Hotel Mumbai


The majestic façade hides terror and carnage.

(2021) True Life Drama (Bleecker Street) Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Nazanin Boniadi, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, Alex Pinder, Amadeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Yash Trivedi, Aditi Kalkunte, Vipin Sharma, Gaurav Paswala, Angus McLaren, Naina Sareen, Sachin Joab, Chantal Contouri, Vitthal Kale, Nagesh Bhonsie, Carmen Duncan. Directed by Anthony Maras

 

On November 26, 2008 ten members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization based in Pakistan carried out a variety of attacks over four days at several locations in the city of Mumbai, one of the largest cities and de facto financial capital of India. Among the locations that were under siege was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a high-end hotel in the city.

First-time feature filmmaker Anthony Maras adopted a you-are-there approach in depicting the events, emphasizing the multi-cultural aspect of the attackers and victims (ten different languages are spoken during the course of the film). Maras manages to capture the terror, panic and chaos of the attacks, which took place over four days before the attackers were finally stopped (nine of the ten attackers were killed; the tenth, Ajmal Kasab, was captured alive and provided testimony which explained how the attacks were planned and executed. He himself would be executed by hanging in 2016).

The stories here were mainly heroic as the hotel staff tried to protect the guests at the hotel, often at great personal risk. There are far too many characters to go into individually but the performances are generally quite solid with those of Patel, as a kind-hearted Sikh waiter, Hammer and Boniadi as a wealthy newlywed couple terrified for the safety of their newborn baby, and veteran Indian actor Kher as a celebrity chef whose quick-thinking and calm leadership saved dozens of lives.

The pacing is generally pretty fast, although it does drag a little bit in the middle of the movie. Still, this is a very good movie that has been overlooked in many ways. It is available to stream on a variety of services and is one you would do well to check out.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Patel and Kher. Taut and suspenseful.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence (some of it gruesome) and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Maras and co-writer John Collee based their film on hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors and witnesses. Some of the dialogue is taken verbatim from them.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Who is Amos Otis?

13 Minutes


A sight you never want to see in your neighborhood.

(2021) Disaster (Quiver) Thora Birch, Paz Vega, Trace Adkins, Anne Heche, Amy Smart, Sofia Vassilieva, Peter Facinelli, Laura Spencer, Will Peltz, Yancey Arias, Gabriel Jarret, Tokala Black Elk, Shaylee Mansfield, Darryl Cox, Davi Santos, Ginger Gilmartin, James Austin Kerr, April Warren, Kyle Jacob Henry, Addison Metcalf, Lena Harmon, Allyson Crisofaro, Erin Herring, Leesa Neidel. Directed by Lindsay Gossling

Tornadoes are a bitch. They strike without any sort of warning and can leave apocalyptic devastation in their wake. Often, they hit small towns that are less able to recover as easily as a big city might.

In the small fictional Oklahoma town of Minninnewah right in the heart of Tornado Alley, things start with a distant rumble and troubling weather reports that bad weather could be in the offing. Veteran farmer Rick (Adkins) scoffs, having been through enough false alarms in his time to be skeptical at the words of warning coming over the TV. His son Luke (Peltz) is late coming in the night before, managing to miss a lightning strike on their barn that left it completely gutted. Dad, needless to say, is less than thrilled. ‘I hope she was worth it,” he tells him. The fact is, though, that there was no girl. Instead, Luke was spending the night with a man – Daniel (Santos), who works for his Dad (and by extension, for him).

Ana (Vega) works as a hotel maid for an insufferable boss who doesn’t like Hispanics much and her undocumented husband Carlos (Arias) less. Ana lets it roll off her back like water off a duck; she has saved enough for a down payment on a house, even though the supercilious real estate agent (Neidel) who deigns to sign the paperwork while in the midst of her salon appointment, then sniffs “It was barely worth the commission” behind her back after she leaves. Maddy (Vassilieva), who is coloring her hair, has problems of her own; she’s pregnant and the baby daddy (Kerr) doesn’t want to get married, and isn’t so keen on an abortion either, which is what Maddy wants – although when she goes in to the clinic, Tammy (Heche) insists on showing her an ultrasound of the fetus and trying to talk her out of aborting the child. Tammy, as it turns out, is married to Rick and is Luke’s mom.

Maddy is the daughter of single mom Jessie (Birch) who works at an auto repair place, putting up with the patronizing, the sexual harassment and the unreliable customers who wait until the last minute to get their emergency vehicles serviced. When Maddy breaks the news of her delicate condition, essie turns out to be ferociously supportive which might bring a tear to the softer viewer. Maddy also babysits Peyton (Mansfield), the daughter of TV weatherman Brad (Facinelli) and his wife (Smart) is the emergency services department head for Minninnewah. They have jobs to do, so when their sitter flakes out, Maddy gets the call.

All of this small-town drama will begin to recede into inconsequentiality when the town is given a mere thirteen minutes warning that they are going to be hit head-on by a massive tornado. Lives will hang in the balance depending on what each individual citizen does next.

I was surprised that I found the individual stories pretty compelling and while the cast is solid, it performs even better than I expected them to. Not to mention that the tornado sequence is authentically terrifying, even more so than the comparable sequence in Twister that had a far bigger budget to work with than this film did. We also see the devastation from the twister; the town is absolutely leveled and it’s hard to believe anyone survived the destruction, let alone the number that eventually did. On that note, I’m not sure how to address that without giving a spoiler away here; let’s just say that the movie is robbed of an emotional catharsis that it might have had. Some might even feel a bit cheated.

Some of the plot threads feel a bit melodramatic, coming out of disaster movie tropes that are a bit dated at this point. I think the movie might have benefited by having maybe one less thread – for example, the weather man and the emergency services director had little to do except look worried and give out advice on what to do if the storm hits directly. Also, I found it a bit disconcerting that people who had acted like complete and utter jerks throughout the movie turned heroic in the aftermath with one person who professed racist views taking care of an injured Hispanic tornado victim. That just seems inconsistent to me.

Still in all, this is surprisingly entertaining and the tornado and its aftermath are absolutely wonderful. I would recommend the movie highly just for those elements alone.

REASONS TO SEE: The tornado sequence is legitimately terrifying. Better than we had any right to expect.
REASON TO AVOID: Maybe one or two stories deteriorate into melodrama.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, adult themes, sensuality and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several extras are former or current first responders who have actually responded to tornado disasters in the area the movie was filmed in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
13 Fanboy

Yellow Rose


Roses come in all shades in Texas.

(2019) Drama (Stage 6) Eva Noblezada, Dale Watson, Princess Punzalan, Lea Salonga, Gustavo Gomez, Libby Villari, Kelsey Pribiliski, Kenneth Wayne Bradley, Heath Young, Liam Booth, Shannon McCormick, Arlene Cavazos, Mamie Meek, Felicia M. Reyes, Beau Smith, Susan MyBurgh, Conrad Ramirez, Zach Polivka, Leslie Lewis, Sandy Avila, Beth Puorro. Directed by Diane Paragas

 

Dreams of country music stardom fill the head of many a young Texan. For illegal immigrants in Texas, the dreams are decidedly different, although not always. For young Rose Garcia (Noblezada), her ambition was sealed the first time she heard Loretta Lynn. An illegal from the Philippines, she lives with her mother (Punzalan) in a dingy hotel in a nowhere Texas town where her mom works the front desk and cleans rooms. Her father, an American citizen, has been dead a short while. Their legal status is tenuous at best.

That doesn’t mean that Rose doesn’t have dreams that other American kids share. Definitely Elliot (Booth) would like to get to know her better; he’s a college-bound kid working in the guitar store where she gets her supplies for her acoustic guitar. It turns out that Rose is a talented singer and gifted songwriter, but s’e’s never seen a live show. Elliot takes her to the legendary Broken Spoke in Austin – see Honky Tonk Heaven from the 2017 Florida Film Festival – but he brings her home just in time to see her mom being led away in handcuffs by ICE agents.

Her mom knew this was a possibility, so she leaves some cash and instructions to go see Aunt Gail (Salonga), her estranged sister but as willing as Gail is to help, her Anglo husband wants Rose gone. Fortunately, the kindly owner of the Spoke Jolene (Villari) hooks her up with a place to stay and introduces her to Austin icon Dale Watson (himself) who also appears in the Broken Spoke doc. While her situation is precarious, she perseveres, wanting nothing more than to stay in America and make a life for herself using the talent she has. Would it be enough, though?

The cast is pretty strong, and Noblezada is a real revelation. A Tony nominee, she brings an authenticity to the role of Rose, who is given the somewhat racist nickname of the title by her classmates but doesn’t let that nascent prejudice stop her. She has a temper and perhaps for good reason, but she is also vulnerable which makes her approachable as a viewer. Paragas does a really good job of capturing the uncertainty that rules the lives of undocumented immigrants in this country, and Noblezada brings that uncertainty to life.

Watson, a veteran country music performer, is surprisingly strong in his role. This version of himself has sacrificed a lot for his career, perhaps more than he should have been willing to pay. There’s a little background pathos to the role that serves to humanize Watson and makes it more than a one-note role, if you’ll forgive the musical analogy.

Paragas for the most part keeps things real, but the last 20 minutes things get a little bit cliché, which is a bit of a bummer; up until that point, the movie had been far from predictable. The ending feels forced, and while I get they were going for a feel-good finale, it didn’t feel earned here. Still, this is a strong effort and one to keep an eye out for out in those theaters that are open for the moment.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice performances by Noblezada and Watson.
REASONS TO AVOID: Goes off the rails during the last 20 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noblezada and Salonga have both played the lead role of Kim in major stage productions (Broadway and West End) of Miss Saigon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Rose
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nationtime

Method of Murder


In the desert where you can bury your bodies …or not.

(2017) Documentary (Vision) Jacky Rom, Tommy McDonald, Junior Rubio, Arianna Black, Mason Pollack, Jamie Wilson, Sarah Cass, Cash Kasper, Norm Thom, Derek Stevens, John Fiato, Jenny Brown, Vivien Karp, Joseph Charfauros, Sandy Karp, Larry Hess Lyle Rivero, Marco Antonio, Keith Evans, Kristin Whittemore, Isabelle Mondelaers. Directed by Elliot Manarin

 

How do you kill a person and get away with it? In this era of forensic experts, security cameras and digital footprints, it’s harder than ever – and it was never easy. For most of us, it’s an academic question, something that leads us to watching TV crime shows or reading murder mysteries.

For British crime novelist Jacky Rom however, it’s a whole lot more than idle speculation – it’s a living. The author of best-selling novel From Makeup to Murder, she was hard at work on the follow-up From Vegas to Villainy and needed some ideas on how to do the deed, so to speak. Being the kind of plucky sort who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, she heads out to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to figure out how she was going to commit the perfect crime – in a literary sense.

In this hour-long documentary, Rom interviews tattoo artists, photographers, magicians, make-up specialists, lion tamers, archers, casino security experts and firearm specialists. For the most part everything is handled in a fun, lighthearted manner. Rom is endlessly cheerful and comes off like a Brit combining work and vacation, but there are some serious moments. She is visibly affected when she fires a handgun; the recoil establishes just how powerful a weapon it is and just how easy it is to kill someone with it. For a few moments, the crime author seems to be empathizing more with the victims than the investigators.

She seems to have an inventive mind as one of the methods she devises is pure genius if impractical. However, sadly, most of the methods she investigates are pretty run-of-the-mill – I suppose she wanted to keep her best ideas for her book and I could hardly blame her. As it turns out, having lions dispose of the remains of her victim turns out to be a bad idea. When she looks into burying a body in the desert, she discovers it is a whole lot harder than it sounds.

I don’t think this is going to give anyone with criminal intent any nefarious ideas but it is a bit of a lark, even if it moves slowly occasionally. Rom is an engaging personality and I wouldn’t mind spending an hour with her normally but after awhile this begins to feel like one of those British travel documentaries that has an offbeat, morbid bent.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is fascinating albeit morbid.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is fairly vanilla and unimaginative.
FAMILY VALUES: Although presented in a lighthearted manner, some of the subject here is adult in nature thematically speaking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a crime novelist, Rom also is a radio hostess in the UK.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Commit the Perfect Murder
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Farewell

Double Life (Nijû seikatsu)


It always feels like somebody’s watching.

(2016) Drama (Star Sands) Mugi Kadowaki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Masaki Suda, Lily Franky, Aoba Kawai, Yukiko Shinihara, Shohel Uno, Yukino Kishii, Naomi Nishida, Setsuko Karasuma, Ryuju Kobayashi. Directed by Yoshiyuki Kishi

 

There is a certain thrill to observing other people unseen. There is an implied intimacy, seeing people as they truly are when they are sure nobody else is watching. That is how they reveal what makes us human – or at least so goes the theory as voiced by noted French photographer and writer Sophie Calle.

Tama Shiraishi (Kadowaki) is a grad student working on her master’s thesis. She lives with her boyfriend videogame designer Takuya (Suda) in a modest apartment in suburban Tokyo. They do have morning sex from time to time but they are distant from one another, showing little affection for each other. It can be chalked up to the business of their lives; Takuya is up against some looming deadlines for his upcoming game, Tama is consumed with her thesis on the meaning of being human which isn’t going very well.

Her professor, Shinohara (Franky) is a feared presence around the philosophy department of the university but he is soft-spoken and surprisingly helpful to Tama. When she proves to be too shy to distribute a questionnaire to 100 people, Shinohara – seeing the Calle book on his desk – is inspired to suggest that Tama observe a single person without their knowledge and use her observations as the basis of her thesis.

Tama chooses Ishizaka (Hasegawa), a neighbor who seems to be perfectly happy. A successful book publisher, he lives with his gorgeous wife and adorable daughter across the street from Tama – she can watch them playing together from her balcony. However, as she tails her subject, she discovers to her surprise that he is having a torrid affair which includes some rather public lovemaking.

The more she tails her subject the more emotionally involved that she gets. As she later describes it, she feels an empty part in herself beginning to get filled up. Her late nights and exhaustion lead Takuya to suspect that it is she having an affair and when Ishizaka’s wife discovers his infidelity, the fallout will not only affect his family but Tama and her boyfriend as well.

This is a film that takes a while to get rolling but once it does the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the interest of the audience. There is a certain cultural element to this – Japanese eroticism is somewhat different than Western eroticism – that makes even ordinary, normal activities seem sexual. The fact that the exterior shots take place in an overcast wintry gloom tends to heighten the feeling of repression as the characters bundle up against the cold.

Kadowaki does a stellar job here playing a character who has difficulty relating to people and prefers not to be the center of attention. Her oversize glasses and frumpy dress make the actress look somewhat plain although she is far from that in reality. However, it suits the character well here as few people give her a second glance including the people she is tailing.

The movie feels a bit long and while it is based on a novel by Mariko Kolke there is an almost soap opera vibe at times. There is a subplot about Professor Shinohara coping with his mother’s final days in the hospital with a new girlfriend (Kawai) which is a complicated situation in itself that tends to convolute the film and pull attention from the main story.

Kishi utilizes handheld camera work during most of the stalking sequences and it does wear on the viewer after awhile since the bulk of the movie is spent watching Tama stalk her academic prey. It is only when the two finally confront each other and Tama admits to some of her own inner demons that the movie gets a real emotional spice to it.

Hamlet’s famous line “To be or not to be” is utilized in several different ways, including in a Japanese play that Tama attends. The point of her thesis is what it means to be human and the idea is that Tama hasn’t really figured that out yet and with the movie opening with a suicide attempt – even though it is dark and chaotic you should be able to figure out who is trying to do themselves in – the “not to be” gets its share of attention as well.

Like many of the films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, there seems to be an infusion of new blood and exciting young directors coming out of Asia right now and Kishi is one of them. While the elements of soap opera and extraneous plot devices do hold the movie back, there is at least enough substance here to make this a worthwhile film to seek out to perhaps give some insight into your own humanity – and how well it would stand up to the scrutiny of constant observation.

REASONS TO GO: There is the allure of voyeurism. The wintry tone of the cinematography enhances the feeling of the film. The theme of being or not being is utilized here better than in most films.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overstays its welcome and is a little bit too close to a soap opera. The stalking scenes contain a little too much handheld camera work for my comfort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature for Kishi and the first lead role in a feature for Kadowaki.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seduction
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: With Prisoners

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru


Primal screaming.

Primal screaming.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Tony Robbins, Joe Berlinger, Dawn Watson, Bonnie-Pearl “Sage” Robbins, John Turbett, Sarah Fosmol, Diane Adcock, Jerrisa Escota, Vicki St. George, Tad Schinke, Julianne Hough, Maria Manounos. Directed by Joe Berlinger

 

Tony Robbins is a giant, both in a literal and a figurative sense. He is built like a professional wrestler, sure, but it is in the field of self-help that he stands out even more than he does in a crowd. He has for all intents and purposes become a brand name.

Every year he conducts a six day and night immersion experience entitled Date with Destiny near his South Florida home. More than 2,000 guests attended the 2014 version and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger – himself an attendee at an earlier DwD – brought his cameras along.

First off, let’s clear up a misconception that the title may be in part responsible for. This isn’t about Tony Robbins so much as it is about his methods. We see him at work, and it comes off essentially as a concert film and the similarities between a Tony Robbins seminar and a rock concert are a little unsettling. The star comes onstage to a swell of loud energetic music, his fans jump and scream and applaud and he raises his arms in triumph. All that is needed is two thousand flicked BICs to fully realize the comparison.

We get to see the people who come to this seminar/celebration,  and the stories that they tell range from first world problems (a woman who has difficulties in choosing the right man) to deeper issues (a young 19-year-old girl whose father is a drug addict) to the truly horrifying story of the star “intervention” (as Robbins refers to them as) – Dawn Watson, a beautiful young Brazilian woman who grew up in a religious cult in which sex was available to anyone in the cult upon demand; starting at age six (!) Watson was called upon to provide sexual favors for anyone who wanted them without having the right of refusal because, according to the cult leaders, sex was how we show our devotion to God. It had messed her up but good, unsurprisingly.

In some ways these interventions resemble an old fashioned camp meeting with the sick being healed with the laying on of hands. It isn’t quite that simple, fortunately – Robbins asks some penetrating questions and requires those he intervenes with to be brutally honest with themselves and certainly that kind of psychiatric practice is one I can relate to. Any kind of life change begins with complete honesty and accountability.

Still, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical and maybe that’s because Berlinger really doesn’t ask any tough questions or, really, any questions at all. This is in effect a 115 commercial for Robbins, which tells me that Berlinger isn’t the right guy to make this movie; he’s not only had a drink of the Kool-Aid but he has been guzzling it ever since. A little bit more objectivity would have been welcome.

There is a fascination in watching Robbins go about his work and there’s no doubt that he is sincere about wanting to help others find their full potential and overcome sometimes crippling issues that keep them from enjoying the most out of life. I don’t necessarily think he’s a charlatan, despite my misgivings; he seems to have a fairly grounded education in psychological study and he does have a pretty good gift at understanding people and their needs. He has the charisma to inspire trust and he can have a total stranger answering the most personal and intimate of questions without batting an eyelash. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Robbins is the Andre the Giant of self-help.

The environment has a lot to do with whether or not this stuff works or not. The people who are there are there because they want to be – and paid over $5K for the privilege (NOTE: That was in 2014. If you wanted to go to the 2016 version, you’d have to pay almost $8K to go – if you could get tickets since it’s been sold out for quite awhile). People come from all over the world to attend and I found it amazing that there is a whole team of translators working in a booth nearby and broadcasting translations into headsets that non-English speakers wear. We do get a good look behind the scenes and see the army of technicians, team leaders and other workers make sure the event runs smoothly. From that aspect, it’s fascinating how much detail goes into each and every session and we get a sense of how Tony chooses those interventions he wishes to conduct.

What we don’t get is insight into who Tony Robbins. We hear, on more than one occasion, how growing up with an abusive mother and living with the pain of that condition led him to an obsession with helping people overcome their pain but what we don’t really get is a roadmap that takes us from Point A to Point B. Robbins appears to be an intensely private person and that’s okay, but we really don’t get much more than what we see at the sessions. His wife Sage comes on late in the movie to assert that what we see with him is really what we get – that he’s like that pretty much all the time, but it still doesn’t let us in much. That does make this a difficult documentary to like.

I would be curious to do a follow-up with some of the interventions that we see. We do get a graphic that tells us that the gal who broke up with her boyfriend on the phone because Tony advised her to got back together with him, and the gal with the drug abusing father reconnected with him, among other interventions.

This isn’t very critical of Robbins and maybe it doesn’t have to be. Certainly those who can’t afford the big time fees to go to one of these things might at least partially benefit from this condensed version keeping in mind that at one of these there are team exercises as well as well as these main hall encounters with Robbins – the sessions last 8-12 hours each day and involve a great deal of work on the part of the participant. Nonetheless this may appeal to people who are looking for answers and searching for a direction on where to find them, or who just want to see Robbins in action. All others, be warned that this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary.

REASONS TO GO: You get the sense of Robbins’ commitment to those seeking his help.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels contrived and manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of profanity, some sexual references and some very adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at the fifth annual American Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Decoding Deepak
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cafe Society

The Lobster


Sharing a moment.

Sharing a moment.

(2015) Romance (A24) Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Jessica Barden, Roland Ferrandi, Imelda Nagle Ryan, Emma O’Shea, Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Michael Smiley, Patrick Malone, Sandra Mason, Anthony Moriarty, Judi King Murphy, Laoise Murphy, Nancy Onu, Rosanna Hoult. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Florida Film Festival 2016

Love is certainly not what it used to be. Our choices, with the advent of the Internet and its dating services, have grown but in some ways, our understanding of love has narrowed. Once upon a time, we were limited to people we knew and saw every day in the places that we lived. These days, we can choose from all over the world but rather than make our love lives easier in many ways it just makes finding the right one harder.

David (Farrell) has recently been dumped by his wife (Hoult). Seeing as this is a dystopian version of the Ireland of the quite-near future that means he must surrender himself to the authorities where he will be taken to the Hotel, along with other single men and women of a certain age. There, as he is informed by the hotel director (Colman) that he, like all the others who have come in that day, must find themselves a new mate within 45 days or surrender their humanity – literally. Guests, as they are called, can extend their stays by going into the woods and hitting loners – those who were unable to find a mate and managed to escape the conversion process – with tranquilizer darts with each tranquilized loner adding a day to their stay. After 45 days, those who are still single will be turned into an animal of their choosing. David chooses a lobster because of its long life span, its virility throughout its entire life and as an additional bonus feature that it literally has blue blood. I don’t think David thought that entirely true – lobsters do get eaten.

David makes a couple of new friends – one with a limp (Whishaw) and one with a lisp (Reilly) – other than David, none of the other characters in the film are given names, only affectations. The limping fellow finds himself a girl prone to bloody noses (Barden) which he is not but he fakes it in order to get the all-important move from the singles tables to the couples tables. Couples are also given a month to get to know each other, then they are put aboard a yacht for two weeks. If all goes well, they are given marriage certificates and sent back into the world. If not, they are given a child to help distract them from their problems. If that fails, they are returned to the singles area to start again.

David is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog – his brother, who failed the process and became man’s best friend. Knowing what happened to his brother imbues him with a kind of desperation, and he begins to cast about desperately for anyone who might possibly be a match, even a heartless woman (Papoulia) who clearly is not suitable for anybody.

Things unfortunately don’t work out for David and with the help of a friendly maid (Labed) he escapes into the woods and meets up with the Loner Leader (Seydoux) who says any relationships are forbidden in the woods and that each Loner must dig their own grave first. There David meets a short-sighted woman (Weisz) – what we in the States call near-sighted – and the two find that there is something between them after all. But now love is forbidden and the couple must find a way to escape everything and everyone and begin a life of their own without the Loner Leader finding out.

This was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival and pretty much the verdict I heard was people either ended up loving or hating this movie, depending on how immersed they became in this somewhat bizarre world, and how willing they were to just let themselves get swept up in it. I have to admit that I can see why people hated it but I ended up loving it just the same. This is a smartly written satire on the importance we place on relationships, with emphasis on grey tones in the cinematography that make the world seem a chilly place which nicely compliments the cold emotional tone.

Nearly all the dialogue is read in clipped, stilted tones like a high school English class reading a play aloud. That got a little tiresome as the movie went on. Most of the rest of the cast were made to keep their emotions strictly at bay, with the exception of Weisz who shows her emotions subtly but recognizably. It’s a very understated performance that reminds us of how gifted an actress this Oscar-winner is.

Animal lovers be warned, there are a couple of scenes that are hard to watch – I almost walked out on the film during one intense scene involving the Heartless Woman but I chose to stick with it which was a good thing. Most of the movie’s emotional resonance comes in the second half.

The movie is divided into two distinct sections – the first at the hotel, the second in the Loner’s woods. The hotel sequence is in many ways the most surreal, the sequence in the woods are the most rewarding. For a movie that takes such great pains to come off as emotion-free, the final scenes in which David is forced to make a decision will trigger a variety of strong emotions in the viewer. In fact, there are a lot of scenes in the movie that hit more powerfully because the rest of the movie is so cold from an emotional standpoint.

This isn’t for everybody. Some people are going to find it too quirky, too cold, too smart, too different. That’s all right. Again, there isn’t a lot of middle ground with this movie; people tend to love it or hate it. As for whether or not you should see it, you will likely fall into one camp or the other and there’s no way of knowing which until you see it. My advice is to take a chance and decide for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: A smartly written film. Utilizes barren, cold landscapes to reflect barren, cold emotions. Different than anything you’re familiar with – you’ll either like it or hate it.
REASONS TO STAY: May be excessively quirky for the taste of some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a small amount of violence but mostly there are sexual concepts including some dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The song that David and the short-sighted woman synchronize on their CD players and dance to in the woods is “Where the Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds featuring Kylie Minogue. David also sings the same song towards the end of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Nice Guys

Burnt


A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brûhl, Emma Thompson, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Henry Goodman, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Uma Thurman, Lexi Benbow-Hart, Alicia Vikander, Lily James, Sarah Greene, Bo Bene, Elisa Lasowski, Julian Firth, Martin Trenaman, Esther Adams. Directed by John Wells

The pursuit of excellence often becomes an obsession with perfection. It can often be a journey that becomes a nightmare of excess, fueled by drugs, sex and ego and lead one down to oblivion. Coming back from that can be nearly impossible.

But that’s the task before Adam Jones (Cooper). Once a two-star Michelin chef in Paris, this American enfant terrible of the French culinary world was a bad boy living the fast life, driven to get that final third Michelin star but so lost in both his own ambition, a relationship with his mentor’s daughter (Vikander) and an escalating drug habit that a spectacular meltdown lost him everything.

Two years of sobriety later, having worked shucking a million oysters in New Orleans, he’s ready to resume his tilt and decides that opening up a restaurant at a prestigious London hotel would be the ticket. It so happens that Tony (Brûhl), the son of an old friend and perhaps the best maître’d in Europe has such a restaurant that could use an infusion of the buzz that comes from having a celebrity chef. Tony is reluctant, given Adam’s volatile temperament but eventually gives in.

Adam sets to putting together a “dream team” for this restaurant, bringing in a Michel (Sy), a sous chef he wronged in Paris but who has since forgiven him and Helene (Miller) who is a raw talent that Adam thinks can become great. She comes with a precocious daughter Lily (Benbow-Hart) who is as tough as any food critic when it comes to her meals.

Adam turns out to be a martinet in the kitchen, screaming in the faces of his staff and so obsessed with perfection that he forces Helene to apologize to a fish because of a minor mistake in cooking it. Eventually though he manages to get his act together and soon his kitchen is humming along like a well-oiled machine. However, there are complications; he owes a large debt to drug dealers that he won’t let Tony pay for him and they are getting increasingly insistent on getting their money. He also is falling in love with Helene, who is developing strong feelings for him as well.

But things come to a head when the Michelin inspectors come and Adam faces an unexpected turn of events, sending him spiraling back down a road that he has sworn he wouldn’t take again. Can even the great Adam Jones fix a meal gone this bad?

Cooper, who at one point in his life aspired to being a chef himself, makes an excellent Adam Jones. Cooper is one of Hollywood’s most likable actors but he has to play a very unlikable character in the uber-driven Adam. His kitchen tantrums and occasionally manipulative tactics can sometimes leave a sour taste in one’s mouth but Adam isn’t a bad person per se, and we do get to see the humanity of the man peeking through at unexpected moments.

The rest of the cast is solid as you’d expect of a cast with this kind of international caliber. Miller, who worked with Cooper on American Sniper, retains the chemistry the two enjoyed on that film here. Thompson, who has a small role as Adam’s therapist, shines as she always does and Rhys also has a meaty role as a rival chef. I particularly liked Sy, however; the big French actor has never turned in a subpar performance that I can recall and even though he seems to be on a supporting role treadmill at the moment, I foresee some big things in his future.

The problem I have with Burnt is that the predictability of the story. Other than one major twist, there’s pretty much a Screenwriting 101 feel to the plot. There’s even the precocious kid that exists for no other reason than because precocious kids always show up in movies like this. Not that Benbow-Hart isn’t anything but good in her role, it’s just that the character is extraneous. Does Helene really need to be a single mom? No, she just needs to be single. Her motherhood adds nothing to the emotional resonance of the film.

There’s plenty of food porn and I will say that if you’re hungry going in chances are you’re going to have a craving for some good food and it isn’t a stretch to say that you’ll probably leave the theater (or your couch if you are reading this after it makes it to home video) hungry and not for fast food either; for a sit down meal in a place that has tablecloths and waiters and most importantly, delicious food. We can all use a good meal from time to time. As a movie, I would place this more as casual dining more than fine dining, but it does strike a chord nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper and Miller have real chemistry. Plenty of food porn. Nicely paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable story. Too-cute kid syndrome. Too many unnecessary subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper patterned his in-kitchen demeanor on that of Gordon Ramsey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingdom of Shadows

99 Homes


These days a man's home is the bank's castle.

These days a man’s home is the bank’s castle.

(2015) Drama (Broad Green) Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Tim Guinee, Nicole Barré, Yvonne Landry, Noah Lomax, J.D. Eyermore, Cullen Moss, Jordyn McDempsey, Ann Mahoney, Judd Lormand, Deneen Tyler, Donna Duplantier, Wayne Pére, Cynthia Santiago, Juan Gaspard, Nadiyah Skyy Taylor. Directed by Ramin Bahrani

It wasn’t that long ago that the economy tanked in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Homes were being foreclosed upon at rates unheard of since the Great Depression. Families were displaced, the rich got richer and in essence nothing has changed since then other than the banks are being more circumspect somewhat, but none of the regulations that had kept this from happening before have been reinstated.

Taking place in 2010, the events in 99 Homes are said to have actually happened although I’m unclear whether they took place in the Orlando locale the film is set in. Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a construction worker who discovers that the builders of the development he’s working for have run out of money and that the past two weeks he’s been working are going to go unpaid.

His childhood home, which he lives in with his mother (Dern) and grew up in is underwater and he’s several payments behind. The bank isn’t terribly interested in anything but foreclosure and his trip to court has left him reeling; the judge, overwhelmed with the number of foreclosure cases, simply rubberstamps the bank’s request and sends Dennis packing. Dennis is told he has 30 days to appeal.

A few days later realtor Rick Carver (Shannon) shows up at Dennis’ door and without so much as a fare-thee-well tosses him, his son Connor (Lomax) and his mom into the street along with all their stuff. He is forced to move them into a skeevy hotel which is mostly filled with other evictees, some of them who’ve been there two years or more. He needs to find work now more than ever but there simply isn’t any to be had, the construction business hit hard by the fact that banks aren’t making business loans so there is nothing being built.

When he discovers that some of his tools are missing, he goes back to Carver to demand their return. Carver, impressed with his moxie, puts him to work doing a particularly disagreeable job on a foreclosed home whose previous owners let their displeasure be known in a rather spectacular way. Carver, admiring Nash’s work ethic, hires him on to do odd construction jobs and then to snatch air conditioning units from foreclosed homes that the banks will pay Carver money to install “new” units, which of course Carver simply has Nash reinstall the old units. Shifty, no?

Eventually as Nash continues to help Carver do his dirty work, Carver puts him to work doing the work that Nash is most wary of – presiding over foreclosures. Nash is sympathetic to the victims but soon becomes good at it and continues to help Carver with his chicanery. He even helps Carver set up a deal that will make them both unimaginably rich.

The issue is that Nash has a conscience and it’s beginning to get pricked, particularly in the case of a particular homeowner (Guinee). And when it all comes to a head, will Nash choose money or conscience?

This is a movie that captures the Great American Nightmare circa 2015 (yes, it’s still the Great American Nightmare). It’s a story that’s all too tragically common and will hit an emotional resonance that will touch even those who haven’t had money problems in their lives.

Garfield takes a role that he’s really more suited to than the teenage costumed superhero that he has been playing most recently. He’s still not the commanding screen presence that he might be but he’s a talented actor in his own right. What shines here though is Shannon as the slimy real estate agent whose greed and cynicism are palpable. He has a speech in which he talks about America bailing out winners that sounds like something Trump would say. I daresay that the orange-haired Republican Presidential candidate would probably like this movie for all the wrong reasons.

Dern, who has become one of the best actresses that is always getting notice but never getting noticed if you catch my drift, is once again magnificent here. She is the movie’s conscience and there are few actresses who can pull it off without being maudlin but Dern accomplishes it. She probably won’t be more than an afterthought for a Best Supporting Actress nomination here but that’s more because the script goes off the rails at the end.

Yeah, the ending. Let’s talk about it. What bugs me about Hollywood endings is that you establish a character, establish their credibility and then as the movie ends suddenly they change and act a completely different way than they’ve acted throughout the film. That’s not the way real people act and audiences know that. If you’re going to be charitable through the first 85% of the movie, the audience is going to expect you to be charitable the last 15% too. You have to follow your own internal logic. This movie doesn’t do that.

Still, it’s a fine movie that for the most part covers an issue that faces all American homeowners even those who think they’re well off. Other than that 1% we’ve heard so much about, most Americans are only a single paycheck away from financial issues and once you’ve got those it can be excruciatingly difficult to climb out from under them. The game is rigged that way and nobody wants to talk about it. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Bahrani who do.

REASONS TO GO: Real life horror. Terrific performances by Shannon and Dern.
REASONS TO STAY: Inexplicably bad ending.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language including some sexual references and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATINGS: 7/10
NEXT: All This Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records