Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu)


A kid running from his troubles.

(2013) Drama (108 Media) Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina, Matiss Livcans, Indra Brike, Haralds Barzdins. Directed by Janis Nords

 

I’ve said it before and I’m not the first to say it: it’s not easy being a single mom. We’ve seen plenty of movies that back up that very thing. However, it is not often we see the story from the child of a single mom’s viewpoint. What must that be like?

Raimonds (Konovalovs) – whose name is pronounced “Raymond” – lives in the Latvian capital city of Riga. He’s a bright boy who goes to school, plays saxophone in the school orchestra, plays Wii at night when his mother allows and rides his push scooter around town getting from the apartment he shares with his mom to school mostly with occasional side trips to visit his best friend Peteris (Livcans).

Raimonds’ mom (Varpina) is an obstetrician who works brutal hours; often she has late night shifts at the clinic she works at and is from time to time called in for an emergency. Some of these late night shifts though are less work and more play; she has been developing a romantic relationship with a colleague. Raimonds is no fool; he is aware his mother is lying to him.

Peteris’ mom (Brike) is a housecleaner and often the two boys accompany her to one home or another. One that catches the boy’s eye is one that the owner is rarely home at. The man has a motor scooter parked in one of the rooms of his apartment which of course to young 12-year-old boys is absolutely irresistible. Raimonds manages to snatch the key to the apartment so the boys can come back and rev up the scooter.

Raimonds has, like most 12-year-old boys a streak of devilish behavior. When tall girls are mean to him, he is not above fighting back and when he uses a bra that one of his mates has stuffed down his shirt to plug up the horn of a particularly snooty girl, he gets written up. This is a disaster; he is required to tell his mother and get her signature on a form which would undoubtedly get a beating for him. His mother believes in corporal punishment which seems a bit alien to American audiences these days. In any event, he endeavors to conceal his malfeasance from his mom which leads to a spiraling series of events that grow progressively more serious. Extricating himself from the web he has woven for himself may be more than he can handle.

An awful lot of this is going to resonate with those who have grown up with a single parent and those who have been single parents. The very real issues of balancing work and quality time with one’s child as well as keeping control over children when they grow unruly are addressed here without sentimentality. The mom is no saint but she’s no worse than most mothers either. She’s doing the best she can and often she is operating in the dark as to what her child is truly up to. This is the part that parents will nod in sympathy with.

Konovalovs is a very natural actor who never over-emotes; his fear of his mother is very real and very natural. Like most kids, he operates on the philosophy that what his mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her (and won’t get him hurt) and while there is no doubt that Raimonds loves his mother very much and wants her respect and love back, he often plays her for a fool simply because he can.

I think it is more reasonable to say that Raimonds isn’t so much a bad child as he is a bored child. He has so much unsupervised time on his hands that it seems fairly natural that he would find ways to get into trouble. Each bad decision Raimonds makes from his own point of view makes sense and Nords who also wrote the film makes sure the audience is seeing that point of view clearly. At times audiences who may have less experience with child-raising may shake their heads at some of the things Raimonds does but at every turn it feels exactly what an unsupervised 12-year-old boy whose whole philosophy of life is avoiding punishment would do or decide.

Raimonds spends much of his time wandering the streets of Riga at night and it doesn’t feel as if he is unsafe at any time although he sometimes ventures into what appear to be rough neighborhoods. By day Riga looks grey and drab as if in a perpetual overcast; I have never been to Riga although I’m told it is a beautiful city but this film isn’t going to inspire anyone to visit it anytime soon.

Although it is essentially a film about kids this isn’t a kids film. The deeper Raimonds gets into his lies the grimmer things get. There are real-world repercussions for Raimonds and it isn’t pretty. While the ending of the film is a bit ambiguous it is more hopeful than the rest of the movie is so it isn’t completely a downer but it does take a while to get there. I haven’t seen a lot of Latvian films but if this movie is any indication there is some real quality filmmaking going on there.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematographer uses a fairly grim and grey palate. The movie is an accurate portrayal of a troubled boy.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not what you would call the most uplifting of films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sensuality but mostly the themes here are adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a major prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was the official submission of Latvia for the 2014 Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bicycle Thief
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Agnelli

Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)


Mother knows best.

Mother knows best.

(2015) Dramedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenҫo Mutarelli, Helena Albergaria, Bete Dorgam, Luis Miranda, Theo Werneck, Luci Pereira, Anapaula Csernik, Hugo Villavicenzio, Roberto Camargo, Alex Huszar, Audrey Lima Lopes, Thaise Reis, Nilcéia Vicente. Directed by Anna Muylaert

There are the servants and there are the served. The distinctions between the two have made up society throughout the planet essentially since humans started walking upright. Throughout history, there have been changes, perhaps never more than now but we all belong to one class or another.

Val (Casé) belongs to the latter caste. A domestic working in the home of Dr. Carlos (Mutarelli) – whose doctorate is never explained as we never see him working mainly because, we learn later, he inherited wealth – and his wife Barbara (Teles), she has also raised their son Fabinho (Joelsas) as if he were her own. She in fact has her own – a daughter – whom she hasn’t seen in ten years nor spoken to in three. Val lives in a tiny, cramped room but is content, with a fan, a TV set, a tiny bed and the family she serves nearby.

Then she gets a call from her daughter Jessica (Márdila) out of the blue. It turns out that Jessica is studying for the entrance exam at a prestigious university there in Sao Paolo. She asks Barbara if it would be all right if Jessica stayed with them while going through the application process and Barbara agrees, magnanimously insisting on buying a mattress that Jessica can sleep on while staying in Val’s cramped room.

Val, who is very conscious of her place and what is expected of her (after more than a decade of service to the same family, you’d expect that), is grateful for the kindness and is absolutely over the moon at the chance to spend some time with her daughter.

Jessica, for her part, has grown up with Val’s estranged husband and has a bit of a bone to pick with her mother who seems to have chosen the family that employs her over her own family. She also has no patience for social niceties, looking at Val’s attitudes as archaic and incomprehensible. For Val’s part, Jessica’s self-confidence that borders on arrogance is like a creature from another world. She doesn’t understand why Jessica can’t show deference to the people who pay for Val’s service.

Before long, Jessica has wheedled her way out of Val’s cramped quarters and into the more luxuriant guest bedroom suite and is eating at table with Dr. Carlos and his family, putting her mother in the humiliating position of serving her own daughter. Fabinho also clearly notices the new girl in the house as does, somewhat creepily, his dad.

Fabinho is closer in many ways to Val than to his own mother who is somewhat cold to him and doesn’t express her feelings to him as much as the more outgoing Val, and Barbara in turn is more than a little bothered that her son isn’t willing to hug her but freely gives hugs to Val. Still, Val is a part of the family and she’s willing to put up with a little bit of inconvenience for a short time…until Jessica’s attitudes begin to unravel the carefully woven fabric of the family’s relationship with Val – and each other.

Class distinction comedies are nothing new, nor are they limited to Latin America. This isn’t strictly speaking a comedy but it isn’t a drama by any means. Muylaert tries to keep things light as much as possible, although occasionally her point about class consciousness is made with leaden hands. What Muylaert excels at here is developing the various relationships in the film which drive it, from the distinct employer/employee relationship between Barbara and Val to the loving mother/son relationship between Val and Fabinho. American audiences may react differently to Val’s affections towards Fabinho but using domestics as nannies who actually end up spending more time with the children than their biological parents is not unusual in Latin America.

One of the things I really like about the movie is the relationship between Jessica and Val. The two couldn’t be more different; the mother is squat, self-effacing, and the antithesis of glamorous (unlike her employer who is an arbiter of style for Sao Paolo). Jessica is thin, pretty and something of a know-it-all. The two have had little connection over the years but both have a strong work ethic and as the movie unspools, they begin to develop an understanding and eventually a respect for each other. At the end of the day, Val is still Jessica’s mom and Jessica is still Val’s daughter and that forgives a lot of sins. Not all of them, but a lot.

One thing I wish the movie had explored more was the dynamic between Barbara, Fabinho and Val. There is certainly some tension there and it isn’t really explored; I’m guessing that Brazilian audiences are more used to the concept than American audiences so there is a bit of cinematic shorthand involved; it’s a given that these types of arrangements work out. I would have liked to have seen more of what the two women thought of the other’s relationship with Fabinho, but again, I imagine it is understood by locals. There is a nice moment between Fabinho and Barbara near the end; part of the overall sweet feeling of the film.

Critics have praised the movie pretty much universally (see scores below) but I have to say I’m a little bit less enthusiastic. It’s a good film to be sure and there are certainly a lot of undercurrents worth exploring, but they really don’t get explored much. At the end of the day, this is more like a soft drink than a Caipirinha. Lots of bubbles, lots of fizz but not as much substance perhaps as one might wish.

REASONS TO GO: Frothy. Captures mother-daughter relationship nicely. Tender-hearted.
REASONS TO STAY: A little creepy in places. Hits one over the head with its point. Could have developed Fabinho a bit better and especially his relationship with Val and Barbara.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brazil’s official submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spanglish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Very Murray Christmas

Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2

The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)


What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

Boyhood


Life is an ongoing investigation.

Life is an ongoing investigation.

(2014) Drama (IFC) Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Steven Prince, Bonnie Cross, Marco Perella, Libby Villari, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villareal, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham, Nick Krause, Angela Rawna, Evie Thompson, Brad Hawkins, Barbara Chisholm, Jenni Tooley, Savannah Welch, Taylor Weaver, Jessi Mechler. Directed by Richard Linklater

Seinfeld was famously a sitcom about nothing. Here we have a movie, filmed over a 12 year span, in which nothing much happens. Nothing much, maybe, except life.

That is what this movie is all about. Richard Linklater, one of the more respected directors in the indie ranks who has such seminal films as Dazed and Confused and Slacker to his credit as well as the ambitious Before trilogy, took the time to film this movie with the same core cast of actors over a 12 year period. What he ended up doing is filming a series of short films which he later stitched together into a full-fledged feature film as we watch the cast grow up and age before our very eyes.

Mason (Coltrane) lives with his mom (Arquette) who is divorced from his dreamer of a father (Hawke) and his sister Samantha (Linklater) with whom he bickers constantly. She’s got a bit of the princess to her and she knows how to stomp her feet and declare her position without equivocation.

They live in various locales in Texas as mom takes on a series of boyfriends and husbands with varying degrees of success. She also goes back to school and gets her degree, enabling her to teach at a local community college. Dad in the meantime returns back to Texas from Alaska and means to take on a more active role in the lives of his kids. At first he’s just another, larger-sized kid along with them, but as time goes by he starts to change and becomes more the father he should have been all along.

Critics have been falling all over each other to praise this movie as you can tell from the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so much so that I can’t help wonder when the inevitable backlash is going to hit. All I can say is not now and not here. This is a magnificent film, one that will engender discussion for a very long time; certainly when you leave the theater you’ll be talking about it.

This was always a project that was going to need a little bit of luck. Getting the parents of the child actors to agree to taking a couple of weeks each year to film for 12 years is quite a commitment to ask for, even from the professionals. What if the kid actors turned out to be terrible? What if one of them decided they didn’t want to do this anymore – and in fact one did. Surprisingly, it was the director’s daughter who asked her daddy to kill her off in the movie. Thankfully, Linklater had enough vision to insist his little girl see it through – and eventually she came back on board.

The point is, there were a lot of ways that this project could have been torpedoed but in every sense of the word this movie was charmed. For one thing, who would have guessed that Coltrane would turn out to be a charismatic young actor? Linklater may well have suspected but there really was no way to know for sure when a kid is eight years old how he’s going to react to things when he’s eighteen.

Nonetheless, Coltrane gives an unexpectedly terrific performance. Sure there are times when as a young boy his acting is a bit forced by as the movie continues you see him grow more and more confident in his ability. By the time Mason heads off to college, there is a maturity to the boy and the performance that simply put gives the movie a grand shot in the arm. I don’t know what Coltrane’s future plans are but he certainly has the presence and the talent to make a go of it in the motion picture industry.

Arquette, who filmed concurrently to her work in the TV show The Medium for a good portion of the movie, has a complicated role. In many ways, her character is the least defined; while Hawke’s dad has a defined journey from flamboyant and immature daddy wannabe to responsible and surprisingly wise father, her character is always the most responsible one of the two. Her issues stem from her very poor choices in men, some with devastating consequences to her family. She’s a very bright, attractive woman but by movie’s end she’s alone. One wonders if her character deserved that fate.

We watch Mason and Samantha grow up before our very eyes while their parents grow older and wiser. One of the complaints that I’ve heard is that there are stretches where nothing happens, but those who make that complaint miss the point. Life happens, and sometimes life happens subtly. It isn’t just the big watershed moments in our lives that make us what we are – it’s the little things as well, sometimes as small as bowling without bumpers.

The late Gene Siskel was a huge fan of slice of life films and undoubtedly this is the kind of film he would have championed. There is no slice of life movie that takes such a slice out of life and makes it seamless and organic. We don’t watch this movie so much as live it; throughout we are reminded of the events and situations in our own lives either as children growing up or as parents raising children, or even both. Those of a certain generation will find nostalgia in Harry Potter book release parties, a spot-on soundtrack, Ninetendos and campaigning for Obama. Others will recognize the kinds of challenges they faced growing up in the era, or raising kids in  the era.

Either way, this film will move you and take you places that while you may have already been there, will give you a fresh perspective on the matter. We all react to movies based on what we take into them from our own experiences, but this is one movie that most people are going to find value in, even in its quietest moments.

REASONS TO GO: Incredibly authentic. Basically appeals to kids that age. A primer for what to expect when raising kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Long periods of “inactivity.”

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of swearing, some sexual references and teen sex, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Morgan and Samantha’s dad take them to an Astros game against the Brewers and tells everyone that the Astros won on a three-run homer by Jason Lane in the bottom of the ninth. In reality the game, filmed on August 18, 2005 was won by the Brewers and Lane’s homer was a solo shot in the second inning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 100/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Get On Up