikuchi isn’t a beautiful young woman; her eyes reflect the kind of despair that comes with age.

I like a lot of things that the Zellner Brothers (director/co-writer/actor David, producer/co-writer/actor Nathan) do here, in terms of writing a thought-provoking script with an ending which might seem ambiguous but really isn’t. Visually, Kumiko’s red jacket stands out whether in a crowded Tokyo subway station or trudging in a field of snow in Minnesota. Even when she makes a make-shift coat from a hotel comforter she becomes a kind of bedraggled Conquistador on a quest for El Dorado, an image Kumiko herself subscribes to. Little things like that make the film all the more delightful.

The score is done here by frequent Zellner Brothers collaborators The Octopus Project and it won a special jury prize at Sundance. Da Queen didn’t care much for it, claiming it gave her a headache but in all honesty I think the score is part of the means that the filmmakers are using to portray Kumiko’s descent into madness, as well as her humdrum existence in Tokyo.

The pace moves a bit slowly – Kumiko doesn’t arrive in America until about 45 minutes in – but I think that if you can overlook that the story is being told at its own pace you will be engrossed by it. There are moments that are genuinely funny (and not all of a “fish out of water” nature – some of the best laughs occur while Kumiko is in Japan) and some that will elicit a great deal of pathos, like a phone call near the end of the film that Kumiko has with her mother and slowly realizes that she will never be the woman her mother wants her to be – and that her mother will never accept her. This realization is done very quietly and without histrionics, just a sad expression and a slow movement of her hands. One more reason to qualify Kikuchi as one of the more brilliant actresses of the day.

REASONS TO GO: Outstanding performance by Kikuchi. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Very slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the urban legend of Takako Konishi, whom the media erroneously reported in 2001 had come to the United States to find the treasure depicted in Fargo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is a True Story
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Overnight

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann)


Working on the railroad all the live-long day.

Working on the railroad all the live-long day.

(2013) Comedy (Music Box) Robert Gustafsson, Iwar Wiklander, David Wiberg, Mia Skaringer, Jens Hulten, Bianca Cruzeiro, Alan Ford, Sven Lonn, David Shackleton, Georg Nikoloff, Simon Sappenen, Manuel Dubra, Cory Peterson, Kerry Shale, Philip Rosch, Keith Chanter, Patrik Karlson, Johan Rheborg, David Hogberg, Alfred Svensson, Eiffel Mattsson. Directed by Felix Herngren

Florida Film Festival 2015

Our lives have a certain texture and richness that we don’t really detect while we’re living it. Some of us labor in obscurity, affecting only those we’re close to and loved by. Others are destined not necessarily for greatness, but for greater effect.

Alan Karlsson (Gustafsson) is one such man. From the time he was a boy, he loved to blow things up, a gift from his father who was a bit of a revolutionary and died espousing contraceptives as the means to a better society. Alan’s penchant for explosives would eventually get him put into a mental hospital and later in life, into a retirement home.

It is in the latter place that one day – on his 100th birthday as a matter of fact – he just decides to step out of his window and leave. Nobody sees him go, and Alan manages to make it to the bus station and has just enough money on him to purchase a ticket to the middle of nowhere. While he’s waiting for the bus to come, a pushy biker sort (Sappenen) insists that Alan watch his suitcase while he’s in the bathroom. When Alan’s bus arrives, he absent-mindedly takes the suitcase with him. What Alan doesn’t know is that there is 50 million kroner inside the suitcase.

The bus lets him off in a one-horse Swedish town where the train no longer runs. Julius (Wiklander) watches over the train station and graciously takes Alan in for lunch and drinks, the latter of which Alan is more enthusiastic about. Their little party is broken up by the arrival of the pushy biker who wants his suitcase back in the worst way but the two old men manage to subdue him and lock him in a freezer.

Taking to the road, Julius and Alan meet up with Benny (Wiberg), a perpetual college student who has no degree yet despite having taken 920 credits in classes over 18 years but can’t make up his mind what he wants to do with his life, and later on with Gunilla (Skaringer), a lovely young Bohemian who is keeping a purloined elephant in her barn. Chasing them is Gaddan (Hulten), the leader of the biker gang whose pushy member had unwittingly given the suitcase to Alan, and Pim (Ford), the English drug lord whose cash it is.

In the meantime, Alan reminisces about his remarkable life which took him to the Spanish Civil War (where he saved General Francisco Franco’s life), the Manhattan Project (where his suggestion helped J. Robert Oppenheimer solve a critical problem with the atomic bomb and led to him having a tequila drinking session with then-Vice President Harry Truman), the Soviet Union (where he would eventually be imprisoned with Albert Einstein’s slow-witted brother) and the C.I.A. (where he would be a double agent passing useless information between both sides).

In that sense, this is a bit of a Forrest Gump-like film in which Alan drifts through history, and the parallels are a bit striking. While not quite as slow as Gump, Alan is certainly not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and kind of allows life to take him where it will, avoiding disaster often by the slimmest of margins.

This is based on a massively popular novel that is available here in the States. The movie version was a huge hit in Sweden where it recently became the biggest box office success of any Swedish-made movie in history. The distributor is the same group that brought the Millennium trilogy to American shores and is hoping for a similar type of success. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep those unfamiliar with the book guessing as to where the plot is going.

Certainly that sort of success would be merited here. I found it funny in a less over-the-top way than American comedies are these days. Comedies coming from America seem to be hell-bent on pushing the envelope of good taste and excess (which isn’t of itself a bad thing); this is more content to use absurd situations and serendipity to get its humor across. This is definitely more old school and those who prefer the comedies fast-paced and frenetic will likely find this slow and frustrating.

Gustafsson is one of Sweden’s most popular comic actors and we get a good sense why; his comic timing is impeccable and his mannerisms as the 100-year-old Alan are pitch-perfect. He gets able support from Wiberg who plays perhaps the most indecisive man ever, Hulten as the crazed biker and Ford as the apoplectic drug lord (Ford played a similar role in Guy Richie’s Snatch). Throughout Herngren hits the right notes and allows the comedy to happen organically rather than force things.

There are a few quibbles – the narration is a bit intrusive and there are some factual errors (for example, President Roosevelt actually died three months before the Trinity atomic test, not after) but for the most part the movie is pleasant and funny, though not life-changing. It’s the perfect tonic for a bad day and if you need further praise than that, you just must not have many bad days.

REASONS TO GO: Oddball sense of humor. Forrest Gump in Europe. Absurdly funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Narration is a bit intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor, a little violence and some bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gustafsson estimated that if all the time he spent in the make-up chair was tallied, he would have been there three uninterrupted weeks 24/7 in the chair when all was said and done.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Danny Collins

Gabriel (2014)


Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

(2014) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rory Culkin, Emily Meade, Lynn Cohen, David Call, Alexia Rasmussen, Louisa Krause, Deirdre O’Connell, Frank De Julio, Julia K. Murney, Desmin Borges, Biago Simon, Sean Cullen, Jee Young Han, Chase Anderson, Samantha Sherman, And Palladino, Shana Kaplan, Chelsea Linder, Adriana Barnett. Directed by Lou Howe

Florida Film Festival 2015

We know so little about the human mind. What makes it tick, how it processes information, what causes it to malfunction, we really only have an inkling of the mysteries of the brain. We try to help those who have issues with their mental faculties, but really it’s all just stabs in the dark.

Gabriel (Culkin) is taking a bus. He seems friendly enough, although there’s something a little off about him; a little jittery perhaps, or a sense that he’s trying too hard to fit in. In any case, when he arrives at a small college in Connecticut looking for his girlfriend, we think that he’s just trying to visit his girl until we realize that the address he has for her is years out of date. When he finally finds her home address, his frustration that she doesn’t answer the door leads to a brief outbreak of violent behavior leads to our sense of unease about the kid.

Then we find that he wasn’t supposed to be there; he was supposed to be heading home to his family – brother Matthew (Call), a straight-arrow sort who is doing his best for his baby brother and is ready to introduce his fiance Kelly (Rasmussen) to him, and his mother Meredith (O’Connell) who is frenetically protective of her son, checking up on whether he has taken his medication as if he were a seven-year-old.

It is no wonder that Gabriel chafes in this environment, so at his first opportunity he runs off, still in search of his girlfriend Alice (Meade) whom he think will solve all his problems and make his life the perfect thing he always imagined it would be. There are obstacles in his way however, most of them of his own making. For one thing, the only one in his family he trusts as all is Nonny (Cohen), his grandmother and she is in the City (New York, for those wondering). For another, he’s not exactly sure where Alice is spending the winter break. One thing is certain; he doesn’t want to go back to the institution where he had just been released from. He very much wants his freedom.

There is a small coterie in Orlando who are in the know about something called the Uncomfortable Brunch. It takes place at a bar called Will’s Pub on a Sunday morning once a month and during the brunch they show a movie, generally one that is difficult to watch or raises feelings of unease. Those familiar with that event will understand when I say that this is the perfect movie for it.

First-time director Howe pulls no punches, basing the movie on his own experiences with a college roommate who was a diagnosed schizophrenic. This isn’t a movie that is so much a journey as it is a descent, for as Gabriel refuses to take his meds and becomes more and more in the grip of his own obsession, we see him become less and less likable and more and more dangerous to himself and others.

Culkin delivers the performance of his career to date and marks himself as a serious actor to be reckoned with. The intensity of his gaze from under the wool cap that his character wears constantly (an inkling of which you get from the photo above) grows more and more focused even as he himself does not. We get the sense that there’s something not quite right about Gabriel and it isn’t just the various tics and mannerisms. It’s the unpleasantness (I wrote in my notes as I watched this that there was nothing wrong with him a good punch in the face wouldn’t cure, although of course that’s far from true and not one of my shiniest moments) of the character, the sense that he is capable of anything and his overall unpredictability that make him feel like a ticking time bomb. One feels watching Gabriel that this movie isn’t going to end well for somebody, and it may be someone besides Gabriel who is the victim.

The movie is bleak looking as well; there aren’t a lot of warm colors in the cinematographer’s palate here; a lot of blues and grays and whites. That it is set during winter is not an accident; that contributes to the overall bleak feel of the movie. There are also a few nagging questions I had about just what was going on; where, for example, did Gabriel get the money for the bus tickets he buys?

This isn’t easy to watch in many ways but to its credit the movie will get a reaction from you, even if it is an unpleasant one. The world needs movies like this one, if only to remind us that the world isn’t the same for everybody and some folks who may not be the most pleasant to be around are grappling with demons that the rest of us can never understand or relate to. Only their families will have some sense of the hells they live through and sometimes, they’re so busy going through their own hells in dealing with theirs that they lose sight of that.

I can’t say that I’d recommend this movie for everyone – not everyone wants or needs a downer of a film when they’re looking for a movie to watch. However, despite my somewhat lukewarm review, this is a movie that has a lot going for it and for those looking for something a little different and a little more challenging, this is definitely one you should consider.

REASONS TO GO: Culkin is scintillating. No punches pulled view of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: An hour and a half spent with someone you’d probably rather not spend an hour and a half with. A bit too bleak for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in the Hamptons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider (2002)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

Welcome to Leith


Nothing supreme about these whites.

Nothing supreme about these whites.

(2015) Documentary (No Weather) Ryan Schock, Craig Cobb, Thomas Kelsch, Laura Collins, Lee Cook, Kynan Dutton, Deborah Henderson, Todd Schwartz, Steve Bay, Greg Bruce, Kenneth Zimmerman. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker

Florida Film Festival 2015

Leith, North Dakota, on the surface seems to be an unremarkable small town in the Great Plains. A rural hamlet of 24 hard working people, it’s indistinguishable from dozens, hundreds of towns just like it. That wasn’t always the case though.

In 2012 a man named Craig Cobb bought a home in Leith. Not a remarkable thing in and of itself, although people moving into Leith is a big event in Leith. Some of the residents went to greet the new neighbor, but for the most part he resisted any attempts to socialize. People figured he just wanted to keep to himself and gave him space. In North Dakota, people mind their own business.

That’s not true elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center had been keeping tabs on the main players in the White Supremacy movement, and it turns out that Cobb was one of the major players among the neo-Nazis. They also discovered that he was out to take over this town by quietly buying up plots of land for a song, then turning around and selling them to other white supremacists. Once they had a voting majority, they would take over the city government and create a paradise on the plains for racists.

That didn’t sit well with the townsfolk of Leith, who wanted nothing more than to live out their lives in their small slice o’ heaven without bother or fuss, but to have armed racists terrorizing the town carrying loaded rifles around town, getting into confrontations with citizens of Leith and of course sending all sorts of worry into the town’s lone African-American and his family, something had to be done to stop Cobb. But what could they do?

Filmmakers Nichols and Walker offer a surprisingly balanced and dispassionate chronicle of the events in Leith with interviews with Cobb and his follower Dutton as well as Schock – the town’s mayor – as well as other townspeople and other interested parties. Both sides are allowed to present their point of view.

And in fact, in some ways, the racists have some salient points. They’re doing nothing illegal. They’re simply taking advantage of the town’s by-laws and of laws that are common throughout North Dakota and the U.S. in general. Until they start stalking the streets with shotguns, they seem to be well on their way to accomplishing their goal. Of course, once they start talking their world view shows itself to be completely repugnant, but the filmmakers wisely let them dig that hole themselves rather than pointing self-righteous fingers. The former method is far more effective than the latter.

They also paint a beautiful picture of a small town in what would at first glance seem to be a stark and barren land. They are relatively close to the booming oilfields that have been attracting workers to the area (and are the subject of another acclaimed  documentary, The Overnighters but that is another review for another day), but the way the filmmakers shoot the landscape it is almost mystical. You can easily see why the people love this place and want to defend it so vigorously. There is a beauty that is quiet and unassuming but unforgettable nonetheless.

One of the few quibbles I have with the movie is Credo 64. You see “Credo 64” emblazoned throughout the film on signs around town left by the supremacists, but it is never explained in the movie. For the record, it refers to the “White Man’s Bible” which is the holy book of the Creator sect, a Christian-like religion that has rewritten the Bible to reflect White Supremacist doctrine. Credo 64 essentially permits Creators to act as terrorists and vigilantes when their government oppresses them and is in this instance a veiled threat to the town, one which probably should have been explained better in the movie.

There is also a fairly large usage of racial epithets including the N word throughout; if that makes you as a viewer uncomfortable, you may want to give that some consideration. I found myself numbed to it pretty quickly, but I did feel uncomfortable initially. Depending on your sensitivity to that sort of thing your reaction may differ.

This is an essential documentary. It is easy to forget that people like the Craig Cobbs of the world took over an entire country and swayed them to their morally bankrupt principles and turned that country into a military threat that destabilized the entire world until an alliance of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other nations put down that threat for good. But it could still happen here; it almost happened in Leith but for the will of the people who lived there. It could happen elsewhere, maybe where you live and when it does, it will be insidious, someone who spreads fear, mistrust and hatred until the entire community rallies around a demagogue who will lead them to victory over the object of that fear, mistrust and hatred. Don’t think it can happen here? Look at how many people are supporting laws that oppress the LBGT community. Look at how easily the voting rights, so dearly won in 1964, have been swept aside. It can happen here. And it will happen here if we aren’t careful. Welcome to Leith reminds us that we need to stand up together and say “No” when an entire community is threatened and that’s how you ensure that it doesn’t happen here.

REASONS TO GO: Chilling to the bone. Beautiful cinematography. Captures the conflict fairly.
REASONS TO STAY: Leaves a few terms unexplained.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Rolling Stone named it one of the ten best films of the festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gabriel

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon


Shenanigans in a bygone era.

Shenanigans in a bygone era.

(2015) Documentary (4th Row) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, Christopher Buckley, Ellis Weiner, Al Jean, Chevy Chase, Sean Kelly, Ivan Reitman, Judd Apatow, Jon Landis, Michael Gross, Judith Jacklin Belushi, Chris MIller, Danny Abelson, Mike Reiss, Beverly D’Angelo, Jerry Taylor, Brian McConnachie, Meatloaf, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Doug Tirola

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the interest of transparency, I was a Mad magazine kid growing up and the National Lampoon, while on my radar, was a bit more sophisticated than my young mind could grasp. However, there’s no denying that for the last 40 years, the Lampoon has been essentially the wellspring of American humor, From its pages, films, radio and stage shows have come some of the most important writing and performing talents in comedy. It has directly or indirectly inspired the comedy of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and the comedies of John Hughes, Jon Landis and Judd Apatow. Even for those who weren’t directly involved with either writing it or reading it, its influence has shaped them whether they’ve known it or not.

The Lampoon began with the Harvard Lampoon, one of the country’s oldest humor magazines. Two Harvard grads who’d worked on the magazine (and also co-wrote the now-classic parody novel Bored of the Rings) named Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard. After creating some parody magazines for such publications as Mademoiselle, they got together with Matty Simmons to create the National Lampoon.

The nascent magazine was able to attract such talent as writers Michael O’Donoghue, P.J. O’Rourke and Anne Beatts, as well as artists like Rick Meyerowitz and Michael Gross. Their heyday, during the heady days of Watergate and Vietnam, reflected the country’s angst, anger and frustrations but also pushed the boundaries of humor beyond what had been acceptable what to then. The Lampoon printed what most people were already thinking, only funnier.

The magazine was as rock and roll as comedy ever gets and as most students of rock know, that’s a double edged sword. Sure the magazine was innovative and ahead of its time in many ways, but the creative forces that powered it were prone to drug addiction, burn-out and attrition. While the 70s waned and the 80s waxed, the magazine which had by then branched out into films with Animal House and National Lampoon’s Vacation series, had lost most of those who were it’s creative soul – Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 and the company really never recovered.

But oh, what a legacy it has left behind. The filmmakers sift through hundreds of hours of archival footage including their stage shows, audio of their radio show and page after page after page of their magazine. Those who were readers of the magazine will get a nice sense of nostalgia while those who weren’t will get a wonderful opportunity for discovery. Nearly the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live worked on the Lampoon stage show, and director John Hughes was on the writing staff during the later years of the magazine, as were Simpsons show runners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.

There are a ton of interviews with the surviving staff of the magazine’s golden era, with Simmons and Beard getting the lion share of face time, while much attention is paid to the writers, artists, performers and celebrity fans of the magazine and its spinoffs. While this isn’t groundbreaking style here, because the material is just so freaking funny (I was breathless with laughter when the film finally spun its final credits) that I’m willing to overlook the lack of innovation, which is a bit ironic since the magazine was known for innovation.

Be that as it may, this is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year and likely for a lot of years to come. Even though some of the material is dated, a lot of it is timeless as well and is as funny now as it was then. Whether you’r of the generation that made the magazine what it was or a Johnny-come-lately, this is a don’t-miss documentary that you should be absolutely certain to catch when it hits the festival circuit near you, or hopefully when it gets a richly deserved distribution deal and shows up either theatrically or on VOD. Whatever the case may be, see it. Or I’ll shoot this dog.

REASONS TO GO: Excepts from Lampoon radio broadcasts and live shows hysterical. The source for humor in its era.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its era. Lots and lots of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity, crude and sexual humor, plenty of foul language and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s poster was drawn by Rick Meyerowitz who also drew the poster for National Lampoon’s Animal House and is modeled on its design.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Live From New York!
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Welcome to Leith