Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

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Collisions


Nobody knows how to tuck you in as well as your mom.

(2018) Drama (Widdershins) Jesse Garcia, Izabella Alvarez, Ana de la Reguera, Jason Garcia Jr., Erika Yanin Perez, Clanya Cortes, Suilma Rodriguez, Molly Noble, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Molly Brady, Joey Hoeber, Duane Lawrence, John Flanagan, Thomas Cokenias, Christopher Gonzales, Tina Marie Murray, Mike Schaeffer, Sarah Kramer, Veronica Valencia. Directed by Richard Levien

Over the last year or so, America’s immigration policy has come under fire, particularly in how families are treated at the border – children separated from their parents at the border and sent into cages to live. As horrific as that is, the media hasn’t really commented on the fact that immigrant parents have been deported for decades, often leaving their children at the tender mercies of the foster care system.

12-year-old science prodigy Ital (Alvarez) who has a very real chance of getting accepted to the California Science Academy and her younger brother Neto (Garcia Jr.) arrive home from school one day to find that their apartment has been apparently ransacked. However, it is much worse than that; ICE had broken into the home and arrested their mother Yoana (de la Reguera) and taken her to a detention center with the eventual plan to deport her.

They are placed with their uncle Evencio (Garcia), a carefree trucker who has been estranged from his more down-to-earth sister. The difference between Evencio and Yoana is that Evencio has a green card and Yoana does not. Evencio helps them find an immigration lawyer but Ital has little faith that the lawyer is competent enough to reunite the small family and insists that Evencio take them to see their mother who has since been transferred from the Bay Area where they live to a detention center outside of Phoenix. Reluctantly, Evencio takes the kids he doesn’t want on the road with him in his truck to see the sister with whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship.

Given the recent headlines, the movie is about as timely as it gets. With the Director of Homeland Security (under whose jurisdiction ICE falls) having recently been fired for not being hardline enough on illegal immigration, the movie undertakes to show the human side of the immigration question from the viewpoint of immigrants who are already in this country. Yoana works several jobs to support her kids and to provide them with a better life than she ever could have given them in Mexico. She’s a widow trying to do her best in a world that isn’t kind to people of her skin tone.

The movie is constructed as a character drama within a road movie within an issue film and while that’s not unique, it’s rare that a road movie revolves around any sort of issue and Levien is to be congratulated for making that kind of leap. He doesn’t sacrifice any of the elements that make the drama work to make it more of a road movie yet that’s what this demonstrably is. Everything works in harmony even though on paper you might think it wouldn’t.

While the adult performers (mainly Garcia but also de la Reguera in an abbreviated role) are all fine, the film is carried by Alvarez and Garcia Jr. Ital is a firecracker of a young girl who has had to grow up a little more quickly with her dad deceased; in some ways she’s the man of the house. Alvarez gives her the right amount of spine and vitriol – she doesn’t have a lot of respect for her ne’er-do-well uncle – and she is absolutely a mama bear when it comes to her younger brother. The character is written to be a little bit too precocious in my eyes and this becomes really apparent in the last reel when Ital decides to take matters into her own hands. I think any child would be absolutely terrified of having their mother taken away and we see Ital be angry about it but we never see the fear or hurt. Perhaps that is part of her nature but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. We don’t see the child side of Ital hardly at all.

Garcia also has a lot of screen time and Evencio is a kind of guy who likes to party and doesn’t take life too seriously. He drives a truck and makes a good living at it but it’s part of the lifestyle he wants which is of maximum freedom. So at truck stops he is happy to get wasted, party with truck stop hookers and generally hang out with his buddies. Of course, Evencio is a young guy and that is the nature of young guys so at least that part of his character makes logical sense.

The cinematography is solid which you would expect from a road movie, but not spectacular but then again it really doesn’t need to be. Vistas of desolate California would tend to distract from the human equation of the drama and that’s where the focus properly lies. Levien, a first-time feature filmmaker based in San Francisco, is trying to point out the inherent cruelty in this country’s policies regarding illegal immigration and in that he’s mostly successful. I get it that Ital needed to be a strong 12-year-old girl for the purposes of this movie but I think it would have benefited strongly if she had been allowed to be a little girl a little bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely subject well-acted by the cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug use, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Infiltrators
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teen Spirit

Amreeka


Amreeka

Nisreen Faour finds out about another American institution; the dinnertime sales solicitation call.

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie. Directed by Cherien Dabis

While our economy has taken a nosedive and Americans are suffering through one of the worst recessions in history, we can at least take comfort that at least we are not an occupied nation. Palestinians don’t even have that.

Muna Farah (Faour) lives on the West Bank and, ironically enough, works in a bank. A bank on the West Bank…okay, I had to point it out. Anyway, she has to endure two military checkpoints in each direction going from her home to work and back. It is often humiliating, especially when her son Fadi (Muallem) loses patience and makes a smart remark to one of the soldiers, nearly getting detained in the process if nor for the begging and pleading of his mother.

Muna dreams of a better life in America (or Amreeka as it is pronounced in Arabic) where her sister Raghda (Abbass) escaped 15 years before. Although ostensibly Muslim, she isn’t particularly devout which makes her a bit of a pariah in her own land. However, she hits the jackpot when she gets a green card in the annual lottery for one of the coveted documents. Although she knows she will miss her family in Palestine, she looks forward to better things for her and her son in a new land, and quite frankly, Fadi is gung ho to get out of Dodge. Before they leave, Muna’s mom gives her some cookies and other food to bring to Raghda.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Muna and her son are detained for three hours. It is 2002, not long after 9/11 and tensions are running high, particularly with any Arabic sorts coming into the country. While Muna is arguing with one of the immigration officials, the cookies and other foods are confiscated by the customs agents.

Unfortunately, Muna foolishly put all her life savings into the cookie tin. Broke and too proud to accept help from her sister other than the lodging in their suburban home. Raghda’s husband Nabeel (Abu-Warda) is a prosperous dentist, but he is watching his practice disintegrate before his eyes as long-time patients, distrusting any Arab, are leaving for non-Arabic doctors.

Muna is unable to find work suitable for her banking experience and takes the only job she can find – working the counter at a White Castle. Once again her pride prevents her from informing her family that she has such a menial job, so she leads them to believe she is working in a neighboring bank, scurrying over to her real workplace after Raghda drops her off at the bank.

Fadi on the other hand is having enormous difficulty fitting in at the local high school, which is truly a staggering task even under the best of circumstances, but throwing in his ethnicity and his unfamiliarity with American high school culture and he is having a rough time. His cousin Salma (Shawkat) helps guide him through the minefields that are American high schools, but even so he manages to step on a few nonetheless.

There are a few other plot elements (such as a romance for Muna with the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school, played with gentle humor by Ziegler) but that’s essentially it. This is writer/director Dabis’ first feature and is heavily based on her own experiences growing up as an immigrant from Jordan in Ohio. There are some moments that are genuinely heartwarming as well as others that are wrenching.

Part of what makes this movie so watchable is a very likable cast, starting with Faour. She is not the lithe and lean starlet that most lead actresses are, but down-to-earth, charming and possessed of a smile that lights up entire cities. In that sense, she reminds me of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-era Nia Vardalos, albeit with less brass.

Abbass is one of my favorite actresses you’ve never heard of. She is best known for a small but pivotal role in The Visitor but was completely overshadowed by Richard Jenkins there; she has also appeared in such gems as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride and was superb in each. She has more of a supporting role, but lends dignity and world-weariness to the part of a woman desperately homesick, and watching her situation fall apart before her very eyes, with everything she values in jeopardy including her marriage. Abbass could have easily stolen the movie but wisely – and generously – toned things down, allowing Faour to take center stage. In the end, I think that was a better move for the film overall.

Most of the other roles aren’t as richly written as the two sisters, although Shawkat is compelling as the Americanized Salma and her conflict with her mother should resonate with anyone who has been privy to mother/daughter conflict. I would have liked to see Fadi, Nabeel and the principal get a bit more to work with, but this still remains a good first effort and serves notice that Dabis could be a director to keep an eye out for.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Faour and Abbass illustrate the difficulties Palestinian Muslims face in post-911 America as well as in their occupied homeland. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting characters seem to be very artificially drawn and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some teen drug use, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate to let mature teens check this out.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Winnipeg where there are no White Castle restaurants; the White Castle corporate offices shipped out the supplies for one there, creating a set so realistic that locals kept trying to order from it, even though no food was ever sold there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A short film by director Cherien Dabis, “Make a Wish” is present.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.2M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Smash His Camera

Crossing Over


 

Crossing Over
Harrison Ford is getting tired of the “Didn’t you used to be Han Solo” jokes.

 

 

(MGM) Harrison Ford, Jim Sturgess, Alice Braga, Alice Eve, Cliff Curtis, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Justin Chon, Summer Bishil, Jacqueline Obradors, Melody Khazae. Directed by Wayne Kramer

 

 There are those in this country who want to build walls. Not decorative ones; ones that will keep illegal aliens from coming in, and by illegal aliens we mean Latin Americans. Immigration is a very emotional issue for many people; all of us are immigrants from somewhere back in our family tree. Even Native Americans crossed a land bridge to get here.  

Los Angeles may be the ultimate melting pot in that regard. It draws people from all over the world like moths to a flame. While most are aware of the Mexican population in Los Angeles (most of whom arrived here legally incidentally), there are immigrants from all over the world that live in the City of Angels, many awaiting their call to receive that Holy Grail – U.S. citizenship.

 

For those coming in using the other route, there are people like Max Brogan (Ford), an immigration agent. He is a good man with a conscience doing a job that requires none. During a raid of a garment factory, he comes face to face with Mireya Sanchez (Braga), an undocumented worker who begs Max to pick up her child from child care, which Max does, but even that feels inadequate so he escorts the kid back to Mexico to the grandparents.

 

Max’s partner Hamid Braheri (Curtis) comes from an Iranian family whose patriarch is about to get American citizenship, but a tragedy strikes the family when Hamid’s sister is murdered along with the married man she’d been having an affair with.

 

In the meantime, a young Bangladeshi schoolgirl named Taslima (Bishil) presents a paper in her high school civics class that comes dangerously close to defending the 9-11 hijackers, but in reality is just asking for people to see things from their point of view. This creates a storm of controversy that starts from her being called names culminating with a by-the-book FBI agent (Obradors) knocking on her door, threatening to deport her family.

 

Taslima will be defended by immigration attorney Denise Frankel (Judd) while her husband, green card adjudicator Cole Frankel (Liotta) engages in a relationship with Australian actress Claire Sheperd (Eve) exchanging sex for a green card.

 

All of these stories entwine somewhat peripherally, but are told concurrently a la Crash or Babel. These types of movies need a firm hand to keep the stories separate but at the same time maintaining audience interest. There’s a tendency for people to get less invested in multiple story lines than they might in a single story line, so it behooves the filmmaker to make all of the story lines compelling.

 

That doesn’t happen here. That’s not to say that there are no compelling story lines here; certainly the Max Brogan character provides a moral center, and having Harrison Ford act as your movie’s moral center is an enviable position to be in for any filmmaker. Curtis is also a likable actor and his moral conflict between his ethnic culture and American law also makes for a compelling tale.

 

However, the Claire/Cole liaison seems out of place, almost as an excuse to get the very gorgeous Eve naked. Not that I’m against seeing a beautiful woman naked, but it seems gratuitous here. And while I like the debate stirred up in the Taslima sequence, there seems to be some preaching going on here, making Taslima the innocent victim of a goon squad of FBI storm troopers, which seems a bit cut and dried to me.

 

In the spirit of “let the buyer beware” you should be warned that this movie took two years from filming to release. The initial edit was over two hours long and the studio heads demanded that the final cut be trimmed down to an hour and a half, or the movie would go direct-to-video. The filmmakers made the cuts, but the studio essentially sent it direct-to-video anyway, giving it a very limited, unpublicized release. There is certainly evidence that this was filmmaking by committee in places.

 

There is certainly room for debate on the subject of immigration, and while I have a tendency to be sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant (both legal and otherwise), I can see that there are both sides to the story. Unfortunately, this is a movie that doesn’t really allow too much thought, settling instead for clichés. Still, at least its existence might encourage those who see it to think about the issue, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

 

WHY RENT THIS: A stellar cast in a movie that examines a hot-button issue that continues to plague our country even now.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Another case of too many threads and too many plots.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s the holy trinity of language, violence and sex; all present and all inappropriate for younger audiences. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn originally had a small role in the movie, but it was reportedly cut at his request due to the backlash from the Iranian-American community over an honor killing subplot, which they thought to be misleading and inflammatory. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)

The Visitor


Richard Jenkins doesn't like making long-distance phone calls.

Richard Jenkins doesn't like making long-distance phone calls.

(Overture) Richard Jenkins, Oliver Bokelberg, Hiam Abbass, Maggie Moore, Danai Gurira, Haaz Sleiman, Michael Cumpsty. Directed by Thomas McCarthy.

We travel through the world, experiencing it however we can. Some of us embrace life, rolling around in it like a dog in a field of grass, trying to immerse ourselves in every moment. Others hold life at arm’s length, content to watch from a distance, analyze it and take it in intellectually.

Professor Walter Vale (Jenkins) is neither of those sorts. He’s a widower who doesn’t really participate much in the world around him. Oh, he goes through the motions but nothing really affects him much. He goes through his life with the same expression on his face – neither smiling nor frowning, but there is a sadness in his eyes that is telling.

He’s a civilized sort who drinks wine with dinner and loves music. His late wife was a professional classical pianist, and he listens to her recordings but not to reconnect with her so much as to fill the empty room with something that isn’t silence. He teaches the same course as he has for years, not varying so much as a word, allowing little into his world as he can get away with. His life is comfortable. His life is empty.

He’s also an honest man. When asked to present a paper at a conference in New York that he co-authored, he confesses that he only attached his name to it as a favor to a colleague and hasn’t even read the document. Nonetheless, he is dispatched to New York to the conference and goes directly to the apartment he keeps in New York.

When he walks in, he is surprised to find a naked African woman in his bathroom. When the dust settles, we learn that Zainab (Gurira), the naked woman – originally from Senegal – and her boyfriend Tarek (Sleimann), who’s from Syria, thought they were subletting the apartment. They agree to leave, gather their things and walk out the door. Initially, Vale does nothing but for some reason he impulsively goes outside, where he finds them and invites them to stay for the night.

As it turns out, they are decent people and Vale grows to admire their quite different point of view. Tarek is a drummer who plays at various venues around New York, and he teaches Vale some pointers about how to play the djembe. For the first time, Vale takes an interest in life. However, a miscue in a subway station leads to a change of circumstance that affects everyone.

While this is ostensibly a movie about immigration, bureaucracy and culture shock, in reality this is a movie about change. The immigrants are not the visitors, Walter is. He is a visitor to life; not really staying, but just passing through, taking a couple of snapshots and moving on. This is about his journey, not Tarek and Zainab’s.

There are some nice moments when a new character is introduced, Tarek’s mother Mouna (Abbass). Vale develops a bit of a crush on her, but this never would have happened had he not had his sense of living awakened by Tarek. We watch this supremely conservative educator come out of his shell and seeing him completely lose himself to the rhythms in a subway station is downright amazing. Jenkins received an Oscar nomination for his work here. A character actor who often assumes the role of wise father figure, he shows he can also handle lead roles.

This is not a loud, abrasive movie that assaults the senses. It is a quiet movie that is as expressive in its silences as it is in its dialogue. It expects – demands, even – a level of commitment from the viewer that they will find their own meaning and understanding in what they see, rather than handing them all the answers on a plate. In that regard, it is much like life, and that’s really the secret to learning and growing, isn’t it?

WHY RENT THIS: A quiet movie that speaks volumes in its silences. A bravura Oscar-nominated performance by Richard Jenkins deserves to be seen. This is a movie that demands that the viewer take from it what understanding they are willing to work for.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit more cerebral than is to some viewers liking.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief implied nudity, some drug references and some sexual innuendo, but nothing worse than you might see on your typical prime time drama.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parking lot in which Walter parks his car after arriving in New York – on East 11th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue – was torn down shortly after the film was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An instructional guide to playing the Djembe, the drum that Tarek teaches Vale to play in the film.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Invention of Lying