Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut


Matt Smith gets high.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Philip O’Neill, Mickey O’Hagan, Anthony Michael Lopez, McKinley Belcher III, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karlee Perez, David J. Cork, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Robert George Siveris, John Bolton, Christina Rouner. Directed by Ondi Timmoner

 

There are figures in popular culture that loom large, directly or otherwise, in the national psyche, but for one reason or another we don’t really know much about them well, other than what our own personal prejudices tell us about them. One such is Robert Mapplethorpe.

His name still evokes powerful feelings among many today. Some see him as an artistic genius, one who pushed boundaries on male sexuality and the male body. Others see him as little more than a pornographer, a gay man whose work epitomized the bathhouse scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. His work was so controversial that it was the first (and to date only) exhibition to ever cause the gallery owner displaying it to be arrested on obscenity charges.

This biopic, helmed by able documentary filmmaker Timmoner, stars Matt Smith (roaming much further from Doctor Who than even Gallifrey) in the title role. We see him as a member of the ROTC at Pratt Institute, just before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he would take up with legendary punk goddess Patti Smith (Rendón) who was then a struggling musician. The two carried on a brief romantic relationship but it soon became obvious that young Robert swung for the other side. Eventually his relationship with gallery owner Sam Wagstaff (Hickey) would lead to him being championed by Wagstaff and his work to be discovered.

This isn’t a very flattering portrait of Mapplethorpe, who here is portrayed as someone who habitually used people and discarded them when they were no longer of use to him – including his own brother. He spent most of his life trying to catch the brass ring and when he finally did, found that it didn’t bring him any more happiness than chasing it did.

Smith is wonderful here, inhabiting his role admirably. The thing with biopics that most viewers, nearly all critics and quite a few filmmakers seem to never understand is that except in very rare cases, the actor’s job is not to portray the subject as they are/were, but as the audience thinks they should be/have been – after all, the audience likely never met Mr. Mapplethorpe or know anyone who did. We have only what we read about him (assuming we’ve read anything about him) or heard abut him or, more to the point, what we think about him. We think of Mapplethorpe as a gay man who was obsessed with male genitalia and homoerotic images; we are given a Mapplethorpe who is just that. So in that sense, Smith is entirely successful.

The movie covers some of the bases here; the effects of his strict Catholic upbringing, his contentious relationship with his father, the estrangement from his brother and so on. Timmoner doesn’t really get us too far into Mapplethorpe’s head; we rarely know what he’s thinking, although to be fair, Mapplethorpe played his opinions pretty close to his chest when he was aiive.

What is more disappointing is that the movie feels choppy and fragmented. There’s no flow to the film, no fluidity. Instead, we move from one set piece to the next, almost as if each scene was directed by someone completely different. It leaves you feeling like the film was directed by committee.

The film was originally released in 2019 without making much of an impression so I’m not exactly sure if anyone was calling for a director’s cut of the film. 12 minutes of additional scenes are added to the movie, which doesn’t really improve the film any. It just means you have to sit through twelve more minutes of it. The expanded edition is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; most of the others have the original theatrical version.

REASONS TO SEE: Matt Smith loses himself in the role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fragmented and overly long and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mapplethorpe’s mother passed away three days after her son did.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basquiat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cryptozoo

Cowboys


There’s a reason they call it Big Sky country.

(2020) Drama (Goldwyn) Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slaght, John Beasley, Seth Breding, Angela Marshall, Steve Dodd, Armando Garcia, Heather LaPointe, Jared Broxterman, Emily Moran, Matt Mhoon, Mari LaPlante, Sawyer Pule, Travis W. Bruyer, Michaela Dixon, Kasey Kurit, Lori Wubben. Directed by Anna Kerrigan

 

Montana has always been a beautiful place where rugged individualism has been admired, and where values are conservative and based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. It is an environment that, from time to time, has been unforgiving of those outside the norm.

At first blush, it appears that Troy (Zahn) and Joe (Knight) are on a father-son camping trip in the beautiful wilds of Montana. When Troy’s truck breaks down, the two end up staying the night at the home of Robert Spottedbird (Farmer), a friend who lends the two his horse. But it becomes clear that there is something not quite right with the scenario. We soon find out that Joe’s mother and Troy’s estranged wife Sally (Bell) has frantically discovered that Joe is missing from his bedroom and calls the police, putting dogged detective Faith (Dowd) on the case.

We are told the backstory to all this in flashbacks, how Joe was born a girl but is convinced that she was born in the wrong body. While Troy is willing to accept this, the more devout Sally is not. Sally, ever-pragmatic, also realizes that this kind of revelation is likely to get Joe bullied at best, and maybe something worse.

As the search for the two goes on, we find that Troy is not nearly a perfect father; he’s bi-polar, and while he’s pretty affable so long as he stays on his meds, he’s prone to fits of rage, one of which in the defense of his son lands him in jail and leads to Sally separating from him. However, the more time Joe spends with Sally, the more he realizes that his mother will never let him be who he is meant to be, couching her denial in terms of “God’s plan.” It is a refrain many transgender folk have heard all too often.

Sally knows that Troy is unreliable, and the longer she is separated from Joe, the more she realizes her own role in his being gone. She also realizes that the longer this goes on, the less likely it is that Troy will come out of this unharmed. As Troy and Joe navigate the wilderness, Joe’s love for cowboys and the cowboy mythology begins to crumble as he realizes that his father, who once seemed to be his only option, might not be competent enough to get them both to Canada – and that Troy has absolutely no plan whatsoever once the two arrive there.

This is a timely movie, inasmuch as it was released a couple of weeks before the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a sweeping reform that would insure the rights of transgenders and other LGBTQ citizens (it faces an uphill battle to pass in the Senate where it will need 60 votes). Kerrigan makes the most of the beautiful Big Sky scenery captured by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey, giving us breathtaking vistas and moments of exquisite natural beauty. There are also moments of ugliness, as townspeople come down on Joe and his desire to be male.

The four major roles of Troy, Joe, Sally and Faith are all perfectly cast and Kerrigan gets some outstanding performances from all of them. Bell and Zahn are generally noted for their comedic roles, but both handle the drama here with aplomb, with Zahn giving an absolutely outstanding performance that is sure to bring him some meatier parts in the future. Knight, as Joe, conveys a bittersweet melancholy and world-weary wisdom that belies his character’s years; one can imagine that it would be awful to have to deal with two damaged parents as well as his own issues of sexual identity. Knight’s performance should provide a role model for kids in that situation everywhere.

This is not a movie with easy answers; there are no white hats here (nor are there black hats either). Both Sally and Troy are flawed human beings doing the best that they can and the love they have for Joe is absolutely palpable. There is no doubt that this is, already, one of the year’s best films and should give families undergoing similar issues a starting place for necessary conversations.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery. Zahn is as good as he’s ever been and Knight is a revelation. Some moments of heart-rending pathos.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kerrigan insisted that the role of Joe be filled by a trans/gender-fluid actor, which Sasha Knight is.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Kid Like Jake
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Nomadland

Team Marco


If you can’t see the forest for the VR, you’re missing out on life.

(2020) Family (GoldwynOwen Vaccaro, Anthony Patellis, Thomas Kopache, Anastasia Ganias, Louis Cancelmi, Greg Rikaart, Jacob Laval, Antoinette LaVecchia, Kevin Interdonato, Caitlin Hammond, Jake Katzman, Skyler Lipkin, Joseph Callari, Ethan Coskay, Raymond Sammak, Precious Pia, Andrew Annicharico, Bobby Guarino, Candice Guardino, Noa Lev-Ari.  Directed by Julio Vincent Gambuto

 

Hollywood has a habit of looking at the very old and the very young with nearly equal disdain; senior citizens are technology-averse, doddering and full of aphorisms that pass for wisdom in a world geared towards neat little soundbites; the very young are technology-obsessed, attached to their smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles like they have superglue on them. How do these disparate generations possibly communicate?

Marco (Vaccaro) is a soon-to-be 12-year-old boy whose mother (Ganias) is a nurse in Staten Island, and whose father (Cancelmi) is a videogame designer living on the West Coast. Yes, they’re divorced. Marco has been promised by his dad that if he gets to level 100 on his dad’s latest videogame, that he will fly Marco out to a prestigious videogame convention where Marco will be surrounded by the latest and the greatest – a 12-year-old gamer’s idea of heaven.

Throwing a monkey wrench into all this is Marco’s grandfather, Nonno (Patellis), an irascible old man mourning the loss of his wife and forced to live with his daughter and grandson in a house too small as it is. Nonno sees Marco as almost a shut-in with no friends, no exercise, and no life to speak of other than the fantasy life he leads online. Marco’s anxieties have translated into germ phobia and imagined food allergies which Mom tolerates, but doesn’t actively discourage. Marco regards his grandfather with all the warmth and acceptance that he would a case of chicken pox.

Wise old grandpa sees that an intervention must be made, and he confiscates all of Marco’s electronics with the promise that he can get them all back if he can put together a team of young boys to play bocce ball against his grandfather’s team – and Nonno happens to be a bocce ball champion. It’s a tall order, but if Marco wants to get to that convention, he’ll have to take the plunge.

Generation gap movies can be amusing – very often it’s hard to believe that differing generations are even the same species as ourselves – but they are, generally speaking, not terribly clever, particularly those meant for family viewing. For whatever reason, Hollywood has always felt that the way to find common ground between generations is to dumb things down as much as possible, and that is certainly somewhat true here. The screenplay is predictable, and while there are some moments that genuinely made me misty-eyed, it felt like there was a great deal of lost opportunity here.

We have a man in mourning for his wife of many years; we have a child so eager to impress his father who lives on the other side of the country that he’s willing to do almost anything, not realizing that his father shouldn’t be making spending time with him conditional on whether he plays the game he designed or not. That feels wrong from a parental point of view and in fact there are a lot of parental don’ts in the mix here. I can imagine that a lot of Italian-Americans might end up objecting to the portrayal of the grandfather as being a bit too stereotypical. The accent has all the flavor of Chef Boy-ar-dee.

Vaccaro is a pretty good young actor, but he plays the kind of kid (at least, in the first half of the film) that would make Mother Teresa reach for the leather belt. While he (and we) learn more about bocce than any of us probably ever wanted to know, Marco at least matures a little bit but for many, it will be too little, too late. Perhaps it’s because my son is a gamer that I have little patience for the whole “Gaming is everything” mentality that Marco has; it hits a bit too close to home, so take that aspect with a grain of salt. Still, early on in the movie I wanted nothing more than to put every electronic device I own into a landfill, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the effect the filmmakers were going for.

As family entertainment goes, it does the job adequately, but only just. There are a ton of much better family films out there to be shared with multiple generations and as the holidays approach with the prospect of sharing close quarters with grandparents and grandkids, there is no doubt that you can do much better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Some genuinely heartwarming moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses itself in generation gap cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaccaro was 13 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl

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!