The Hero


Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott are most definitely amused.

(2017) Dramedy (The Orchard) Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katherine Ross, Doug Cox, Max Gail, Jackie Joyner, Patrika Darbo, Frank Collison, Andy Alio, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Linda Lee McBride, Christopher May, Demetrios Sailes, Sherwin Ace Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Todd Glieberhain, Norman De Buck, Barbara Scolaro. Directed by Brett Haley

In many ways, we use the term “hero” a bit too loosely in our society. A hero can be a first responder rushing into a burning building to rescue those trapped inside, or it can be a dad willing to play catch with his son. It’s a matter of perspective. One person’s hero is another person’s non-entity.

Lee Hayden (Elliott) was once upon a time an actor of Westerns who was one of the best of his time. His film The Hero remains an iconic look at the Old West. However, he didn’t know that was to be his career highlight. Now in his 70s, the actor smokes pot, hangs out with a former co-star and child actor now turned pot dealer Jeremy (Offerman) who ends up introducing him to another client, stand-up comedian Charlotte Dylan (Prepon). Lee’s agent isn’t exactly what you’d call a go-getter; his career has been stalled for some time, having only a barbecue sauce radio commercial to fall back on and a Lifetime Achievement award for a small-time Western Film Appreciation Society. We all know Lifetime Achievement awards are code for “I didn’t know he was still alive.”

This is all taking place about the time that Lee learns he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Lee copes with the news by snapping at his friends and smoking all the pot he can get his hands on. A chance encounter with Charlotte at a taco truck leads to an endearingly awkward invitation to be his date at the award ceremony.

His acceptance speech in which he pays a somewhat heartfelt but molly-addled thanks to his fans goes viral and suddenly he has offers and opportunities that he hasn’t had in decades. His relationship with Charlotte though is going through some rocky patches, his daughter Lucy (Ritter) doesn’t want to see him and Lee is terrified at what his future holds. What truly makes a hero?

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room – Sam Elliott is an iconic actor with a voice that sounds as timeless as the Grand Canyon and a face twice as lined. This folks is arguably the best performance of his storied career. While I admit it’s a bit strange watching Elliott as a pot head, this is as nuanced and as versatile a performance as I can recall him giving. He has moments when he’s funny as hell (as when he tells an adoring fan who loves his moustache “It loves you too, honey” and gives her a sweet peck on the cheek) and others that are pure pathos. My favorite moment in the movie is when he tells his ex-wife (played by his actual real life wife Katherine Ross) that he has cancer. The scene is shot in long shot and we don’t hear what’s actually said. We just see the ex break down and Lee move to comfort her. It’s an amazing moment by two pros who I wouldn’t mind seeing much more of on the silver screen.

And now for the other elephant in the room (this room sure holds a lot of elephants); the cancer-centric plot. It’s not that we haven’t been through hordes of movies that are about aging parents with limited time left trying to reconcile with their angry children and yes, that’s exactly what’s going on here. However, it never feels maudlin under the sure direction of Brett Haley and Elliott and his fine supporting cast make sure that the characters always feel real; never do we feel like Hayden is almost superhuman in his stoic acceptance of his oncoming date with death. Hayden shows moments of terror and at last realizing he can’t do it on his own reaches out to those closest to him.

The movie was a big hit at Sundance and was selected as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. That’s a high bar to live up to but The Hero easily reaches its lofty expectations and exceeds them. While some may think of the movie as being too sugary sweet on paper (and I admit it looks that way but only on paper) the reality is that the emotions felt genuine to me and Elliott’s performance transcends a lot of the fears I’d normally have with a movie like this. You may need a few tissues here and there but in reality this is the portrait of a truly heroic man, the kind of man who has become increasingly rare these days – a man’s man. With the scarcity of that particular species, it makes all sorts of sense to me that a woman Prepon’s age would fall for a man of Elliott’s. As hoary as the Hollywood May/December romance is, it works here. That’s a minor miracle in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this may be the best performance of Elliott’s career. There are some real nice visuals. The film is an interesting take on the nature of heroism.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more drug use than you’d expect as well as a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elliott and Ross are married in real life (they play exes here); this is the first cinematic appearance by Ross in ten years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Fall, Winter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Gangster’s Daughter

Paris Can Wait (Bonjour Anne)


Diane Lane by the river.

(2016) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, Alec Baldwin, Élodie Navarre, Elise Tielrooy, Linda Gegusch (voice), Cédric Monnet. Directed by Eleanor Coppola

Sometimes when one is feeling like life isn’t working out, a road trip is just what’s needed to clear out the doldrums. Of course when that road trip takes you through the south of France so much the better.

Anne (Lane) is the wife of Michael (Baldwin), a high-powered Hollywood producer. They are in Cannes for the film festival and she has developed a nagging earache. Fresh off of plugging his last project to distributors and, well, whatever it is that producers do in Cannes, Michael is headed for Budapest and bringing Anne along in the private jet. The pilot however recommends that Anne not fly given that the earache would make it excruciatingly painful. Michael’s French partner Jacques (Viard) offers to drive Anne to Paris rather than having her take the train by herself. She cheerfully agrees.

Jacques is not one to take the direct route; he must stop hourly for smoke breaks and to fill the radiator in his classic Peugeot Cabriolet. He also must stop to show her the Best Roman aqueduct, the best little bistro in Provence, the best inn in Burgundy, the best Museum of Cinema in Lyon (which, to be fair, was where the Lumiére brothers were based) and so on and so forth.

Jacques is also a bit of an epicure, and every meal becomes an event. For Anne who has been somewhat sheltered in her enjoyment of life, this is a bit of a revelation. She wouldn’t characterize her marriage as bad exactly, but she is at a critical time in her life. Her daughter is off at college and has elected to spend Christmas break with her friends. Her husband essentially ignores her and her career as a dress shop owner has been given up. She is lost in her own life.

Jacques is also a bit of a lost soul. Single at an age when most men are enjoying their grandchildren, he seems to know everyone but how well they know him is another story. He is flirtatious and there is maybe a bit of a spark between the two of them – Jacques knows the way to her heart is through chocolate – but where that spark might take them before they arrive at Paris days after they were supposed to arrive there is uncertain.

Coppola, the wife of director Francis Ford Coppola, has a keen understanding of the rhythms of life in the south of France. The movie unfolds at an unhurried pace which some critics found infuriating oddly enough, since most European films are similarly paced. With picnics set at the side of bucolic rivers and amazing meals in quaint bistros and fine dining establishments, one shouldn’t watch this movie while hungry.

Lane is an actress who has always spoken to me. Even in her mid-50s, she remains as sexy as she has ever been, albeit in a less obvious manner than what many starlets exude. Lately she seems to be cast most often as the forgotten wife and it seems difficult to understand why any husband would ignore her; she’s smart, funny and did I mention she’s sexy as all get out? In any case, she excels at playing women in the process of rediscovering themselves and that is what this particular movie is all about.

Viard, a well-known actor/director in France, underplays this maybe a bit too much. He’s charming sure but the role needed someone a bit more rogue-ish. The romantic sparks between Jacques and Anne are tepid at best and even though the ending, which has Lane winking at the camera, promises something more, it’s hard to believe that Anne would send Michael packing that way. One gets the sense that Anne is the type of woman who would end her marriage before she’d consider taking on a romantic partner. Of course, we could be talking road trip buddies here; that aspect is left for the viewer to decide.

I will say that the movie does meander quite a bit particularly in the middle. Coppola, who also wrote the film, doesn’t seem to have a firm destination in mind or at least if she does no clear way to get there. We end up with a lot of conversation that tries to be revelatory but doesn’t really tell us anything about the characters. If you’ve ever tried to have a deep, meaningful personal conversation with a person who doesn’t want to tell you anything about themselves, you’ll understand how frustrating the movie can be.

Overall, I was left with a warm pleasant feeling leaving the theater after the movie. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny although there are some moments that brought a smile to my face. It’s not really high drama, although it is about a woman who is unsatisfied with where she is in life beginning to reassess what she wants out of it. Watching Lane’s Anne start to reignite her love for life is the best part about the movie – that and the food porn that pervades it. One has to love French gastronomy.

REASONS TO GO: Who wouldn’t want to take a trip like this one? Diane Lane is still as sexy as hell.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, Jacques smokes like a chimney and some mild profanity in certain places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coppola was 80 years old when she made this, her narrative feature debut (she released a documentary feature more than 25 years ago). She is not the oldest person to direct their first narrative feature – Takeo Kimura directed his first narrative feature Dreaming Awake at age 90 in 2008.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trip to Italy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stray


A day in the park with your dog,

(2016) Drama (Self-Released) Barkhad Abdirahman, Fathia Absie, Faysal Ahmed, Ayla, Christina Baldwin, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour, George McCauley, Ben Phelps, Andrew Stecker, Rhiana Yazzle. Directed by Musa Syeed

With our President and his followers at the forefront of an anti-immigration movement that has swept through the West, it is a difficult time to be an immigrant, particularly for those who are Muslims and especially from those regions that are hotbeds of terrorist activity. We rarely get the point of view from the immigrant side of things, but the obstacles they face in this country were already hard to begin with.

Adan (Abdirahman) is a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis with his mom and sister, but he is having a particularly hard time with it. Although when employed he is a hard worker, he also has a temper and a willingness to bend rules, turning him to a life of petty crime. When his mother discovers that he has pawned some of her jewelry, she throws him out onto the street.

A kindly Imam gives him shelter and a menial job, and arranges for the restaurant next door to hire him. The owner befriends Adan and gives him the responsibility of delivering food. On his way to his first delivery, he accidentally hits a dog crossing the street. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking the dog to the vet, where Adan is relieved to discover the dog is uninjured.

Adan doesn’t particularly like dogs; his religion portrays them as disloyal and filthy. He is eager to give the dog away but nobody seems to want the dog. In the meantime Adan scrounges for food and finds places to sleep wherever he can. He gets money working as an FBI informant mainly translating phone calls that the FBI agent (Baldwin) in charge of him thinks might be national security threats but to Adan’s amusement is mainly about much more mundane things.

As time goes by Adan’s attitude towards the dog begins to change. He sees in him a kindred spirit, and even though he refuses to give the mutt a name, he finds himself identifying with a fellow unwanted creature who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

I love the duality of the title; on the surface it might seem to refer to the dog but in fact it is the man who is the title subject. Adan is the stray here; it is the dog that gives him a sense of worth. It also must be said that the dog is damn adorable.  W.C. Fields famously advised that you should never work with animals or children and he has a point; none of the mainly non-professional cast stands a chance with the dog.

Abdirahman had a supporting part as one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips but I suspect he’s in over his head here. His delivery is wooden and although there are times when he uses body language to get his points across (and there he’s very successful), he really has issues delivering dialogue with any sort of emotion. It might be he still doesn’t feel confident in his English, which is heavily accented and some of the fellow viewers at the screening I attended complained that he was difficult to understand in places.

Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Somalis outside of Somalia and we get an insider’s look at their daily lives. Most of the immigrants are, like Adan himself, hard-working when given the chance and want nothing more than to live their lives in peace the way they were unable to in war-torn Somalia. They worship in their mosques, educate their children and hope for a better life for them down the road. The one issue I have is that the pacing of the film is extremely slow and even at a scant 80 minutes feels like it would have done better as a 40 minute short.

The anti-immigration movement that was referred to at the beginning of this review plays only on the fringes of the film as snippets of television broadcasts. We don’t see any active bullying of the Somalis by American thugs and I get the sense that even in today’s environment that kind of thing is rare. It certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a part of the life of Adan and his circle of…well, not really friends so much as acquaintances. Still, I found myself thinking about violence against immigrants throughout the film in the back of my mind.

Given what has happened in American politics since this was filmed it is an incredibly timely arrival. This is a movie that I would like to give a much more enthusiastic recommendation to but the flaws are deep enough I can only give it a mild recommendation. This is a movie that embodies a filmmaker with a story that is absolutely worth telling but who is unfortunately still learning how to streamline his storytelling at this moment.

REASONS TO GO: A personalized look at the Muslim refugee issue. The dog is absolutely adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Abdirahman is less than scintillating in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some language, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lowriders

Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

New Chefs on the Block


Aaron Silverman gets intense.

(2016) Documentary (Lateral Line) Aaron Silverman, Frank Lynn, Michel Richard, Frank Lynn Sr., Konstantin “Kosta” Troupos, BJ Lieberman, Anne Lynn, Emily Sprissler, Mike Isabella, Dan Silverman, Libby Diamond, Michael McNamara, Drew Adams, Kate Diamond, Danny Meyer, Andy Erdmann, Elizabeth Parker, Scott Muns, Aziz Shafi, Justin Eobstel, Andi Chesser, Alison Danie. Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas

It is said that the second hardest thing to do in the small business realm is to open up a new restaurant. The hardest thing to do is keep it open. As most people are aware, restaurants come and go with almost a terrifying regularity. People tend to be fickle and may pack your eatery one day and the next day be on to the new flavor of the week. Banks are very loathe to give out small business loans for that reason, particularly for would-be restaurateurs with no track record.

One of the toughest markets for restaurants is the Washington DC area. This documentary follows two men with very different concepts and very different hopes; one is Aaron Silverman, a chef with a pedigree that has brought him under the tutelage of some of the best in the business, including Michel Richard (who sadly passed away shortly after filming concluded for New Chefs on the Block). He had an idea of a five star dining experience at two star prices. In order to accomplish that he loaded up his kitchen with experienced chefs.

He also gave his staff health and dental benefits (a rarity in the food service industry) and regular hours, giving them the ability to plan their lives. This is also revolutionary stuff in an industry well-known for creating personal life chaos. Silverman is something of a perfectionist and the price it would take to make his dream happen was a heck of a lot more than the second chef.

Frank Lynn (who in the interest of transparency is the brother-in-law of the filmmaker) had been operating a successful pizza-oriented food truck for two years and yearned to have a brick-and-mortar location to call his own. He found one in the Maryland suburbs of DC but the space would need some extensive work. Believing that the $86,000 he raised through family members and Crowdfunding would be more than sufficient to get his neighborhood pizzeria open, he set about remodeling his space mainly with the help of his family and friends.

Both project take longer than expected to reach opening night and both are fraught with issues that threaten to kill the dreams of their prospective owners before they even get started. We see pretty much everything; the process of getting permits, the physical construction, ordering a pizza oven that turns out to be defective, the compromises and calamities all told.

Many restaurant owners are going to see this and chuckle ruefully to themselves. Others who are thinking about opening a restaurant might turn white as a sheet. However, the cautionary tale is that Harrison-Atlas turned out to be extraordinarily lucky; most restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary and the number that make it to their second is terrifyingly low. Still, this is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how your neighborhood restaurants came into being. That the two owners are engaging and charismatic fellas makes this a lot more palatable because some might find the somewhat clinical view of the start to finish process a bit of a slog. However I assure you that you’ll leave the theater (or your home couch if you are watching through streaming or home video) a little bit more educated about the business and, even more likely, craving something good to eat.

REASONS TO GO: An informative look at what goes into opening a restaurant. A rooting interest is maintained even when the expectations aren’t realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little bit too “nuts and bolts” for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity occasionally.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rose’s Luxury would go on to win the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Quiet Passion