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!

Renoir


Renoir's model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

Renoir’s model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Michel Bouquet, Vincent Rottiers, Christa Theret, Thomas Doret, Michele Gleizer, Romane Bohringer, Carlo Brandt, Helene Babu, Stuart Seide, Paul Spera, Solene Rigot, Cecile Rittweger. Directed by Gilles Bourdos   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Great art transcends it’s medium. Whether a painting, a sculpture or a film, the greatest art inspires, excites, arouses and/or induces regardless of how it was created. One might say it is the art and not the artist – something that many artists forget.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bouquet), arguably the greatest of the Impressionist painters, knows that all too well. It is 1915 and the Great War rages not far from his estate, Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur on the Mediterranean coast in southeastern France. His wife Aline has recently passed away and he himself is in profound pain due to rheumatoid arthritis (he would pass away himself four years later) which is why he has relocated to this bucolic town far from Paris.

Two of his three sons have been wounded in the war – the third, Coco (Doret) is too young to enlist and dwells on the farm, angry at the world. The great painter is surrounded by female servants, most of whom are former models of his. It is a saucy environment indeed, one which most men his age would have envied entirely.

Into this mix comes Andree Heuschling (Theret), a voluptuously beautiful model recommended to the great master by Henri Matisse. Brash, forthright and a bit self-centered, Andree (who is better known as the actress Catherine Hessling later in life but here is called Dedee) creates quite a stir. Renoir enters a fresh period of creativity and ends up quite taken with her.

So is another Renoir – son Jean (Rottiers) who has come to the family farm to recuperate from his wounds. Jean is a bit of a lost soul whose relationship with his father has a bit of distance to it – after all, it is hard to be the son of a living legend. While his father paints some compelling paintings of Dedee (both clothed and nude), Jean begins to fall for the lively girl. In him she awakens a love of a new art form – cinema. But as Jean’s wounds heal, the call to arms is still strong. Will the call of love be stronger yet?

Much of this was filmed on Renoir’s farm Les Collettes and it is easy to see through the beautiful images of Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee just how idyllic the property is and how much Philippe-Auguste Renoir must have loved it. The wind blows through the old trees, creating a soundtrack all its own. The elder Renoir loved beauty, particularly in the female form (“Flesh!” he exclaims at one point, “That’s all that matters!”). He was fascinated by the textures of the skin of young women and few artists captured it as well as he.

The venerable Bouquet does a marvelous job of capturing the spirit and the look of Renoir, from the long raggedy beard to the gnarled hands and painful movement of the old man. When he looks at Dedee and murmurs “Too soon! Too late” with genuine melancholy, one realizes in four words how much he is attracted to her – and how realistic he is about a relationship actually developing.

I like the Renoirs was quite taken with Dedee and we have Christa Theret to thank for that. Only a teen when she made the film (admittedly the real Dedee was five years younger than Theret), she conveys both the force of nature of the model’s personality as well as her uninhibited nature as she spends much of the film naked. I doubt many American actresses would have been able to pull that latter quality off.

The pace here is as languid as a summer day and that may put off some American audiences. One gets lulled by the ambience of the film and the passion of the performances. I have rarely been transported to a time and place as effectively as I was for Renoir. While this isn’t strictly speaking not 100% biographical (for example, he’s depicted having his brush tied to his hands by his assistants; in reality they merely placed the brush in his hand for him), it is nonetheless a welcome insight into the mind and life of one of the most influential painters of his time – one who continues to be a touchstone in the world of art.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously photographed. Interesting insights into the life of one of the greatest artists in history.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be sleep-inducing in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Although there is quite a bit of nudity, it is all done in an artistic manner and while there is some bad language, there is only a few brief instances.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourdos used convicted art forger Guy Ribes to re-create the Renoir paintings onscreen during the painting sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100; pretty decent reviews for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pollack

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: AKA Doc Pomus

Robot & Frank


Robot & Frank

Never argue with a robot; it’s utterly unsatisfying.

(2012) Science Fiction (Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard (voice) Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong, Ana Gasteyer, Bonnie Bentley, Rachel Ma, Dario Barosso, Joshua Ormond, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Jake Schreier

 

As we get older, it is inevitable that our bodies start to lose function. We are no longer as strong as we once were; our skin sags, our eyes grow dim, our hearing not so keen. And our brains, that most wondrous organ also can lose function; we can’t think as quickly, we have difficulty understanding and accepting new things – and worst of all, it becomes difficult for us to remember.

In the near future of, say, 20 years from now, Frank (Langella) lives on his own in an isolated house in upstate New York. His grown kids worry about him; he is suffering from some memory loss. He seems to have difficulty getting that his favorite diner closed years ago to be replaced by a bath store with a bitchy owner (Gasteyer). His flighty daughter Madison (Tyler) embraces new age causes which he thinks are goofy but he still loves her in the tolerant way parents do.

His son Hunter (Marsden), a family man and a successful lawyer, lives five hours away by car and dutifully drives up to see his dad once a week but this is proving to be a strain on his family. His solution is to by his dad a robot (Ma, voiced by Sarsgaard) which dad clearly doesn’t want. Nonetheless he’s stuck with the caretaker whom he disdainfully refuses to name.

At first Frank is wary and mistrustful; he doesn’t want help, he doesn’t need help. He just wants to be left alone to eat his breakfast cereal, walk into town where he can go to the library where the comely librarian Jennifer (Sarandon) helps him find books he hasn’t read yet.

But the library is soon going to change as a snooty software tycoon (Strong) who wants to get rid of all the books and create a library “experience” for surfing the internet – a concept that would have been good for a laugh if the reality of it weren’t so inevitable. Frank doesn’t handle change well.

There was a time when he was a cat burglar, a “second story guy” who specialized in figuring ways in. As he discovers that his robot is useful for picking locks much quicker than Frank ever could, suddenly Frank is given a project to focus on.

Of course when a certain house gets robbed, Frank becomes a suspect mainly because he’s always a suspect. He’s matching wits with a local sheriff (Sisto) who isn’t used to this kind of high end crime in his jurisdiction and shows it. Unfortunately, Frank’s mental facilities are beginning to crumble; can he pull this last job off?

There is a bittersweet quality to the movie that I like very much. This isn’t a saccharine unicorns and rainbows look at old age where our elderly sail off with dignity into a gorgeous Hollywood sunset. This is about the realities of old age; the walking outside in the bathrobe, the forgetting that that the milk has long gone sour, the difficulty of recalling the names of one’s own children. The indignities that come with a brain that is no longer at peak performance.

Langella in recent years has become as reliable a character actor as there is out there. He’s done some fine work in films as disparate as Starting Out in the Evening and Frost/Nixon. He can be a force of nature or a cynical whisper. It doesn’t seem that long ago when he lit up the New York stage as the ultra-sexy Dracula, but it has been almost 40 years. He makes Frank cantankerous but vulnerable; a man who deals with his oncoming dementia by denying it. It’s a beautiful, layered performance that should in a just world get Oscar consideration but may not have the backing to take on the big studio juggernauts like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock.  That’s a pity – it’s a performance worthy of recognition.

Marsden and Sarandon have some good moments in their roles as well; Tyler’s is less memorable which is surprising since she’s usually so good. Still, she has three Oscar nominees to compete with and it’s understandable she might get lost in the mix, particularly when the role is so feather-light. Sarsgaard’s vocal performance as Robot reminded me as a cross between Kevin Spacey and HAL9000. If the good folks at Apple decide to retire Siri at any point, they should give Mr. Sarsgaard a call.

There are some moments that are gently funny, even laugh-out-loud. There are also at least two sure sniffle-inducing scenes guaranteed to tear you up if you are as sensitive as Da Queen and I both tend to be. While not everything works here, this is a very fine indie film that captures the indignities of aging with humor, dignity and grace.

REASONS TO GO: Nice dry sense of humor. Langella shines. Marsden and Sarandon are nifty as always.

REASONS TO STAY: Cops are a bit too cartoon-ish. Drags a bit through the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly bad words here and there but not many.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design of the caretaker Robot is based on the Honda ASIMO, a robot in use in Japan.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are solidly positive..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

ROBOT LOVERS: Not only is a robot one of the main characters and several other robots appear throughout the film, the end credits roll over video of actual robots in use today.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Trouble With the Curve

Exporting Raymond


 

Exporting Raymond

Philip Rosenthal on the mean streets of Moscow.

(2010) Documentary (Goldwyn) Philip Rosenthal, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Anna Frolovtseva, Boris Klyuev, Konstantine Naumochkin, Oleg Tabokov, Aleksandr Zhigalkin, Ray Romano, Peter Boyle, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, Patricia Heaton. Directed by Philip Rosenthal

We grow up thinking that certain things are universal, that you can count on them no matter what part of the planet you’re standing in. However, you’d be surprised at how some of the basics differ from country to country.

Philip Rosenthal assumed that no matter where you went, family dynamics would be pretty much the same the world over. As the producer in charge of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he’d used his own experiences as well as those of star Ray Romano to create a show that resonated with American audiences. While the show was never critically acclaimed (and in several of the reviews of this documentary I read some fairly snarky comments about the show) it still got high ratings mainly due to the likability of the stars and the universality of the situation – families can, after all, be pretty weird sometimes and the source for a lot of our own stories and smiles.

As the show was reaching its final episode, Sony (who distributed the series) was eager to export it to other countries (much in the way reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “American Idol” are exported), complete with local casts and crew – with Sony reaping the benefit. To this end they decided to use the Russian Federation as a test market and sent Rosenthal over there to talk with the Russian network and help set the show up there.

Before going, Rosenthal was nervous due to reports of high crime and the kidnapping for ransom of American businessmen; he was sold insurance in case of that very scenario occurring although he was later told that he “wasn’t worth the effort” which wasn’t meant in a mean way – he’s just not high enough on the food chain to make it worth the time and expense for the Russian mob to snatch him.

Once in Moscow, Rosenthal found the television industry to be much different than the American counterpart (although in some ways very much the same when it came to studio interference). He was constantly at odds with the director and in particular, the costumer (who thought that this middle class Russian family should be far more fashionable). Also the American sense of humor is a lot different than the Russian and jokes that brought rolling on the floor laughs from the Americans fell flat for the Russians, and vice versa. Acting styles were a lot different.

Rosenthal was constantly frustrated by the lack of willingness to bend by the Russians in terms of the concept of the show, the casting and other items. He has invested a great deal of his time and blood, sweat and tears into making the show successful. Can he make lightning strike twice?

This isn’t what you’d call a vital documentary. After all, your daily life isn’t going to be much affected if the Russian version of “Everybody Loves Raymond” is successful or not. I think Rosenthal wanted to make something on the cultural differences of the nation formerly known as The Evil Empire and the Good Guys.

Except this really doesn’t do the job. Rosenthal seems more inclined to take shots with cheap one liners at the expense of the various people he meets rather than to explore the nature of the differences between us. He does make an attempt to spend time with a Russian family but only manages to connect with them when he converses with his own technologically challenged parents on Skype.

This becomes little more than one man’s home movies about his vacation in Russia and to be honest, if I wanted a travelogue I’d look up Rick Steeves. There really are no attempts to really look with too much depth at the Russian culture other than to make fun of it. Still, if you liked the sitcom, you’ll probably like this as well. I just wish it had tried to get us to laugh with the Russians than at them. In the end, maybe if Rosenthal had been a little more willing to listen and a little less needing to do a comedy act he might have had a smoother time getting the show made.

WHY RENT THIS: The culture clash elements are the most interesting parts of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of a fluffy subject matter. Doesn’t really educate much and the humor can be a little mean.

FAMILY VALUES: One or two mildly rude words but really acceptable for all families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although originally titled “Everybody Loves Kostya,” the show eventually ran under the title “Voroniny,” after the central family’s surname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette comparing the American and Russian versions of the show. There is also a brief piece in which Rosenthal’s dad tells a joke.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87,277 on an unreported production budget; the movie may have made a profit but just broke even in more likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Baseball

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bernie

The Whistleblower


The Whistleblower

Sometimes the peacekeepers aren't so blessed.

(2010) True-Life Drama (Goldwyn) Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Roxana Condurache, Paula Schramm, Alexandru Potocean, William Hope, Rayissa Kondracki, Jeanette Hain, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Hewlett. Directed by Larysa Kondracki

In the course of our working day, we often see things that we find repugnant. Most of the time, we just let things slide. After all, why get yourself into a tizzy over things you can’t change? Once in awhile however, we run across things that we just can’t leave alone. We have to put a stop to something that is heinous.

Kathy Bolkovac (Weisz) is a hard-working police officer in Nebraska. She is recently divorced and her husband has been awarded custody of her daughter. He is now moving to Georgia for a new job and Kathy is doing her level best to find work down there but hasn’t been able to as of yet. Her commanding officer tells her about the potential of making $100K working as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia after the end of the Bosnian civil war.

This will enable Kathy to eventually move to Georgia when she finishes her six-month tour. She agrees and is given a position with the security contractor Democra and before long she helps train the Bosnian police in successfully prosecuting the first case of domestic abuse since the war ended. It’s a difficult job at best, given the still-simmering mistrust between ethnic groups and the attitude towards women in general in the region, but she perseveres and gets her conviction. This brings her to the attention to UN official Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) who installs her in charge of the Office of Gender Affairs, there to investigate crimes against women.

 Boy, does she find one. A ring of human traffickers are bringing women into Bosnia to serve in forced prostitution, particularly in the case of 15-year-old Ukrainian Raya (Condurache) and her friend Luba (Schramm) who were sold to human traffickers by her own uncle. When Raya is discovered beaten to the point of near-unconsciousness, Kathy investigates the incident and is shocked to discover that not only were the Bosnian police complicit in the affair but so is the United Nations and high-ranking diplomats and military personnel. Kathy will have to battle apathy and indifference in a bureaucratic nightmare that has some powerful forces arrayed against her, and the health, welfare and very lives of innocent young women in the balance.

This is based on an actual case and yes, Kathy Bolkovac is a real person. She worked for the real life company DynCorp which Democra substitutes for here. More on that in a minute.

This is an unflinching look at what is one of the fastest-rising crimes in the world. Human trafficking is at an all-time high and shows no signs of slowing down. Director Kondracki is obviously passionate about the subject and that passion is reflected in Weisz who gives Bolkovac a simmering, dogged personality. Not knowing much about the real Kathy Bolkovac, I can’t say whether that’s accurate or not but I can say that it fits the needs of the character in this movie nicely. Weisz as an actress can be extraordinary when given the right role. This isn’t her very best work but it’s darn near.

She is aided by an excellent supporting cast including Redgrave, regal and majestic as the UN official and Strathairn, as an internal affairs officer at Democra who helps Kathy in her investigation. Kaas plays a Dutch member of the international Democra peacekeeping team who enters into a romantic relationship with Kathy as well as a professional one.

The movie’s dark tone is underscored by the dark cinematography which occasionally descends into murkiness. There are scenes where it is difficult to ferret out what’s going on. A few more lights might not have been a bad idea here. Also, it feels like major plot points have been edited out or skipped over. I don’t mind reading between the lines in a movie, but this one needed a few more that would have helped explain some of the goings-on.

In real life, the investigation cost Bolkovac her job, forcing her to sue DynCorp in the British courts. DynCorp fired seven people (including Bolkovac) and reassigned several more but to date the company has never paid any restitution for its role in the incident. Personally, I find this sort of injustice infuriating; at the very least they should have been find and personally I think they should have lost every government contract they have. Not so much because their employees committed crimes under their aegis, but because they complicitly supported them by protecting them and impeding the real-life investigation of Bolkovac. To my mind, that’s unconscionable.

This could well have been an important movie and still might be. I don’t remember a movie dealing with the human trafficking subject that was this stark and this realistic. For once you get an idea of the degradations and horrors that these girls go through and the sexual slavery aspect isn’t just there for titillation. That The Whistleblower is based on actual events makes this as terrifying as any horror movie hitting the October release schedule.

REASONS TO GO: A terrifying view at a subject rarely tackled by films and never with this level of realism. Weisz, Redgrave, Strathairn and Kaas give raw performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many blanks left for the viewer to fill in. The cinematography is often murky.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, much of it of a sexual nature including one particularly brutal sexual assault. The language is rough as well and as you might expect, there’s plenty of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly shot in Romania. Weisz had originally been approached to play the role in 2005 but turned it down due to her pregnancy. When she discovered the movie’s production had stalled, she accepted the role and consequently the movie was made.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d say see this in a theater; it might be easier to make out some of the images on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: You Again

Harry Brown


Harry Brown

My name...is Michael Caine...punk!!!

(2009) Crime Drama (Goldwyn) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Daniel Barber

As we grow older, we sometimes find that the world is changing around us so rapidly it becomes virtually unrecognizable from what it’s been. Those changes can be confusing and even terrifying; sometimes we feel helpless in the onslaught of them. However, when the world grows out of control and violent, can we expect the elderly to stand up for themselves?

Harry Brown (Caine) is a pensioner grieving over his wife. He lives in a housing estate that has deteriorated rapidly, becoming rampant with crime and prostitution. He hangs out in a pub owned by Sid (Cunningham), playing chess with his old pal Leonard (Bradley). Leonard is terrified of the gang that runs their housing complex; they keep putting piles of dog excrement through his mail slot, going so far as to send flaming torches through as well. Fed up, Leonard takes a gun out to deal with the ruffians.

Predictably, Harry’s next visit is from Detective Alice Frampton (Mortimer) of the Metropolitan police, and her partner Detective Hicock (Miles) informing Harry that his friend has been murdered. Harry is of course bereaved, and expects the cops to bring those who murdered his friend to justice; however, it quickly becomes evident that the police can’t or won’t clean up the area or find the culprits.

However, when you’re Michael Caine, you don’t let details stand in your way. No, Harry Brown as it turns out is a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland a.k.a. he’s seen some stuff. It means Harry Brown is Dirty Harry with a Cockney accent, and some punks are about to feel decidedly unlucky.

While there is a bit of an apt comparison with the iconic Clint Eastwood character, the film comes off more like Death Wish than Magnum Force. With first-time director Barber at the helm, the film moves at a kind of a jerky pace – fast and frenetic at times and a bit slow at others. It gives an overall feel of driving a car with a dying transmission in it.

Caine is utterly magnificent here. In one of his best performances in a decade, he imbues Harry with quiet reserve, inner steel and rage. He is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to die for his cause. He isn’t a super-hero – he doesn’t hit everything he shoots, he can’t run like a track star and he doesn’t knock out behemoths with a single punch. Instead, he relies on his own experience and military smarts. Caine gives the character dignity and a bit of a connection with the past; we can imagine a young Caine sweeping through Belfast, machine gun in hand, rooting out snipers.

Mortimer is a very good actress who tends to play mousy characters. Here she’s playing a cop who is frustrated with the system, knows that its corrupt and is completely sympathetic to Harry’s plight and those of his neighbors but is helpless to really make much of an impact.

The ending is pure cinematic poppycock and the script tends to plod through clichés that were old when Death Wish was new. Still, with Caine’s soaring performance, Harry Brown bears watching, even though the sight isn’t exactly a new vista.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Caine’s best performances of the last ten years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable revenge thriller plotline. Ludicrous ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is very strong as is the violence. There is also some drug use and sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The woman singing “Gold” in the pub is actually the unit nurse for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $7.3M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Apollo 18

Seraphim Falls


Seraphim Falls

Pierce Brosnan discovers you need a lake in order to go ice fishing.

(2006) Western (Goldwyn) Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, Anjelica Huston, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Tom Noonan, Kevin J. O’Connor, John Robinson, Angie Harmon, Wes Studi. Directed by David von Ancken

There are things that can’t be left alone, cheeks that cannot be turned. There are crimes so heinous that they cannot stand and if we can’t get justice in the conventional way, we must find a way of seeking it ourselves.

Gideon (Brosnan) is a trapper in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada roasting his dinner over the fire when a shot rings out. Gideon is shot in the shoulder. Not knowing where his assailants are, he tumbles down the mountain, taking as many of his things as he can. He flees to a secluded spot and builds a fire, digging out the bullet from his shoulder with a hunting knife and then heating up the blade to cauterize the wound.

We find out that the pursuer is Carver (Neeson), who has with him a posse of four grim men. While some of his company thinks Gideon is dead, Carver knows he isn’t. They spread out to try and find him – which turns out to be a mistake as Gideon jumps one of the posse and kills him.

Gideon escapes from the mountains and attempts to steal a horse from a homesteader. He is discovered but his wound prompts the family to give him shelter. Realizing that the posse is on its way, Gideon steals a horse anyway. He makes it to a railroad camp where the foreman, recognizing the horse, detains him. He manages to get away and steal another horse and rides into the desert. There he will have his final reckoning with his pursuers. Who will emerge alive?

Westerns are not the most popular of genres these days and quite frankly, the problem with them has been that a lot of the stories are somewhat derivative. This one smells a lot like The Outlaw Josie Wales in construction, and that bothered me a bit. As the film progresses, we get to see why Carver is chasing Gideon (and to be fair, the reason is pretty compelling) and your sympathies begin to shift from Gideon to Carver – but this film is much less successful at making the vengeance seeker seem sympathetic as we were for Josie Wales.

But you can’t really complain all that much when you have an Oscar-winning cinematographer like John Toll at your disposal and he doesn’t disappoint, giving us vistas of snowy mountains, dusty railroad camps and dry, barren deserts. It is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see.

There are also some close-ups of hideous wounds that will turn the stomach of the squeamish, so be warned about that. However, even the squeamish will enjoy the acting performances here. Brosnan is guttural in his speech resembling Clint Eastwood crossed with Brando in a way, his face careworn and grizzled. The deeds of his past are apparent in his eyes. Brosnan has always had the reputation of being more of a pretty face than a good actor, but since leaving his former job as Bond he has become a pretty decent actor.

Neeson, on the other hand, has always had a good reputation since day one; only lately has he become an action hero. He broods with the best of them and as a wronged man there are few better at inspiring sympathy, although strangely enough he is so brutal early on it is hard to get behind him when the reason for his pursuit is revealed.

The two are supported by a surprisingly solid group of character actors, including Lauter and Wincott as members of Carver’s posse, Studi as a fast-talking Indian trader, Huston as a snake-oil saleswoman and Harmon in a brief appearance as a loyal wife. Von Ancken, who has extensive television experience in his background, does a decent job with the movie but at the end of the day, doesn’t really add anything to a story that’s already been done before.

Part of the problem with filming westerns is that there are fewer and fewer locations to shoot them in. That is sad in a big way – westerns have a lot to offer and it’s a pity that more of them aren’t made. While the movie is set shortly after the Civil War (which figures heavily into the plot), this is definitely a movie about the West and not the war, although the director has stated that this is an anti-war film with parallels in our current Iraqi conflict.

In all honesty, I couldn’t see those parallels except in a very broad, very general sense. I tended to prefer the first half of the movie which was action-packed and featured Gideon getting out of one situation after another, over the second part where there was more of a 70s acid western feel to the film. If either of those scenarios suit you, by all means rent away. If not, keep on riding cowboy.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome cinematography and nice performances from Brosnan and Neeson, as well as the fine character actors in the supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Odd near-hallucinatory sequences near the end of the movie detract from it.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Western for both Brosnan and Neeson who in separate interviews said they really loved shooting this film because of their mutual love for the genre as kids.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m betting this probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Bad Teacher

The Double Hour (La doppia ora)


The Double Hour (La doppia ora)

Kseniya Rappoport may be emerging behind murky glass but the picture is growing no clearer.

(2009) Thriller (Goldwyn) Kseniya Rappoport, Filippo Timi, Antonia Truppo, Gaetano Bruno, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michele Di Mauro, Lorenzo Gioielli, Lidia Vitale, Lucia Poli, Giorgio Colangeli, Chiara Nicola, Gilda Postiglione Turco. Directed by Giussepe Capotondi

Some movies can’t really be described in too much detail without giving away vital twists and turns. The Italian thriller The Double Hour is a lot like that. That’s why the plot description is going to be a bit bare and vague.

Guido (Timi) is an ex-cop whose wife passed away three years earlier (we never find out how) and has become a somewhat diffident aficionado of speed dating. He is somewhat attractive in a hangdog kind of way, and his attempts at speed dating often lead to one night stands with desperate women (Vitale) that leave him unfulfilled.

He meets Sonia (Rappoport) at one of these. She is a Slovenian who has immigrated to Turin and is working as a hotel chambermaid. Recently she was witness to a horrific occurrence there. She is lonely and bored and is urged by her friend Margherita (Truppo) to get out more. She goes to the same speed date and runs into Guido.

Something happens between the two. The beginnings of a relationship begin to form. He invites her to the country estate where he is currently working as a security guard, showing her some of the sound equipment he’s built from scratch. They go for a walk in the idyllic countryside grounds of the estate. That’s when things go decidedly and horribly wrong.

Capotondi has a background in music videos. He utilizes music nicely, such as The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” which shows up in a more sinister way than perhaps Robert Smith ever envisioned his song becoming. Capotondi has said in interviews that he is influenced by Italy’s giallo horror films of Dario Argento and his brethren. Sections of the movie show it quite clearly. He also seems to have a thing about Hitchcock, as portions of the movie also show. There are also some Brian de Palma moments as well. The movie is at various times a supernatural thriller, a heist picture, a romantic drama and an art film. You can decide what description is most apt on your own.

The acting is superb here. Rappoport has been getting a great deal of acclaim for her performance. She has moments where she seems as fragile as a waif, lost and lonely. There are other times where she is strong and assertive, particularly when she is dealing with Guido’s fellow policeman Dante (Di Mauro) who has some suspicions regarding events at the villa.

The movie is surreal in places and will leave you with your head spinning. You almost wish you had a rewind button in the theater, thinking to yourself, did I just see what I think I saw? In some ways it will be less effective on DVD/Blu-Ray because people will be using their rewind buttons and slow-mo features which might spoil some of the surprises.

Subtitles will turn some off, and so will the abrupt mood and style shifts. There is one shift in particular, between the second and third act that is jarring to the point where you almost wonder if the filmmakers decided they didn’t like the script, junked it and started a new one at that point. It may make purists a little perturbed.

Still, this is a movie worth hanging in there for. The twists and turns here are amazing, as good as any movie since perhaps The Sixth Sense or Memento. This is a movie that is as good as any theme park ride, and those who are willing to go along for the ride won’t be disappointed. Just beware: this is not a kiddy ride in any sense. This is a ride only for those who aren’t afraid of adult thrills. This is that roller coaster with so many inversions you don’t know which way is up when you get off the ride and the only thing you can think about is getting right back on for another shot. The Double Hour (which refers to the time on the digital clock when the hour readout is the same as the minute readout, such as 10:10 or 12:12 – or 23:23 for those European readers) is like that, and it’s the kind of movie that bears repeated viewings and will certainly inspire some discourse once you’ve seen it the first time.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful twists and turns. Haunting performance by Rappoport. This is the kind of movie that inspires spirited discussions.

REASONS TO STAY: One of the movie’s major twists is so abrupt that some might find it off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES: Although not rated, there is some sexuality and nudity, a bit of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rappoport won the Volpi Cup as Best Actress at the 66th Venice Film Festival in 2009.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are you will have trouble finding it at your local Bijou, but should work just as effectively on your home screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo