American Dresser


Give me life on the road.

(2018) Drama (Cinedigm) Tom Berenger, Keith David, Carmine Canglialosi, Gina Gershon, Penelope Ann Miller, Jeff Fahey, Bruce Dern, Kathrine Narducci, Andrew Bryniarski, Becky O’Donohue, Elle McLemore, Rob Moran, Jennifer Damiano, Wyatt Lozano, Scott Shilstone, Ryan R. Johnson, Josh Owens, Jim Ford, Michael Perri, Sophia Franzella. Directed by Carmine Canglialosi

 

There are few things more American than hopping on your motorcycle and going off in a cloud of dust to travel the highways and byways of our great nation. It’s been an idea that has captivated American cineastes at least as far back as Easy Rider and it is a motif that has shown up in movies over and over again ever since.

John Moore (Berenger) is dealing with the grief of his wife’s (Gershon) death from cancer and not at all dealing with it well. He has fallen into the bottle, much to the disgust of his two adult daughters who are further mortified when he shows up late to his wife’s funeral. Basically in an alcoholic stupor all day, he decides to assuage his grief by going through his wife’s things – doesn’t everybody? – which is when he finds a letter she had written to him but never sent. The contents aren’t revealed other than obliquely and even then not until late in the film but John is inspired to dust off his old bike and head off on a road trip to Oregon from whatever Eastern hamlet he lives in.

Joining him is Charlie (David), John’s comrade-in-arms in Vietnam. Charlie has been recovering from the effects of an auto accident and the surgeries haven’t gone well. Facing the loss of a leg, he wants one last adventure with his buddy before going under the knife. And, to paraphrase the great Paul Simon, they rode off to look for America.

America in this case being a land of sexy waitresses in honkytonks, barroom brawls with inbred rednecks, hooking up with a group of L.A.-based lady bikers, having the black member of the party accused of a murder he didn’t commit and beaten up by small town cops and for John, finding romance with the cousin of Charlie’s fiancée. They also pick up a stray in hunky Willie (writer-director Canglialosi) who helps them out in the previously mentioned barroom brawl and whom women seem drawn to like catnip. He’s also hiding a secret, on the run from the cops. There is a point to the journey for John but I won’t mention it here.

This is a movie I really wanted to like. Road films are some of my favorites and the strong cast promised at least decent acting but alas, that’s not what happened in either case, me liking the film and decent acting by the strong cast. Although Berenger is game, David is as always reliable and Miller is as pretty as ever, other than a cameo by Dern the acting is largely disappointing. The overall tone is kind of muted, like all the energy has been wrung out of the film before it unspools. Considering the level of talent in the film that’s pretty shameful.

The hero of the movie is not John Moore or the man that plays him so much but cinematographer Jesse Brunt who comes up with some iconic shots of the back roads of the Midwest and West, the somewhat forced shot of the bikers roaring past Mount Rushmore notwithstanding. While the movie seems meant for an older adult audience, there seems to be little here to drive them into theaters other than a blast from the past cast; the relationship between John and Charlie for example seems pretty sketchy with little filling in the blanks other than a few story references and the obvious band of brothers in Vietnam reality but other than some insulting boys banter, the bond between the two remains maddeningly unexplored. For my money Canglialosi the writer should have eliminated the part of Willie entirely; that would have at least forced him to develop the relationship between the two vets more thoroughly. Frankly, Willie adds almost nothing to the movie other than to be the brawn for the two older men.

To be fair, there is some fun in watching some of these veteran actors go about their business and the scenery along the road is wonderful but that’s really all the movie has going for it which is mighty sad. You get the sense that the writer didn’t really have anything to say other than that older people can still ride and anyone who has been to a gathering of bikers can tell you that anyway. Did the film make me want to get on a bike and ride off? To a degree yes, but definitely not with these people.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice shots of the American road.
REASONS TO STAY: A little maudlin, a lot cliché, the tone of the film is tepid at best.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Berenger’s birth name was Moore, the same as his character’s last name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Hogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Queen of the World

Funeral Day


Not exactly what the doctor ordered.

(2017) Comedy (Random Media) Jon Weinberg, Tyler Labine, Suzy Nakamura, Tygh Runyan, Dominic Rains, Jed Rees, Kristin Carey, Sarah Adina, Jeremy Radin, Ron Butler, Rahnuma Panthaky, Robert Bela, Joe Fidler, Mat Kohler, Nakia Secrest, Luca Secrest, Ralph Cole Jr., Jared Adams, Noam Emerson-Fleming, Shauna Bloom. Directed by Jon Weinberg

 

Funerals are a drag. Nobody ever really wants to go to one; while we couch them in terms of “it’s a celebration of his/her life,” it is also very much a reminder that a funeral of our own awaits us down the road.

Scott (Weinberg) wakes up on the morning of a close friend’s funeral (who passed away at a young age from cancer) and discovers a lump on his own scrotum. A bit of a hypochondriac to begin with, he is completely freaked out and decides not to go. When his pal Chris (Runyan) arrives to take him to the event, Scott refuses to go. We discover that Scott never visited Ryan the entire time he was in the hospital; “I don’t do cancer” is Scott’s lame explanation.

But Scott has it figured out. Instead of going to a depressing ritual of saying farewell amid tears and tea sandwiches he decides that the better thing to do is turn his own life around “in honor of Ken.” He determines to make amends to those he has wronged, and to trim his scruffy beard and get a haircut, among other things. As much as he wants to change though, it becomes apparent that he doesn’t really want to change his life; he just wants to change his circumstances. The very embodiment of a self-centered hipster, Scott has a lot of growing up to do if he is to affect serious change and maybe a group of characters including a sexually aware waitress he’s sweet on, a married couple who have some pretty bizarre ideas of health and a self-absorbed real estate license who is focused on selling Scott a property he can’t afford particularly after quitting his job as part of his “remake Scott” project.

There are also endless shots of Scott running throughout L.A. without ever breaking a sweat. Didn’t he get the memo that nobody walks in L.A.? In any case while I think it was meant for comic effect, it really isn’t all that funny and to be honest there isn’t a lot to laugh about here. Some of the stuff that pokes fun at shallow Los Angeles culture works pretty well but those moments tend to get repetitive also. Besides, it’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

This is meant to be a comedy that involves taking stock of one’s life and finding the motivation to getting out of one’s rut. The problem with this movie (and it’s a big problem) is that Scott is so thoroughly selfish, so incredibly unlikable that even though the film is a short one you feel like you’re being forced to hang out with that guy nobody likes. I’m not sure Weinberg intentionally made Scott so unlikable so that when he achieves some sort of redemption at the film’s conclusion it will be a cathartic moment, but no such catharsis occurs. You’re not motivated enough to care at all whether Scott gets his redemption and makes the changes he yearns to. It just feels like an exercise in self-absorption.

Although the supporting cast (with the exception of Labine and Nakamura, both in very brief roles) is largely less well known, their performances are actually pretty strong particularly Runyon and Adler. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to make this film, which actually has something to say, worth much more than a mild “check it out if you have nothing better to do.” I think if they had written Scott as more deserving of redemption maybe it would be possible to get more invested in the film but that just doesn’t happen.

REASONS TO GO: There are some decent performances, particularly from Runyan and Adler.
REASONS TO STAY: Scott may be the most annoying protagonist ever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references, further sexual content and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film took Best Comedy Feature honors at both the Twister Alley Film Festival and the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
King Cohen

Where is Kyra?


The face of Michelle Pfeiffer tells the whole story.

(2017) Drama (Great Point) Michelle Pfeiffer, Keifer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd, Sam Robards, Marc Menchaca, Babs Olusanmokun, Mauricio Ovalie, Tony Okungbowa, Celia Au, Gabe Fazio, Bradley W. Anderson, MaameYaa Boafo, Hubert Pont Du Jour, Joel Marsh Garland, Nimo Gandhi, Jorge Chapa, Elizabeth Evans. Directed by Andrew Dosunmu

 

“There but for the grace of God go I” is a phrase we use to describe the less fortunate. It’s a particularly apt phrase; most of the time what separates us from those who are destitute is good luck or good timing. Very few of those reading this now are much more than a paycheck or two away from economic disaster.

When it comes to those of a certain age who are poverty-stricken, we have a tendency to turn away our gaze. When a child is poor, we have sympathy. When an elderly person is poor, we have myopathy. We don’t see them; we don’t react the same way. Even when they are just 60 years old or thereabouts, the attitude is more like “tough luck – you must have done something to get yourself in that predicament.” Often, that isn’t the case.

That’s how it is for Kyra (Pfeiffer). She was hit by the double whammy of divorce and a lay-off at nearly the same time. Now she lives in Brooklyn with her elderly mother Ruth (Shepherd) who has some serious health problems. Kyra runs errands for her, helps bathe and feed her and take care of Ruth’s daily necessities all the while turning in application after application for work, any kind of work. There isn’t any though, not for a woman her age (about 60). They live a meager existence on Ruth’s social security and pension.

Then even that is gone. Ruth’s health eventually fails completely and one day Kyra finds her lifeless body in the living room. There are condolences of course but Kyra doesn’t have a lot of friends and as she sits back with mounting bills she wonders what in hell she is supposed to do. She sells what she can and is able from time to time to get work handing out flyers but considering her debt it’s nowhere near enough. She does meet a guy, Doug (Sutherland) who is a driver who dreams of one day having his own cab medallion license but until then he’s driving for other people and is barely making ends meet himself.

Kyra is desperate and desperate people do things that they ordinarily wouldn’t do. She’s stuck in the position of doing whatever she as to do to survive – and takes her down a road that she never thought she’d travel.

The movie is dark in a lot of different ways; first and foremost it is a dark subject dealing with things that most of us would rather not face. As we grow older, we grow less employable and no matter how much we contributed to society and the economy in our youth, once we get to that point we are expendable, cast aside drones who have outlived our usefulness. Kyra gives the impression of being a hard work (she certainly works hard at finding work) but she is not the type of worker employers are looking for – young and willing to do more for less pay. It’s a sadly common story and one most of us choose to ignore; it’s hard to consider that sooner or later we are at that same point in our lives that Kyra is in. We will all face the same obstacles as she and that, like all unpleasant truth, is something we tend to not want to think about.

Pfeiffer has always been one of the most beautiful women in the world and she remains so; only those who have been paying attention realize what a talented actress she is – she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for nothing. Kyra is perhaps the least glamorous role she’s ever played and not uncoincidentally this is legitimately the best performance of her career. Kyra is tightly wound and so Pfeiffer uses an economy of gesture, expression and dialogue to get across her anguish, her fear, her frustration and her desperation. There aren’t a lot of histrionics except in a couple of cases. Otherwise Pfeiffer gives a spare performance relying a great deal on the silent tools that an actor utilizes. It is work worthy of Oscar attention but that is so unlikely to happen that the odds don’t bear repeating so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The movie has the advantage of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young but Young and Dosunmu make the odd choice of putting everything in room lighting that is dark – even the exterior shots seem to be done through a filter making everything look like late afternoon on a cloudy day. Young often frames the action through doorways and mirrors; we the audience become as Peeping Toms, observing uninvited the intimacies of Kyra’s life. The effect is unsettling and off-putting. I admire the creativity – I believe it is meant to illustrate the dreary darkness of Kyra’s life – but I question the practicality.

Also not working is the soundtrack. There is very little of it and generally what you hear is discordant and grating on the ears, like metal scraping against metal. It’s the kind of heavy metal that would make even a hardcore headbanger plug their ears. Again, one has to give props for the willingness of the filmmakers to go outside the box creatively but then one has to pay attention to the needs of the audience. Good intentions, questionable execution.

I’m giving this a mild recommendation for Pfeiffer’s extraordinary performance and the subject matter which is one Hollywood has been loath to tackle. I think if Dosunmu and company had handled this in a more straightforward manner they would have been far more effective in getting their point across. As it is they did make a movie that gives the viewer a lot to think about even if they don’t particularly want to.

REASONS TO GO: The subject matter is extremely timely. Pfeiffer delivers one of the best performances of her career.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is so underlit that it is often hard to see what is happening onscreen. The score, such as it is, is abrasive and eventually pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, adult themes and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is only the fourth time in her career that Pfeiffer has appeared as a brunette onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pursuit of Happyness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beirut

The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia

Cocote


It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when there is no wall.

(2017) Drama (Grasshopper) Vicente Santos, Yuberbi de la Rosa, José Miguel Fernández, Kalyane Linares, Enerolia Nuñez, Pepe Sierra, Isabel Spencer, Ricardo Ariel Toribio, Judith Rodriguez Perez. Directed by Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias

Changing locations can sometimes change a person. Their outlook on the world may evolve and eventually become unrecognizable from the person who left their original home. That person, though, remains inside whether we want them to be there or not.

Alberto (Santos) is a gardener in a Santo Domingo upper class home. He receives word of the death of his father in the village Alberto grew up in. It was not a natural death; he was murdered by a local bigwig over an outstanding debt. Alberto grew up in the Los Mysterios faith, a mixture of Christianity and West African beliefs but has since converted to evangelical Christianity.

He goes back to his village to mourn the loss of his father only to find he has already been buried. His family makes the reluctant Alberto take part in the funerary ritual of the faith which involves music, and a kind of ecstatic grief. There’s a lot of screaming, singing and sobbing and the occasional animal sacrifice.

It soon becomes apparent that it is expected that Alberto will take revenge on the murderer of his father but that is not who Alberto is anymore. It causes a great deal of friction particularly with his outspoken sister (de la Rosa). Alberto is caught in a struggle between who he was, who he is and who he is to become.

This isn’t a movie that follows normal storytelling tropes. There are often changes between film stock, moving from color to black and white, widescreen to almost a Super 8 type of perspective, grainy to crystal clear. Interspersed are grainy video snippets that are something of a cinematic nonsequitir, like a local news report of a chicken that apparently crows “Christ is coming.” I think that de Los Santos Arias is utilizing a new kind of cinematic language but for most filmgoers this is going to look like a patchwork film.

Santos has a passive, scowling face. He doesn’t get violent (until late in the movie), preferring just to endure whatever life serves up to him. The dichotomy of past and present are at war within him but there is no clear winner; it is something like the ongoing wars in the Middle East where there are no winners – only survivors.

The imagery captures the beauty of the Dominican Republic as well as the poverty in her rural villages. There is lots of the Los Mysterios culture on display here but the scenes of the rituals go on interminably, one after the other until far from illuminating they become annoying. The arguments between Alberto and his sisters become more strident and eventually, one loses interest on any sort of resolution. It’s just people shrieking at each other.

I can’t say I liked this film, although I admire de Los Santos Arias’ ambitions. He has no interest in making just another movie and to be sure, that’s not what he made. This is going to appeal only to a very specialized audience, equivalent to music fans who like bands like Animal Collective and Pere Ubu. They seek to transcend the ordinary and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just not convinced that this movie transcends anything.

Tickets for the Miami Film Festival can be ordered online here but hurry; the Festival ends on Sunday.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The ritual scenes are fascinating at first but then they go on and on and on and on. There’s too much shrieking, screaming and pretensions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arias based the story on an incident that occurred when he was a child visiting his aunt and meeting her gardener.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Sun
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Keep the Change

Max Rose


September of his years.

September of his years.

(2015) Drama (Paladin) Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Claire Bloom, Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Dean Stockwell, Illeana Douglas, Fred Willard, Stephanie Katherine Grant, Mort Sahl, Valerie Hurt, Jodie Mann, Joe Frank, Oliver Max, Jonathan Downs, Sarah Waisman. Directed by Daniel Noah

 

From the moment we are born, we begin our (hopefully) long journey down the road to old age and mortality. For those who are closer to the end of that road, the perspective can change and often with it comes bitterness, regret and remorse.

Max Rose (Lewis) is in mourning. His wife of 65 years, Eva (Bloom) has passed away, leaving him lost and empty. However, there is also a rage in him; shortly before her death, Max glanced inside her compact only to find a romantic inscription to his wife, written on November 5, 1959 when the former jazz pianist was in New York recording his one and only record while she remained in Los Angeles. It was a bitter revelation for Max, who now wonders if the only thing in his life he can be proud of – his marriage – was a complete failure like so much else in his life.

His bitterness seems mainly directed at his son Chris (Pollak) whom Max considers to have wasted his life, having gone through one divorce and is beginning a second. The only person Max seems to have any regard for is his granddaughter Annie (Bishé) and who has a relationship with her grandfather that is almost fatherly. Annie’s boyfriend Scott is in Chicago playing with the Philharmonic but Annie is reluctant to join him and Max counsels her to go. Annie for her part finds excuses not to – her job, her father’s health and so on.

After Max has a heart issue, Chris and Annie realize that they need to put him somewhere he can get the medical care he needs and the house is put up on the market much to Max’s contempt. It proves the excuse for Max and Chris to have one confrontation, but there are no fireworks; just surrender. Even Annie thinks Max is being harsh.

But the thing sticking in Max’s craw is the identity of the man who may have been having an affair with his wife. Was it a one-time occurrence or a long-term relationship? Was Max the love of Eva’s life, or the ball and chain that kept her from her one true love? And how was Max going to carry on without the love of his life?

I was looking forward to this film to see Lewis in a rare dramatic role, and the nonagenarian delivers with a frail but forceful performance that shows that the man who has been in show biz for 70 years has the ability to show his teeth once in awhile. There are times that Lewis literally looks lost in the role, which isn’t a bad thing. There are also times where he just seems lost, which is a bad thing. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a capable cast that performs admirably here.

Sadly, the script isn’t worthy of its cast. The dialogue sounds written rather than spoken and overly dramatic more often than not. There is a kind of flat tone to the film that gives me the sense that the filmmakers thought they would attract a much older demographic and is talking down to them like they all have ear horns sticking out of their skulls and have not a square inch of unwrinkled skin. It is painful to see a film so obviously aimed at a specific demographic that is so contemptuous of it.

What the film does get right is the dynamics between Chris, Max and Annie. This feels like real relationship issues and not just a bunch of people reading from a script. The filmmakers understand very well that the dynamics of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within. They don’t explain what the source of the conflict is between Max and his son, and they don’t even try to; the important thing is that the dynamic of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within it.

The ending features a confrontation between Max and his wife’s potential lover (Stockwell) but what should have been an emotionally charged scene comes off bland and proceeds directly into an ending that will leave you shaking your head if not your fist. I will admit that seeing Lewis onscreen was worth it for me specifically, and that Bishé and Pollak both deliver strong performances, as does Bloom in flashbacks where she injects some needed life into the film. Too bad she couldn’t resurrect as a zombie; even a zombie would have more life than most of this disappointing film.

REASONS TO GO: The family dynamics feel authentic. Some fine acting from the leads in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A schmaltzy ending that sabotages any good will the movie had to begin with. Noah tries too hard to make the movie feel heartwarming.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (oh, those French sure love Jerry Lewis) but it wasn’t until this year at the New York Museum of Modern Art’s celebration of Lewis on the occasion of his 90th birthday that the movie was first seen in the United States.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

Hello, My Name is Doris


Sally Field has double vision.

Sally Field has double vision.

(2015) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Isabella Acres, Kyle Mooney, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Caroline Aaron, Tyne Daly, Peter Gallagher, Rebecca Wisocky, Amy Okuda, Don Stark, Nnamdi Asomugha, Anna Akana, Rich Sommer, Emilie Germain. Directed by Michael Showalter

There are a lot of reasons that people fall in love. Sometimes it’s a chemistry thing. Sometimes it’s a sexual thing. Sometimes it’s a shared interests thing. And sometimes, it’s a desperation thing.

Doris Miller (Field) has just buried her mother, whom she has spent much of her adult life taking care of. Doris is a bit eccentric; she dresses like a bag lady being played by the love child of Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher and kind of walks her own path. Her brother (Root) and sister-in-law (McLendon-Covey) urge her to sell the house, which they have ulterior motives for, but she’s not inclined to do so. Doris has lived here all her life and sees no reason to find a new place to live, even though her commute from Staten Island to midtown Manhattan is grueling.

At the firm where she works in the accounting department, she gets on an elevator soon after the funeral with the handsome new art director, John Fremont (Greenfield) – not the general who left his mark on California maps. And wouldn’t you know it, she develops a huge crush on the much younger man.

Doris hasn’t exactly had a whole lot of romantic experience, most of her free time revolving around the care of her mother. So she approaches her best friend Roz (Daly) who steers her to her 13-year-old granddaughter (Acres) who helps Doris set up a fake Facebook account so she can keep tabs on her new beau. Of course, she ends up creating havoc in his life, especially when she gets jealous of his new girlfriend Brooklyn (Behrs). But that isn’t all that’s changing; some of John’s hipster friends are discovering that the quirky Doris is the new kind of cool. She even poses for an album cover; but are her new friends driving Doris away from her old friends? And are her new friends more bent on hanging out with the new flavor of the week rather than genuinely interested in her?

There are a few not-so-subtle undertones here, mainly in how we look at the aged. Field is no spring chicken but she carries herself with a great deal of charm and comes off as so likable that even when she’s engaging in creepy stalker behavior you still end up liking her. But in a lot of ways, her character is kind of a cliché eccentric old woman who is so out there that she fits in with the hip millennial crowd. I found that it was a little bit condescending in that Doris has to dress like a mannequin found in a Mad Max movie and literally throw herself at a younger man to get him to be interested in her. There are plenty of young men who are into older women out there; why does an actress the caliber of Sally Field have to debase herself in order to have a relationship between a younger man and an older woman seem viable?

There are plenty of cliches of the indie variety from the New York location (albeit a lot of it takes place outside of hipster heaven Manhattan and hipster other heaven Brooklyn) to the soundtrack to the pretentions of the mainly artistic people portrayed here. There are a few things that kind of break the mold – the dialogue, for example, is clever but not overly so to the point that it doesn’t sound like real people talking, a very major indie sin.

The film also has something positive that’s a mite rare these days – a delightful ending. Yes, the movie actually ends in a way that is both satisfying and organic. I wish a lot more movies gave the kind of thought to their ending the filmmakers here obviously did with theirs. You think for a moment the movie is going one way and then – it doesn’t. Kudos to the writers for that.

There is definitely a good deal of entertainment value here. Field clearly still is at the top of her game and I hope that with some good roles starting to appear for women in her age range that we’ll see more of her on the big screen in the coming years. I only wish the movie hadn’t treated the romance between the older woman and the younger man as something ridiculous; certainly they wouldn’t have if the relationship had been between a 60-something guy and a 20-something woman. As a society, we seem to be okay with one and not with the other. There’s a good documentary in the exploration of that double standard somewhere.

REASONS TO GO: Field is still intensely likable. A very satisfying ending.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit condescending and cliché. I think the May-December romance should have not been a source of ridicule.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to merit an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Chasing Mavericks

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

A Walk in the Woods


Lost in the woods.

Lost in the woods.

(2015) Dramedy (Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, R. Keith Harris, Randall Newsome, Linda Edwards, Susan McPhail, Andrew Vogel, Derek Krantz, Gaia Wise, Tucker Meek, Chandler Head, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, John Schmedes, Valentin Armendariz, Danny Vinson, Valerie Payton, Stephanie Astalos-Jones. Directed by Ken Kwapis

All of us have a connection to the natural world. Deep down, we pine for it; while most of us will profess to loving the civilized life of home and hearth, every so often we get a yen to go out into the woods and pitch a tent. It reminds us of our connection to this planet, that we are born of it and part of it and that it is conversely part of us. Nothing clears one’s head quite so much as a walk in the woods.

Bill Bryson (Redford) is a semi-retired travel writer who has written some fine books but is about as socially awkward as a 13 year old at a state dinner. He says the wrong things at funerals, cracks incomprehensible jokes that nobody gets and grumps to his saintly patient wife Catherine (Thompson) that talking to people is just something he doesn’t do.

After being upbraided by a smarmy talk show host (Newsome) about having written nothing about his own native country, he chances upon a leg of the Appalachian trail near his New Hampshire home and struck by inspiration. Bryson hits on the idea of walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. Catherine takes about as kindly to the idea as she would about having a hole drilled in her noggin. When she sees she can’t dissuade her husband out of the scheme, she insists that he take someone with him.

The trouble is, nobody he knows is willing to go with him. That is until he gets a call out of the blue from Stephen Katz (Nolte), an old friend he had a falling out with a decade or so ago. He’s not choice A for the trip but beggars can’t be choosers so Bill gets himself equipped at the local REI (with Offerman making a cameo as a clerk) and before long Katz and Bryson are putting on their hiking boots.

Katz is, contrary to his self-description, woefully out of shape and is huffing and puffing away like a walrus before he’s gone ten feet. Still, the two manage to make progress although not as much as they probably should. They have to put up with rain, snow, never-ending hills, burying their dookie in the woods, annoying know-it-all hikers (Schaal) and bears. But most of all, they’ll have to put up with each other – and themselves.

Kwapis has a history of creating films that are audience pleasers more so than critical darlings and judging from the scores below has done the same this time out. And what’s not to love? A strong, well-known cast in beautiful settings, that’s for sure. The Appalachian Trail passes through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet and Kwapis takes full advantage of it.

Redford and Nolte have only been in the same film together once before, that being the 2012 drama The Company You Keep and then they only shared a couple of scenes together. It’s a shame they haven’t done more together because they have amazing chemistry together; they banter like an old married couple and play off of each other like the two old pros they are. Their relationship holds the film together.

Nolte, in particular, is noteworthy; gasping like an asthmatic bear and growling in that gravelly smoker’s voice of his. He’s essentially the comic relief, making of Katz a kind of charming womanizing rogue gone to seed, cheerfully evading his responsibilities. Redford by contrast does what Redford does best; being likable even when he’s supposed to be a curmudgeon.

Which brings up a point. Both of these distinguished actors are in their 70s – in fact, Redford is 79 – but the real Bill Bryson was in his mid-40s when he hiked the Trail and so much of the book’s focus had to be changed. The movie spends much more time dwelling on the decrepitude of the leads than the book did on the inexperience of its leads. Lovers of the book (and there are many) might not be too pleased with that. They’ll be pleased that much of Bryson’s comic tone was retained. I haven’t read the book probably in 15 years or so, but my guess is that it was extensively re-written for the screen, so be warned on that score.

Da Queen really loved this movie; the bonding with nature and the friendship between Redford and Nolte really spoke to her; she proclaimed it her favorite movie of the Summer (I didn’t have the heart to point out that it wasn’t released until September 2nd, after the official summer release season had ended) which considering how delighted she was with Jurassic World is quite an accomplishment. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film but found it to be genuinely entertaining, sentimental and only occasionally descending into schmaltz and cinematically beautiful.

In short, this is solid entertainment which will likely appeal strongly to an older demographic but those who appreciate movies with a heart will also enjoy  it. I do like an occasional nature walk although my condition prevents long hikes like this one but still it inspired in me a desire to walk the Trail myself. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to imagine that it could. If these two can do it, so can I, right?

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful scenery. Wonderful chemistry between Redford and Nolte. Some genuine laughs.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally clunky. Too many codger jokes.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild expletives and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, this was meant to be the third team-up between Redford and Paul Newman when the film was optioned in 2007; however, Newman’s declining health and eventual passing prevented that from occurring. Newman would have been cast in the role that Nick Nolte eventually filled.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Wild
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle Begins!