Don’t Sell Me a Dog


Out for a ride in the country.

(2021) Crime (Bren Enterprises) Andy Yule, Liadh Blake, Mark Agar, Damien Lumsden, Mark Hampton, Harrison Hampton. Directed by Pauric Brennan

 

One of the wonderful things about what I do is that from time to time, you run into a film that you know nothing about but proceeds to exceed every expectation I might have had. To be honest, most self-distributed films suffer from a number of sins, ranging from clunky dialogue to stiff acting to overcomplicated plots. When you run into a movie that has strong performances, great dialogue and a smartly written script, it is manna from heaven for most film critics.

CD (Agar) and his girlfriend Adele (Blake) are both junkies. CD works for the local crime boss, but he yearns for a fresh start away from the small Irish town he lives in. But getting away requires money and he doesn’t have any. So he decides to rob his boss, Brian (Lumsden) but Brian surprises him in the act. Fortunately, Adele sneaks up on Brian and knocks him out.

The two have to leave and right now. They attempt to carjack Joe (Yule), an older man, but the car is the only thing he has in the world. He won’t part with it, but he agrees to drive them wherever they want to go. So the three embark on the strangest road trip ever through the lovely Irish countryside.

But Brian hasn’t forgotten them, and he’s after the two of them. He has found out that they are in Joe’s car and is looking for them. In the meantime, CD’s paranoia has begun to cause problems, and Adele and Joe have begun to bond. Brian’s hot on their heels. Is there a new beginning waiting in the future for CD and Adele?

The film has a pop to it that comes from a confident filmmaker and given that this was filmed on a microbudget during a pandemic, the accomplishment is all the more impressive. The writing is crisp and real; the actors deliver the lines without making it seem like they’re acting, the opposite of which is a mistake inexperienced actors often make – acting a part instead of inhabiting a role. Yule as Joe and Blake as Adele are particularly impressive, garnering viewer sympathy even though Joe can be a codger at times and Adele is prone to making bad decisions. Agar is also good in the thankless role of the impulsive and often abrasive CD (don’t call him Clarence), while Lumsden gives Brian an affability that is underlined by a cruel and vicious nature that his job requires of him.

The ending works pretty well, although it takes Brennan maybe a little too long to get there; the last ten, fifteen minutes seem a bit padded out and might have used some punching up. Even so, this is a movie that takes you under its wing and weaves an enchantment on you. It is quintessentially Irish, if that makes any sense, but it is still the best way to describe this charming and highly enjoyable film. It is currently enjoying a spot on Plex’s most popular films list and for good reason. Pop on in to Plex or Vimeo and check it out. And Brennan assures me that there will be more VOD outlets for the film in the coming weeks. Do look out for it; this is one you’ll want to see. And if you don’t, away with ye.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and resonant script. Yule and Blake absolutely command your attention.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending could have been tightened up a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in eight days between COVID lockdowns in Ireland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Plex, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ruthless People
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
CODA

Toxico


An image that is no longer far-fetched.

(2020) Science Fiction (Level 33) Jazmin Stuart, Agustin Rittano, Victoria Cabada, Sebastián Carbone, Marcelo D’Andrea, Miriam Elizabeth de Luca, Betiana Frias, Martin Garabal, Lucila Garay, Francisco Gutiérrez, Alejandro Jovic, Carlos Lin, Lucila Mangone, Silvia Estela MIerez, Marcelo Mininno, Claudio Molfino, Gabriel Horacio Pallero, Santiago Podestá. Directed by Ariel Martinez Herrera

 

It may sound familiar at first glance. A massive pandemic; stores being denuded of their wares by a panicking populace; people in increasingly bizarre masks; rumors of conspiracies and suspicion of possible cures. It’s hard to believe that the screenplay for this film was written in 2016 and the movie sat on the shelf for a year before being released in 2020.

Laura (Stuart) and Augusto (Rittano) are a couple caught up in a pandemic. Rather than causing respiratory issues, this disease causes massive insomnia, leading to mass psychosis. The two decide to get in their motor home – which might be an ancestor of the TARDIS as it seems much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside – and get out of Dodge while they still can.

But their relationship is a stormy one and a revelation by Laura turns their trip on its ear. In the meantime, the streets begin to empty out and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell reality from insomnia-induced hallucination. Is this the end?

There is a good deal of symbolism (the movement of a turtle, symbolizing the slow flow of time in a quarantine) as well as a surreal sense of humor. This Argentine film is well-acted, with Stuart and Rittano giving their characters just enough authenticity to seem real. Both are fallable and don’t alwys act heroically and from time to time their bickering can lead to an awkward feeling as you might get when you go to a dinner party and the host couple gets into an argument. You get that feeling that you want to be anywhere but there, and that’s not always a good feeling when you’re watching a movie.

There is a lot of interesting surreal imagery – a guy in a hazmat suit shreds on electric guitar; another hospital tech weeps uncontrollably while a doctor searches for some paperwork and then throws himself out of a window – which make for interesting asides but don’t always contribute to the overall whole.

I’ll admit that we’re talking personal taste here, but overall the movie is a bit too out there for me, but I get that for some folks that’s more of a recommendation than a caution. For those of you who like their movies different and challenging, this might well be a hidden gem for you. For those whose tastes are a bit more mainstream – like myself – this might be a tougher sell.

REASONS TO SEE: A surreal piece that the pandemic-weary might relate to.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too oddball for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Herrera’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contagion
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Escape from Mogadishu

Linda and the Mockingbirds


For some, the border wall is more than just a barrier.

(2020) Music Documentary (Shout!) Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Eugene Rodriguez, James Keach, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Marie-Astrid Do Rodriguez. Directed by James Keach

 

It is no secret that the current President made border security, specifically on our Southern border, a campaign issue, one which has carried over into his administration. The building of the Wall is much more than symbolic, particularly to those who have emigrated to the United States from Mexico and Central America to make a better life for their families – just as Irish immigrants did during the potato famine, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe did during the programs, as Vietnamese immigrants did after the fall of Saigon and as any number of immigrants did from all over the world over the past two and a half centuries.

It is also no secret that Linda Ronstadt was one of the most powerful voices and popular singers of the 70s into the 80s. Of Mexican descent, she remembered fondly singing traditional songs with her family, particularly her beloved grandfather who hailed from a small village in Sonora. After making an album of the music that she so loved as a child, she became aware of the Los Cenzontles Cultural Center (cenzontles is Spanish for mockingbird), founded by guitar virtuoso Eugene Rodriguez, dedicated to teaching youth of the San Francisco Bay Area music and dance forms that are largely dying out in Mexico. He was putting together a tour in Mexico for the kids to study with masters in Mexico and Ronstadt agreed to fund them and added a date to her tour to benefit the center. She has been a patron for them ever since.

As filmmaker James Keach was putting together the documentary of Ronstadt’s life, he found the artist – now unable to sing due to Parkinson’s disease – reluctant to do an interview for her own documentary. She suggested that they do the interview in Mexico, in the village where her grandfather grew up. Keach agreed, but was surprised to find that the reason for the trip wasn’t his film, but rather for the youth of Los Cenzontles to put on a concert for the village in the public square. Along for the ride was longtime Ronstadt friend Jackson Browne, who had been introduced to the cultural center by Ronstadt, and who was inspired to rewrite his song The Dreamer about the experiences of Lucina Rodriguez (one of the two main singers of the vocal group put together by the center).

The movie is about much more than a performance. It is about the modern immigrant experience, about the fear and disquiet many of them feel as they have been demonized by the current administration. Certainly, we are shown the frustration and even rage – but this isn’t an angry film. Rather, it is about the beauty of discovering one’s own culture, of how the music, dance and traditions of our past can help us find out who we are so that we may navigate the future. It’s a powerful message and one delivered over and over again in the film.

Ronstadt does on-camera interviews here, and in some ways they are disarming. She comes off at times like an ordinary Midwestern housewife, a sleeping two-year-old grandniece at her side, but there is also pride in her background and talking about the songs of her culture clearly energizes her. Of her medical condition not one word is spoken, not one word mentioned and if the only hint of its devastating effect on her life is a wistful “I wish I could sing with those kids” as some break into song on the bus ride into Mexico, you would never know she has Parkinson’s unless you already knew – and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t find out unless you read a review like this. Ronstadt has chosen not to become a poster child for her disease and while Michael J. Fox has elected to become a spokesperson for further research into a cure for it, Ronstadt prefers not to go that route, directing her energy into Los Cenzontles instead.

The movie is heartwarming and hopeful and full of amazing music, colorful handmade costumes and lovely dancing. It is a peek into the richness of Mexico’s (and Sonora’s specifically) cultural heritage, a very worthwhile endeavor particularly if your only exposure to it has been the occasional Tijuana Brass album or mariachi night at your local Chevy’s. At just under an hour long, this documentary is a worthwhile investment of your time.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is rich, passionate and warm. A frontline look at the immigrant experience.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find that the film pulls its punches a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some discussion of controversial current events.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronstadt’s 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Synchronic

After So Many Days


Jim and Sam will play anywhere for anyone.

 (2020) Musical Documentary (Tiny RoomJim Hanft, Samantha Yonack. Directed by Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack

Making music is something that many of us do in one way or another. It is an expression of our passion, in most cases. To do it professionally requires a different kind of passion; a kind of madness, really. The business of making music is a frustrating and often unforgiving one. Keeping your sanity given the kind of indifference and heartache that often follows in being a professional musician is no easy task.

So, one has to wonder about the husband/wife duo of Jim and Sam. Freshly married in 2017, they found their career was in a morass and their creative juices simply weren’t flowing. Rather than taking a break, which often leads to a much more extended absence than intended, they decided to launch themselves both feet into their mutual career – to play a gig every day for a full year.

So, yeah, you have to wonder if they weren’t a little crazy for even considering the plan. Like the Irish band the Black Donnellys who undertook a similarly difficult venture as documented in An Irish Story: This is My Home, Jim and Sam set out to take the bull by the horns, which had to be daunting when you considered the logistics. Heap onto that the fact that they didn’t plan extensively; when they set out on the road from their Los Angeles home, they had about three weeks of gigs planned and that was it. The road they were on would take them to 14 different countries, particularly Sweden where they had recorded their first EP and had a bit of a fan base, but they also ended up in Eastern Europe and the UK as well.

The two documented their ordeal and created an absolutely wonderful documentary from it. I don’t think that non-professionals will ever get a better idea of the obstacles faced by professional musicians than this film, which shows them in thick and thin; having financial issues and a looming eviction from their apartment, transportation issues, and canceled gigs leading to scrambling to play in front of someone, anyone that they could find, sometimes venturing into convenience stores, restaurants and tobacco shops to play impromptu sets. In one memorable scene, they stop by the side of the road and play for a very attentive herd of cows.

The two captured their gigs on cell phones, and inexpensive video cameras but even so, the quality is pretty good in terms of the cinematography. The two make for compelling subjects, and while they bicker from time to time, they seem to have gotten along extremely well considering the circumstances. Being together with anyone 24/7 for a year can put an enormous strain on a relationship. Hanft said in an interview that the two of them were forced to solve issues quickly, or risk long four-hour car rides angry with one another.

What you will take away most from this documentary, however, is the music which is really very special. Their harmonies are magical and their songs tuneful and full of lovely pop hooks. There are some sprightly uptempo numbers, and some melancholy reflective numbers. If you’re taste is anything like mine, you’ll likely be scrambling to find their music online.

Their solution to their musical malaise is not for every musician, in case you think something like this is going to solve all of your problems. The relationship was tested and so was their passion for their craft. They performed day after day, sometimes in front of indifferent audiences, occasionally nursing colds or the flu, whether they were in a good place mentally or not. While they did things largely on their own, they did have a manager looking out for them (in the film, he’s mainly a voice on the telephone until the final scenes).

“The show must go on” is a bit of an aphorism, but these two took it to almost ridiculous lengths but you have to admire their willingness to go all-in and their perseverance once they did. Whether you agree with me or not, you’ll have their music stuck in your head for a long time after the movie is over.

The movie will continue on the Festival circuit and looks to get a theatrical or VOD release in October of this year. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is exceptional. An inspirational DIY ethic.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are tantalizing snippets of songs that you wish you could hear more of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim and Sam met at a comedy show through a mutual friend; they began writing and performing music together a week later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Falling Slowly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cured

Uncle Peckerhead


A road trip with a punk band can be a bloody good time.

(2020) Horror Comedy (Epic/Dread CentralChet Siegel, David Littleton, Jeff Riddle, Ruby McCollister, Ryan Conrath, Greg Maness, Shannon O’Neill, Chloe Roe, Lucy McMichael, David Weinheimer, David Bluvband, Ruth Lolla, Alex McKelvey, Josh Peck, Adam R. Brown, Joey Maron, Nicholas Santos, Chris Tapp, Wicky Mendoza, Dave Ruestle, Kevin Lawrence. Directed by Matthew John Lawrence

2020 Florida Film Festival

With a title like Uncle Peckerhead, you know that the movie is either going to be very, very bad, or very, very good. Fortunately, in this case, it’s the latter.

Judy (Siegel) fronts a punk band called DUH! who are about to go out on their very first tour which will end with them opening a show for the Queef Queens, a punk band that features Jen Jennings (O’Neill) who happens to own a record label. Her dreams of rock stardom look to be within their grasp. But, as many indie bands will tell you, that’s generally when the floor disappears beneath you.

Their van gets repossessed, leaving her, guitarist Max (Riddle) and drummer Mel (McCollister) to look for some wheels to allow them to get them to where they need to be. Eventually, they find an old redneck living in a van which after some convincing, agrees to drive them in and to be their roadie. He introduces himself as Peckerhead (Littleton), or just Peck.

For some reason, Judy doesn’t hit it off with Peck even though Max and Mel think he’s great. Soon, it develops that there’s a good reason Judy has bad vibes about him. I won’t tell you exactly why but there’s a reason that the actors playing Max and Mel are covered in fake blood in the picture above. However, despite Peck’s horrible issue, Judy finally begins to warm up to him. Then, once again, out goes the floor.

The first few minutes of the movie don’t give any hint about how good it actually turns out to be. The movie starts out rocky with some awkward dialogue, stiff acting and a feeling that everyone is standing around, looking at each other and whispering “Now what?” Fret not, true believers. Once Peck gets introduced into the mix, the movie takes off. Yes, there is some gore although not a lot – some extreme horror fans might end up disappointed, but Peckerhead is such a great character, with a kind of bumpkin charm that’s endearing.

And the music! It really rocks, with some fairly high-level indie influences, not the least of which are X (for the harmony vocals) and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s a shame that DUH! isn’t a real band because I’d buy their shit for sure. There’s even a condescending rival band who doesn’t sound half-bad either. This might end up having the best indie movie soundtrack of the year.

There is a little more emphasis on the comedy than the horror, and while the scares aren’t the aneurysm-inducing sort they are nevertheless effective. The horror is more situational, and again tends to be overshadows by the more humorous elements. Best line in the whole film is when Peck asks Mel why they chose the name DUH! and she responds “Because James Taylor was already taken.”

There is a lot going on here that is worth checking out. I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to the horror elements, but that might well have been a function of its micro-budget. This could easily end up being a cult classic and inspire a franchise of its own. I enjoyed the heck out of this – and if you like a good horror movie with a good dose of comedy and killer indie rock music, you might just agree with me.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is actually really good. Peckerhead is kind of a sweet guy.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is occasionally awkward and a bit indie-snooty.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is all sorts of violence, profanity, gore and some adult images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddle is the lone performer in DUH! who plays his own music in the film; he also supplies the guitar for Dominion Rising as well.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CHUD
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
Tesla

Easy Does It


Captain America to the rescue!

(2019) Action Comedy (Gravitas) Linda Hamilton, Ben Matheny, Matthew Paul Martinez, Susan Gordon, Cory Dumesnil, John Goodman (voice), Harry Shearer (voice), Bryan Batt, Dwight Henry, Charlie Talbert, Isabel De La Cruz, Catherine Capiello, Turner Crumbley, Dennis Thomas IV, Sophie Howell, Summer Selby, Marnie Morgan, Jacob McManus, Julio Castillo, Carol Ann Scruggs. Directed by Will Addison

 

There is something special and wonderful about the grindhouse films of the 1970s. They were bigger than life, well past the edge of acceptability and full of attitude. Audiences love cheering on the anti-heroes and lovable screw-ups as they confounded society and The Man. We seem to be entering an era where those kinds of films are going to become necessary again.

Fast-talking Jack Buckner (Matheny) and his best friend, Scottie Aldo (Martinez) live in a flea-bitten town called Aberdeen. It’s the 1970s and Nixon is about to resign, Detroit steel rules the roads and mob bosses like “King George” (Hamilton) wear their hair any damn way they want to because they can – in King George’s case, it’s cornrows. Jack and Scottie owe King George money, as everyone in Aberdeen seems to. They work at a greasy spoon as dishwashers, and on the side try to drum up cash by staging inept cons which in general never work out.

Then Jack gets a postcard that hints that his mom has passed away and that she’d left him something valuable under the pier in San Clemente, California (where Nixon is about to flee to). Jack thinks it’s some kind of treasure; if he can just get there in his star-spangled Mustang, it could mean the end of their money troubles and a ticket out of Aberdeen.

But he’s flat broke and so is Scottie, and even Detroit muscle cars need to be filled with gas once in awhile on the way from Mississippi to California. And Aberdeen being a small town and Scottie and Jack being none to bright, word gets back to King George that the two are about to skee-daddle. She doesn’t like the idea, and brings her enforcer – her baseball bat-wielding daughter Blue Eyes (Gordon) for emphasis. The two manage to get away but they know they aren’t going to get very far without the kindness of strangers. They end up at a gas station wondering if the clerk could front them the price of gas which they’ll pay  back once they acquire the treasure only it goes horribly wrong, and they end up stealing cash and dragging around a nerdy hostage (Dumesnil) who clearly doesn’t want to be there and suddenly they’re a viral sensation before there were viral sensations, robbing gas stations along with their increasingly not-so-reluctant hostage all the while being chased by a very perturbed Blue Eyes and the Law.

If this sounds like a good premise for a fun hour and a half at the movies, I’d be right there with you on that. The execution, though, leaves something to be desired. Part of the big problem here is that the characters are too bland, even though co-writers Addison and Metheny do their best to make them quirky, there’s a huge difference between quirky and interesting.

Definitely their hearts are worn firmly planted on their sleeves; the grindhouse movies of the ‘70s which gave us such fare as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Bloody Mama and more recently the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre. This is a little bit more rooted in a particular subgenre of the period than Tarantino who often references a dozen genres from blaxploitation to chop sockey (terms that were very much of their time and are being officially retired on this site as of now) and all points in between. Here, we see a lot of the good ol’ boy crime spree films that rose out of things like Smokey and the Bandit and to a lesser extent, The Dukes of Hazard the latter of which is closer kin to Easy Does It.

Hamilton is the Big Star here and she really turns up mostly in the first 30 minutes of the movie and is not really that heavily involved afterwards. She is certainly visually striking with her cornrows and dead-eyed stare, and her husky voiced Eastwood impression, but she gives little more than name value to a largely unknown cast (Goodman and Shearer, the other two big names, do not appear onscreen as baseball game announcers we here on the soundtrack).

There is decent enough chemistry between Matheny and Martinez, although the movie would have benefitted from a little more of that between the two. Gordon actually drew most of my admiration for her baseball-loving enforcer who uses a baseball bat as her weapon of choice. The voice-over baseball play-by-play is gimmicky and overused unfortunately. Dumesnil overplays Collin and brings him well into the category of self-parody, never what you want to see in a movie like this.

I think that the filmmakers were gong for something of a Logan Lucky vibe but they just needed a little more edginess to pull it off. Scottie and Jack are a little too dumb and a little too sweet to make a movie like this one work. That’s too bad because I think with a few tweaks here and there this could have been an extremely fun movie and fun is something in terribly short supply these days, kinda like toilet paper.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to be clever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Addison’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vanishing Point
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Painted Bird

The Last Laugh (2019)


As you get older, life can be a gas.

(2019) Comedy (NetflixChevy Chase, Richard Dreyfus, Andie MacDowell, Kate Micucci, Chris Parnell, George Wallace, Lewis Black, Richard Kind, Ron Clark, Kit Willesee, Chris Fleming, Allan Harvey, Jason Batchko, Alan Demovsky, James Galea, Rafael Villegas Jr., Carol Sutton, Belinda D’Pree, Sharon Martin, Jessie Payo, Robin Wesley, Khiry Armstead, Giovannie Cruz. Directed by Greg Pritikin

 

As someone who is going to hit the big six-oh this year, films about being old have more of a resonance with me lately than usual. At the same time, as I am writing this, I’m listening to the latest album by Hamerkop.  Age is, truly, just a number.

Don’t tell Hollywood that, though. Most comedies about elderly sorts have a pretty condescending attitude towards the AARP generation. We’ll get more into that in a minute, though; let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this one though. Al Hart (Chase) was once upon a time a talent manager for some of the most talented stand-up comics in the business, but now he’s retired and mourning his wife. His granddaughter Jeannie (Micucci) is concerned that Al has been doing a lot of falling down lately. She is anxious for him to move into a facility where he can be seen to; Al is against the idea but after a particularly nasty spill agrees reluctantly.

At the retirement village, Al discovers Buddy Green (Dreyfus) is a resident. Buddy was Al’s first client and had the makings of being a major star; Al had him booked on the Ed Sullivan show which would have established Buddy as a major star. Inexplicably, he never showed up and turned his back on comedy, instead choosing to raise a family and become a podiatrist. Talk about the shoe being on the other foot.

But the what-ifs have never really left Buddy and Al, seeing the parade of residents to the morgue figures that Buddy deserves a last shot to see if he had the stuff; he books Buddy on a cross-country tour, starting off in cruddy venues in Podunk towns gradually working up to bigger shows until the big one – the Stephen Colbert Late Show in the Ed Sullivan theater in New York. Along the way, the two bicker like an old couple, pick up a free-spirited artist in Kansas City (MacDowell) that Al becomes sweet on, and discover that it’s never too late to pursue a dream.

If that last sentence sounds a bit maudlin, it’s meant to. The movie plays it about as safe as a movie can be played, with the exception of a magic mushroom sequence in which Al trips, imagining a musical number and a carriage ride with Abe Lincoln at the reins. No, I don’t know why.

Remember I talked about Hollywood’s condescending attitude towards the aging? This is the kind of movie that portrays old folks doing shrooms and having sex as kind of “isn’t that cute.” Let’s do the math; people turning 70 this year were born in 1950; they were in their teens and 20s in the 60s and 70s when just about everyone was doing drugs and having sex. I think Hollywood sees the elderly still as the Leave it to Beaver generation, except that they were doing drugs and having sex back then too. Guess what, America? Your grandparents used to get high and fool around. Get over it.

Worse still, the humor is of the safe, don’t-offend-anyone variety, which makes me want to scream. I’m not the biggest Chevy Chase fan ever, but dammit, the man was an integral part of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and played a major role in one of the most subversive comedies ever made – Caddyshack. Can we not accept that there are some great comedic minds hitting their 70s now and capable of making comedies that can be bigger game changers than some of the modern crop of comics are currently capable of making? Dreyfus – who is as good as he ever was in this movie – as well as Chase and MacDowell all deserve better than this mildly entertaining, eminently forgettable project.

REASONS TO SEE: Dreyfus is a gift.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unnecessarily maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity including plenty of sexual references, as well as some drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first leading role for Chase in a mainstream film since Snow Day in 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews, Metacritic: 31/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sunshine Boys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Glass

The Trip to Greece


A couple of badass comedians walking the mean streets of Greece.

(2020) Comedy (IFC)  Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Timothy Leach, Claire Keenan, Rebecca Johnson, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Kareen Alkabbani, Marta Barrio, Richard Clews, Cordelia Budeja, Harry Tayler, Justin Edwards, Soraya Mahalia Hatner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

While they’re no Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Trip pictures have always been welcome additions to the schedule at our beloved Enzian Theater; in fact, the film was scheduled to play the now-postponed Florida Film Festival this past April.

Like the previous trips to the North of England, Italy and Spain, Coogan and Brydon are traveling through some beautiful countryside, eating amazing meals with incredible vistas. As always, Coogan and Brydon are playing “exaggerated” versions of themselves, and the conceit here is that Coogan is writing a restaurant review piece for a newspaper loosely following the route that Odysseus took from Troy to Ithaca in The Odyssey. Along the way, they trade barbs, try to one-up each other with celebrity impressions and deal with situations going on back home; in Coogan’s case, an ill father and in Brydon’s, a suspicion that his extended absences might be getting to his wife (Johnson).

This version is a little bit darker than the first three; some of the banter between the two men reveal some frustrations between them and the situation with Coogan’s dad – which he keeps from Brydon – clearly wears on him as we see nightmares that clearly have to do with him being away from his father at a critical juncture.

Both men are well into their 50s now (as am I) and mortality is beginning to creep into their consciousness. For the first time, Brydon brings his wife along for a portion of the tour, and Coogan’s feelings about his father’s mortality are clearly not something he wants to face. In the meantime, he boasts whenever he has the opportunity about his awards that he’s won. “What are you most proudest of?” queries Rob. Steve responds, not-so-modestly, “My seven BAFTAs” (a combination of Oscars and Emmys in the UK). Rob says that he’s proudest of his children, to which Steve says “That’s because you don’t have any BAFTAs” to which Rob replies “No, but you have children, eh? Interesting…”

And, yes, there are some great comedy bits with references to Coogan’s BAFTA-nominated role as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie, to which the two do a bit as Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy, which isn’t quite as funny as it sounds on paper. However, better is the bit with Mich Jagger and Keith Richards which ends with Coogan (who was Jagger) opining that “When Keith Richards laughs, it’s like the last death throes of Muttley” referencing the children’s cartoon.

Basically, this is fairly formulaic but it’s a good formula, although it’s wearing thin. I suspect that if they do stick to their guns and make this the last Trip movie, it would be a good thing as I can see little reason to keep flogging a dead gourmet. However, a part of me can’t help wishing that they find reasons to do more.

REASONS TO SEE: As always, the movie is at its best when Coogan and Brydon are riffing and doing dueling impressions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really too different from the other Trip films.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth and apparently final entry in the Trip series, which are all distillations of longer TV shows.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Green Book

Underneath the Same Moon


A bridge too far.

 

(2019) Romance (Indie Rights) Sara Ball, Meg Cashel, Anderson Davis, Jose Garza, Justin Guyot, Todd Herrera, Phil Holmer, Lucas Kerr, Ebony Lanet, Hap Lawrence, Douglas William Smith, Mike Wayne, Luciana Vara. Directed by Bob Wasson

 

The nature of love is largely unknown. Is it a chemical reaction stimulated by sexual attraction? Is it a series of right place-right time coincidences? Or is it some sort of mystical bond that guides us to find The One?

Thomas Miller (Davis) is a good man who likes to surf and is getting ready to propose to his best girl Jessica (Vara). As he approaches the bar he’s to meet her in with ring in hand, he sees her embracing another man, whisper “I love you” into his ear and obviously very much in love with him. Disconsolate, Thomas shuffles off.

Flash forward five years. Thomas is now happily married to a beautiful girl named Kelly (Ball) who his quirky sister Holly (Cashel) adores. However, things go terribly wrong when Thomas is involved in a terrible accident and lapses into a coma which lasts 11 months. When he wakes up, all memory of the past five years has disappeared. He o longer recognizes Kelly, remembers that he’s married to her and in fact, thinks he’s still dating Jessica.

On the (incredibly bad) advice of psychiatrist Dr. Butler (Smith) who looks more like a lumberjack than a doctor, the two ladies decide not to tell Thomas about the last five years and let him go on thinking he’s still with Jessica. Kelly painstakingly erases any trace of herself from Thomas’ life, including cutting out her picture from wedding photos.

But the opportunity presents itself for Thomas to venture up to San Francisco and Kelly finds an excuse to tag along, figuring that the long drive from San Diego to San Francisco might jog her husband’s memory back. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan but can the heart remember what the mind has forgotten?

Generally, I try to give movies the benefit of the doubt but I had some real problems with this one. For one thing, the plot is generally preposterous throughout; it’s like the writer just decided to create a situation in which Thomas lost five years of memories in order to set up the romantic situation of his beloved trying to win him back all over again. I’m not saying this kind of situation never happens in real life – it has – but I sincerely doubt that any competent psychiatrist would urge family members to lie to a patient about his past. That’s just plain lazy writing.

The leads are very attractive. Ex-model Davis is a rugged, handsome guy who oozes appeal, while Ball seems to have been born to play romantic roles. Cashel is one of those actresses who is able to get audiences to like her even as she’s doing the most outlandish things; Holly is somewhat puckish and while for whatever unholy reason the writers decided to make her fart in a key moment early on, she seems to have been a good sport about it.

The moment I knew I was going to give up on this movie was during the obligatory melancholy pop song montage when Kelly is painstakingly moving Thomas’ things out of her home. It is sung badly off-key. Considering the company that produced it has done music videos for some fairly big naes, you’d think they’d have had access to better material.

This is kind of a mess although I must admit that if you can endure the first half hour, things do improve over the remainder of the film but at nearly two hours long, the movie badly overstays its welcome. I really can’t recommend the movie but I think that Ball, Cashel and Davis could have solid careers ahead of them so there is that.

REASONS TO SEE: Ball gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fart jokes…ugh! Lacks logic throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was produced by VFXLABS, which has provided special effects for motion pictures, music videos and the aerospace industry for over 35 years and which Wasson owns.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50 First Dates
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Monsters and Men

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man