Cold War (2018)


A really bad cold can just knock you out.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Stadium Media) Madeline Walter, Michael Blaiklock, Gail Rastorfer, Antoine McKay, Kenneth Yoder, Rammel Chan, Deanna Reed-Foster, Antoine Pierre, Scarlett Harper, Shirl Shang, Sara Sevigny. Directed by J. Wilder Konschak and Stirlling McLaughlin

 

Moving in with someone is a big step. Not only is it a transition from just dating to be a couple, it is the last step before getting married. It is also a big step into uncertainty – living with someone is a whole lot different than hangin out with them.

Maggie (Walter) and Jonathan (Blaiklock) are taking that step. Maggie, a nurse, works for Dr. Galoup (McKay), the husband of her patrician best friend Ollie (Rastorfer). It is at work that she contracts the Raccoon Flu, an influenza of epic proportions. Unable to function at work, she is sent home where she promptly infects Jon with it. What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours after all.

Confined with one another, their love for each other is immediately put to the acid test. It doesn’t help matters that their philosophies to handling sickness couldn’t be more different; Maggie with her medical background puts her faith in doctor visits and pharmacies. Jon prefers home remedies and herbal concoctions. She wants zero contact with people while he happily plans a themed housewarming party.

In an atmosphere like this with both parties feeling like crap, everything is magnified. Little petty disagreements become declarations of war. Innocent remarks become deadly insults. Suddenly home becomes a battlefield with an interloper your deadliest enemy; the two are inexorably drawn into conflict. Battle lines are drawn in this engagement in which no quarter can be given and no prisoners can be taken.

In many ways it’s hard to believe that this is essentially a local (Chicago) production. This is far funnier and of better quality than a lot of major studio productions. The humor begins as fairly low-key and ratchets up by the end of the movie but oddly enough, the final third of the movie loses its edge and degenerates into downright silliness. Most of the rest of the way though the movie takes affectionate pokes at real relationship issues, like bed etiquette. Anyone who has had the sheets pulled off of their bodies in the middle of the night will relate.

Walter and Blaiklock have some sitcom and webisode experience but they act more like seasoned pros. Both have a ton of screen presence, much more than I expected. Walter in particular has enormous potential as a comic actress; she seems to  be heavily influenced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and indeed resembles the former SNL comedienne facially) with the wry overtones of a Tina Fey. I get the sense that as an actress she is virtually fearless; she’s not afraid to appear as a cast iron bitch nor as an object of desire.

This is one of those pleasant surprises that sometimes come along in this job. This isn’t a film that redefines the genre of romantic comedies but at the same time it is solid entertainment that is worth an hour and a half of your time. Comedies are in fact the hardest kind of film to make; humor is not necessarily universal and what is funny to one person is absolutely not to another. I don’t know that every audience will take to this film like I did but for what it’s worth I most certainly did take to it and if I did, it stands to reason that others will too. Maybe you’ll find it as funny and as enjoyable as I did; there’s only one way to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Walter and Blaiklock are far more charismatic than you normally find in a movie with this kind of budget.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy descends into silliness in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was inspired by a situation that Konschak and his then-girlfriend (and current wife) experienced when they first moved in together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Steam, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: War of the Roses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Love Always, Mom

Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

The Ottoman Lieutenant


If wishes were horses

(2016) Historical Romance (Paladin) Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selʕuk Yöntem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say, Deniz Kilic Flak, Aysen Sümercan, Murat Seven, Bree Welch, Brian Caspe, Joe Weintraub, Ephraim Goldin, Tzvi Shmilovich, Frederick Preston, Begum Burian. Directed by Joseph Ruben

 

One of the oldest cinematic tropes in Hollywood history is the star-crossed lovers in wartime. Of course, that was a literary trope far earlier than that but still, two people separated by war but connected by passion – what could get the heart beating faster than that?

Lillie Rowe (Hilmar) is a feisty, high-spirited nurse in Philadelphia somewhere around 1915. She is horrified when a brutally injured man is denied treatment at the hospital in which she works simply due to the color of his skin. Being the child of wealthy but devout Philadelphians, her evening entertainment consists of listening to the noble Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at a missionary hospital in Eastern Anatolia plea for funds in an isolated mountainous region that is the only medical facility for hundreds of miles. He is proud that nobody is turned away from their doors when they require medical attention; be they Turks, in whose Ottoman Empire the hospital resides, or Armenian in whose ancient land the hospital is.

Lillie is inspired and offers her late brother’s truck to the hospital in lieu of cash but when the doctor ruefully asks how could the truck be delivered to the hospital when there are no roads in the vicinity, Lillie impulsively volunteers to deliver it herself. Of course, her parents are aghast but Lillie – remember she is high-spirited – is determined to see this through. The Ottoman government, not wanting to antagonize the United States government by having one of its daughters murdered by Armenian brigands on their watch, assigns Lt. Ismail Veli (Huisman) to escort Lillie to the hospital’s doorstep. The Ottoman Lieutenant (yes, isn’t that clever?) is not enthusiastic about the assignment since he feels he has more to offer his country in a very crucial period in their history than playing nursemaid to a spoiled American heiress but being a good soldier accepts the mission with some grace. He even plays tour guide with the girl, taking her to one of Constantinople’s most beautiful mosques and showing her some beautifully desolate landscapes.

There she also meets the hospital’s founder, Dr. Woodruff (Kingsley) who is all about not taking sides in the coming conflict but his own Dr. Gresham is secretly supplying arms to the Armenians who turn out to be quite adept at using them. When civil war finally does break out however, the hospital is going to be caught literally in the middle of the crossfire.

I actually looked forward to seeing this movie initially; that area of the world scarcely gets much notice from Hollywood and that particularly turbulent time seemed like the perfect setting for a movie but unfortunately what we got was a painfully poorly written hodgepodge of clichés and tropes that essentially take all the inertia from the film and turn it into something that even the Lifetime cable channel might have thought twice about airing.

Armenians have been justifiably outraged that the film ignores the Armenian genocide which was going on at the time and makes it look as if the Armenians were the aggressors and worse yet that they deserved what they had coming. The Turks have denied that the genocide ever took place and the movie does have some financing from Turkish sources so that has to be taken with a grain of salt; I don’t know that this whitewashes history so much as chooses to ignore it.

And maybe if there was a really great story here that particular sin could have been, if not forgiven, at least rendered less egregious but there simply isn’t. The plot is predictable and contrived and even though Huisman does his best as the dashing title character, at the end of the day Ismail has about as much depth as the cover of the average romance novel. Had they gotten Fabio to play the role they wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Huisman is a fine actor who deserves much better than this.

Hilmar is curiously lifeless here. Her voice is nearly flat and toneless and the camera captures little sparkle in her character. With the wide-brimmed hat she wears she looks a lot like a dime store hipster affecting a free spirited look but with nothing that would really inspire any sort of passion in anyone. Two men fall in love with Lillie and I’m hard-pressed to tell you why.

However, the movie isn’t without its charms. The score by Geoff Zanelli is epic and recalls some of the best work of John Barry. The cinematography by Daniel Aranyó is stirring, with the beautiful mosque interiors and the dramatic sweep of the Anatolian plains. The movie is gorgeous visually and audibly.

Unfortunately even though the actors try their best they simply can’t overcome the stilted dialogue and the hoary plot points. This turns out not to be the kind of indie film that gives credibility to a filmography but rather smacks of being a paycheck and little more. That’s doubly disappointing considering if they’d been able to come up with a script that had a little bit more meat on its bones this could have been absolutely enchanting instead of being what it is: ho-hum.

REASONS TO GO: The score is haunting and beautiful. Some of the cinematography is lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is poorly written. Hilmar lacks the presence to pull off the kind of character that was needed to make this work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence as well as war sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingsley and Hartnett both appeared together in Lucky Number Slevin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Water Diviner
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: El Amparo

An American Werewolf in London


Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

sixdays2016-5

In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah