Together Together


A truly odd couple.

(2021) Comedy (Bleecker Street) Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Timm Sharp, Bianca Lopez, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Vivian Gil, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Evan Jonigkeit, Sufe Bradshaw, Travis Coles, Jo Firestone, David Chattam, Heidi Méndez, Ellen Dubin (voice), May Calamawy, Greta Titelman, Tucker Smallwood, Terri Hoyos, Ithamar Enriquez, Gail Rastorfer. Directed by Nikole Beckwith

Our biological clocks tick inexorably. Our time is limited and if we want to have kids, there is a time where we’ve got to buckle down and get to parentin’ if we’re going to do it at all. Not having a partner at that point in life isn’t necessarily the obstacle it once was.

For middle-aged app designer Matt (Helms), he hasn’t had any sort of romantic relationship in eight years but he REALLY wants to be a dad. He decides to go the surrogacy route and that’s how he meets Anna (Harrison). She’s a barista in a coffee shop in San Francisco (where Matt also lives) who has been estranged from her family ever since a teenage pregnancy led to her dropping out of high school and giving up the baby for adoption. She wants to break out of the rut her life has settled into and knows that she needs to complete her education – complete with college degree. The money she makes from having a baby would essentially be able to pay for getting her life back on track. She considers it a fair trade-off.

For Matt, being in control of things has been the secret to his success and at first he can’t help but be a bit of a control freak when it comes to Anna’s pregnancy, giving the stink eye over dietary choices and pushing for her to get clogs (“pregnancy shoes,” as he calls them). At first, Anna is annoyed by his intrusion into her life, but she soon begins to see inside the surface and realizes that Matt is really a nice, kind man who is looking to fulfill a life goal and on his own terms. That’s something they have in common.

Gradually the two form a bond, whether it is Anna showing up at a decidedly uncomfortable baby shower, or binge watching episodes of Friends with Matt. As the big day looms on the horizon, the two are constantly attempting to define their relationship and the boundaries therein. It’s not always easy.

In lesser hands this would have been a sappy rom-com with Matt and Anna falling in love and having a happily-ever-after but these are not lesser hands. Beckwith shows a deft touch with comedy and as she also wrote the script, a good deal of insight into parental urges and the nature of inter-gender friendships. Unlike the main premise of When Harry Met Sally, Beckwith not only supports the idea that men can be friends with women without a sexual element involved in the relationship, but that the friendship can be as deep and as fulfilling as a romantic relationship (I happen to agree with her). That friendship is at the center of the film.

For that reason, the movie is remarkably schmaltz-free. The emotions that come up are generally earned and feel organic. The two squabble from time to time, but it’s ot the cute squabbling of rom-coms but the honest disagreement between two adults who see things differently. Harrison, who most people know from Shrill (if they know her at all), is brilliant. Her performance here is compared to Melissa McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids in the sense that it is a breakout of a gifted comedian who is ready to become a major star, and I think Harrison could have that kind of success.

Helms has become a steady performer, excelling at playing decent guys and so he does here. You can’t help but be drawn to him, even though at times he is a bit overbearing (Matt, not Ed Helms). Watching Ed Helms work has always given me the feeling that he’s the kind of guy you want to be friends with. That’s a good skill to have for an actor.

The movie has some terrific supporting performances, ranging from Notaro as a therapist that both Matt and Anna see, Melamed and Dunn as Matt’s parents, Torres as Anna’s gay co-worker, and especially Bradshaw as an ultrasound technician who gets to witness Matt and Anna’s squabbles.

Maybe the best thing about the film is its ending, which takes place appropriately enough in the delivery room. Cinematographer Frank Barrera keeps the camera tight on Harrison’s face and Harrison gives him good reason to. Her expressions are beautiful and bittersweet, and the ending is about as perfect as a movie ending can be, fitting the tone of the film perfectly and providing a graceful coda. This was a movie that was far better than I had a right to expect it to be, and I recommend it highly.

The movie is currently playing the Florida Film Festival and can be streamed (by Florida residents only, unfortunately) at the link below, but be of good cheer – it is getting a national release a week from today (as this is published). So no excuses…

REASONS TO SEE: Helms and Harrison have excellent chemistry together. There is surprising depth in the comedy. Looks at surrogacy from an unusual angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor might be too low-key for modern audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including female reproductive references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through April 25)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Mama
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mapplethorpe

Donny’s Bar Mitzvah


The big man gets the big chair.

(2021) Comedy (Circle Collective) Steele Stebbins, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Tardy, Adrian Ciscato, Zemyhe Curtis, Joshua Gonzales, Wendy Braun, Regan Burns, Jennifer Sorenson, Michael Patrick McGill, Adam Herschman, Tricia O’Kelley, John DeLuca, Jessica Renee Russell, Radek Wallace Lord, Isabelle Anaya, Connor Del Rio, Eugene Kim, Judilin Bosita, Noureen DeWulf, Aundrea Smith. Directed by Jonathan Kaufman

 

It’s 1998 and social media hasn’t yet become the force it is today. Donny (Stebbins) is a nice Jewish boy about to become a nice Jewish man, at least in terms of his faith. Looking at the adults around him, it’s hard to figure out who the grown-ups are.

Shot from the point of view of a videographer using a camcorder (the film is even shot in the 1.33:1 ratio standard for camcorders of the era), Donny’s Bar Mitzvah follows several plot lines such as Donny’s brother Bobby (DeLuca) getting his mother’s friend Susie (O’Kelley) pregnant after a quickie in the venue bathroom – a pregnancy which goes through its entire process in the course of the night. Then there’s Donny’s sister who is the beard for gay Gary (Herschman). Or there’s emcee Gerald (Tardy) who has a thing for his co-worker Gigi (Smith) but it turns out that she’s just Danny Trejo (Trejo) in disguise and Trejo is actually a federal agent chasing a nefarious criminal known as the party pooper who it turns out is, umm, aptly named. Also, you get to meet Mr. Wang (Kim) and his wife (Bosita) attending their first bar mitzvah, whose shocked and uncomfortable expressions likely mirrored my own.

There’s Donny and some of his friends trying to learn a dance routine but protesting that Jews can’t dance, or the overbearing mom, the interfering grandmother trying to matchmake or a thousand other stereotypical cliches which were passé even in 1998. And the film is jampacked from start to finish with raunchy, vulgar sex jokes. One gets the sense that Kaufman is trying to go for a cross between the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow with a dash of John Hughes thrown in for flavor.

I have no problem with raunchy comedies, although the more prudish among you might find the humor here overbearing, but I’m not so much a raunch for raunch’s sake kind of guy. I need my comedy to be funny and not merely amusing. Kaufman adopts the “throw as many jokes and bits against the celluloid wall and see what sticks” school of filmmaking founded by ZAZ back in the day. The pacing is a bit haphazard, moving in fits and starts despite the constant barrage of jokes. On the plus side, though, there appears to be some actual ideas in the background, from the concept that parties of this nature are more status symbols for the parents than celebrations of their children. The movie could have used a few more of these.

This isn’t a movie for everybody, simply because Kaufman tries so hard to push the envelope which is unnecessary for a good movie. As this is his first feature, he’ll doubtlessly learn that pretty quickly and concentrate on just making a terrific movie, and something tells me he actually will. But this ain’t it.

REASONS TO SEE: Pokes fun at the “we’re doing it for our kids” culture. There are some profound ideas among all the grossness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing can be compared to a car with carburetor problems. Tries too hard to be outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity and vulgarity including sexual references, nudity, violence and drug use, most involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Jonathan Kaufman cameos as a super awkward bartender under the pseudonym Jonny Comebacks.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superbad
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Fever

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

Kindred


No rest for the weary.

(2020) Thriller (IFC) Tamara Lawrence, Fiona Shaw, Jack Lowden, Anton Lasser, Edward Holcroft, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Natalia Kostrzewa, Chloe Pirrie, Nyree Yergainharsian, Toyah Frantzen. Directed by Joe Marcantonio

 

John Lennon once wrote, quite accurately, that life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. In other words, plan away, but life happens no matter what your intentions are.

Ben (Holcroft), an English veterinarian, and his black Girlfriend Charlotte (Lawrence) have plans to move to Australia. Why? Likely because it’s about as far as they can get from Ben’s rabidly possessive mother Margaret (Shaw) and Ben’s super-creepy stepbrother Thomas (Lowden). When they go to lunch  at the crumbling estate where Margaret and Thomas live and where nine generations of Ben’s family has resided, breaking the news of their impending move doesn’t go well, to say the least.

However, their decision to move is put on hold when it is discovered that Charlotte is pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want. She tells Ben emphatically that she’s not ready to be a mother and doesn’t want to jeopardize their plans. Unfortunately, that all becomes moot when Ben perishes suddenly.

Margaret – who has been informed of Charlotte’s delicate condition by her doctor (Lasser), suddenly aims to be mother of the year, taking Charlotte in to live on the estate. But then, slowly, it becomes apparent that Charlotte won’t be permitted to leave and that Thomas may be drugging her to insure that she doesn’t. Margaret, you see, needs to have an heir to take over the estate and Thomas isn’t a blood relative. As Charlotte is beset by nightmares and images of ravens, she realizes that she is in a very dangerous situation that she must escape from quickly.

I think this is a movie that the filmmakers started out with honorable intentions, but along the way they got distracted. The pacing is slow and methodical which some thrillers can be in an attempt to build suspense; however, the payoff should then be a roller coaster ride and frankly, the climax here isn’t payoff enough. There are some interesting potential subplots going on here – the racial aspects, the supernatural aspects of the ravens, the gaslighting done by Margaret and Thomas, family madness running in Charlotte’s family, but none of these go anywhere. I thought at one point that the filmmakers were going for a metaphor of the control of a woman’s body by external forces, but that doesn’t pan out either.

What does work is Lawrence’s performance which ranks right up there with that of Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, which this film shares some parallel themes with. Her facial expressions are absolutely priceless throughout, as is her body language as new life grows within her character. She also gets the usually reliable Shaw to play off of, although Shaw is curiously overplaying her role here. It’s not one of the better performances by the veteran actress.

I get the sense that the filmmakers were going for something of a mash-up, but one of the pitfalls of doing one of those types of films is that it can end up being neither fish nor fowl, not enough of any one genre to really suck in fans of that genre. Horror fans will be disappointed, thriller fans are likely to be unimpressed and drama fans are not going to really connect. So you have a movie that combines genres but omits the best elements of each. Lawrence is the real attraction here; she is certainly a name to keep an eye out in the next few years.

REASONS TO SEE: Lawrence gives a truly dazzling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film builds very slowly and gets bogged down in soap opera-esque plot twists.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for both director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason MacColgan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Narco Warriors

Black Water: Abyss


This big reptile is a croc.

(2020) Horror (Screen MediaJessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe, Louis Toshio Okada, Rumi Kikuchi, Stu Kirk, Damien Blewett, J’ Ma, Jarod Woods, Rhys Ward, Isabella Sheehan, Glenn Adams, Julie Selis-Muscat, Vicky Wanless, Lincoln Callaghan, Troy Black, Mary Jane, Adam Lacey, Phillip Davy, Isabelle Rickards, Lynne Rose. Directed by Andrew Traucki

 

Sometimes, you’re not after a movie that’s going to involve you in the lives of its characters. Every now and then, you want a movie that just smacks you in the face with a stupid stick, fills the screen with improbable action and just lets you revel in your baser instincts. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

A pair of Type-A Aussie couples – well, at least that’s half-true – are headed to do some spelunking in the cave systems of Northern Australia. Alpha male Eric (Mitchell) and his wife Jennifer (McNamee) – who would much rather be getting room service in a five star hotel – has taken cancer survivor Vitor (Hoetjes) and his newly pregnant wife Yolanda (Golden) along with cave explorer and Eric’s buddy Cash (Sharpe) to a cave that only recently was discovered when a sinkhole opened up. Do they tell anyone where they are going? NO, THEY DO NOT! Have these assclowns not seen a horror movie ever?

Well, if you think that’s irresponsible, they also choose to ignore an approaching storm. The result? They are trapped in the cave with rapidly rising waters, but that’s really the least of their problems. You see, there’s a very hungry and singularly-minded crocodile swimming around and these five numbskulls have effectively just rung the dinner bell.

There are stabs at plot development, but they just don’t work. When you’re in a survival situation, generally speaking that’s not the time to work out marital issues, but of course, when you’re being stalked by a giant killer croc, what else is there to do? One of the dim-witted croc snacks even expresses shock that they can’t get a cell signal two hundred feet below the ground in the middle of a swamp. No, really? REALLY?!?

Predictably, as the crock picks them off one by one, they race for a way out before the water rises above their safe little ledge. With one of their number badly injured and another pregnant, what chance to these guys have to outwit the croc in its own element?

This is a sequel to the minor 2007 hit Black Water only in the loosest terms in that it’s set in Australia, there’s a crocodile and one of the young people being stalked is pregnant. If you didn’t see it, it won’t affect your enjoyment of this one (or lack thereof). And while I’ve been harsh up to now, there are some elements here that aren’t too bad – the cinematography is lush, whether in the caves or out in the swamps.

We don’t get to see much of the crock, as it mostly swims around in murky waters, but what we do see is pretty impressive. However, the actual deaths are not easy to see, given that the cave environment is so dark, the water is murky and roiling with a thrashing crocodile and an equally thrashing victim. The sounds of the kills might be what get to you, though, if you tend to be faint of heart. In some ways, that makes the death scenes more gruesome than they actually are.

Essentially, this is pretty typical survival horror with a big, mad predator. There are no surprises here, hardly any character development other than one of the girls remarking that her relationship with her fella has been rocky, until near the end when we find out….well, you’ll see. And if you’re not planning on seeing this, I’m still not going to tell you. In any case, if you’re looking for something new to rent, this fits the bill. It isn’t horrible but it isn’t great. It’s just kind of there, like an Appleby’s.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely jungle and cave cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stock characters being picked off one by one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a sequel to the 2007 film Black Water which Traucki co-wrote and co-directed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawl
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Perfect Candidate

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Creed II


The obligatory staredown.

(2018) Sports Drama (MGM/Warner BrothersMichael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Florian Munteanu, Dolph Lundgren, Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Wood Harris, Milo Ventimiglia, Robbie Johns, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nelson, Patrice Harris, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Ana Gerena, Christopher Mann, Robert Douglas, Zack Beyer, Chrisdine King. Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

The Rocky franchise may be the ultimate American movie franchise; it has tackled everything from the triumph of the underdog to Cold War politics to father-son alienation over the years. With the 70-something Stallone more than long in the tooth to get back in the ring, it was decided (after a misfire featuring Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky’s son, who also cameos here in the same role) to pass the torch to Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, son of Apollo Creed and in the 2015 movie Creed director Ryan Coogler managed to put together a movie that garnered a lot of awards season attention.

With a new director, the writers (including Stallone) looked back at the storied history of the franchise, remembering that Daddy Creed died in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago (Lundgren). Now, with Viktor Drago (Munteanu) having turned into an unstoppable behemoth like his old man, Adonis wants payback and despite the concerns of Rocky (Stallone), Adonis’ wife Bianca (Thompson) who is losing her hearing, and mom Mary Anne (Rashad), Adonis looks to show Drago and Son who really is The Man. Of course, things don’t go as planned, a rematch is set and nobody thinks Adonis can win.

The plot takes almost all of its cues from Rocky IV nearly note for note; if you haven’t seen that film (some say the best in the franchise), you’re basically watching it here. The newer Creed misses the sure hand of Coogler at the helm but Caple does a pretty capable job in the relief role. While this film doesn’t measure up well to Creed (or Rocky IV for that matter) it has enough going for it to make it worth your while looking it up; it’s pretty much available everywhere at the moment so it’s not that hard to find. Just like Stallone.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the best actors working today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Formulaic throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of boxing violence, some profanity and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two turtles, Cuff and Link, are appearing for the fifth time in the franchise. They are also Stallone’s real-life pets and they have been with him for more than 50 years at the time of filming.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews, Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky IV
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)


Love in flames.

(2019) Romance (NEON) Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luána Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras, Armande Boulanger, Guy Delamarche, Clément Bouyssou, Cécile Morel, Michéle Clément. Directed by Céline Sciamma

 

The Darkwave band Black Tape for a Blue Girl did a song “A Love That Dare Not Be” which is heartbreaking in nearly every respect; the music itself creates a melancholic mood and there’s the realization that few people have ever heard the song and it so deserves to be heard.

In fact, their Ashes in the Brittle Air album dovetails nicely with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from French writer-director Sciamma and her most exciting work to date. It is a period piece, set in the mid-to-late 18th century in an isolated chateau on the seacoast of Brittany.

Marianne (Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hélöise (Haenel), the daughter of the countess (Golino) who lives there. Hélöise has just been yanked out of the convent to take the place of her sister in a marriage to a Milanese nobleman; the portrait is to be used to pique interest in the girl as potential marriage material. However, Hélöise is wise to the game and refused to sit for a portrait with the previous painter, who grew frustrated at her obstinance and quit.

Marianne is there in the guise of a companion to accompany Hélöise on walks around the chateau. The countess is concerned that Hélöise might suffer the same fate as her sister, who fell from the cliffs. The house’s sole servant, Sophie (Bajrami) believes it was suicide because the girl didn’t utter a sound on the way to her death.

Marianne is meant to paint surreptitiously in the evening hours. Her canvas and painting supplies are hidden behind privacy partitions. During the day the two women hang out and soon develop a friendship. Marianne is forced by circumstances to notice the details of Hélöise; the curve of her neck, the cartilage of her ears, the elegance of her fingers. Before long, the friendship develops into something deeper – the proverbial love that dare not speak its name.

This is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve seen in a while and I’ve seen some good ones. The composition is exquisite, done with a painter’s eye. Whether it is Hélöise standing alone in front of crashing waves on the shore, or Hélöise, Marianne and Sophia cresting a hill at dusk in the wild light of sunset, or Marianne alone before the fire, naked and puffing on a pipe contemplatively, each shot has purpose, each shot conveys emotion.

The emotions are at the center of the performances of Haenel and Merlant. Both are up for Best Actress awards at the César awards that are being presented this coming Friday – the French Oscars. Either performance is award-worthy, although I don’t know how you would choose between the two. Haenel is more reserved, somewhat more melancholy. Merlant has the advantage of being the narrator and setting the tone in that sense. The chemistry between them is natural and believable.

\Throughout the film there are references to the legend of Orpheus – he’s the bard whose love Eurydice died young, so he made the perilous journey into the underworld to beg Lord Hades for him to release her back to the world. Hades, moved by Orpheus’ artistry, grants the request with the caveat that Orpheus must lead the way and not turn back until both of them have left the Underworld; if he obeys, they will live whatever time they have left. If not, Eurydice goes right back into the afterlife, not passing go nor collecting $200. Human nature being what it is, Orpheus looks back as the end is in sight and loses his girl forever.

Hélöise, Marianne and Sophie discuss the meanings of the myth but there are also some other references; appearances of paintings based on the myth and near the end of the movie, as Marianne is leaving the chateau with her Hélöise promised to another, she hears the admonition to turn around and beholds Hélöise in a white wedding-like dress behind her. As Marianne shuts the door, Hélöise disappears from view.

There is a lot of depth here, too much to get into in one article but enough that you’ll be talking about it with your film buff friends for a long time to come. The two-hour movie takes a bit of time to get going, but once it hits its stride it holds your attention firmly. This had a one-day theatrical preview event back in December but is just now hitting a general release. Their distributor, which is still in a celebratory mood after one of their films won the Best Picture Oscar, can start celebrating again; this is another amazing film for their library and one which could very well be part of next year’s Oscar conversation.

REASONS TO SEE: A master class on camera composition. A haunting choral piece really heightens the mood. Wonderful use of the Orpheus myth.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; it drags a bit in the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality including one brief scene of graphic sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the festival scene, the women sing a choral version of Non Possunt Fugere which is Latin for “They Cannot Escape.” The song is repeated during the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes:98% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breathe In
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again


They’re with the band.

(2018) Musical (UniversalLily James, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Cher, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Meryl Streep, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Omid Djalili, Anastasia Hille, Anna Antoniades, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori. Directed by Ol Parker

 

I have to confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of ABBA, the Swedish pop group that lit up the charts in the 70s and 80s. Mamma Mia, the musical that utilized the band’s extensive catalogue of hits to celebrate a young girl’s wedding as she tries to figure out which of three possibilities is her biological father. It was a major hit – in 2008. Ten years almost to the day, the sequel arrives.

In it, Sophie (Seyfried), the bride from the first film, is trying to renovate her mother’s Greek Island hotel. Her mamma Donna (Streep) has passed away and poor Sophie is trying to balance mourning for her mom, getting the hotel ready for opening night and dealing with a rocky relationship (she’s separated from husband Sky (Cooper) although she is pregnant). With nearly everyone from the first film returning, along with Cher as Donna’s estranged mom and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager, there is a familiarity about the terrain. There are also flashbacks showing Donna’s shenanigans leading to her coming to the Greek islands and getting involved with three different men. The luminescent Lily James plays the younger Donna and she does a terrific job, but she’s no Meryl Streep and the film feels her absence keenly. Streep does return for the most haunting scene in the film as a benevolent ghost observing her granddaughter’s christening.

The plot is essentially an excuse for the musical numbers which I suppose could be said for some classic musicals as well, but here it seems especially glaring. Part of the reason is that the bulk of ABBA’s better-known hits were used in the first film and much of the soundtrack here is made up of album tracks and B-sides so the movie loses much of the familiarity factor that made the first film charming.

Streep’s scene and Cher’s two musical numbers are both the showstoppers here; most of the other numbers are forgettable and kind of repetitive. Also, the beautiful Greek island location of the first film has been swapped out for Croatia in the second; not quite the same. I just didn’t get the same warm fuzzies I got from the first film, more’s the pity. There’s definitely a market for this and I know my wife and son thoroughly enjoyed this way more than I did; however, I found it to be only minimally entertaining at best.

REASONS TO SEE: Streep and Cher are big highlights
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is terribly flimsy. Streep’s absence is keenly felt throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep is distantly related to both Cher (15th cousin) who plays her mother, and James (9th cousin) who plays her younger self.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Movies Anywhere Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jersey Boys
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Little Monsters

Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black