Abe


MasterChef, Junior.

(2019) Family (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Noah Schnapp Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Tom Mardirosian, Salem Murphy, Daniel Oreskes, Gero Carillo Victor Mendes, Ildi Silva, Devin Henry, Steve Routman, Josh Elliiott Pickel, Alexander Hodge, Debargo Sanyal, Teddy Coluca, Jorja Brown, Troy Valjean Rucker, Vivian Adams. Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade

 

There are equalizers that remind us that we all are human regardless of our cultural, ethnic and religious differences; music is one. Family is another. Food is a third.

Abe (Schnapp) knows all about those differences. His father (Moayed) is an atheist whose parents are devout Palestinian Muslims. His mother (Dominczyk) comes from a Jewish family from Israel. Family gatherings, like Abe’s twelfth birthday, are a little bit like the Seven Days War at the dinner table. For the love of Pete, even a discussion of hummus can turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Abe – whose Israeli grandfather (Margolis) calls him Avraham, his other calls him Abraham and his paternal grandfather (Mardirosian) and grandmother (Murphy) call him Ibrahim – prefers just plain old Abe, and plain old Abe is just plain old nuts about food. He’s a twelve-year-old foodie, interested in trying out new things, new tastes and he lives in the perfect place in all the world for that – Brooklyn. He longs to become a chef, uniting cuisines and hopefully, in doing so, uniting people. Like his family, for instance.

His parents, too busy making decisions about his life without really listening to him, particularly his stubborn father who refuses to allow any other school of thought other than his own enter Abe’s sphere of consciousness. All Abe wants to do is cook. His parents, meaning well, want to send him to summer camp but the cooking camp they send him to is pretty remedial. He chooses to give this camp a miss.

Abe, like a lot of kids his age, is Internet-savvy and there’s a chef on Instagram who is an up-and-coming king of fusion. Chef Chico (Seu) is a Brazilian who brings bold flavors to his food. Abe seeks him out and pesters him into giving him a job so that Abe can learn from him. At first, the job consists mainly of taking out the trash but Abe picks up on things, eventually taking his grandmother’s recipe for lamb shawarma in to make tacos for the crew meal. Chico is actually impressed.

&His parents are not, however, when they learn what Abe has been up to. All the stress of familial pressures has been tearing his mom and dad apart and they separate. Abe is devastated; he looks to reunite his fractured family with a Thanksgiving meal featuring the flavors of both countries, but can a conflict nobody has been able to solve be settled over a meal of turkey and falafel?

Well, no, but that won’t stop this movie from letting you think that it can. I admit, food is a powerful thing, bringing emotions and memories of home to the fore, but for most of us, we are aware that some differences can’t be settled simply. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t send the message that it can, but it does send a message that people can have their minds opened up, which is the first step towards understanding which in turn is the first step towards peace.

For a movie about a foodie, there isn’t as much food porn as I thought there’d be, which is actually kinda nice. I didn’t leave this movie particularly jonesing for falafel, hummus or shawarma. Not even for ramen tacos, which is Abe’s first attempt at fusion.

Schnapp, whom Netflix viewers might recognize from Stranger Things, does a pretty credible job considering that the role is kind of Afterschool Special plucky kid 101. Abe is likable and Schnapp brings that across; he is also anguished that everything he does seems to offend one side of the family or another, and I can actually sympathize with his plight. It is every adolescent nightmare, but in Abe’s case it is literally true.

Andrade, directing his first American movie (it’s actually a co-production with Brazil), uses what is becoming a new cliché in showing the smartphone screens of Abe’s various searches and chat programs, which actually takes you out of the story a little bit. While I agree that if you’re going to show a typical 12-year-old kid in 2020, you’re going to have to show him/her having on online life, the way it is done here becomes somewhat intrusive, as does the Latin-tinged score. The comedy here, while gentle, feels forced and the ending is a bit too sitcom-style pat with everyone sitting to a meal together.

This is an appropriate movie for kids, but if I were you parents, I wouldn’t tell them what it’s about. They might not want to see it based on the description, but they will probably end up getting a kick out of it, although I might warn them that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict isn’t going to be settled over a good meal. Nonetheless it is a pretty decent family film that can be enjoyed over a nice bowl of popcorn; how you choose to season it is up to you.

REASONS TO SEE: Does tackle some serious subjects in a non-threatening manner.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit self-aware, a little too pat, a little too forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Margolis and Mardirosian, who play Israeli and Palestinian patriarchs here, both played prisoners in the hit HBO series Oz.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Polar

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2


Hopa!

Hopa!

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Louis Mandylor, Bess Meisler, Bruce Gray, Fiona Reid, Ian Gomez, Jayne Eastwood, Rob Riggle, Mark Margolis, Rita Wilson, John Stamos, Jeanie Calleja. Directed by Kirk Jones

Woman Power

Like many others, I was a victim of the charm of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I won’t say that I fell in love with the movie, but it did blindside me a little bit and I regard it fondly, even though it was fairly flawed. Some movies will do that to you.

And now most of the original cast is back. Toula (Vardalos) has been married more than a decade to Ian (Corbett) who is now a principal at the local high school. Her travel agency went out of business and she is back working at the family restaurant and has proven herself an adept business woman. Her family is still around her like the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. She lives in a block of four houses on a quiet suburban Chicago street that all belong to members of her family.

That family includes patriarch Gus (Constantine) who believes himself to be descended from Alexander the Great and that everything useful or wonderful in the world came directly or otherwise from Greece, often with the flimsiest of evidence to back him up. His long-suffering wife Maria (Kazan) wants nothing more than to lead a semi-normal life, but with sisters like Voula (Martin) who never met a bodily condition too gross to discuss with anyone, that is quite the challenge.

Throw an angsty teenage daughter (Carides) into the mix and you get all the flavors of Greece in one soup. But even that is not enough when the discovery is made that due to a clerical error, Gus and Maria were never actually married. While Gus is eager just to rectify the error and go on with his life, Maria wants a big fat Greek wedding, the one she never got in the old country. It falls upon Toula to arrange everything and balance the family business, her husband’s frustration that the two of them have not been intimate for awhile, and her daughter’s collegiate choice that may take her away from Chicago and of course with her maniac relatives interfering in every way possible, this is a dance that even Zorba couldn’t manage.

All the elements of the first movie are here in the second, but as is usually the case, lightning doesn’t get captured in the bottle quite so easily. While Vardalos remains one of those rare actresses who simply is irresistible and cute onscreen, so much so that you want to take her home with you, for some reason this movie doesn’t work as well as the first. Perhaps it’s just a case of the first existing because it set a high bar for the second. But there are flaws here that can be explained.

For one thing, it feels sometimes that Vardalos who as in the first movie wrote the script was trying too hard to make her family eccentric. I think we got the point and a little more restraint would have been just as effective. I love Andrea Martin as a comedienne and she steals a lot of scenes here and Constantine who hasn’t made a full length feature film since the first big fat Greek wedding 14 years ago (yipes!) also dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.

The Nikki subplot really didn’t interface as well with the rest of the material. I can kinda see what Vardalos was trying to do – show that Toula was becoming exactly like her mother – and while that is an admirable and salient point, it wasn’t made as well as it could have been, particularly since the comedy is a little bit over-the-top. Again, restraint would have been welcome.

The movie is curiously flat when it comes to onscreen energy, which is normally the purview of the editor and the director. I’m not sure if that is the case here, but certainly the movie doesn’t have the same vibrant feel of the first. Perhaps there is the stigma of repetition, in that most sequels rarely capture the same magic as the original, but it could also have been that much too long has passed since we last visited this Greek comedy and that had its effect on our perception of the finished product as well.

I am a fan of Nia Vardalos and I was rooting for this movie to be better than it was. It will likely make it to cable earlier than intended and then fade away into obscurity but I am strangely glad that it got made anyway. I can’t really recommend it (hence the score) but I still have a soft spot for it anyway. If you were as charmed by the first movie as I was, you will likely be disappointed in the second, but you may very well find a soft spot for it as well. So please don’t mind if I get a second helping of spanikopita and enjoy a movie that should have been better.

REASONS TO GO: Occasionally shows the charm of the original. Vardalos remains sweet and charismatic in the lead role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks energy. Occasionally the material becomes overbearing. The plot is wafer-thin.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Toronto, substituting for the Chicago location of the original.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Boss

Noah


Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

(2014) Biblical Epic (Paramount) Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Finn Wittrock, Madison Davenport, Gavin Casalegno, Nolan Gross, Skylar Burke, Dakota Goyo, Ariane Reinhart, Adam Marshall Griffith, Don Harvey, Sami Gayle. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Most everyone in the Western world – and a good part of the Eastern – are familiar with the story of Noah and the Great Flood. How God, in his wrath, wiped out all life on Earth – except for Noah, his family and all the innocent creatures of the Earth…well, two of each species of them, anyway.

The story of Noah actually takes up only four chapters in Genesis however and is lacking in any sort of detail except for those important to the writers of the Bible and/or those they were writing it for. You have to wonder what the real story was.

Darren Aronofsky did. Intrigued by the tale of Noah since the age of 14, he set out to film his own interpretation of the events that led up to the flood and what happened during and after it. He and co-screenwriter Ari Handel did extensive Biblical research and while they did interpret some of it fairly loosely, this is what they came up with.

Noah (Crowe), a descendant of Adam’s son Seth and grandson of Methuselah (Hopkins) lives with his wife Naameh (Connelly) and his sons from oldest to youngest Shem (Booth), Ham (Lerman) and Japheth (Carroll) in the wastelands. They take from the Earth only that which they can use, eat the flesh of no animals and stay away from the civilizations of the time which are the works of the descendants of Cain. Noah had watched his own father (Csokas) slain for no real reason by some of those descendants.

Noah receives visions from the Creator – never referred to at any time as God in the film – that He is displeased with the wickedness of the world and intends to wipe everything out and start over. He will use a great flood to accomplish this. Troubled by his vision, Noah decides to visit his grandfather to see what this all means which makes sense since as part of the vision he saw the mountain his grandfather lives a hermit-like existence on. Along the way they pick up Ila (Watson) whose family was butchered by Cain’s descendants and whose own horrible injuries have left her unable to bear children.

Methuselah gives Noah a tea to drink which brings on another vision – this time of a great ark that must be built to survive the storm. Methuselah gives Noah a seed – the last seed from the Garden of Eden. This creates a forest and convinces the stone Guardians – fallen angels whose light has been sheathed in mud – to help Noah and his family to build the massive structure.

Years pass and word passes to Tubal-cain (Winstone) the King of the local city who recognizes that Noah is serious. He means to possess the Ark for his own and start a new world in his own image while Noah is just as sure that men are a plague upon the Earth that need to be eradicated. Neither outcome sounds particularly palatable to Naameh and her children.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the film even before it came out. Evangelical Christians were damning the film based on remarks made by Aronofsky who is an atheist and said in an interview that it is the least Biblical epic made about a Bible story and characterized Noah as the first environmentalist. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that is sure to make an extreme right-wing Christian get their panties in a bunch.

However, in many ways I can’t blame them. They take a good deal of liberty with the story – six-armed fallen angels made of rock, Tubal-cain who barely appears in the Bible and then as essentially a blacksmith being elevated to King and nemesis. The core elements are all there though and the scenes of the flood are spectacular.

Sadly, not all the CGI lives up to that. There isn’t a single animal in this film that is alive – every animal is CGI and many of them are beasts that are no longer around or never were around. They don’t walk like animals do and there are so many that they all kind of run together. I know the story inherently calls for spectacle but the grand scale is too much; we need something as an audience to latch onto.

Fortunately there is Crowe who makes a mighty badass Noah. Noah is a bit pigheaded during a certain stretch of the movie and you can see in him the tenacity that would make a project like the Ark even possible. There is also a tender side to Noah that allows him to sing a gentle lullaby to an injured and frightened little girl. Noah is portrayed in the Bible as someone who follows God’s directives unquestioningly and we get the sense of that here.

Unfortunately, there is also Connelly who is a terrific actress but has one of the least satisfying performances of her career. She has one scene where she has a confrontation with her husband over his increasingly vile point of view, particularly when they receive some startling news involving Shem and Ila. The normally reliable Connelly is shrill and overacts within an inch of her life. I was kind of saddened by it. Watson, likewise, is misused and her character – who is apparently made up for the purpose of testing Noah since she doesn’t appear in the Bible – never really syncs up.

There is a message for our modern day squandering of our resources and our inhumanity to one another. Once again there has been some grousing from the right over these leftist messages, but I have to say that the Biblical parables were meant to be timeless and relatable to all people no matter the era. If Aronofsky is attempting that here, I would think that he’s in line with the intention of these stories if not their execution.

At the end of the day the clumsy CGI and occasional bouts of overacting make this two and a half hour film squirm-inducing particularly near the end. There are some beautiful moments – a dove appearing with an olive branch in its beak signifying that land exists and their ordeal is nearly over, or the rainbow at the film’s conclusion that signifies God’s covenant to never use the waters to destroy all life ever again. I wish I could recommend this more because of them, but the flaws overwhelm the strengths of the film too much that even a miracle couldn’t save it.

REASONS TO GO: Crowe is strong. Draws modern parallels on the story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on spectacle. Some of the CGI is woeful. Misuse of Connelly and Watson.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE prior to release because it would contradict the teachings of Islam, which forbids the depiction of prophets cinematically. Islam considers Noah to be one of the prophets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fountain

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Florida Film Festival Begins!