Tommaso


Meet Tommaso.

(2019) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara, Stella Mastrantonio, Lorenzo Piazzoni, Alessandro Prato, Alessandra Camilla-Scarci. Directed by Abel Ferrara

 

Self-portraits can be extremely revealing; they can also be the product of an ego run amok. When art imitates life, you never quite know what you’re going to get; unflinching honesty, or fawning self-aggrandizement or something in between.

Tommaso (Dafoe) is an American ex-pat living in Rome with his much younger wife Nikki (Chiriac) and his three-year-old daughter DeeDee (Anna Ferrara). He is six years sober after years abusing alcohol, drugs and anyone unfortunate enough to be in his orbit. He is working on a sci-fi script about a man living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who learns to love again, attends regular AA meetings, and runs drama classes when he’s not being tutored into learning the Italian language. He seems to dote on his daughter and is deeply in love with his wife, even though sex with a toddler in the house is nearly impossible.

Cracks begin to show in the façade; the more we learn about Tommaso, the more we see that he has a dark side that wasn’t entirely due to the drugs and booze. We also begin to understand that we are seeing events through Tommaso’s lens; not everything we see is real. He sees his wife with another man and soon becomes paranoid to the point where his wife begins to draw away from him. Tommaso has always been a womanizer; he begins to come on to one of his students who isn’t exactly against the idea. However, as much as he regrets the mistakes he’s made in his life and as open as he is to discussing them, he certainly isn’t above repeating them – or making all-new mistakes.

Dafoe as Tommaso is at the center of all the action here and Ferraro couldn’t have put his film in better hands. Dafoe is an actor who seems to be getting better with age, and while he doesn’t have the mystique of a Pacino or De Niro, he is every bit as good. Tommaso is one of his best performances ever, manic and soulful, good-hearted and yet demonic. Through Dafoe, Ferrara is able to ruminate on the nature of happiness and what it means to make yourself a better person – and how truly difficult that is.

Unfortunately, the choice to make this an internal point of view means that we never know if what we are seeing is real, or a dream, or madness. In one shocking scene, Tommaso imagines seeing his daughter crossing the street and getting hit by a taxi. It turns out that was a paranoid delusion, but was it? Maybe the scenes thereafter where the daughter lives are the illusion.

When Dafoe ends up crucified (an obvious nod to The Last Temptation of Christ), I really had to question if this wasn’t a vanity project after all. I’m no psychiatrist but imagining your cinematic avatar in a Christ-like pose seems to be a cry for years of therapy at the very least.

The movie goes off the rails near the end and by that point I was wishing that the film had not been quite so long. Ferrara is a gifted director and maybe this is his way of baring his soul and making amends. I don’t know. But I’m not sure if I’m up to giving absolution after two hours of mea culpas. I’m not sure anybody is, these days.

REASONS TO SEE: Dafoe continues to turn in magnificent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat pretentious and self-absorbed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as a fair amount of sex and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The wife and daughter of Tommaso are played by director Abel Ferrara’s actual wife and daughter.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Embraces
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Serenity (2019)

Fairytale (Favola)


An All-American housewife.

(2017) Comedy (Breaking GlassFilippo Timi, Lucia Mascino, Piera Degli Esposti, Luca Santagostino, Sergio Albelli. Directed by Sebastiano Mauri

 

The Fifties were a decade here in the United States that in many ways symbolizes a kinder, gentler era; everyone liked Ike, prosperity after the war was undeniable and so long as you were white and straight, you had a pretty decent life just about guaranteed. America was indeed, the beautiful back then.

Mrs. Fairytale (Timi) lives in a bright, modern home that is packed to the gills with kitsch and alcohol. Her husband (Santasostino) leaves for work every morning, leaving her to clean house, cook dinner, commiserate with fellow housewife Mrs. Emerald (Mascino) and adore her poodle Lady (pronounced “Lye-dee” in this Italian-language film) who happens to be stuffed. She also spends time fending off the Stuart triplets (Albelli), all of whom want to get into her panties by hook or by crook – the movie doesn’t hesitate to get into the darker side of the decade, including spousal abuse and alcoholism.

That’s not the only thing that’s off-kilter in this comedy, in which the view out of one set of windows is a New York-like skyline and out another set, a Southwestern desert. Mrs. Fairytale is played in drag by Timi, who also co-wrote the adaptation of his original play; the director is his husband, Mauri who is making his feature directing debut.

Many critics are hailing that the lead role in drag is played by a gay man, which makes for a better understanding of the drag queen culture. I will be honest; I’m not so sure the role is meant to be a drag queen; the oddball story involves invading UFOs who may or may not have changed Mrs. Fairytale’s sex from feminine to masculine. The role is not meant to be an object of fun, like so many drag roles in mainstream movies tend to be, but is meant to be a matter-of-fact depiction of a male actor in a female role. Of late we’ve seen some female actresses playing male characters; I don’t see why the favor shouldn’t be returned.

The movie keeps you off-balance from beginning to end in the most delightful way, all the while remaining true to its aesthetic, and what an aesthetic it is – the production design by Dmitri Capuani is absolutely pitch-perfect, setting the tone for the movie’s eccentric plot, while the set décor by Alessia Anfuso is to die for – I know a lot of devotees of Fifties kitsch culture will be jealous. The costumes by Fabio Zambernardi are positively sumptuous and will have those who love hunting for vintage dressing in thrift stores positively green with envy.

Not everybody is going to love this. It is admittedly willfully weird, but then again, who doesn’t need a little weirdness every now and again, particularly now when confusion is the new normal. If there’s an objection to be had about this delightful film, it’s that it is awfully stagey, even though I think that it intentional on the filmmakers’ part. Still, it feels sometimes like you’re waiting for the rest of the audience to react and that’s not a good thing when you’re watching this while cloistered at home. Fans of LGBTQ cinema should definitely seek this out, but anyone out for a good laugh in a bizarre kitschy atmosphere should love this too.

REASONS TO SEE: Willfully strange and imaginative. Wonderful production design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not everyone will get this.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is an adaptation of a play originally written by Timi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serial Mom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mule

South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London

Agatha and the Truth of Murder


“Colonel Mustard, in the study, with the lead pipe.”

(2018) Mystery (Vision) Ruth Bradley, Pippa Haywood, Ralph Ineson, Bebe Cave, Luke Pierre, Joshua Silver, Samantha Spiro, Tim McInnerny, Blake Harrison, Dean Andrews, Brian McCardie, Michael McElhatton, Seamus O’Hara, Derek Halligan, Liam McMahon, Amelia Rose Dell, Clare McMahon, Richard Doubleday, Stacha Hicks. Directed by Terry Loane 

 

In 1926, the great mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared, A great nationwide manhunt ensued with more than 10,000 police officers working the case. She was discovered eleven days later in a hotel, using the surname of her husband’s lover and with no memory of what transpired over those eleven days. To this day, it is a real-life unsolved mystery. This British made-for-TV film offers it’s own explanation.

Christie (Bradley) was at a crisis point in her life. While her career as a mystery author was going well, she was suffering from writer’s block and was tired of writing novels in which her readers simply picked the least likely suspect and solved the crime in that manner. Worse still, her husband (McMahon) was carrying on an affair with a younger woman and was demanding a divorce, one which she didn’t want to grant. Despite his infidelity, Christie was still in love with her husband.

She is in despair when approached by Mabel Rogers (Haywood), a nurse who begs the author to solve the murder of Rogers’ friend (and lover) Florence Nightingale Shore, bludgeoned to death on a train six years earlier. Although at first reluctant, Christie decides that solving the murder is not only the right thing to do but exactly what she needs to get out of her funk. She and Mabel concoct a plan to invite the main suspects in the crime to a country manor under the guise of being an insurance company representative seeing to the disbursement of funds from a will – nothing like appealing to greed to round up a disparate group of people.

Needless to say, things don’t go necessarily the way the great writer planned things and it ends up with her prime suspect (Andrews) being killed. When the actual police, in the person of Detective Inspector Dicks (Ineson), the cat is out of the bag and the game is truly afoot – to quote Arthur Conan Doyle (McElhatton), whom Christie consulted earlier about her writer’s block.

Part homage and part real life mystery, the case that Christie was called upon to solve in the film – the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, a niece of that Florence Nightingale, actually happened as described and in reality, was never solved. That Christie knew about the case is certain; it was big news in Britain at the time and Christie used elements of the crime in her book The Man in the Brown Suit. Mabel Rogers also existed as well.

Bradley makes an extremely engaging Christie. The actress, best known in the States for her work in Grabbers as well as the genre series Primeval and Humans, gives the acclaimed mystery writer a certain amount of pluck. While she is devastated by her husband’s affair, she has enough self-awareness to know that wallowing in misery is not the way to go. I don’t know how close her portrayal is to how the real Christie was but I think she plays Agatha Christie the way we wish she was.

The era is captured pretty well and while the production values aren’t quite as lush as the best adaptations of Christie’s work are, the movie suffices in that regard. While mystery buffs will find nothing particularly innovative here, I don’t think the movie necessarily had to reinvent the wheel in order to be successful. If I do have a bit of a quibble, the dialogue can be stiff and sound unrealistic to my ears. It doesn’t sound like real people conversing at times.

Fans of Christie’s work – my mother is one and I grew up reading many of her novels – will find familiar territory here, from the gathering at a country manor to the somewhat positive light that the police are portrayed here (other mystery writers have tended to write them as bumbling fools). That makes this kind of cinematic comfort food, the sort of thing that is sorely needed in these trying times.

REASONS TO SEE: Bradley makes a wonderful Christie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue tends to be a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was broadcast on Channel 5 in the UK on December 23rd, 2018. It was the first in a series of fictional films about Christie to be shown on television – each featuring a different actress in the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft,  Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald

Lone Star Deception


Smoke gets in my eyes.

(2019) Suspense (Tri-Coast WorldwideEric Roberts, Anthony Ray Parker, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Merlisa Determined, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Eliza Roberts, Johnny Ray Gibbs, John Maciag, Sunday Flint, Karina Pal-Montaño, Brian Thornton, Chris Mayo, Melissa Wilson, Archie Ashcroft, Jeff Brody, Enrique Davila, Binette Dialio, Charles Emmott, Joe Grisaffi, Taylor Nieland, Brandi Barbee. Directed by Robert Peters and Don Okolo

 

There’s the United States and then there’s Texas. Texas is on its own planet and they’re very proud of that down in the Lone Star state. It isn’t like anywhere else and that can be a double edged sword.

Tim Bayh (Parker) is an executive at a big Texas oil firm. His boss, Bill Sagle (Eric Roberts), is masterminding the Republican gubernatorial campaign of his nephew Stuart (Mahmoud). When that is derailed by the presence of a sex tape, Bill decides to run Tim as the first African-American candidate in state GOP history.

That turns out to be not such a good idea for Tim, as he is beset on every side, by racists, members of his own community who think he’s selling out, greedy oilmen who want to keep the status quo and then there are the criminals who took down Stuart who have an idea to get another payday out of Tim. He will have to have eyes in the back of his head (and on both sides) if he’s going to make it to the finish line.

The concept is an intriguing one. Texas politics are an entirely different animal and there is definitely room for a great movie here. Sadly, this isn’t it. The script is botched, coming off as a relatively tame movie-of-the-week quality with the tension – which should have been ratcheted up into the red zone – barely discernible, and a feeling that the directors were in a rush to get from one set piece to the next without giving much thought to character development or plot development, for that matter.

Eric Roberts is an Oscar-nominated actor who has had a long and satisfying career. He’s a consummate pro who gives at the very least an entertaining performance and despite some overacting, does so here. You get the feeling that he’s giving his best, but is hamstrung by script problems and frankly, some issues with direction. While both directors are fairly experienced, they seem to have a love for camera movement and there’s a ton of panning and dolly shots which gets to be noticeable at times. You should never notice what the camera is doing; when the camera is in constant motion it takes focus away from what is going on onscreen. Trust your actors and let them be the center of attention.

Chalk this up as a good idea poorly executed. Texas Republicans tend to be the rock-ribbed sort – after all, they are the state that gave us George W. Bush – and to see what having a black front-runner for governor would do to the party would be extremely interesting, but I don’t think the writers did much in the way of research and if they did, it sure doesn’t show in the final product. It’s a shame but I can’t recommend this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Eric Roberts is always entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: An interesting concept lacks execution. Stiff acting and a tired plot doom the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Not for the kids; there’s violence, drug use, sexuality, profanity…everything but the kitchen sink.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eliza Roberts, who plays Bill Sagle’s wife, is married in real life to Eric Roberts, the actor who plays him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Sloane
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Robin Hood (2018)

The Wife (2017)


An expression that says it all.

(2017) Drama (Sony ClassicsGlenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Bale, Max Irons, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke, Elizabeth McGovern, Johan Widerberg, Karin Franz Körlof, Richard Cordery, Jan Mybrand, Anna Azcarate, Peter Forbes, Fredrik Gildea, Jane Garda, Alix Wilton Regan, Nick Fletcher, Mattias Nordkvist, Suzanne Bertish, Grainne Keenan, Isabelle von Meyenberg, Morgane Polanski. Directed by Björn Runge

 

The Wife isn’t just about the dynamics of a 40-year marriage, although that is an important component. It isn’t just about gender inequality within the traditional marriage, although that is certainly a major theme. There are a lot of layers going on here.

Joe Castleman (Pryce) has won the Nobel prize for literature and is excited at the honor. His wife Joan (Close) to whom he has been married to for 40 years seems oddly tepid about the ceremony, unwilling to take part in the activities set up for the spouses; in fact, she doesn’t even want to spend much time with Joe, who is egotistical and a serial adulterer. From outside, the marriage appears to be a warm, loving one but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. There is a secret, you see, that the husband and wife both share, a devastating one that is about to force them both to confront it.

Glenn Close has had a long and distinguished career; to say that this might just be her best performance yet is indeed saying something. Much of Joan’s anguish is shown on the face of the veteran actress; this is one of her most expressive performances and again, that’s saying something. The last act is a triumph of understatement and inner fire which leads to a conclusion which is a bit of a let-down in many ways.

The script is extremely literate and that works to the film’s advantage – but also to its detriment as it veers over the line from time to time into pretension. Still, strong performances by Close and Pryce buoy this film and make it memorable. This is a fine movie made better by the performances of the leads. Definitely worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Close gives an Oscar-worthy performance. A very literate script.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally crosses the line into pretension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Starke, who plays the young Joan, is the daughter of Glenn Close who plays present-day Joan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Collette
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Night School

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

Bel Canto


The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 39 Steps
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Dawn Wall

Man on the Dragon


There is no “I” in dragon boats.

(2018) Comedy (One Cool) Francis Ng, Jennifer Yu, Chan-Leung Poon, Tony Wu, Kenny Wang. Directed by Sunny Chan

In sports, as in life, it is much harder to overcome individuals working towards a common goal than it is individuals working for themselves. United, a group of people can accomplish just about anything; without that unification, accomplishment can be difficult to achieve.

Pegasus Broadband is a Hong Kong Internet access provider who is going through what businesses euphemistically call “an austerity phase.” Rounds of layoffs have hit the engineering department particularly hard as three installers deal with an increasingly uncertain professional future. In addition, they are all going through mid-life crises in their personal lives as well; Chan Lung (Ng), a single man, has an unrequited love for the girl next door – well, her mom anyway. Chan cooks for the two women and generally takes care of them, dreaming of a day when the three of them will be a family.

Suk Yee (Poon) gets no peace at home. His mother and his wife bicker constantly and the toxic environment has moved their young daughter to get in a series of physical altercations at school. William (Wang) has given up a professional table tennis career for his girlfriend but is beginning to suspect that the price for staying with her is too high. Finally, middle manager Tai (Wu) is estranged from his wife whom he believes is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

Pegasus, seeking to repair their tarnished image, has decided to put together a dragon boat team for an upcoming race. All four of these men are drafted to row on the team. Hard-nosed coach Dorothy (Yu) – who is forced to use an American crew coach as a front in order to get the gig even though she’s ridiculously qualified – knows the company expects to win the race but given the sorts of athletes she has and their lack of cohesiveness as a team that there is absolutely no chance in hell that they could beat teams that have been together for years but gamely, she tries to whip them into shape.

Although this is ostensibly a sports underdog movie and there are lots of elements that characterize that particular genre, this isn’t strictly put a sports movie. Rather, it’s about men facing uncertainty in their lives and trying to navigate often murky waters in an effort to find some sort of clue as to where they’re going, or even to take charge of their own boats. The main actors mesh together well and their relationships are totally believable. They act like long-time friends do, razzing each other and supporting each other when the chips are down.

The women in the film fare less well. Either they’re harpies, teases, unfaithful or unattainable. I wondered at times if writer-director Chan isn’t a bit misogynistic in his outlook; even coach Dorothy, who is a bit of a rallying point for the men, does not come off particularly well and she’s the only female character in the film who has any sort of development whatsoever.

The rowing sequences are nicely done, the speed and grace of dragon boats in the waters of Hong Kong harbor being captured well. The camera is absolutely smooth (I’m wondering if they used a Steadicam-like device to keep the camera stable) which makes watching the races pleasurable rather than bringing a handheld choppiness that leads to a feeling of seasickness in certain other films trying to capture rowing or crew races.

The movie feels a bit on the long side and the plot on the predictable side. Some of the dialogue is also a little overwrought but the movie has just enough charm to just about overcome the negatives and earn a mild recommendation. It’s not going to set any marks for originality although the number of midlife crisis movies isn’t a high one but I think unless you’re extremely discerning you’ll find enough cinematic bliss to make this one worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The male bonding is authentic and believable. The boat sequences are smooth and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles were difficult to read at times. The movie was a little bit on the misogynistic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors did their own rowing, supervised by actual dragon boat athletes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Playing for Keeps
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Far From the Tree

Game Night


Some games are riskier than others.

(2018) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemmons, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Zerrick Deion Williams, Joshua Mikel, R.F. Daley, John Francis Daley, Michael Cyril Creighton, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Jonathan Goldstein, Charlotte Hazzard. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

 

Everyone knows someone whose competitive urges are on a scale of one to ten about a 35. Max (Bateman) and his wife Annie (McAdams) are just like that. They host a regular game night at their home in which friends are invited (or in the case of creepy cop Gary (Plemmons), not) to play a variety of party games. When Max’s mega-successful big brother Brooks (Chandler), a venture capitalist who Max has competed with unsuccessfully comes to town, Max is put off his game a little bit. When Brooks offers to host game night at his lavish home, Max is further intimidated.

Brooks dispenses with the traditional board games and instead does a kidnap mystery event, offering his cherry red Stingray (Max’s dream car as it turns out) as a prize for the first to solve the mystery, Max looks at it as an opportunity to finally get redemption with his brother. But when it turns out that the kidnapping is real and so are the guns, things take a turn for the wacky.

I honestly didn’t expect too much from the movie going in. I thought it would be another mildly funny and occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy that seem to dominate the comedy landscape these days but I was pleasantly surprised. This is one of the funniest movies of the year, hands down. Not only is the script funny but it’s generous – nearly everyone in the ensemble cast has their moment to deliver an amazing punch line or even a moment of sublime physical comedy. Bateman shines the brightest, still as likable as ever.

If the movie has a drawback it’s that it sometimes overthinks things. The story works best when things are kept simple. This is a rare film that is funny without being gimmicky, allowing the characters to develop nicely without being overly silly. Da Queen liked it even more than I did, which is saying something. If you’re looking for a movie that is bound to make you laugh, this is the one to select, at least as far as 2018 is concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is unexpectedly funny in places. Bateman remains one of the most charming actors in Hollywood.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally gets over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some sexual references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bateman and McAdams previously appeared together in State of Play.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tag
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press