Made in Italy


The love between father and son withstands all obstacles.

(2020) Dramedy (IFC) Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Marco Quaglia, Gian Marco Tavani, Helena Antonio, Lavinia Biagi, Gabriele Tozzi, Souad Faress, Claire Dyson, Costanza Amati, Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden, Chelsea Fitgerald, Deborah Vale, Flaminia Cinque. Directed by James D’Arcy

I have come to a conclusion about my film critic colleagues: they really, really hate (in general) movies that make you feel. They much prefer (again, in general) movies that make you think. There’s nothing wrong with having your thoughts provoked, mind you – but not everyone goes to the multiplex to exercise their mind, and learning isn’t always a function of thought and rationality. Sometimes, it’s a process of intuition and emotion.

London-based art gallery manager Jack Foster (Richardson) is going through a painful divorce from his wife (Kettle) whose family, unfortunately for Jack, owns the gallery. Now that the couple is Splitsville, they want to sell the building and turn a tidy profit. Jack, who has worked hard to build the gallery into something, wants to buy it. But how to come up with the cast? Well there’s the house he co-owns with his dad Robert (Neeson) in Tuscany which should be able to provide the funds Jack needs in a quick sale.

Robert was once one of those artists who were the talk of the art world, whose artwork commanded astronomical sums in auctions and sales. But after the death of his wife (Jack’s mother) in a tragic accident twenty years prior, he’s stopped painting and has opted for the life of a ladies man, hopping into bed with young women whose names he can scarcely remember, much to the disgust of his son.

The trip to Tuscany is awkward and when they arrive at the house, the decades of neglect is very much evident – a family of weasels has taken up residence and they’re not willing to give up their squatters’ rights. Drill sergeant-like realtor Kate (Duncan) has a laundry list of must-dos in order to sell the house, although the plumbing is pretty good (that matters a lot, according to Kate) and so Jack, who is much more gung-ho about selling the place than his dad, gets to fixing the place up. Robert seems to be dragging his feet, even though he wants his son to have the cash, at the same time he is having trouble letting go. Jack is having trouble letting go of his anger towards his dad, who shipped him off to school just when Jack needed support the most.

Jack finds romance with a local trattoria owner named Natalia (Bilello) who is undergoing marital troubles of her own. However even as Kate finds a couple of boorish American boobs who are willing to buy the house that they clearly could never appreciate properly, the gulf between Robert and Jack reaches a boiling point with perhaps surprising results (or perhaps not).

If the renovation of a house belonging to a beloved deceased relative in one of the loveliest places on Earth sounds like the plot to another movie, that’s because it is – remember Russell Crowe extolling the charms of Provence in A Good Year? Just as that film activated many dream vacations to France, so too this one may give you the yen to visit Florence and environs.

This couldn’t have been an easy movie for Neeson and Richardson to make. Neeson’s wife – actress Natasha Richardson – and Michael’s mother, passed away far too young in 2009. I couldn’t say if the father and son in real life mirrored the strained relations that they portray onscreen, but the pain of loss that both men surely feel hangs over the production like smog on a hot summer day. There is a scene where the two confront each other over the death of the mom/wife that is especially poignant when you realize that the two have an emotional connection to the material.

Nonetheless, both men have some truly powerful scenes together and those alone are worth the price of admission (or rental in these days of pandemic). So, too, are the lovely golden-hued shots of the Tuscan countryside that has been long a favorite of filmmakers ever since cameras were invented.

First-time writer-director D’Arcy gets few points for originality here; much of the script is predictable and while the movie hits all the right feels, there are times that it comes off as derivative and not terribly original. However, wonderful performances from the leads (and Bilello is absolutely delightful as well), some magnificent cinematography and some nice foodie moments make this a movie guaranteed to make you want to head off to Tuscany yourself – or at least indulge in a really good bowl of risotto.

REASONS TO SEE: Lovely Tuscan vistas on display. Some very good work between father and son.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable and occasionally bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neeson and Richardson are father and son in real life. This is the second time they’ve appeared in the same movie together (the first was Cold Pursuit).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 54/100, Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Shine Your Eyes

Homemakers


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Dramedy (Factory25/FilmBuff) Rachel McKeon, Jack Culbertson, Molly Carlisle, Dan Derks, Sheila McKenna, Harry O’Toole, Matt Bryan, Luke Johanson, Devin Bonnée, Daniel Hershberger, Clifford Lynch, Dianna Ifft, Jeff Monahan, LeJon Woods, John Shepard, Nathan Hollabaugh, Pete Bush, Joel Brown, Sarah Jannett Parish, Adrienne Wehr. Directed by Colin Healey

Some movies come along that try to push the boundaries of filmmaking and films. Some even succeed at it. Others are noble efforts. And others…well, they can try a viewer’s patience.

Irene (McKeon) is a singer in a punk band in Austin who has severe impulse control. She is unlikable, unpleasant to be around and her “charm” can be grating. Her bandmates, particularly her ex-girlfriend Kicky (Carlisle) are getting weary of her antics. Then when she has a meltdown onstage during one of their sparsely attended performances – although a well known music blogger is in attendance – and destroys some of her bandmates instruments, the last straw has been reached. They are in the midst of voting whether or not to kick her out of the band when Irene gets a phone call; her grandfather has died and left her a ramshackle house in Pittsburgh.

The house, which hasn’t been inhabited in a decade since her grandpa was unceremoniously shoved into an assisted living home, sits in a working class neighborhood with a cantankerous neighbor (O’Toole) next door. Irene wants a quick payday but the house is in no shape to be sold; knowing nothing about home improvement, she enlists Cam (Culbertson), the cousin she didn’t know she had until the phone call, to help her fix up the place. Unfortunately, he knows nothing about home improvement either. What they do know about is drinking and drugs and so they spend as much time getting plowed as they do channeling Tye Pennington.

Along the way something mysterious, strange and wonderful occurs – Irene, who had committed to nothing in her life except chaos, begins to like the idea of settling down in a home of her own. She begins to get serious about making something of her home – with an eye on keeping it. That’s going to require a good deal of personal improvement to go along with the home improvement though.

Healey in his feature length directorial debut makes the most out of a microscopic budget in putting together a good-looking, well-shot film. I will give him props for going the “different” route. But there are a lot of things here that won’t go over well with general audiences.

Irene is essentially a spoiled, unlikable brat who acts out like a five year old. Watching adults act like children, particularly like venal, mean children, has little appeal to me at this stage of the game. I don’t have anything against child-like behavior but there’s a difference between that and childish behavior, which is what we get here. Don’t get me wrong; McKeon is a force of nature in this role and shows exceptional promise. It takes a lot of guts to take on a part in which the character has virtually nothing redeeming about her until near the end of the film.

The house itself looks like a house that nobody has lived in for ten years. When your mom tells you to clean up your room, it looks like a pigsty, show her this movie and tell her that at least your room isn’t like this. Once you regain consciousness, I’m sure she’ll agree with you. As the house slowly gets renovated, the predictable kitsch takes over as we get garage sale chic going on in the furnishings. Not everything works but at least an effort is made.

Some people are going to find this unwatchable; certainly my wife did. This might end up being a future candidate for Joshua David Martin’s popular monthly Uncomfortable Brunch series at Will’s Pub here  in Orlando, a series that celebrates films that are challenging. Like many of the films that are shown in that series, this is a movie that requires a great deal of forbearance to view. Whether that patience is rewarded at the end of the movie is really your call to make. In my case, I have to say it was not.

REASONS TO GO: Outside the box.
REASONS TO STAY: Irene is extremely unlikable. Lots of indie pretensions. Overdoes the grit.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Audience Award at the Independent Film Festival Boston this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Having a Healthy Tooth Extracted Without Novocain
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT: The Martian

Tamara Drewe


The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood, Susan Wooldridge, Amanda Lawrence, Zahra Ahmadi, Cheryl Campbell. Directed by Stephen Frears

Thomas Hardy famously wrote that “you can’t go home again.”  I have always taken that to mean that when you leave your home, your journey elsewhere changes you or time changes your home. Either way when you return the changes made to you, the place you call home or both leave it an entirely different experience altogether.

Tamara Drewe (Arterton) left the quiet Dorset village of Ewedown to seek her fortune as a journalist in London. She left an ugly duckling with a nose large enough to put off the village boys (except for one) from being friendly with her; she returns a beautiful swan, not only having found success in her career but a skilled plastic surgeon as well.

She’s returned to sell the home she grew up in after her mum passed away. But not only has Tamara changed, Ewedown has as well. It has become home to a writer’s colony, set up by bestselling crime author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) but mainly administered by his tolerant wife Beth (Greig). Nicholas is a bit too busy philandering to really take an interest in it.

Tamara’s arrival as far as Nicholas is concerned means one more pair of panties to get inside but to others in the village, it means a different thing altogether. For Andy (Evans), the boy we spoke of earlier who was the only one to be romantically drawn to Tamara, it means a second chance to be with the woman he loves (but it also means additional income as Tamara hires him to help get the house in order for the sale). For local teens Jody (Barden) and Casey (Christie) it means someone else to torment and another life to investigate. Jody in particular has it in for Tamara because she has been having an affair (after Nicholas has come and gone) with rock drummer Ben Sargeant (Cooper) whom Jody has a huge crush on. And for aspiring writer Glen McCreavy (Camp) who has come to Dorset from America to immerse himself in Hardy and perhaps find a muse, it is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Beth whom he slowly becomes infatuated with – it must be the scratch-baked pastries.

All in all, there will be meddling, secrets revealed, tragedy, comedy and frankly, a lot of people getting what they deserve. But what would Thomas Hardy think?

Frears is a marvelous director who often looks at the libidinous nature of life and finds humor in it. He directed one of my favorite all-time films in High Fidelity as well as some pretty high quality efforts in My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He shows a good sensibility for capturing the rhythms and quirks of English country life here, largely due to an intelligent and well-written script by Moira Buffini.

Arterton has been developing an impressive resume of both big-budget tentpole films and more intimate indies and dramas. Here she’s mostly required to be sexy, which she is amply qualified for. While she receives top billing, the movie really isn’t about Tamara. Tamara is more of a catalyst.

Frears has wisely cast a group of actors who don’t necessarily have a lot of name value (although Cooper and Evans are both building respectable careers) but are entirely capable. Greig in particular does extremely well in the sympathetic role of Beth who manages to be kind and supportive even though she is no fool and is perfectly aware that her husband is a rotten human being.

The film is high on charm albeit low on insight. This isn’t a movie to turn to when you want to learn something new about human nature, although if you lack experience in such you might sing a different tune. To be honest, there are definitely many films out there (including by Frears himself) that capture the foibles and quagmires of love more succinctly.

The one real misstep in the script is a fairly major one – the characters of Jody and Casey. While they do cause some of the major plot points to occur, in all honesty every time they take the screen as a kind of Greek chorus, they tend to summarize what’s going on with each of the characters that they are in the midst of investigating. The movie loses what momentum it has when this occurs and could have done better without them.

For me, this was a movie that while charming is ultimately full of empty calories. The pastries that Beth bake are from scratch, crafted with love and honest ingredients. The film however feels store-bought in a lot of ways. Me, I would rather enjoy something home baked than something out of a box.

WHY RENT THIS: Superb performance by Greig. A great deal of charm. Captures rural English village life in the 21st century perfectly. Intelligently written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight. Jody and Casey tend to stop the film in its tracks when they are onscreen.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original graphic novel by Posy Simmonds was itself a collection of comic strips originally published in the UK newspaper The Guardian and was a modern re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy classic Far From the Madding Crowd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a discussion with Frears and Arterton on how the graphic novel was transformed into a film and some of the differences therein.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.9M on an unreported production budget; this was very likely a solidly profitable film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Great Gatsby (2013)