Son of Monarchs


We all yearn thttps://sonofmonarchs.com/o emerge from childhood as a beautiful butterfly.

(2021) Drama (Warner Media/150) Tenoch Huerta, Alexia Rasmussen, Lázaro Gabino Rodriguez, Noé Hernández, Paulina Gaitán, William Mapother, Juan Ugarte, Electra Avellán, Angelina Peláez, Emily Keefe, Jay Potter, Jarod Lindsey, Wendy Heagy, Daniel Fuentes Lobo, Gadi Rubin, Rich Miglio, Gisell Rodriguez, Maia Vogel, Fernanda Rivera, Maria Luiza Ceglia. Directed by Alexis Gambis

 

Butterflies are creatures of intense beauty and fragility. Their colorful wings delight us, and their migratory patterns can astound us. Butterflies have always been used as a metaphor, a desire that we harbor to emerge from our chrysalis – whatever it may be – as a beautiful, bejeweled butterfly and (hopefully) not as a dull, drab moth.

The parents of Mendel (Huerta) must have had great expectations for their son, naming him for a Czech scientist, but they didn’t live to see it happen, dying senselessly during a flood. This left Mendel and his older brother Simon (Hernández) orphaned, to be raised by their grandmother (Peláez) and a assortment of uncles. Mendel eventually left the tiny village nestled in the mountains of Michoacán where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter to study the butterflies as a biologist for a lab in New York. Simon stayed to work in the mines and raise a family; Simon hasn’t forgiven Mendel for leaving Mexico and leaving Simon alone to cope with the grief.

But Mendel returns for the funeral of his grandmother to find that while most of his family is overjoyed to see him, particularly his niece Lucia (Avellan) who wants very much for her uncle to return for her wedding later in the year. Her father, Simon, is less happy to see Mendel and can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when his brother is around.

Back in New York, Mendel is introduced to Sarah (Rasmussen) who works for a non-profit and is a recreational trapeze artist (is that really a thing?) and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Mendel can’t get over the ease with which Sarah flies through the air; this must be what it’s like to be a human butterfly. He also begins to experience vivid flashbacks of the horrible day in which his parents perished.

Although Mendel is reluctant to return to Michoacán, he eventually decides to do so, knowing that he and his brother must confront the things separating them that keep them from soaring through the winds like the brightly colored insects they both love.

Gambis, who is not only a filmmaker but also holds a PhD in biology, has a lyrical bent that is shown at various times in the film, as when a young Mendel is covered in a sea of orange and brown monarchs, or showing the beauty of the landscape surrounded by desolation wrought by the greed of men.

His script has some interesting points, but has a tendency to get bogged down on minutiae, so there isn’t the kind of flow you would like to see in a film like this. He is constantly throwing in dream sequences and flashbacks which also disrupt a film that needed a gentle rhythm. Finally, the whole use of butterflies as a metaphor is overused to the point of dreariness.

And these are large issues indeed, but not insurmountable ones and in fact the movie more than makes up for them with compelling performances by Huerta and Hernández, whose chemistry as two brothers, once close but now wary of each other and unsure not only how they got to this point but whether they can get back to what they once were at all. The two have a confrontation near the end of the film that is absolutely riveting and highly emotional; it is the highlight of the film and the centerpiece for it in many ways.

Cinematographer Alejandro Mejia fills the screen with bright butterfly-like colors, while Cristóbal Maryán contributes a score that is delicate and beautiful. The simplicity of life in the village is alluring when contrasted with the hectic pace of life in the Big Apple, although some may find that more to their liking. I found myself succumbing to the charms of the film despite its flaws, and perhaps even because of them. This is a very impressive first film for Gambis.

The movie is in the midst of a brief limited run in New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other cities. It will arrive on HBO Max on November 2nd.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, beautifully scored. The heat between Huerta and Hernández is realistic and powerful. The sequences of village life are lovely. A wonderful examination of the difficulties for even legal immigrants in America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leans a little bit too much on flashbacks, butterfly metaphors and dream sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which is given annually to the festival entry that focuses on science as a central theme or scientists as central characters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (starting November 2nd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identifying Features
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters

The Magnificent Meyersons


Just a walk in the park.

(2021) Drama (Argot) Kate Mulgrew, Richard Kind, Ian Kahn, Jackie Burns, Daniel Eric Gold, Shoshannah Stern, Barbara Barrie, Lauren Ridloff, Melissa Errico, Greg Keller, Neal Huff, Lilly Stein, Kate MacCluggage, Ajay Naidu, Terrence Gray, Talia Oppenheimer, Sarah Nealis, Andrew Hovelson, Allyson Morgan, Bryan Fitzgerald, Anna Dale Robinson, Athan Sporek, Henny Russell. Directed by Evan Oppenheimer

 

Through thick and thin, we rely on our family to provide support and stability. Even when the family is beset by traumatic circumstances, we cling to those that we can be certain still love us. It is as a life raft on a stormy sea.

Dr. Terri Meyerson (Mulgrew) is a pediatric oncologist and the matriarch of the Meyerson family. She sometimes wonders why on earth she took a job that sometimes entails telling parents that their child is about to die, but she manages to take her role with as much grace and dignity as she can muster, both of which were once stripped from her when her husband, Morty (Kind), deserted the family to deal with a mental illness. At the time, he flippantly told her “see you in a few days” but has been gone for decades.

She has her mother Celeste (Barrie), an acerbic sharp-tongued octogenarian who loves her grandkids (and great-grandkids) but that doesn’t keep her from taking jabs at them. And of course, Terri has her kids; Roland (Kahn), the eldest, a successful businessman and a bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to his daughter Stefania (T. Oppenheimer); Daphne (Burns), a publisher married to Alan (Keller) who has just terminated her pregnancy without consulting her husband, a source of contention between them; Susie (Stern), a deaf real-estate agent who is in a relationship with Tammy (Ridloff), and finally Daniel (Gold), who is studying to be a rabbi and often gets into theological discussions with Catholic priest Father Joe (Duff).

It seems to be an ordinary day in New York City, but events turn it into an extraordinary one; the first affects all New Yorkers (heck, it affects everyone) and the second, just the Meyersons. Both seem to be unlikely, but both are events that all the Meyersons will have to deal with – in each his or her own way.

This is a movie very much influenced by New York City. The Meyersons are well-educated, literate and thoughtful, one and all. They talk about meaningful things and ask deep questions of one another. They are, in short, searching for answers to imponderable questions and understand deep down that they aren’t likely to get any. The dialogue they speak reflects that literacy, and may at times be too smart for its own good – the Meyersons can come off as pretentious from time to time, which let’s face it can be true of an awful lot of New Yorkers, but that’s what comes from living in a city like New York. They at least come by it honestly.

The ensemble cast is, as is normally the case with ensembles, dominated by the more experienced actors. The most delightful is Barrie, who has already been nominated for nearly every major acting award at one time or another. She is the scene-stealer here, and you end up looking forward to her every appearance. Mulgrew does nearly as well in her most Janeway-like role since Star Trek: Voyager ended. Terri is a little more vulnerable than the starship captain, however, although she covers it with a patina of competency that comes from her profession. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that side of her though. Kind also does well here, being genuinely cuddly when he needs to be and somewhat lost and befudled when he has to be. He doesn’t overdo the pathos, which lesser actors might have done.

The actors playing the kids get the lions share of the screen time though, and while they all submit strong performances, none really stand out the way the other three do. They are given a lot of fairly lofty dialogue, discussing their place in the universe, relationships with God, with each other, and from time to time, the open wound that was left by their father leaving the family.

And I wish they had stuck to that story. The first “event” I referred to earlier – the one that affects “everyone,” seems terribly out of place in the movie. I understand the reason that they chose to do it, but it flat-out doesn’t work. It ends up being a massive distraction and strays away from the more important themes here – specifically, the ability to reconcile when one is wounded by someone beyond forgiveness, and whether those who stray from the family can find their way back again. Those are subjects far more in tune with the tone of the movie and had writer/director Evan Oppenheimer opted to stick with just that, he would have had a terrific film on his hands. He still does, but not quite as terrific as it might have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart dialogue gives hints of deep conversations. Strong performances by most of the ensemble, with Barbara Barrie emerging from the pack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The midpoint plot twist was regrettable and unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mulgrew, who originated the role of Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, will be reprising the role in the new children’s animated series Star Trek: Prodigy, debuting next month on Paramount Plus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

Confetti (2020)


For a mother trying to raise a special needs child in a strange land, even colors don’t bring joy.

(2020) Drama (Dada) Zhu Zhu, Amy Irving, Yanan Li, Harmonie He, George Christopher, Helen Slater, Robyn Payne, Meryl Jones Williams, Yi Liu, Nikolai Tsankov, DL Sams, Joe Holt, Ian Unterman, Kira Visser, Marissa McGowan, Tracy Ifeachor, Teresa Meza, Vivian Chiu, Tom Galantich, Amanda Chen, Zhuo Shunguo, Ruiyu Yang, Jia Chuanxi. Directed by Ann Hu

 

As parents, we want to see our children find the excellence in themselves. Sometimes, it’s more about finding the happiness within themselves. For a lot of kids, that means fitting in with the pack and not standing out too much (although so many teens complain that nobody understands the uniqueness in them). But some are most certainly NOT a part of the pack, and that can lead to difficulties.

Meimei (He) is a nine-year-old girl living with her two lower class parents Chen (Li) and Lan (Zhu), in a small Chinese city in 1989. Her mom, Lan, is the custodian at her school. Meimei is a sweet, adorable girl who is ostensibly happy and good-natured, although she is finding it difficult at school. The other children tease her mercilessly and the adult teachers have lost all patience with her. The reason? She can neither read nor write.

The American-born English teacher, Thomas (Christopher) figures out that the culprit is dyslexia Meimei sees letters as “confetti” but could retrain her brain to learn differently, if only she could get the right kind of education. Unfortunately, there isn’t that kind of education available in China at that time, with the emphasis on group achievement.

With Thomas’ help, Lan takes her daughter to New York City where they move in with a friend (maybe his mom?) of Thomas, wheelchair-bound writer Helen (Irving). She’s at first taken aback when she discovers that Lan speaks not a word of English and Meimei speaks it only somewhat. Helen is busy working on a book, has deadlines to meet and doesn’t have the time to hold the hands of two Chinese immigrants. Lan doesn’t even have a green card or work permit, so she gets a job at a garment factory being paid under the table.

But the school that they place Meimei in, which is supposedly inclusive of kids with learning disabilities, isn’t helping. If anything, Meimei is getting worse. She needs a private special needs school, an expensive one where Dr. Wurmer (Slater) is president. It seems to be an impossible dream, but with the feisty Helen championing them, maybe there’s a chance.

There is an air of improbability to the film that is sometimes hard to get past. Both Chen and Lan are unskilled laborers, definitely part of the poor class in China. How can she afford to move to New York? Problems that seem insurmountable are routinely overcome, or sometimes, just plain ignored.

The Chinese cast is strong; Zhu (whom some might remember from Cloud Atlas) shows fierce determination as the tiger mom who absolutely refuses to give up on her daughter, for good reason as is revealed later on in the film. Her chemistry with Li is natural and completely believable. And He? She’s absolutely charming, refreshingly so for an actor of her tender years. It is also nice to see actresses Amy Irving and Helen Slater, who had good runs in the Eighties and Nineties, onscreen again. Both respond with memorable performances.

While the movie does point out the obstacles that parents of children with severe dyslexia (and other learning disabilities) face not just in China but here, It also portrays a mother’s fierce determination to make the best life possible for her daughter in a world which is completely indifferent to her daughter’s present situation, let alone any future she might have. And while the plot might be something of a fantasy fulfillment, there is enough warmth here to overcome the raised eyebrows in all but the most jaded, crusty, curmudgeonly viewers. Which lets out most critics.

REASONS TO SEE: Harmonie He is about as adorable as it gets. Good to see Slater and Irving in a movie again.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on Hu’s own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautifully Broken
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Malignant

Best Sellers


Nobody does glee like Michael Caine.

(2021) Dramedy (Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Scott Speedman, Ellen Wong, Veronica Ferres, Victoria Sanchez, Elena Dunkelman, Frank Schorpion, Alexandra Petrachuk, Elizabeth Etienne, Charli Birdgenaw, Rachel Osborne, Frank Fiola, Christopher Hayes, Susan Almgren, Michelle Rambharose, Florence Situ. Directed by Lina Roessler

 

Like many industries in this digital age, the book publishing industry has changed radically over the past fifteen years. Like Hollywood, they rely heavily on blockbusters to pay the bills and not so much on literary gems. Besides, people don’t really read books so much anymore; they are more likely to read (if they read at all) on Kindle or some such device.

Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) has inherited her father’s boutique publishing company which has fallen on hard times. Despite Lucy’s best efforts to modernize the country with young adult fantasy books, sales have been unspectacular and there are buyers sniffing around, smelling the desperation. Lucy needs a bestseller badly, but doesn’t have anyone on her roster that might deliver one anytime soon. And you know what they say – desperate times call for desperate measures.

That desperate measure is Harris Shaw (Caine), once a young lion of literature whose book Atomic Autumn was a massive cultural touchstone in the Seventies, but hasn’t had a word published since. Conveniently, he contractually owes the publishing house a book. So Lucy sets out with her doughty assistant Rachel (Wong) to wheedle a book out of the reclusive author, who is reclusive for a reason – he can’t stand people, and the feeling is pretty much mutual. However, his own financial situation has become precarious – you can only survive on royalties so long – and he reluctantly agrees to supply Lucy with a new book, The Future is X-Rated, with the stipend that not a word in the manuscript is to be edited. That triggers a clause in the contract that requires him to participate in a book tour for his new work.

Being a feisty curmudgeon, he does his level best to be a bad boy. Instead of reading his work, he reads Letters to Penthouse at his readings. He urinates on his own book and instigates chants of “Bull Shite!” which becomes a popular meme. However, as the young publisher discovers to her chagrin, viral videos and online memes do not translate into hardcover book sales – who knew? Turns out, nearly everybody else.

But both Lucy and Harris are wounded souls and while at first they are wary and somewhat annoyed with one another, they discover that they have much more in common than they at first thought. And that they need each other a lot more than they could have imagined.

The crusty, irascible literary icon is a hoary Hollywood cliché that has been done over and over again, but rarely better than how Caine does it here. This is one of the 88-year-old actor’s most compelling recent performances and he reminds us that he’s a two-time Oscar winner for a reason. Plaza makes a terrific foil and also reminds us that she is one of the most consistently high-quality actresses operating in movies over the past ten years. Putting both of them in the same movie was a casting coup.

It’s a shame that the movie shifts gear in the final act and goes the tear-jerking route which feels predictable and unearned. I don’t have an issue exploring the vulnerabilities of the characters – that’s what makes a movie like this interesting – but just the way in which it’s done, specifically the circumstances (I don’t want to give away what they are) is just highly disappointing overall. I wish that writer Anthony Grieco had trusted himself a bit more to come up with something a little less by-the-numbers – or the producers trusting him to do the same.

So what we end up with is a better-than-average movie that manages to overcome a whole mess o’ cliches with overall charm and a surfeit of strong performances, particularly from Caine and Plaza. This isn’t going to be Oscar bait by any means, but it’s a seriously entertaining movie that is likely to kick off the fall movie season with a satisfying bang particularly for older moviegoers and cinephiles alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Plaza and Caine are treasures. There is enough charm here to overcome its faults.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets pretty maudlin near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a scene of sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Roessler’s feature film directorial debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Tour
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Nowhere Inn

The Outsider (2021)


The work continues even when the direction is unclear.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Michael Shulan, Alice Greenwald, Bob Garfield (narration), Clifford Chanin, David Handschuh, Michael Kimmelman, Michelle Breslauer, Norm Dannen, Lou Mendes, Joe Daniels, Jan Ramirez, Lynn Rasic, Michael Frazier, Melissa Doi, Phillip Kennicott, Tom Hennes, Amy Weisser. Directed by Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder

 

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is something that has left an indelible mark on America and all Americans. Regardless of political affiliation, skin color, religious background, gender or ethnicity, we all feel pain and sorrow at the thought of that heinous day. It remains a sore point that in some ways requires a certain amount of sensitivity.

When it was decided to create a memorial and museum at Ground Zero, there was a certain amount of hand-wringing at the thought of a tourist attraction on what is, to many, sacred ground (then again, ask a Lakota what they think of the Mount Rushmore gift shop). One of the people that the board of executives for the proposed museum contacted was Michael Shulan.

Shulan, a writer, had an empty storefront near Ground Zero in which he had taped a photo he had taken of the Twin Towers. That seemed to strike a chord in other New Yorkers as others began to post their own pictures there as well. Soon, Shulan was curating an impromptu art exhibit. He became, quite unintentionally, the world’s leading expert on images taken from 9-11.

Shulan was something of a novice when it came to setting up a new museum; other members of the board were not, including Alice Greenwald, the chairman of the board. Alice, who had helped put together a Holocaust museum in New York, had her own ideas of how the museum should be. Shulan saw it as a place that asked questions rather than provide answers; Greenwald saw it as more providing the latter.

This fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind the scenes of the conception and design of the memorial, and follows along with the construction. We see the board grappling with which images to include and which might be too graphic. We listen to the heartbreaking 9-11 call of Melissa Doi, and watch them also consider how much of it to make available.

These types of issues are fascinating, but we spend an awful lot of time on the office politics of putting this museum together. We never get a sense of how reliving 9-11 every day for years affects those in charge with curating the memorial to it. For some reason, the filmmakers chose initially to make Shulan their focus, but as the film goes on he becomes less and less a part of the proceedings. We get a sense of his frustrations (and the film title refers specifically to him, after all) but he fades out of focus somewhat unaccountably.

The movie is kind of insular, and it doesn’t help that Bob Garfield’s narration makes this look and sound more like a story on 60 Minutes. While the aspect of being privy to meetings and discussions about important issues gives us a sense of how decisions were arrived at, we never really get much in-depth discussion with the principals to add any sort of nuance to what we are seeing. So while the subject might be intriguing, it feels like the filmmakers didn’t really do any kind of follow-up once the meetings had adjourned. This was never going to be an easy task and it was never going to please everybody – but that doesn’t mean a documentary about the process had to do the same.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating backstage look at how office politics basically color everything.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the images might be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing 9/11 images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shulan left the museum board on the day it opened to the public in 2014.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet;  Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Museum Town
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Show

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain


Sometimes, having it all isn’t enough.

(2021) Documentary (Focus) Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, Josh Homme, Eric Ripert, John Lurie, David Choe, Morgan Fallon, Doug Quint, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, Philippe Lajunie, Alison Mosshart. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

It is not unusual that we feel we know those television personalities whose career give us an idea of their temperament and style. We spend hours and hours with them; isn’t that a form of knowing them? Not always. I’ve read many comments by people who viewed this documentary about the late travel/food program host, former chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain that “Tony would have liked this,” or “Tony would have approved of that,” despite the fact that they didn’t know him and likely never stood face to face with the guy. This, even after those who DID know him say at least a couple of times during the film that television Tony was a different person than off-camera Tony.

The movie, from Oscar-winning documentary auteur Morgan Neville, chronicles his rise from a dishwasher in New York to a cook to a chef who was convinced by the wife of a friend who worked for a publishing firm that his writing style would sell a lot of books. Thus came Kitchen Confidential, a trailblazing non-fiction look at what goes on in the kitchen of high-end New York brasserie. Bourdain, who had managed to kick a heroin habit, but merely transferred his addiction from one thing to another.

When TV producers Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia heard that Bourdain was planning a follow-up book in which he would travel the globe, experiencing new cuisines and new cultures, they knew it would make a great TV show and so it did, and A Cook’s Tour became a hit. This led to No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and then his final show, Parts Unknown on CNN. We see how quickly Bourdain took to Vietnam, falling in love with the country and its food, joined on that episode by his old Les Halles boss Philippe Lajunie. We see him exploring the France of his boyhood with his brother, and later with his close friend Eric Ripert. We see how affected he was by conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti, and the amazing episode in Beirut that was interrupted by the beginning of a war that devastated the capital.

We also see the darker side of Bourdain; his relentless personality, the tantrums he throws when things aren’t going the way he thinks they should be, his occasional dark moods. We also hear from Bourdain himself that he yearns for a “normal” family life which he briefly had with his second wife Ottavia and his daughter Arielle, but his brutal travel schedule made that all but impossible. As his relationship with Ottavia ended, he took up with actress/director Asia Argento (daughter of horror legend Dario), and his addiction seemed to transfer to Asia. When she came out as a victim of Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain went all-in with #MeToo, ending some long-term friendships over things that had been said or done decades earlier (the film doesn’t mention that Argento herself was accused of sexual assault shortly after Bourdain passed away).

If there is a villain in this piece, it is Argento, at least in the eyes of those close to Bourdain and Neville. She directs some episodes of Parts Unknown and disagreements with her leads to the dismissal of a long-time camera operator for Bourdain, an action very out of character for the notoriously loyal host. But tabloid reports of Argento carrying on with another man, leading Bourdain to explode to one of his producers, “A little discretion, maybe?” in disgust days before Bourdain hung himself in a hotel room in Alsace, his body discovered by Ripert who doesn’t talk publicly about the incident.

Bourdain is barely a presence in the last half hour of the movie. We see a thousand yard stare, Bourdain glowering at the camera. Mostly, that portion of the movie is about his friends and family who break down, the wound still fresh two years (three as the film is released) after his death on June 8, 2018. Having had a close friend who took their own life, I can say that even a decade after she passed I still feel her absence keenly.

For some portions of the film, Neville recreated Bourdain’s voice using a Deepfake A.I. program. In those instances, the A.I. was using e-mails and other sources of Bourdain’s written correspondence, but still some found it to be skirting the line ethically. Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia, firmly denies having given Neville permission to re-create her late husband’s voice after Neville told GQ magazine that he had received permission from her. Some have looked at this as a blurry ethical line; I suppose it’s no worse than staging a scene for a documentary, but at least those dramatic re-creations tend to be announced in the credits, which is something Neville should have done here.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the suicide so much as on the way Bourdain changed the lives of those who knew him, and on how all of those who watched his shows viewed travel. If there’s one thing Bourdain taught me, it was the importance of experiencing things as immersively as possible. When you go to a place, don’t limit yourself to all the tourist locations, the chain restaurants. Truly see a place, how the locals live, and eat what they eat. Travel, as Bourdain has said many times, changes us.

I don’t claim to have known Bourdain at all, other than what I saw of him on TV – and I did watch his shows, as a travel junkie and a foodie. I loved his acerbic wit, his self-deprecating snarkiness and his brilliantly descriptive narration. He was unlike anyone else on TV in that he didn’t seem to give a crap about what he was supposed to be like. He just did things the way he thought they ought to be done. Sadly, he had demons that haunted him throughout his life – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was undiagnosed bipolar, frankly – and never seemed to find the happiness that he yearned for. Maybe that’s the real tragedy of Anthony Bourdain.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of amazing footage. Clearly an emotional subject for his friends two years after his death.
REASONS TO AVOID: Towards the end of the film, Bourdain is less of a presence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the film comes from a Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers song.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Fin

The Woman in the Window


Amy Adams peers out into a frightening world.

(2021) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Amy Adams, Fred Hechinger, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles, Anthony Mackie, Mariah Bozeman, Daymien Valentino, Anna Cameron (voice), Myers Bartlett (voice), Haven Burton (voice), Ben Davis (voice), Blake Morris (voice), Liza Colón-Zayas, Tracy Letts, Gigi Jones. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Some movies are so completely original you go through every scene realizing you are watching something fresh and new. Others are so derivative that you carry with you a sense of déjà vu throughout the film, whether you want to or not.

In this adaptation of a bestselling thriller by A.J. Finn (the nom de plume of Dan Mallory, who has had a checkered past as detailed in this article in The New Yorker), Dr. Anna Fox (Adams) is suffering from severe agoraphobia. She spends most of her day in a tony New York brownstone washing down her meds with generous portions of wine. She peers out of her window at the brownstone across the street and through her observations becomes acquainted with the Russell family. Son Ethan (Hechinger) comes over to introduce himself and is awkwardly sweet; his mother Jane (Moore) comes over and commiserates over even more wine with Anna. The only member of the family she doesn’t like is the bullying father (Oldman) who would just as soon she had no interaction with his family.

When she witnesses Jane apparently getting murdered, she is horrified and calls the police, only to discover that Jane isn’t dead – but Jane isn’t Jane either. Instead, another woman (Leigh) shows up and is introduced as Jane. The kindly but disbelieving police detective (Henry) is understanding, given that Dr. Fox has psychological problems; is she really going mad, or is there something terrible afoot?

This movie has been cobbled together from elements of other far better movies, including Rear Window (a clip from which they brazenly show early on in the film), Gaslight and Gone Girl to certain extents. The plot twists, when they come, aren’t particularly jaw-dropping. Most of them are fairly easy to spot.

And that’s a shame because there is an awful lot of talent here both in front of and behind the camera. While Adams acquits herself reasonably well (as does Henry), actors the caliber of Moore, Leigh, Oldman and Anthony Mackie (in a role as Anna’s ex-husband) are largely wasted. Given the convoluted plot, the preposterous eye-rolling plot twists and a director in Joe Wright who should know better, having directed some pretty stellar, Oscar-worthy pictures in the past, there really isn’t much to recommend this film other than morbid curiosity, given the movie’s production issues which led to reshoots that delayed the film for two years before it was pawned off on Netflix finally.

REASONS TO SEE: Adams tackles a different kind of role for her and ends up doing a respectable job.
REASONS TO AVOID: An uninteresting derivation of Hitchcock.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film by screenwriter Tracy Letts that is an adaptation of another work (in this case, a novel by A.J. Finn); Letts also appears in the film as Dr. Landy. Incidentally, this is also the final movie to be made by the Fox 2000 imprint; Disney shuttered the production studio following their merger with 20th Century Fox.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl Next

The Surge at Mount Sinai


Front line health care workers battle COVID and exhaustion.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Bon Jovi (narration), Jessica Montanaro, Larry Kelly, Mary Fowlkes, Mirna Mohanraj, Don Boyce, Rafael Miranda, Lynne D. Richardson, Gina Gandhi, Miriam Merat, Mohammed Khansa, Judith Aberg, Dawn Kelly, Carlos Cordon-Cudo, David L. Reich, Deep Patadia, Andre Cooper, Montano Soares, Veronica Colon, Melissa Nelson. Directed by Jonny Kapps

 

In the Spring of 2020, the United States got their first experience with COVID. The surge went from almost no cases to thousands a day in a matter of days. While there was some warning that the pandemic was coming, it still overwhelmed most hospitals and health-care workers as New York City became the epicenter for the epidemic; from March 11 through May 2, 18,879 New Yorkers died of the disease. That’s one death every five minutes. This documentary, though, reminds us that it isn’t just about those who died – it’s about those who lived, as well.

The Mount Sinai hospital system in New York City is one of the largest in the country and, indeed, in the world. The venerable institution had seen nothing like this since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and essentially had to pivot on the fly and change strategies. Nurses, dealing with the majority of patient care, printed out brief summaries of the patients on their COVID ward doors so that the nurses could relate to those suffering from the disease as people rather than numbers, and given the staggering numbers they were seeing, it could be forgiven. They were dealing with frightened, sick people who needed comfort as much as they needed medicine and they received both.

We follow in the main a trio of health care professionals, including supernurse Jessica Montanaro, a married mom whose maternal instincts of caring for her patients was put to the test, but she managed to show a human face to all of her patients, including that of Dr. Mohammed Khansa, a colleague at the hospital who was stricken by the disease. Jessica played an instrumental role of keeping his spirits up and believing that he would beat the disease. That belief could mean the difference between life and death for some.

We hear all the time expressions of gratitude for our healthcare workers who served on the front lines against COVID but we really didn’t know exactly why until now. The sacrifices they made – physically, mentally and emotionally – the innovations that were made in giving care, the living with constantly trying to help people who would die anyway, we see the ravages of that to a certain extent and keep in mind this was filmed during that first spike – well before the fall/winter spike. You can bet that an awful lot of the people in this film are currently suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress.

But you can also bet that most of them are still at it, still serving their patients as best they can. With the advent of the vaccines, things have gotten better, although given how many are choosing not to vaccinate, the rise of new, even more communicable variants and the knuckleheads who think that COVID is just another version of the flu, another surge could conceivably happen. And these are the people who will pay the price for it if it does.

I have to admit that I do have a perspective here; my mom was a registered nurse. She retired more than 20 years ago but had COVID struck back then, it would have been her in the thick of things, giving the kind of care that these nurses and health care workers did. And I’m thankful every day that she didn’t have to.

REASONS TO SEE: Even-handed portrayal of the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers. Personalizes COVID in a way few other docs have done. Moving and inspiring. Shows the real value of nurses in the healthcare system.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too soon for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was written and narrated by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 76 Days
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Stowaway

My Fiona


Gemma can smile, but it hides the tears.

(2021) Drama (The Art Factory) Jeanette Maus, Corbin Reid, Sara Amini, Elohim Nycalove, Travis Coles, John Ennis, Ryan W. Garcia, Camille Guaty, April Lang, Thomas A. Keith, Jess Riley, Courtney Hawkins, Sterling Sulieman, Elle Vernee, Ursula Taherian, Boston Beck, Naiia Ulrich, Rachel Zink. Directed by Kelly Walker

 

When someone dies, they leave an ineffable hole in the lives of those around them. Sometimes that hole becomes so overwhelmingly large, its gravitational pull threatens to suck us in completely.

When Fiona (Amini) excuses herself from the desk she shares with her start-up company’s co-founder (and sole other employee) Jane (Maus) with a cherrful “I’ll be right back,” there’s no sense that anything profound is about to happen, but it does. Moments later, Jane is screaming in horror as her best friend lies dying on the ground in front of the building, having hurled herself off the roof.

At the funeral, Jane is numb but there is rage simmering under the exterior. She goes back to the office, searching for a clue as to why her friend did what she did. She connects with Fiona’s wife, Gemma (Reid), offering to babysit their son Bailey (Nycalove) so that Gemma can get back to work. And slowly (but surely), Jane begins to become more a part of their lives, while her own sexuality – she had been straight – begins to come into question as she begins to develop feelings for Gemma. After all, the two women have something important in common – Fiona’s ghost, still looming in their lives as surely as if they’d erected a statue in her honor.

Walker’s first feature film is a self-assured affair that rarely makes missteps. Sure, there are some scenes that feel maudlin and the ending’s emotional payoff doesn’t quite feel earned, and maybe there are a few too many indie film tropes (sad indie music over a montage here, tonal shifts sharp enough to scratch diamonds and so forth) but overall, you have to admire Walker’s choices. She opts for real emotions and real reactions over manufactured ones in most cases and sometimes the rawness hits you in the face pretty sharply.

It helps that she’s assembled a crackerjack cast to realize her vision. Maus, an acting coach and veteran actress best-known for Your Sister’s Sister and Charm City Kings, has magma simmering under a cool exterior. She seems okay, but Jane is SO not okay. From time to time she explodes with powerful and often unexpected ferocity (as she does at the funeral), but there is unexpected tenderness, as in the way she deals with Bailey’s tantrums. Her chemistry with Reid is undeniable and speaking of Reid, Gemma’s grief is mainly less explosive than Jane’s but no less deeply felt. Reid carries Gemma with quiet dignity and increasing frustration as she sees this intrusion on her grief as welcome at first, confusing later and upsetting after that.

Even more impressive than the two women is Nycalove. Bailey is naturally devastated by the death of his mother, and his acting out is completely understandable, albeit uncomfortable to watch at times. It can’t have been an easy task for the young actor, nor for the director in coaxing out a show of emotion like this from a juvenile, but both Walker and Nycalove were up to the task. Kudos to both of them.

Cinematographer Laura Jansen does some impressive work, both with a swooping spiral shot that circles around the tops of actors before coming to rest, to keeping tight close-ups on the tightly-wound Jane’s face, to some beautiful images throughout the film. My Fiona is not always an easy film to watch and while the short runtime isn’t going to dissuade anyone from watching – in fact, I might have added a few more scenes to develop Fiona’s personality a little more – it does, in fact, bear watching.

REASONS TO SEE: Nycalove gives a realistic portrait of a child grieving and acting out.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maus passed away on January 24, 2021 of colon cancer at age 39.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through May 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pieces of a Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Buds

Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut


Matt Smith gets high.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Philip O’Neill, Mickey O’Hagan, Anthony Michael Lopez, McKinley Belcher III, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karlee Perez, David J. Cork, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Robert George Siveris, John Bolton, Christina Rouner. Directed by Ondi Timmoner

 

There are figures in popular culture that loom large, directly or otherwise, in the national psyche, but for one reason or another we don’t really know much about them well, other than what our own personal prejudices tell us about them. One such is Robert Mapplethorpe.

His name still evokes powerful feelings among many today. Some see him as an artistic genius, one who pushed boundaries on male sexuality and the male body. Others see him as little more than a pornographer, a gay man whose work epitomized the bathhouse scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. His work was so controversial that it was the first (and to date only) exhibition to ever cause the gallery owner displaying it to be arrested on obscenity charges.

This biopic, helmed by able documentary filmmaker Timmoner, stars Matt Smith (roaming much further from Doctor Who than even Gallifrey) in the title role. We see him as a member of the ROTC at Pratt Institute, just before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he would take up with legendary punk goddess Patti Smith (Rendón) who was then a struggling musician. The two carried on a brief romantic relationship but it soon became obvious that young Robert swung for the other side. Eventually his relationship with gallery owner Sam Wagstaff (Hickey) would lead to him being championed by Wagstaff and his work to be discovered.

This isn’t a very flattering portrait of Mapplethorpe, who here is portrayed as someone who habitually used people and discarded them when they were no longer of use to him – including his own brother. He spent most of his life trying to catch the brass ring and when he finally did, found that it didn’t bring him any more happiness than chasing it did.

Smith is wonderful here, inhabiting his role admirably. The thing with biopics that most viewers, nearly all critics and quite a few filmmakers seem to never understand is that except in very rare cases, the actor’s job is not to portray the subject as they are/were, but as the audience thinks they should be/have been – after all, the audience likely never met Mr. Mapplethorpe or know anyone who did. We have only what we read about him (assuming we’ve read anything about him) or heard abut him or, more to the point, what we think about him. We think of Mapplethorpe as a gay man who was obsessed with male genitalia and homoerotic images; we are given a Mapplethorpe who is just that. So in that sense, Smith is entirely successful.

The movie covers some of the bases here; the effects of his strict Catholic upbringing, his contentious relationship with his father, the estrangement from his brother and so on. Timmoner doesn’t really get us too far into Mapplethorpe’s head; we rarely know what he’s thinking, although to be fair, Mapplethorpe played his opinions pretty close to his chest when he was aiive.

What is more disappointing is that the movie feels choppy and fragmented. There’s no flow to the film, no fluidity. Instead, we move from one set piece to the next, almost as if each scene was directed by someone completely different. It leaves you feeling like the film was directed by committee.

The film was originally released in 2019 without making much of an impression so I’m not exactly sure if anyone was calling for a director’s cut of the film. 12 minutes of additional scenes are added to the movie, which doesn’t really improve the film any. It just means you have to sit through twelve more minutes of it. The expanded edition is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; most of the others have the original theatrical version.

REASONS TO SEE: Matt Smith loses himself in the role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fragmented and overly long and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mapplethorpe’s mother passed away three days after her son did.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basquiat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cryptozoo