Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero

Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny

The Chaperone


Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

(2009) Action Comedy (Goldwyn/WWE) Paul Levesque, Ariel Winter, Annabeth Gish, Kevin Corrigan, José Zúňiga, Kevin Rankin, Enrico Colantoni, Yeardley Smith, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Darren O’Hare, Lucy Webb, Jake Austin Walker, Cullen Chaffin, Taylor Faye Ruffin, Conner Ann Waterman, James DuMont, Nick Gomez, J.D. Evermore, George Wilson, Kate Adair. Directed by Stephen Herek

Prison can do two things to a person; it can make them even darker, finding more reason to hate society in general, or it can make one long to turn over a new leaf and become a better person. Ray Bradstone (Levesque, better known as WWE wrestler Triple H) has opted for the latter course. One of the best getaway drivers in the business, he wants to make amends to his ex-wife Lynne (Gish) and be a better father to his teenage daughter Sally (Winter). However, when he is released from prison and visits his former family’s home, he is essentially sent packing – neither one wants anything to do with him.

Unable to find work, Ray is in desperate mode when approached by Philip Larue (Corrigan), the leader of the bank-robbing crew Ray used to work for. He agrees to drive one last time but changes his mind at the last minute. This leads to problems for the heist, which Larue blames Ray for. In order to get away, Ray agrees to act as a chaperone for his daughter’s high school field trip to New Orleans, unknowingly taking the loot for the gang along with him. This as you might imagine doesn’t sit well with Larue and in short order they are after the kids and Ray and the ex-con knows that his daughter’s only chance to make it out is for him to take on his ex-gang, but the odds are most definitely against him.

At the end of the last decade, the World Wrestling Federation wanted to expand its brand and determined that a good way to do that was to put its wrestlers in films. Some of them got exposure (The Marine) while others sank without a trace. That initiative continues today, albeit in a much reduced form. While the WWE hasn’t turned out any new actors the caliber of Dwayne Johnson, they have plenty of performers with natural screen charisma.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque is one of those. He certainly shows a good deal of promise in his performance here. While he is something of a raw talent and in need of polish, he has flashes of charm and plenty of presence onscreen. Unfortunately, his natural gifts are given a Russian leg sweep by a script that lacks any sort of inspiration whatsoever. Nearly everything in the movie is by-the-numbers, giving the audience little reason to be invested in the characters or the action.

Even the action sequences are uninspiring. The villains don’t ever feel more than mildly threatening; in the ring Triple H could flex one bicep and they’d head for the hills. And in all honesty, most of the kids here are annoying enough that you wish the villains were better shots. The critics hated this movie, although not as much as the audience which stayed away in droves. It’s likely made at least some of its losses back in home video; I honestly think that while this isn’t great entertainment, it’s at least decent enough and no worse than some of the things that were box office blockbusters. It’s certainly one of those “no harm in taking a look” movies worth checking out if you’re bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Levesque has some genuine charm. New Orleans setting is cool.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cliche-ridden. Virtually no depth.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action violence, some rude humor and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Ray is breaking up a fight at the school, one of the boys in the scene is wearing a “Lemmy” t-shirt. Lemmy Kilmister is the lead singer of Motörhead, the band that plays the ring entrance song for Triple H.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprising number of features considering that this is an independently made feature that bombed at the box office. There’s a blooper real, a music video by Ariel Winter, a look at the kids in the film as well as a featurette on the dinosaur exhibit, a video diary by Winter and a photo gallery.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,400 on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindergarten Cop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Chalet Girl

Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!

A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation

The Farewell Party (Mita Tova)


You're never too old to multitask!

You’re never too old to multitask!

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

Florida Film Festival 2015

Offshoring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)


In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

(1994) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ya-Lei Kuei, Chi-Der Hong, Gin-Ming Hsu, Huei-Yi Lin, Shih-Jay Lin, Chin-Cheng Lu, Cho-Gin Nei, Yu-Chien Tang, Chung Ting, Cheng-Fen Tso, Man-Sheng Tu, Chuen Wang, Shui Wang, Hwa Tu, Michael Taylor. Directed by Ang Lee

Films For Foodies

One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese. Done well (which is sadly rare where I live) it is flavorful, fresh and filling. Cuisine is in many ways a reflection of the philosophy of life of the originating culture. China is simple on the surface but very complex the further you delve into it. The same can be said about families, not just in China but in all cultures.

Chu (Lung) is an old school chef, once one of the most honored in Taipei. He is semi-retired now, living with his three adult unmarried daughters. His wife passed away some years back and he is lonely even in a house full of girls. They have modern sensibilities which puzzle him. There was a time when a father’s word was absolute but those days are gone.

Jia-Jen (Yang) is his eldest. Nine years previously, her heart was broken by a suitor who abandoned her. She eventually converted to Christianity with all the fervor of a convert which has caused some friction in the household. She works as a school nurse and has given up on love – until a volleyball coach (Hsu) begins to pay attention to her.

Jia-Chien (Wu) works for an airline as an executive and is fiercely independent, guarding that independence like a mama bear with a cub. She had once wanted nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps but in Chinese society women were not chefs – only at home did they ever cook. She sometimes meets up with Raymond (Chan), an old lover with privileges.

Jia-Ning (Y-W. Wang), the youngest, works at a fast-food joint and begins a relationship with Guo Lun (Chen) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jia-Ning’s fickle friend whose flightiness is beginning to wear on Guo Lun.

 

On Sundays, Chu prepares an extraordinary meal for all three of his daughters. At table, they share news of each other’s lives and sometimes drop announcements on the family of varying degrees of earth-shattering capability. Chu is being courted by Mrs. Liang (Kuei), the widowed mother of single mom Jin-Rong (Chang) who is almost like a fourth daughter. Mrs. Liang is always accompanied by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke which brings out the Dragon Lady stereotypes but makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the fragrant clouds of steam that rise from Chu’s gastronomic creations.

There are elements of farce here, as well as soap opera qualities. Each daughter represents a different daughterly virtue in Chinese culture, and each one has her own secret. Chu is not especially pleased with retirement; it doesn’t take much convincing to send him scurrying to his old restaurant to assist Uncle Wen (Wang), an old family friend – and yet he seems to take much more satisfaction from the meals he prepares for his girls, even though they don’t seem to appreciate it much.

Lee spends a great deal of time focusing on the food and its preparation – the entire first scene is essentially a how-to on how Chu prepares one of his epic Sunday dinners. You will be craving Chinese food by the time the first scene is over; you’ll be needing it like a junkie needs heroin by the time the movie is complete. Food is important in Chinese culture and Lee gives it the kind of reverence and due that the French accord a great meal.

 

I like Lung’s performance very much; he sometimes comes off as clueless but one gets the sense that he knows a lot more than what those around him give him credit for (and in the movie’s climax he proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt). His relationships with his daughters, Wen and Madame Liang are separate, different but all pursued with kindness and tenderness. This is a man who loves to feed people not just physically but in the soul as well.

His daughters are a different bunch, all of whom are stereotypes in a sense but still accorded personalities of their own. Like me, you are likely to form opinions of them based on your own particular point of view informed by your own experiences in life. I won’t judge here; the performances are all solid and you will love them or hate them as individuals but you will have an opinion. These are not the meek, submissive Asian women of a different age – even Jia-Jen who seems the meekest of the three has a core of iron.

Some will find the lives of the daughters a bit soap opera-esque and that may be a turn-off for those sorts. I can understand that; it’s a fair criticism. For my part, I didn’t really mind. When looked at as a cohesive whole, the entanglements of their lives are as dense and complex as the entanglements of our own. If we’re lucky.

Like any Chinese feast, this is meant to be savored slowly and enjoyed for a lifetime. I haven’t seen Lee’s preceding film The Wedding Banquet but it is said to be superior. One of these days I’ll have to check it out. In the meantime, I highly recommend this delectable morsel. If you love Chinese cooking, Chinese cinema, or family dramas – or any combination thereof – this is a meal that was meant just for you.

WHY RENT THIS: A lovely entwining of family and food. Funny in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit hard to follow sometimes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bad language and adult situations as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening sequence, depicting the detailed preparation of a Sunday lunch, took more than a week to film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with director Lee and his long-time producer partner James Schamus newly recorded for the DVD version which arrived in 2002.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tortilla Soup

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

Big Night


Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

Brothers squabble while their women patiently endure.

(1996) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Susan Floyd, Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber, Pasquale Cajano, Gene Canfield, Andre Belgrader, Caroline Aaron, Larry Block, Peter McRobbie, Peter Appel, Karen Shallo, Robert W. Castle, Tamar Kotoske, Alaveta Guess, Dina Spybey. Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

Films For Foodies

A good movie can make you care about the story or the characters. A very good movie can make you care about both. A great movie will make you feel you lived in the story with those characters and want to then revisit that movie again and again. Big Night is just such a movie.

In the late 50s, a pair of brothers recently come to America from their native Italy have opened an Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore. Called Paradise, the brothers intended for the restaurant to stand out from the mamma mia spaghetti and meatball joints that were what passed for Italian in that era, like the huge successful restaurant down the street from theirs that was run by Pascal (Holm).

The brothers divided their labors thusly; Primo (Shalhoub), the eldest, ran the kitchen and he was a culinary genius before we knew such things existed. He made an astounding risotto but all anyone ever wanted was – you guessed it – spaghetti and meatballs. When one somewhat ignorant customer (Aaron) asks for a side of spaghetti and meatballs with her risotto, Primo nearly hits the roof. “How about I give her a side of mashed potatoes with that,” he explodes, nearly refusing to give the customer a starch to go with her starch.

Secondo (Tucci), the younger, runs front of house and the business side of things and only he knows what desperate straits the restaurant is in. Behind in their mortgage payments, the bank is about to foreclose. He argues with his brother on his rigid high standards but deep down, he supports them because that is the kind of restaurant he dreams of running.

Their love lives aren’t in much better shape. Primo has a thing for the local florist (Janney) but is far too shy to tell her how he feels. Secondo has a girlfriend, the ever-patient Phyllis (Driver) who waits for him to propose but is losing that patience rapidly. He also has a mistress, the straight-shooting and sexy Gabriella (Rossellini) who is also Pascal’s mistress. She gets around.

Secondo approaches Pascal about a loan which the penurious Pascal is loathe to do, but he will do the brothers a solid – it so happens that famed Italian crooner Louis Prima and his band are going to be in town the following week. He happens to know Louis and will invite him and his band to a dinner at Paradise. The accompanying press and notices may be what’s needed to save the Paradise.

Secondo and Primo set to preparing the restaurant for the biggest night of their lives. With Phyllis helping out as well as their put-upon kitchen boy Cristiano (Anthony), it promises to be a night to remember but will Primo’s stubbornness and Secondo’s love life torpedo everything the brothers have worked for and drive an irreparable wedge between them? Either way, you know that the meal that they serve on this big night will be one that will be absolutely unforgettable.

Tucci, who co-directed and co-wrote the movie in addition to co-starring in it, was just beginning to get his career going when this was made. He has since become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors with a variety of roles in which he mostly plays oily slimeballs. In fact, writing this movie was an effort to write a part for himself that wasn’t the sort he usually got cast in. In fact, there are plenty of well-known names and faces in this movie who were just starting their careers out. Schreiber has a blink and you’ll miss it role as the doorman at Pascal’s joint, while Driver was a year away from her breakout roles in Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank.

You become entwined in the story of the struggling restaurant and the sibling squabbling that goes on will feel familiar to anyone who has a brother or a sister. So will the struggles of the brothers appeal to anyone who has ever owned or worked in a small business. In fact, all of the characters have something about them that will speak to you; they may not necessarily be someone you know but there will be something familiar nonetheless…in many ways Primo and Secondo are the brothers I never had.

This is one of those movies that will get under your skin and stay there; you’ll want to see it more than once. Sadly, the home video edition has no extra features other than the original trailer. I’d love to see interviews with the cast now nearly 20 years after the fact about this great little movie that stands the test of time. Even so, the movie is well worth getting. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t get an inescapable craving for Italian food by the time it ends.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written with terrific performances throughout. Captures ambience and era perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit ambiguous on the ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot over a period of just 35 days. Tucci and Shalhoub would work together many times following this film, including in the film The Imposters as well as on Shalhoub’s hit TV show Monk.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.0M on a $4.1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

Truly, Madly, Deeply


Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

(1990) Romantic Fantasy (Goldwyn) Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Bill Paterson, Michael Maloney, Jenny Howe, Christopher Rozycki, Stella Maris, Deborah Findlay, Ian Hawkes, Arturo Venegas, Richard Syms, Mark Long, Teddy Kempner, Graeme Du-Fresne, Frank Baker, Tony Biuto, Nitin Genatra, Heather Williams. Directed by Anthony Minghella

Grief is never easy under any circumstances but when the person you’re grieving is the person you expected to spend the rest of your life with, it’s a special kind of agony. It’s like not only is the person you love dead, so is a part of you. You go from having everything figured out to having no future.

Nina (Stevenson), a translator from Italian to English, is going through that. Her man Jamie (Rickman), a cellist, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly – one day he woke up with a sore throat and the next day he was gone. She is having trouble dealing with it; she feels his presence everywhere she goes, hears his voice. Oddly, he’s speaking Spanish – a language he didn’t know in life and which he’s speaking with an atrocious accent.

Then one night, when she is playing piano he is there in the flesh. Well, as in the flesh as ghosts get – he’s most definitely dead. Nina isn’t sure that she hasn’t gone mad but frankly she doesn’t care – she has what she wants and needs. The two caper about at first like mad teenagers, with the only real difference being that Jamie is perpetually cold and needs the heat turned up to nearly unbearable levels.

Nina’s support group of her amorous building super, the plumber, the pest-control guy she calls to deal with a rat problem and her boss are….well, supportive but not understanding of everything but they give her a lot of leeway. Then she meets Mark (Maloney), a social worker who is deeply caring, just a little zany and sweet on children. In short, the perfect guy…and Nina really likes him. The trouble is that Jamie is still around, even though he’s begun to act like a real twit, bringing his fellow ghosts to Nina’s flat to watch videos. “Was he always like that” Nina wonders about her dead boyfriend. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t but can she let go of him either way and move on?

I love love LOVE this movie. Not just because it deals with grief in a fairly realistic fashion despite the fantastic nature of the plot (ghosts aside) but because it utilizes the talents of its leads so perfectly. We get the sense of how deeply compatible Nina and Jamie are, literally harmonizing in a scene where they sing pop love songs together, but we also see the other side – Jamie can be a right demanding bastard sometimes.

Stevenson is much better known across the pond than she is over here but she is a truly gifted comedic actress and musician (she plays her own piano here). There is a scene early on where she is talking to a therapist about her grief and breaks down – it’s so well done that your heart literally breaks for her and you just want to give her hugs.

Minghella, who’d later go on to direct The English Patient (and win an Oscar for it) as well as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain ,lays it on a bit thick in places here. Mark, for example, is so dang perfect that you half expect him to walk across the Thames – and not on a bridge either. What I do like here is that this isn’t a silly mindless supernatural love story like Ghost was – a film that quite frankly I loathe. There are layers that I appreciate. For example, one thing you should keep in mind while you watch is that there’s a reason that Jamie comes back and it may not be the reason you think. The movie’s last scene is absolutely perfect in a subtle way when you think about what’s going on. At the time I saw it I scarcely thought twice about it but when I thought back upon it later and realized what it signified, I was floored. That’s truly impressive when an ending is actually better after thinking about it than when you first watch it.

WHY RENT THIS: Treats grief as a real thing and doesn’t marginalize or trivialize it. Rickman and Stevenson harmonize well together, figuratively and literally.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little mawkish and too-good-to-be-true in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a smidgeon of bad language and some fairly adult themes going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title for the film was originally Cello, not only referring to Jamie’s instrument of choice but also a play on the Italian word cielo, meaning Heaven. It was originally made for British television.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with the late Anthony Minghella as well as an introduction by him to the DVD package.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $650,000 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Getaway

SOMM


When it comes to fine wine, it's best not to whine, fine?

When it comes to fine wine, it’s best not to whine, fine?

(2012) Documentary (Goldwyn) Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Shayn Bjornholm, Fred Dame, Bo Barrett, Mercedes Lam, Michael Mina, Peter Neptune, Jay Fletcher, Reggie Narito, Andrea Cecci, Rachael Wilson, Elizabeth Dowty, Michael Jordan, Rajat Parr, Jay Fletcher, Eric Railsback, Whitney Fisher, Margaux Pierog. Directed by Jason Wise

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The appreciation of fine wine is the hallmark of a civilized person. Sommeliers take this appreciation to a new level and master sommeliers are perhaps the ultimate expression in this regard. Their palates are ultra-refined; their knowledge second to none. A great wine can turn a great meal into a memorable one.

Becoming a master sommelier however is no easy task. Since the certification process began in 1977, only 197 people around the world have passed the test. Many spend years in preparation only to be disappointed.

The Master Sommelier examination is administered once a year and is done in three parts; an oral exam on general wine knowledge, a service exam which puts the applicants in a restaurant situation with hostile, ignorant or demanding customers and a blind taste test. The latter can be the most daunting.

We follow four close friends as they prepare for the 2011 exam; Ian Cauble, a brilliant and driven young man who his friends affectionately refer to as “Dad” for his tendency to take a paternal role in getting the young men to study. He is a flash card ninja and possibly the most knowledgeable of the group. Dlynn Proctor is an elegant and dapper young man who is self-possessed and confident; he radiates authority and knowledge.

Brian McClintic is married and badly wants to pass the exam; he feels guilty that he has spent so much time on the exam and wants to give his wife her husband back. He is fully aware that the master sommelier certification opens a whole lot of doors and he really needs to go through at least one of them for the sake of his family. Finally there’s Dustin Wilson, a stabilizing influence on the other two and another very focused individual. He’s the kind of guy who’ll do flash cards on Skype in the wee hours of the morning to help out his friends.

We get to watch these guys as they are mentored by some of the finest sommeliers on the planet including Steve Dame, thought to be the best American sommelier and one of the first grand masters. When he speaks, a young master in training is best advised to listen. That’s pretty much true of all of their mentors although alas, some don’t – one of the applicants has the temerity to question one of the master’s veracity when being quizzed on the wine tasting aspect of the test.

There’s no doubt it’s a grueling process; the movie is very successful in communicating it. While some might question how rough it is to sit back and sample lots of good wine, being able to discern one from the other with pinpoint accuracy requires a finally trained palate and that doesn’t come from sipping a glass of grocery store-bought chardonnay on the back porch.

The filmmakers are also successful in getting us to care and root for these applicants which isn’t always easy; at times they can be a bit arrogant (well, at least one or two of them). These seem to be genuinely decent guys who want to be successful, not just for themselves but for their families.

Where the movie fails a bit is in the choice of us watching them do wine tastings; yes they are in several different venues (from their own homes to a restaurant with their mentors to online Skype sessions) but it amounts to the same thing. We see almost none of the service portion of the test, and even then only one candidate is presented. I would have liked to have seen how all four of them responded in a similar situation and less how each of them can distinguish merlot from one region from another.

You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur or even like wine at all to enjoy the film. This isn’t so much about wine or even about being a sommelier so much as being about chasing a difficult dream. People do it for all sorts of reasons – pride, financial gain, opportunity or even just to prove to themselves that they can. We can all relate to that in some form or another. That is the triumph of the human spirit and the movie celebrates that; of course, any celebration is just that much better with a glass of a good wine.

REASONS TO GO: Involves the audience. Doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of wine. Fascinating insight into the world of the sommelier.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some editing – too many wine tastings.

FAMILY VALUES:  Nothing here that should worry any parents about bringing kids to see it – hey get them started early on wine appreciation, I say.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Master Sommelier exam is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, who have four levels of expertise – Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Candidates must pass exams for each level before being allowed to progress to the next.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet. Although Goldwyn has picked up the film, it is making the rounds on the festival circuit. A theatrical release is possible for later this year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Taiwan Oyster and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!