Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

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The Gambler (2014)


Mark Wahlberg's agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

Mark Wahlberg’s agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

(2014) Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larsen, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, George Kennedy, Lauren Weedman, Leland Orser, Richard Schiff, Griffin Cleveland, Steve Park, Da’Vone McDonald, Amin Joseph, Josiah Blunt, Shakira Ja’Nai Paye, Melanie McComb. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Gambling is part of the human psyche. Not all of us our gamblers but at least once in our lives we all take a chance on something. Some, though, can’t live without the rush. The bigger the gamble, the bigger the thrill. Who doesn’t relish the thrill of hitting 21 at the blackjack table when you’ve put your entire bankroll in, or of hearing that girl whose league you’re so far out of that you’re actually playing a different sport say yes when you ask her out?

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a gambler, a compulsive one. He goes to underground casinos and bets whatever sums of money he can get his hands on – usually borrowed. He’s a college professor by day (of English literature) and by night, he plays blackjack and roulette. He can go up by hundreds of thousands of dollars and then lose it all on one bad hand. He is a smart cookie for sure, but a self-destructive one as well.

He owes money to three very bad people; Lee (Ing) who owns the underground casinos that Jim gambles in (we can assume that most respectable casinos will have banned Bennett from their respective properties), Neville (Williams) who puts the urbane in urban as a gangster who, when the original movie that this is based on came out would have been portrayed in a Superfly hat with a ‘fro from here to waaaaaaaay out there, baby and the third is the most badass of them all – Frank (Goodman) who is fatherly and vicious at the same time. He is the loan shark with a heart of gold, trying to talk Jim out of borrowing money from him which is a little bit odd considering that Frank makes his millions from chumps like Jim borrowing money from him.

Jim’s mom (Lange) is the daughter of the founder of a bank and has wealth oozing from her every pore and dripping from her empty smile. She knows she has been enabling the beast all this time and when Jim comes to her for a loan of well over a quarter of a million dollars, her first instinct is to slap him across the face (which, I might add, he deserves). Like the enabler of any addict, she hopes that this time he will use the money wisely and take care of his debt and start a better life for himself but we know, he knows and she knows that just isn’t going to happen. Not yet. And when Jim tells her essentially to go away and not talk about his problem, she does, weeping for a moment before her mask of iron control slams down on her face and she walks away with what dignity she can muster and Jim (and we) don’t see her again.

Jim has been latched onto by one of his students, Amy (Larsen) whose talent Jim recognizes but in typical Jim fashion he attempts to tell what he conceives as the truth (and may well be – he’s a pretty smart guy) but in such a way that it alienates virtually everyone else in the class. There’s also Lamar (Kelley), a basketball star who is expected to cruise through the class so he can continue to be eligible to score lots and lots of points on his way through to the NBA. These two alone seem able to tolerate Jim who is filled with self-loathing and who time after time when confronted with the opportunity to do the right thing screws it up royally for himself and those around him.

With a deadline looming on Jim’s debt payback and his new girlfriend and his basketball-playing student who may be the only two people left who care about Jim now firmly in the crosshairs, Jim knows it’s going to be all or nothing this time and there will be no walking away if he loses. Not for him. Not for anyone around him.

This is based on a 1974 James Caan film of the same name which in turn is loosely based on a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel – also of the same name. This is a slick but soulless look at gambling, it’s hold on the psyche and how a smart man can be moved by it to do dumb things.

Jim says on two occasions that he’s not a gambler; the first time you think he’s being ironic. The second, it’s said with flat confidence which is meant to convey you see, I have it all under control and perhaps that’s what the movie means you to feel. It is near to the end of the film and supposedly, he’s getting his life back in order. I find this a disservice to the movie, particularly since throughout the movie we watch and recoil as Jim sinks deeper and deeper into the morass, and yet at the end one magical bet is supposed to be all it takes to lift him out of the pit. In real life, that’s what a lot of gambling addicts say and to a man (or woman) they can’t help but sink back into it and lose everything they’ve gained. That’s the nature of the beast.

I refuse to call the actors out on the carpet for this one – they all do a bang-up job. Wahlberg is making a fine career out of playing heroes who are flawed, as in Pain and Gain. Here he has the unenviable job of taking a smart character who does dumb things and on top of it make him virtually unlikable. Jim’s arrogant, blunt, sometimes cruel – the line between truth and cruelty can be blurry at the best of times and Jim crosses that line regularly, often on purpose. The things he does seem to be a “suicide by gangster” thing. I can’t even begin to even figure out what’s going on with him; suffice to say that few of us ever get as messed up as Jim does and those that do, God’s mercy on ya.

Ing and Williams make credible victims, with Williams getting more of a meaty character to work with; Ing mainly plays it cool and looks (if you’ll forgive the expression) inscrutable which considering he’s Asian I’m not sure is a good idea. Ing’s poker face makes his character more menacing but the filmmakers really don’t follow through on that menace. Williams though gets to and quite frankly, his character is a bit of a throwback to 70s cinema and not in a good way always.

Goodman gets to chew the scenery and few do it as well as he does. He’s a street-smart guy who understands and respects Jim’s intellect and can’t for the life of him understand why he does what he does. He’s got that southern fried Foghorn Leghorn thing going but with a touch of ticking time bomb on the side. You get the sense that Frank is nobody to mess around with, despite the fatherly demeanor which he adopts with Jim from time to time. I love watching Goodman work and he’s in top form here.

This is a movie that doesn’t know when to stop. Wahlberg carries a briefcase with him everywhere but never uses it in a piece of business that’s unnecessarily distracting. Sometimes in attempts to be artistic they have Wahlberg staring off into the sunset with an icy demeanor and sunglasses shading his eyes, switching the background in a series of jump cuts while Wahlberg stays still in exactly the same spot in the frame. It’s a little bit like a Photoshop effect on film.

Worse yet is the ending, which not only jumps the shark, it lands back in the water and gets eaten by the shark. The movie began with the sound of a roulette wheel  spinning, the ball bouncing in the middle of the wheel and landing in its slot. Near the end of the movie, Jim is spinning a roulette wheel on which he’s bet everything; win and he pays everyone off and his girlfriend is left alone. Lose and Jim is a dead man. The movie begins with the sound of a roulette wheel, it should have ended with one. The movie should have faded to black right there without us knowing the result and leaving us to speculate. We never should have found out if the gamble was successful, but we do. And then there is a scene afterwards that is nothing if not gratuitous. By that time I was already gnashing my teeth and wishing that I was getting paid for this. Anyone who sees this movie should get paid for their forbearance.

REASONS TO GO: Goodman is a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Wahlberg’s character is so self-destructive, whiny and rude that it’s very hard to get any sort of human empathy for him or from him. Suffers from a major case of “going-on-too-long-itis.”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, some brief nudity in a strip club and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg dropped 61 pounds for this role, an amount he said he would never lose again for any film. He also sat in on a number of English literature courses at Southern California colleges to get down the mannerisms and techniques of actual professors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Premium Rush
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death

Jersey Boys


Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

(2014) Musical (Warner Brothers) Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Johnny Cannizzaro, Michael Lomenda, Lacey Hannan, Joseph Russo, Erich Bergen, Mike Doyle, Donnie Kehr, Freya Tingley, Erica Piccininni, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Michael Patrick McGill, Annika Noelle, Renee Marino, Allison Wilhelm. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are those that say that legends are born, not made. There are those who insist that it’s the other way around. The truth is when it comes to music, it’s a bit of both.

In Belleville, a mostly Italian enclave in Jersey in the early 50s, young Tommy DeVito (Piazza) works as a driver and general go-fer for mobster Gyp De Carlo (Walken) by day and a budding musician with a doo-wop band by night.  He’s also friends with Frankie Castelluccio (Young), who would later come to be known as Frankie Valli. Castelluccio is a young man with an angelic voice who De Carlo sees stardom written all over. DeVito insists that Frankie do his vocal exercises and take singing lessons. He also has Frankie act as a lookout man on a botched robbery for which DeVito takes the fall.

After getting back from jail, DeVito – now with Frankie a full-fledged member of the band – along with Nick Massi (Lomenda) – seems content to play pizza parlors and bowling alleys in Jersey, although he knows as well as De Carlo that Frankie could very well be his ticket to the big time. They just need the right songs. Cue Joe Pesci (Russo) – yes, that Joe Pesci – who is friends with DeVito and happens to know a great songwriter named Bob Gaudio (Bergen) who wrote the novelty hit “Short Shorts” for the Royal Teens back when he was 15. Now out of that group, he’s looking for the right fit for his musical future. Introductions are made and the band, then called the Four Lovers, take the name the Four Seasons after a bowling alley where they unsuccessfully auditioned to play.

DeVito also introduces Frankie to Mary (Marino), a loud, brash woman who has no trouble figuring out that the talented Frankie is her way out of Belleville. The two eventually get married. In the meanwhile, Frankie and Gaudio head to the Brill Building trying to find a producer. They run into Bob Crewe (Doyle) who also hails from Jersey and knows Gaudio somewhat, but has met with some success as a producer. He’s flamboyantly gay (in an era when Liberace was considered “dramatic”) but he gives the four kids a break. Before long they’re singing back-up on an array of forgotten songs.

This doesn’t sit well with the group who were promised a demo of their own. Crewe is willing to produce it but he needs $1500 in order to do it and a radio-friendly song to promote. DeVito provides the cash – borrowing from loan shock Norm Waxman (Kehr) – and Gaudio provides the song – a little ditty called “Sherry.”

The song explodes and is the first of three number one hits in a row for the group. They become one of the most popular groups in the country with appearances on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. However, everything isn’t cake and roses; the constant touring has estranged Frankie from his children and his wife, who has become an alcoholic. Tommy has been gambling heavily and is in debt to Waxman for a lot more than $1500 – nearly ten times that amount, as well as having been embezzling funds from the band. Tommy is also incensed at the growing closeness between Frankie and Gaudio, who have formed a separate partnership outside of the band. Things will have to come to a head sooner or later.

This is based on the Tony award-winning smash hit Broadway musical and features Lloyd who originated the role of Valli on Broadway and won a Tony for it. Several other actors in the cast were in either the Broadway or touring company of the show. Eastwood, who would seem on the surface to be an odd choice to do a musical (although his biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, Bird, remains one of those unheralded classics) wanted stage actors familiar with the material more than he did Hollywood name actors (although he did cast Walken as the genial mobster De Carlo).

There’s a stagey quality here which isn’t entirely due to the acting. While the actors frequently break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience – part of the original show’s conceit is that it was divided into four parts with each band member “narrating” from his own point of view – that doesn’t harm the movie much. In fact, I found it to be one of the elements that worked best.

Part of the problem is there’s a surprising lack of energy for a musical; that’s because most of the music is not performed in staged numbers. For the most part, they are depicted in the recording studio or on TV programs. It leads to a bit of frustration on the part of the audience who is expecting more music from a musical. Only the last number, essentially a medley of hits that starts off from the original band’s final performance together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990 (Massi passed away from cancer in 2000) has that energy and performance that one expects from a musical.

So we have here a cross between a 50’s set goombah period piece and a screen version of a Broadway musical with elements of both filling the screen. I’m not sure which one works best but I think that both could have used a kick in the pants. I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled although Da Queen was enthusiastic for her love for the movie.

The music itself is good and Lloyd does an amazing job of creating Valli’s iconic falsetto, one of the most recognizable voices in the history of pop music. It must also be said that I have a sense that those who have seen the musical either on Broadway or in one of the touring productions will more than likely be disappointed by this effort as I was, even though I haven’t seen the musical as of yet.

This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; I just had higher hopes for it that weren’t met. The production values are spot on and although there are a few anachronisms (Valli is depicted singing his hit “My Eyes Adored You” to his daughter as a lullaby fully ten years before the song was actually written) they capture the period and place nicely. There is a bit of Italian-American stereotyping but not as much as you might think. For the most part, it’s entertaining; it just isn’t the kind of film you’ll want to see over and over again – at least not for me.

REASONS TO GO: Some great music. Young captures Valli’s voice nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy. Looks stagey. Occasionally anachronistic.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of salty language, or what they call in Jersey “tawkeen.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the conclusion of the film, Tommy DeVito says that he’s working for Joe Pesci these days. Pesci played a character named Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas based on a mob associate of Henry Hill, but not named after the ex-Four Season. The Pesci character during this film says “Funny how?” at one point, a reference to the same line Pesci utters in GoodFellas.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That Thing You Do

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Life Itself

Delivery Man


Chris Pratt needs a hug.

Chris Pratt needs a hug.

(2013) Comedy (Touchstone) Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Simon Delaney, Bobby Moynihan, Dave Patten, Adam Chanler-Berat, Britt Robertson, Jack Reynor, Amos VanderPoel, Matthew Daddario, Jessica Williams, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Leslie Ann Glossner, Derrick Arthur, Michael Olberholtzer, Kevin Hopkins, Jessica Abo, Kate Dalton. Directed by Ken Scott

There’s a difference between being a dad and being a father and sometimes the two get confused. Anybody with sperm can be a father; not everyone is cut out to be a dad.

David Wozniak (Vaughn) is a charming but incompetent slacker who delivers meat for his father’s (Blumenfeld) Brooklyn butcher shop. He often gets sidetracked, using the truck to take care of his personal business and essentially chauffeuring the meat around Brooklyn. He takes four times as long to deliver the same meat as other drivers and it seems likely that if his dad didn’t own the joint he would have been fired long ago. His brothers Victor (Delaney) and Aleksy (Moynihan) are exasperated with his aimlessness. David needs some focus, a reason to be responsible.

He might have one now that his girlfriend Emma (Smulders), a cop, tells him she’s pregnant. David is thrilled and looks forward to being a dad but Emma isn’t so sure she wants him to be around. She needs stability and security; she wants to know that David will be there when he says he’ll be there and won’t leave her holding the bag every time, something he has done to her many times in the past.

David is also $80K in debt to loan sharks who are threatening to drown him in his own bathtub. To make matters worse, he’s also been served with an injunction. It seems that 20 years earlier, he’d donated sperm to make some extra cash. A lot of it, in fact. Due to a clerical/systemic error at the sperm bank, an excess of his ejacula has been used to procreate – 533 times. Yes, David is the proud pappy of 533 kids and 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to discover the identity of their sperm donor father. David had signed an anonymity clause for every one of his donations and had used the name “Starbuck” as a code to determine the source of his sperm.

Realizing he needs a lawyer, David goes to his best friend Brett (Pratt), a single father of four who isn’t respected by his children, his mother – pretty much everyone else for that matter – who happens to have a law degree. Brett actually welcomes the opportunity – this is the kind of case that can become a landmark and establish a fella in the profession.

David is given for reasons that I dare not even guess a folder full of profiles of the 142 progeny who are involved in the lawsuit and given strict instructions not to open them. David being David, he opens one up and discovers that one of his sons (Hopkins) is a basketball star. Heartened, he decides to open other profiles and discovers that each of them are pretty decent kids, from the one who is a struggling actor (Reynor) to one who is struggling to get her life together after years of drug addiction (Robertson).  One of them, Viggo (Chanler-Berat) manages to figure out David’s identity and rather than disclose it moves in with him.

Becoming the guardian angel for his kids turns David’s life around, despite Brett’s protestations that he is potentially harming his own case. Will David’s past sins threaten everything or will his new attitude finally make him the man Emma thought he could always be?

This is an English-language remake of the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck which played this year’s Florida Film Festival and had a brief theatrical run at the Enzian earlier this fall. The same director who did that does the remake and I’m not sure whether or not that was a good idea – this is virtually a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake that differs only in minute details from the original.

Which is fine because I liked the first film so much but the remake doesn’t really add anything. Vaughn is as affable and as charming an actor as you’ll find in Hollywood and this is the sort of role that he has built his career on, albeit David is less of a fast talking con man than some of Vaughn’s other performances. In fact contrasting Vaughn with David Huard who played David in Starbuck I think if anything Vaughn is more laid-back than Huard was. Who would have predicted that?

The things that made the first film so enjoyable are present here as well – the heartwarming charm, the gentle humorous pokes at fatherhood. Although the subject matter of sperm donation has an inherent sexual component and it is alluded to in a couple of jokes, this is largely as family-friendly a comedy as you’re likely to find from a major studio release these days and it certainly lacks the raunch of Judd Apatow’s work or the Hangover series. Some might say that there’s not enough edge here but that’s entirely a matter of personal taste.

As pleasant comedies go this one is inoffensive and while I would certainly recommend Starbuck ahead of this, those who haven’t seen the former will certainly enjoy this one, quite possibly a lot. While the average movie critic and cynical indie-loving film buff might decry this as too manipulative, a little manipulation can be a good thing from time to time.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is as engaging as ever. Funny and heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks edge and energy. Doesn’t add anything to the original.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexual material, a bit of drug content, some foul language and brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt gained 60 pounds to play the out-of-shape lawyer Brett.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Book Thief

Pieta


Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.

That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.

Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.

Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?

Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?

The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.

The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.

One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.

Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.

The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.

The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of  you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.

REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Rundown

Starbuck


Here's how you'll likely feel after seeing this movie.

Here’s how you’ll likely feel after seeing this movie.

(2011) Comedy (EntertainmentOne) Patrick Huard, Julie LeBreton, Antoine Bertrand, Dominic Philie, Marc Belanger, Igor Ovadis, David Michael, Patrick Martin, David Giguere, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sebastien Beaulac, Patrick Labbe, Andre Lanthier, Patrick Caux, Catherine De Seve. Directed by Ken Scott

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Being a father is easy (and fun). It doesn’t even require a mom these days – just sperm. Being a dad however is a whole ‘nother story.

David Wozniak (Huard) is about as irresponsible as guys can get. He works for his father (Ovadis) delivering meat to various stores and restaurants around Montreal. It’s the easiest job in his dad’s business but even that David screws up. He uses the delivery van for personal business, forgets vital tasks (like picking up soccer jerseys for team picture day) and generally gets into trouble without meaning to. He’s been with his beautiful girlfriend Valerie (LeBreton) for four years and seems content to let things remain pretty much as they are.

He’s a bachelor slacker, well-liked but not respected. Then Valerie gets pregnant. HE is willing to do the right thing but SHE has taken a good hard look at David and realizes, perhaps regretfully, that he is anything but dad material. She wants to break up; he wants to prove to her that he can grow up.

But he is deeply in debt to loan sharks (who send thugs around to his apartment to laconically hold his head under water to remind him that if he doesn’t pay up soon he is going to end up floating face down in some unpleasant body of water) and nobody really takes him seriously enough to give him a chance to prove himself. To make matters worse, he is served with a summons that turns out to be quite a blast from his past.

As a younger man he had regularly donated sperm to a specific sperm bank in order to make some cash. Due to a clerical error, more than 500 of his samples have been used to impregnate different women . He is now the proud daddy of 533 kids and 152 of them are suing to get his identity revealed.

At first David is appalled and hires a friend (Bertrand) to represent him legally. That friend is also a dad, although his kids basically don’t EVER listen to him and treat him like a jungle gym more than anything else. His friend, the scruffiest barrister ever looks on this as an opportunity to argue a groundbreaking case, maybe the only one he’ll ever have.

After initial reluctance, he begins to look at the profiles of his now-adult children. He tells himself it will be just once. When that child turns out to be a superstar soccer player, David is ecstatic. It becomes like a drug, looking in on his kids and surreptitiously inserting himself into their lives as a kind of guardian angel. Gradually David grows to realize this might be the opportunity to prove himself that he can improve himself that he was looking for.

The movie has a profound charm to it and a kind of scruffy sense of humor. It is sweet at unexpected moments, sometimes tugging the heartstrings without warning. Huard is given a much more layered and complex role than at first it appears – David is certainly a slacker of epic proportions but he also has an amazing heart – his father tells him in one of the most affecting scenes in the movie “I never have to worry because everyone loves you.” In short, one of those rare dads who recognizes that there are different standard of success in life than the ones he measures himself by. It truly is one of the most difficult parts of being a parent – understanding that your definition of success may not be what your child is looking for in life.

Starbuck is one of those rare movies (although this year there seem to be more of them) that looks at what it means to be a dad – there have always seemed to be more mom movies than dad movies in Hollywood, particularly in the last 50 years. Being a dad has challenges of its own, and sometimes in our rush to exalt motherhood (and don’t get me wrong, motherhood deserves exaltation) we forget the important and vital contributions that father’s make in the nurturing of children. Parenthood isn’t a process or a science and it’s barely even an art form – it’s thinking on your feet, it’s being willing to change your own outlook before trying to force your kid to change theirs. It is frustrating, demanding, infuriating – and ultimately as rewarding an endeavor as a man can undertake.

This isn’t the ultimate fatherhood movie – there are a few too many easy-to-spot plot points for that. Still, I found myself enjoying the charm and outright manipulation the movie put me through. Huard is likable enough and the movie pulls just enough unexpected moments to drive the score as high as it winds up. If you’re looking for a case of the warm fuzzies, here’s your source.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming. Very funny at times. Huard does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit far-fetched occasionally. A tiny bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of sexual content, a pretty fair amount of rough language and a teeny bit of drug material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers not only to the character from Battlestar Galactica but more specifically to a Canadian Holstein bull that during the 1980s and 1990s fathered thousands of progeny and is considered one of the most fertile creatures ever to have lived.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; not what you’d call an overwhelming critical endorsement.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Painting and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage!!!

Peep World


Peep World

Sarah Silverman puts up her dukes.

(2010) Comedy (IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sarah Silverman, Rainn Wilson, Judy Greer, Taraji P. Henson, Ron Rifkin, Leslie Warren, Alicia Witt, Lewis Black (narrator), Stephen Tobolowski, Nicholas Hormann, Kate Mara, Ben Schwartz, Octavia Spencer, Geoffrey Arend. Directed by Barry Blaustein

 

Families are our bedrock but they can also drive us crazy. Sometimes we love ’em to death but other times they can make us so mad we can’t see straight. You love your family more than anyone but the flipside is that you can hate your family more than anyone too.

The Meyerwitz family is gathering at a swanky L.A. restaurant to celebrate the 70th birthday of patriarch Henry (Rifkin). The family, dysfunctional and argumentative at the best of times, is living under a veil of tension more than usual. That’s because Nathan (Schwartz), the baby of the family, has written a best-selling novel that is a thinly veiled account of his family, with all their dirty secrets intact and there for the world to see.

Daughter Cheri (Silverman), a failed actress is actually suing her brother. Eldest brother Jack (Hall), who before Nathan’s success was the most successful Meyerwitz, is seeing his architecture business crumble and to relieve the stress, regularly goes to peep shows to take out his frustrations. His wife Laura (Greer) is pregnant to compound matters.

Joel (Wilson), the ne’er-do-well of the family, is on the run from loan sharks and is desperately trying to guilt money out of his brother Jack who doesn’t have the money to give any longer. He tries to keep the knowledge of the unsavory things he’s done from his girlfriend Mary (Henson) who only sees the good in him.

And Nathan himself isn’t without his own demons. Condescending and cruel to those around him, he takes an erectile dysfunction pill while getting ready for a date and winds up with a monster boner that won’t quit. And even Henry has a few secrets of his own – and you can bet they’re all going to come out at this dinner from hell.

The movie has a terrific ensemble cast, led by Hall who is in my opinion one of those actors who always elevates the material he has. I’ve never been a huge fan of Silverman but she turns in what might just be her best performance yet as the neurotic Cheri. This is a bit of a stretch for the usually caustic Silverman (and there are elements of her usual persona here albeit much toned down) and she nails it nicely.

Wilson is kind of the comic foil here but while he’s usually pretty good this is not one of his better performances. Greer however is golden here – she has become one of my favorite comic actresses in just the last couple of years. She and Henson make up the heart of the movie.

The issue here is that most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and cliché. The actors cope to varying degrees but it becomes noticeable often. The story isn’t that much better – there are no real surprises and nothing that you haven’t seen before and done better. Even Lewis Black’s narration is by the numbers and a waste of this inventive comedian’s talent.

This is a movie that wasted its potential. The premise is a sound one albeit one that has been done before (the dysfunctional family gathering) and the cast is superb. With better writing this could have been an indie classic. Still, the talent holds it up just enough to make it worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble cast who try real hard. Some funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One-dimensional characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language and a fair amount of sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hand with the different color painted nails in the salon that Jack enters is the same hand of the “Ice Cream Killer” that is on the trophy shelf of “Dexter,” the Showtime series that Hall also stars in.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,351 on an unreported production budget; this was a big box office flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hotel Transylvania