The Tomorrow Man (2019)


Tomorrow’s so bright they’ve gotta wear shades.

(2019) Romance (Bleecker StreetJohn Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Katie Aselton, Derek Cecil, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena, Isabelle Boni, Tyler Aser, Andrew Gonsalves, Anthony Lafornara, Naveen Havannavar, Jake Harrington, Jeff Moon, Shawn M. Essler, David Chen, Joe Napier, John Sindoni, Gloria J. Dancause, Liz Cameron, Danielle Smith. Directed by Noble Jones

As we get older, we tend to resist change. While the world keeps on turning, it is unsettling to those of us nearing our mortality at a faster clip than, say, Millennials. We want things to stay the way they are, the way we can at least make sense of life, the universe and everything. Sadly, things rarely stay the same for very long, relatively speaking.

Ed Hemsler (Lithgow) is a grumpy old man who thinks Fox News is way too soft. He is certain that our government is going to muck things up and then the end of civilization will occur. He’s been preparing for it, a so-called Doomsday Prepper, stockpiling non-perishables in a hidden bunker in the back of his house that contains a water filtration system and a generation which disposes of exhaust in an ingenious way.

Ed pretty much keeps to himself, hanging out in computer chat rooms with the like-minded, occasionally venturing out to his neighborhood grocery store to pick up supplies, most of which end up in the bunker. Other than those in his chat group, the only human he has any connection with is his son (Cecil) whom he berates for not being properly prepared for the coming End.

One day he spies in his grocery store a mousy woman buying the same sorts of things he does. He recognizes her as a “fellow traveler” as he puts it, not noting the irony; perhaps “kindred spirit” would have been less of a reach. She’s Ronnie (Danner) and after stalking her a bit, discovers she works in a local gift shop. He finally takes initiative by parking his truck next to hers so that she can’t get into her own car. He comes sailing to the rescue as she tries to negotiate the entry into her car, breezily apologizing. Despite the creepy beginning the two hit it off and when Ed asks her out to dinner, she accepts. She’s very private though; she won’t let him set foot in her house but she falls asleep on the couch at his place as they spend the night watching war documentaries, a particular passion of hers.

A romance eventually blooms as he slowly lets her in to his paranoid life and she accepts him for who he is. He even invites her along to Thanksgiving at his son’s house where his long-suffering daughter-in-law (Aselton) tries to make Ronnie feel welcome and Ed’s granddaughter (Thatcher) complains vociferously about her dad. This is a very middle American movie in a whole lot of ways.

Like most movie relationships, Ed and Ronnie have their ups and downs. When Ronnie reveals her own secret, it comes as a shock to both Ed and the rest of us; that part is well done. Sadly, the pacing lags a bit as Jones seems content to belabor point A before getting on to point B which he similarly belabors before moving on to point C. There is also an ending that comes out of nowhere and that you will either love or hate. I must admit I fell into the latter category.

The saving grace here are Danner and Lithgow. Their chemistry is very solid and their relationship after the kind of serial killer start is pretty believable. I don’t understand why Hollywood seems hell-bent on making all their elderly characters to be eccentric and/or demented. Why can’t they just be, y’know, people?

Lithgow has been one of my favorite actors for decades; with a plethora of memorable roles on his resume. He turns in a fine performance here. Ed is crochety, sure, but deep down he is wounded and a little tenderness is just what his heart needs. Danner does Diane Keaton better than anybody since…well, Diane Keaton. She hunches over like a pathologically shy person does, hoping she won’t be noticed. It seems odd that she works in a job in which she is face-to-face with people and she gets along with her fellow clerk Tina (Harlow) who is absolutely tickled that Ronnie has got herself a fella.

The film, which played the Florida Film Festival this past April, has a ton of sweetness but the ending reeks of cynicism and you get the feeling that the writers don’t hang out with people in their 70s much. There’s a message that you can’t focus so much on tomorrow that you forget all about what’s happening right in front of you today, but that you also need to have an eye to the future as well. It’s a balance and most of us learn it early on, at least to an acceptable degree. I would have rather that in making this romance the filmmakers had the courage to make the geriatric leads be believable and relatable instead of objects to be mocked but I suppose that ageism is the last acceptable prejudice (other than fat-shaming) left to Americans.

REASONS TO SEE: Individually, Lithgow and Danner are always entertaining and they have decent chemistry here. Has a very middle American sensibility.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a cop-out. Drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly salty but brief profanity as well as some sexual suggestiveness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although ostensibly set in Mid-America, the film was shot in Rochester, NY and the store windows have area codes for Syracuse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast from the Past
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonders of the Sea

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Cold War (Zimna wojna)


Love and war are often indistinguishable.

(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

 

We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.

In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.

One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.

As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.

But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.

The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.

The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.

Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.

Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Golem

Border (Gräns)


Swimming in really cold water can be a scream.

(2018) Romance (NEON) Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén, Sten Ljunggren, Kjell Wilhelmsen, Rakel Wärmländer, Andreas Kundler, Matt Boustedt, Tomas Åhnstrand, Josefin Neldén, Henrik Johansson, Ibrahim Faal, Åsa Janson, Donald Högberg, Krister Kern, Viktor Åkerblom, Robert Enckell, Elisabeth Göransson.  Directed by Ali Abbasi

 

Sometimes films come along that are so different as to be like a precious gem. You don’t really want to spoil the experience of the moviegoer by telling them too much about the plot or the movie itself – you want them to get the opportunity to see it without any preconceptions, without any prejudice. You want the power of the film to wash over them, or kick them in the gut where applicable. Border is such a film.

Tina (Melander) works at a border crossing as a guard looking for smugglers. She is successful at her job because she has the uncanny ability to smell emotions on people – things like fear, guilt and rage. When she smells that on someone, she hauls them in to have their luggage and their persons examined. Her ability has helped break up a child pornography ring and foil minors trying to smuggle booze into Sweden. Then she meets Vore (Milonoff), a traveler who for some reason foils her olfactory radar.

Vore also bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Tina; both have pronounced ridges above the brow; both have teeth that would make Shane MacGowan flinch and both have mysterious scars on their backs. Both have also been struck by lightning and have a severe fear of thunderstorms which always seem to grow more violent around them. Tina is fast falling for the cavalier Vore despite the fact she lives with Roland (Thorsson) who breeds Rottweilers who for some reason have a strong dislike for Tina.

The movie is mainly from Tina’s point of view; she also has an ailing father (Ljunggren) whose memory is beginning to go who also plays a major role in discovering who Tina really is. Unlike a lot of indie dramas, Tina actually finds out who she really is. This discovery is at the heart of Border which is based on a novella by the same Swede who wrote Let the Right One In.

Both Melander and Milonoff shine in thankless roles. Both have to deal with a good deal of make-up prosthetics and act not so much around the applications but through them. Both are aware of their unconventional looks and use that to define their characters: in Vore’s case, it is a defiance that is at the center of who he is while for Tina it is shame.

The music and cinematography are both very lovely, from the winter wonderland of Sweden framed by beautiful ambient music that is soothing and not unlike the music of Sigur Ros at times. It makes for a dream-like atmosphere although there is nothing dream-like about where Tina works which is industrial and nondescript. This is like a fairy tale set in the real world and that’s really as descriptive as I can get without revealing a bunch of things that would lessen the experience for you. The best advice I can give is to go see this and decide for yourself, particularly if you like the works of off-kilter filmmakers like David Lynch or Yorgos Lanthimos. Abbasi could well end up being compared to those worthies…or they to him.

REASONS TO GO: The soundtrack is a beautiful ambient one. Melander and Milonoff deliver strong performances in thankless roles. It’s a very different movie in a very good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending runs on a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex and graphic nudity as well as some disturbing images and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is Sweden’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Perfume
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mercy

Randy’s Canvas


How much more New England can you get?

(2018) Romance (Vision) Adam Carbone, Michael Emery, Scout Taylor-Compton, Marycarmen Lopez, Richard Riehle, Massi Furlan, Kevin G. Schmidt, Shawn Pyfrom, John Petrella, Ramiro Tavares, Sissy O’Hara, Dick Lebeau, Michael G. Nathan, Stephen O’Neil Martin, Marilyn Baker, Ray Boutin, Christopher L. Ferreira, Sonya Joyner, Courtney Danforth. Directed by Sean Michael Beyer

 

Autism is one of those things that most of us are woefully ignorant of but sort of paint a picture in our minds that is highly inaccurate, generally. Autism doesn’t mean dumb, it doesn’t mean untalented, it doesn’t mean that those afflicted with it can’t lead meaningful lives. Autism means that those who have it process things differently. Yes, some folks with autism are not as smart as other folks with autism. Some can’t handle anything more than the most menial of jobs, although others can excel at high-paying jobs. Like all the rest of us, there are all sorts of people with autism and there are no two alike.

Randy (Carbone) has autism but he is high-functioning. He lives with his brother Henry (Emery), a garbage man in a small town near Providence, Rhode Island. Randy works as a janitor in a small art gallery in town; he likes to spend time talking art with the security guard Bob (Petrella). Randy is an artist himself and one night he forgets his portfolio (which he takes with him wherever he goes apparently) and when Bob looks through it, he realizes the kid is a major talent. Impulsively, Bob hangs one of Randy’s works in the gallery.

That wasn’t a bright idea. The owners of the gallery are furious and they fire the both of them but not before curator Maurizio D’Oro (Furlan) gets a look at Randy’s painting and comes to the conclusion that Bob did – that here was a diamond in the rough. He offers Randy a job in his gallery and an amazing opportunity – to audit an art class at the New England Institute of Technology with the famous Professor Hausdorff (Riehle).

Randy isn’t keen on the idea, although reluctantly gives in when everyone he trusts urges him to go for it. Randy is not known for taking instructions well or following them once they’re given which ends up placing him in an adversarial relationship with his professor. Making matters worse is that he’s in love with Sienna (Lopez) who is the girlfriend of Clinton (Schmidt), a smug entitled scion of the company that employs Henry. Sienna likes hanging out with Henry and Randy (although Clinton’s not at all pleased about it) but has no real romantic inclinations towards Randy. Randy’s classmate, the sunny and outgoing Cassie (Taylor-Compton) tries to help but the bottom line is that Randy is miserable and it’s affecting his art and putting in jeopardy his chance to develop his talent.

To the good: Randy is a fully drawn-out character whose autism is incidental in many ways; it’s not who he is, it’s what he has. He can be a handful to deal with but then again, so can we all. I was surprised to discover that Carbone is not autistic himself; he has all the tics and rapid hand movements down cold.

I was also surprised at Emery who I’ve not heard of but I sincerely hope that changes. He has a great deal of charismatic screen presence and could have a long career ahead of him on film. While Henry isn’t the perfect brother, his heart is in the right place and you get a good sense of that good heart here.

Speaking of heart, this film has plenty of it. You can’t help but root for it to be better. The small town New England locations give the movie a very homey feeling and as you watch you feel like you’re being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold fall rainy day. Not every movie can make that claim.

To the not-so-good: the score which starts out lovely with a simple piano melody gets overbearing with washes of strings that come straight from a cheesy melodrama of 50 years ago. They also use too many pop-folk songs on the soundtrack to the point where I began to wonder if I was watching a movie or listening to a playlist. Simple is better, folks.

The script also gets a little bit overwrought at times, emphasizing the melodramatic elements which should have been played down. Poor Randy is suffering from his first love and we all can relate to the pain of it and I know that for some folks with autism dealing with strong emotions can be nearly impossible but it did get to the point where I felt like the movie was losing its way. Some of the scenes also end a little too abruptly; there’s not a lot of flow between scenes. A steadier hand in the editing bay might have helped.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad but only slightly. This is definitely more of a feel good kind of film and while there was ample room for a teaching moment or two, the filmmakers never choose to go that route and the result is a lightweight romance with a hint of comedy in which the male lead happens to have autism. While the latter is admirable, it’s not enough to make the movie stand on its own essentially. There’s certainly room for improvement but the good news is that I think that those involved with this are capable of better things. Incidentally, check out the trivial pursuit entry in case you need a really good reason to rent or buy this.

REASONS TO GO: I love the New England locations; this film has an awful lot of heart.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets overwrought in places and the soundtrack is intrusive (too many songs!)
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some partial nudity and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proceeds from the film are going to benefit the Autism Society.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bikini Moon

Across the River (2016)


Love is tubular.

(2016) Romance (Random) Elizabeth Healey, Keir Charles, Liz Richardson, Tomasz Aleksander, Leon Ockenden, Gillian MacGregor, Marlon Blue, Rowena Perkins, Pippa Abrahams. Directed by Warren B. Malone

 

There’s no love like your first love. It’s the one that sets the standard for all those that follow it, the one we remember even if we sometimes have trouble remembering some of the people we dated – not a problem for me, I might add. Still, one’s first romantic relationship can have a magical glow to it – although occasionally, if it ends badly enough, leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.

Emma (Healey) is an overworked executive working for a big firm in a gigantic skyscraper in central London. She is leaving work a bit early to pick up a cake for her daughter’s birthday and is entrusting an important task to a suitably nervous assistant (Blue) who, as the British might say, promptly cocks it up. To make matters worse, there’s a transit strike going on in London and Emma is unable to get a car out to pick her up in a timely manner.

Hailing a cab turns out to be a nightmare – every last one is taken so Emma decides to try and take a ferry to get her closer to home. Although an efficient and competent businesswoman, she has a terrible sense of direction and ends up going the wrong way down the Thames. She gets off on the South side of the river without a hope of getting to where she needs to go. She starts looking around for Waterloo station – she knows vaguely where it is but not exactly – and after a frantic phone call from work begins to hint at the massive screw-up enacted by her now hysterical underling, she manages to drop her phone into a bucket of water.

That bucket, in something of an outrageous coincidence, belongs to Ryan (Charles) who was Emma’s first love before he abandoned her without a word of explanation. He is currently an artist carving decorative sand castles at low tide on the side of the Thames and he is genuinely glad to see his ex. Emma is more reserved about her emotions; you can sense the awkwardness in her demeanor and it’s clear she wants to make as fast a getaway as would be acceptably polite. This IS England, after all.

When he hears about her plight, Ryan determines to get Emma home as soon as possible but every one of his attempts ends fruitlessly. The two resolve to walk in the general direction of Emma’s home (Emma considerably less enthusiastic about the prospect than Ryan) and see what turns up. The two begin to talk, light conversation at first and then meaningfully about their relationship and why it failed. It is clear Ryan still harbors feelings about Emma. Emma is more guarded but as he breaks down her walls it seems she might have some feelings too.

My wife would call this a quiet film; she uses that term to describe a movie which is real life-driven and not about superheroes, aliens, monsters, car chases, explosions or the like. Much of the film is about two ex-lovers walking through the neighborhoods of London, talking. It sounds on paper like an absolutely dreary prospect (and frankly, some of it is) but for those of us who are fascinated by the lives of other people and enjoy films about them, there is a lot to recommend.

Healey and Charles are veterans of the independent UK cinema scene and they have a marvelous chemistry together. They largely wrote their own parts and there are hints of hidden depths – Emma is emotionally guarded and has a laser focus on her career, often at the expense of her family. Ryan is secretly terrified that he has failed at life and while he rants on about the ills of capitalism and democracy (he refuses to vote because “all politicians are pricks”) but for all the ranting he does seems disinclined to make his lot better. You can spend an endless amount of time analyzing these two and I won’t do so any further here but those who like to do that sort of thing will find plenty of fertile ground here.

Despite the fine performances by Healey and Charles who spend nearly the entire film onscreen together, the real star of the film is London itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the city utilized so beautifully in a film other than maybe Notting Hill and even that film didn’t capture the everyday life of ordinary Britons as well as this film does. It was seemingly filmed guerrilla-style with handheld cameras which gives the movie a sense of immediacy and intimacy lacking in other romance-inclined films.

While the movie only runs an hour and 15 minutes long so your time investment won’t be overbearing, I do have to admit that in the middle of the movie the film drags in places. Some of the material isn’t going to resonate for those who don’t currently live or in the past have lived in London, although those who fit one of those categories will doubtlessly get a kick seeing their home city on display this way. Ryan’s rants also are hyper-annoying and maybe that is part of the character’s charm for some but I wouldn’t want to spend an hour listening to them (although mercifully they only take up a small percentage of the dialogue).

The movie does have plenty of charm and while it might be small in scope, its ambitions are noble. Any movie that reflects on the human condition, particularly in a place unfamiliar to me, is a movie I want to see which might make me a bit weird to those who prefer their movies to have the things I listed earlier but to each their own. It’s been out on VOD for awhile and for those who want to take a chance on it the rental rates are reasonable. It’s the kind of movie that may not seem like much while you’re watching it but you find that you’re still thinking about it long afterward.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers utilize London as a location beautifully. The main characters have some hidden depths to them.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle. There is an awful lot of bloviating going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including a few F-bombs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the dialogue between Emma and Ryan was improvised by the actors playing them.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cairo Time
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Avengers: Infinity Wars

Keep the Change


This isn’t your usual romantic walk on the boardwalk.

(2017) Romance (Kino-Lorber) Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Jessica Walter, Will Deaver, Tibor Feldman, Nicky Gottlieb, Christina Brucato, Sondra James, Jennifer Brito, Jonathan Tchaikovsky, Tommy Beardmore, Alex Emmanuel, Luke Rosen, Charlton Lamar, Anna Suzuki, Mary Cassera, Evander Duck Jr., Lori Burch, Kennedy Hall, Yvanna Barktidy. Directed by Rachel Israel

 

Some movies are for everybody. Some movies are not. Some come easily to any audience. Others require patience. This film is one of the latter.

David (Polansky) is a man who yearns to be normal. He has some quirky mannerisms, the most glaring being his propensity to tell inappropriate jokes. Most are funny only in the abstract – “Why did the bum vote for Obama? He wanted CHANGE! Haw haw haw!” However, this mannerism has gotten him into trouble on a number of occasions, repelling first dates with jokes about rape and more to the point, making jokes about pigs to a cop. This lands him, very unwillingly, at the Connections program at the Jewish Community Center in New York in which people on varying degrees of the Autism spectrum are given the opportunities to socialize in a safe environment.

David isn’t having it. He’s just “passing through” as he tells one of the participants and is sure that he is far better than the weirdos (his word) that make up the program. However, he is paired up with the somewhat outgoing Sarah (Elisofon) who might break into song with little encouragement and who mostly communicates through clichés and aphorisms. This annoys David at first but when she proclaims that David is “real real smoking hot and sexy,” he takes notice.

This isn’t a match necessarily made in heaven; her affections towards other guys drive David crazy as he wants a normal girlfriend. David’s casual cruelty hurt Sarah to the core but often she is able to scrunch up and just keep going, having learned to endure anything the world can dish out at her. Autism patients often must in order to survive.

The plot isn’t anything to write home about. It’s standard rom-com stuff but of course with a difference; rather than attractive young indie types or Hollywood A-listers, the actors are mostly autistic themselves. Israel is to be applauded for this and as a card carrying lefty I have to give the movie points for this. That doesn’t excuse the movie for going the predictable route though.

I get that the intent seemed to be reminding us that for all the quirks and tics of the autistic they are just like us, and it’s a great message to send. Am I sure that Israel was 100% successful in getting that across? Well, no. I think I have to be careful here because I’m not trying to say that those with autism don’t have stories to tell; of course they do. I can only though react to what I see onscreen and I wasn’t altogether satisfied. Some of the plot points felt a little bit contrived and considering all the trouble the actors and filmmakers went to in making this as authentic as possible they seemed to sabotage their own film in that sense.

Elisofon is absolutely charming. She is guileless and if her character is a bit on the sexy Pollyanna side, there’s nothing wrong with that. You won’t find a character like her anywhere in the movies. Polansky has a much more difficult job; his character is largely selfish and unlikable and it is his character who has to undergo the most change during the course of the film. That’s not always the easiest thing to embrace for any actor. There will be times that he says and does things however that will make most viewers cringe. Even when the person who says something cruel has autism, it still hurts when he or she says it. David doesn’t see himself as autistic or if he does, as one who is above all the others in Connections. He wears sunglasses everywhere and when he gets flustered he makes a loud honking noise that’s a cross between a sneeze and clearing the throat and has his share of insecurities. His overbearing mother (Walter) likely contributes to that smug sense of self-importance. David’s family is wealthy which largely insulates him but his mother wants him to have a “normal” wife, one who can take care of him after his parents are gone. The thought of him pairing up with someone else who is autistic is about the most terrifying thing she can imagine.

There are some moments that will genuinely tug at the heartstrings and those folks who have some contact with the autistic community – whether or not a family member or friend – will look upon this film fondly. The rest of us will likely have to accept that this is an imperfect movie and be okay with that once we decide to pull the trigger and give it a view. One certainly has to applaud the efforts to bring this community onto the screen where they have largely been rendered supporting cast members or stereotypes. This is a breath of fresh air in that regard albeit one that could have used a bit of air freshener. There will be those who don’t have the patience to see this through to the end – and while the first instinct will be to look down on those people as bad people, I find myself having a hard time doing that. After all, asking those who have limitations to go beyond them is no easy task and just because some folks will have as hard a time with this as a certain segment will have with Love, Simon is not a reason for scorn; it’s an opportunity for education.

REASONS TO GO: There are some occasional moments of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will have the patience to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the Best Narrative Feature award and Israel won the Best New Narrative Director award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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Maineland

Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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Star Wars: The Last Jedi