The Sense of an Ending


Jim Broadbent may be stalking YOU.

(2017) Romance (CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter White, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Andrew Buckley, Karina Hernandez, Nick Mohammed, Charles Furness, Guy Paul, Alexa Davies, Dorothy Duffy, Kelly Price. Directed by Ritesh Batra

 

Our memories are in many ways what shape us; they are the filter of our experiences and our means of recalling the important things in our lives both positive and negative. As any police detective will tell you however memory is notoriously unreliable; we have a tendency to bury the unpleasant ones and often change facts to suit our world view. Confronted with the things that actually happened to us, our memories can turn out to be a fragile, ephemeral thing.

Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired and spends his days running a used camera shop in London, one of those delightful niche shops that give London character. He is a bit of a curmudgeon who compared to most shopkeepers doesn’t really want to be bothered by actual customers; they tend to throw a monkey wrench into his carefully organized existence which he protects like a mama bear with her cubs. He has an existence largely removed from the world and that’s very much by choice.

He is essentially a jovial sort on the surface but a bit of a dodderer, enough to be the source of rolling eyes for his barrister ex-wife Margaret (Walter) and his pregnant lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery) who is preparing to embark on single motherhood. Both feel genuine affection for the man (Margaret keeping his last name even though they’re long divorced) but he can be exasperating at times.

Then he gets a letter from a solicitor announcing that the mother (Mortimer) of an ex-girlfriend has passed away, bequeathing to him a small sum of money and more important to Tony, the diary of his ex-friend Adrian (Alwyn). He is reminded of his college days when he (Howle) and Veronica (Mavor) were a thing and Adrian was his closest friend and a person he looked up to with almost a sense of hero-worship. However when Veronica ends up dumping Tony in favor of Adrian, the young Tony writes a poisoned pen letter to the both of them that ends up with tragic consequences.

Now the aged Veronica (Rampling) isn’t willing to part with the diary and Tony isn’t willing to let it lie on general principles (“She willed it to me. It belongs to me” he whines) and  so he pursues legal recourse but possession is nine tenths of the law and in any case no constable is going to force a grieving daughter to give up a diary that she doesn’t want to. Without other recourse, Tony decides to take matters into his own hands and starts stalking Veronica and discovers that what happened in his past isn’t exactly what he thought happened and his own role in events was not what he remembered.

Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, this is directed at a somewhat stately pace by Batra who has also helmed the excellent The Lunchbox. In some ways this has a Merchant-Ivory vibe to it, not necessarily because some of it is set in the past but more the literary feel to the film as well as content that appeals to a more mature, thinking person’s audience.

The smartest thing Batra did was casting Jim Broadbent. One of the most reliable actors of our time, Broadbent – who has an Oscar nomination on his resumé – is given a complex character to work with and to his credit gives that character further dimension. Tony has a heavy streak of self-deception in his nature and Broadbent humanizes that aspect of the part. When confronted with his behavior, I do believe Tony doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong and he is surprised when others think so. He simply doesn’t understand why Veronica behaves towards him as she does. He may not even realize that he opened a second-hand camera shop due to her influence (she was a photographer when he met her and her love for Leica cameras stayed with him to this very day) although I suspect he does.

Rampling is fresh off an Oscar nomination of her own and while this is a much different role for her, she reminds us what a capable actress she always has been and continues to impress with roles that in lesser hands might have ended up being one-dimensional or at least possessed of less depth. Veronica has been visited by tragedy that Tony simply doesn’t understand and it has haunted her the remainder of her days.

The movie won’t appeal much to those looking for escape or for those who may lack the seasoning to appreciate the movies nuance. In my own taste I don’t think there is such a thing but I have to say that it may be too nuanced for some. While I generally recommend reading a book to watching a movie in most cases, this has a very literary feel that I find refreshing in a day and age when movies tend to rely more on CGI and star power.

The film is a bit flawed in the sense that its twist is heavily telegraphed although to be fair the book this is based on is told chronologically so in a sense that follows the book as well although the movie relies on flashbacks more so than the book. What makes the movie worth seeing is the character study particularly of Tony; Broadbent gives us plenty of meat to chew on from that standpoint.

Definitely if you are in the mood for a mindless blockbuster this isn’t where you want to go but if you are in the mood to have something appeal to your intellect, if you want a slice of English life or if you just want to watch some fine acting this is a pretty good selection in that category. It’s definitely flawed but Broadbent and Rampling are both so wonderful that they make even a flawed movie seem like great art.

REASONS TO GO: Broadbent and Rampling deliver strong performances as you might expect.
REASONS TO STAY: This is probably not for younger audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as an image of violence, a bit of sexuality and mature thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer and Goode were previously featured together in Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Six Rounds

For Here or To Go?


A Bollywood dance number in the Silicon Valley.

(2015) Dramedy (Many Cups of Chai) Ali Fazal, Melanie Kannokada, Rajit Kapur, Amitosh Nagpal, Omi Valdya, Samrat Chakrabarti, Keith Stevenson, Damien Chen, Alan Coyne, Malavika Jayasimha, Niyati Joshi, Gaurav Dwivedi, Vij Nathan, Satish Sattnathan, Dee Marshall, Robin Oleson, Debbie Vu, Ashok Tangri, Gursimran Singh, Richa Sukla, Anita Vora. Directed by Rucha Humnabadkar

 

Immigration is a hot button topic these days. Often it seems that immigration of any kind – even the legal sort – is anathema to some. It is fact, however, that more illegal immigrants overstay their temporary visas than climb over walls and cross rivers. It is the most common form of illegal immigration.

Not that Vivek Pandit (Fazal) is considering it. He is a talented programmer who has come up with some software that will make a difference; even though he is working for a large company that doesn’t appreciate him, a new start-up is more than interested in his software and it looks like a lucrative offer is imminent.

The problem is that time is running out on Vivek’s visa – he has a year left until he must leave. The start-up really doesn’t have the manpower or the inclination to help him get his green card and the offer falls apart. Frustrated, Vivek looks to try and get his immigration status sorted out.

With him are his roommates Sam (Chakrabarti) who has a zest for life and a somewhat indefatigable attitude and Lakshmi (Valdya) who is a gay man and is terrified of telling his parents, which further fuels his desire to remain in the United States permanently. All three are facing their own immigration issues; while all are making good money in Silicon Valley, none of them are willing to buy furniture while their immigration status is in limbo.

Vivek also meets Shveta (Kannokada) at a Bollywood speed dating event  and the two hit it off, but once again Vivek’s uncertain future prevents the couple from truly exploring the possibilities their relationship could offer.

Although the movie first made its first appearance at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival back in 2015 (appropriately enough since it’s set there) it’s just getting a theatrical release now and it certainly is as timely now as it was then if not more so. Considering the ruling party’s seeming disdain for the role of immigrants in our society and a feeling that the system which is clearly broken and in need of fixing that it is not going to get anytime soon this could make for compelling viewing had the filmmakers not gone the light touch route.

Fazal is an appealing and handsome lead and exudes charm, charisma and screen presence. He could very easily become a romantic lead in major studio films if Hollywood weren’t so squeamish about casting Indian men in anything but villainous roles. He has done a couple of Hollywood films (including Furious 7) and looks to have a very promising career ahead of him.

The movie has a lot of energy and even does a Bollywood-style musical number in Silicon Valley (which is about as surreal as it gets). Having lived and worked in that area for more than 12 years prior to coming to Orlando, I will admit that some of the settings in America’s tech capital brought back some memories that gave me the warm fuzzies. That won’t be true for everybody but do take that into account when reading this.

While the romance between Vivek and Shveta seemed to be somewhat by-the-numbers, there were a couple of scenes that generated some heat. However the romance seemed a bit more of a distraction than a central aspect of the plot. Given the subject of the systemic issues of immigrating to America which I think would make a great movie, it’s a bit disappointing that it is treated more as a light comedy rather than a serious issue.

Don’t get me wrong though; this is very entertaining, charming and sweet. The leads are likable and good-looking. There is a lot of energy in the film and you can tell it was made with affection and joy. All of these are very good things indeed. I think the movie was trying to skirt the line between being light entertainment and a serious issue film and ends up falling over the light entertainment precipice. Perhaps someone else will make a film from the legal immigrant’s standpoint that will shed some needed light on this controversial issue.

REASONS TO GO: Something like a Bollywood film in an American setting, the film takes on the complexity and frustration of our immigration system. It’s buoyant and fun upon occasion.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic aspect seems a bit rote. The subject matter is often given a much more lightweight handling than it deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature-length debut of director Rucha Humnabadkar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outsourced
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg

Are We Not Cats


Someone needs a little hair tonic.

(2016) Romance (Tri-Coast Worldwide) Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere, Dean Holtermann, Charles Gould, Adeline Thery, Alice Frank, Tuffy Questell, Theodore Bouloukos, Joe Buldo, Ernst Zorin, Marika Dacluk, Bill Weeden, Alex Goldberg, Willy Muse, Carson Grant, Kelsea Dakota. Directed by Xander Robin

Some movies are easily described while others beggar description. This is one of the latter even though I’m about to give it a try.

Eli (Nicholson) seems to have a stable if unsatisfying life; he has a girlfriend, a steady job and an apartment in New York City – it’s a decent enough life. In a matter of hours though he loses all three and on top of that his parents decide to vacate New York for the heat of Arizona. “Visit us!” his mom exclaims once Eli has loaded all their furniture in the moving truck. That doesn’t seem likely given his situation – he’s essentially homeless and is sleeping in the delivery van that is his only source of income.

He gets a job delivering an engine to a small upstate town that will at least keep him afloat for a few months where he meets Kyle (Godere) who is having the engine put in his car but unfortunately Eli arrives with it too late for Kyle to drive out of the repair shop that day so Eli gives Kyle a ride home. In turn, Kyle takes Eli to an underground party in an abandoned warehouse space where he meets Kyle’s girlfriend Anya (Lopez) who seems to be the hippest person in all of New York State and that includes the five boroughs. Eli is quite smitten with her but Kyle gets mad at the attention Eli is giving Anya and he hits her. Anya seems to find that amusing but I guarantee most audience members won’t.

In order to stay nearby, Eli takes a job where Kyle works much to the dismay of both Kyle and Anya. When Kyle has to leave on some sort of trip, Eli keeps Anya company while he’s away. At first she is firm about keeping things on a friendship level; the two have a lot in common and seem comfortable with each other but both of them are hiding something; Eli is suffering from trichotillomania (a compulsion for pulling out one’s own hair) while Anya has trichophagia (a compulsion to eat human hair). We discover that Anya has been wearing a wig the whole time and is nearly bald from the yanking out of her own hair and consuming it. The two eventually have sex and while Eli sleeps Anya consumes his luxuriant head of hair, leaving him looking like a radiation victim as she does.

One of the consequences of trichophagia is that it can create massive hair balls in the intestines, effectively blocking the normal digestive process and this is what happens to Anya. Being that she lives in the middle of nowhere in a loft in which she has created a machine that creates light shows and kinetic movement by the sounds of a record played on an old-fashioned turntable, no help can arrive for hours so a distraught Eli realizes he has but one option – to perform surgery on her himself.

Yes, that’s essentially the plot and yes, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I will give Robin props for at least coming up with an original concept here even if the execution isn’t always what I might like it to be. There is a little bit too much shaky handheld camera shots for my taste, but others may be okay with that. This is definitely going to appeal to Millennials as Eli and particularly Anya pretty much are almost stereotypical characters from that generation. In some ways, the whole film is an allegory for what it is to be from that generation; the characters have nowhere to go, nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. At least, to a mind of the generation that essentially fucked things up for Millennials.

Nicholson and Lopez are appealing actors who don’t appear to mind taking chances. Certainly it couldn’t be easy either having their hair shaved to look like victims of an atomic bomb or more likely to wear wigs that make them appear that way. During scenes in the middle of the movie, Lopez wears blue lipstick that gives her a corpse-like appearance and presages the scenes in the latter stages of the movie where she is getting her home surgery done.

That scene is fairly bloody and visceral and it may upset those who are affected by such things. There is a kind of absurdist humor that’s going on during it though that does lighten the mood considerably and in fact the whole situation is kind of abstract in a way – I don’t think you run into people who would willingly perform surgery (particularly on someone they are fond of) without any training whatsoever. Either Eli is an idiot, in a panic or self-confident beyond rationality. I’d probably choose the second explanation if given a choice.

The landscapes are pretty bleak here and most of the movie feels grimy and post-apocalyptic even though it’s clear that society continues to function in the movie (if you consider what society is doing right now “functioning”). Unfortunately the story feels disjointed and confusing and I had trouble at times figuring out why people were acting the way they did in the movie. There is a certain amount of nihilism present in modern society but if it really is as much as portrayed here, then we are truly screwed.

REASONS TO GO: It’s kind of a nifty allegory for how millennials are viewed. It’s edgy and at least tries to take a few chances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s way too much shaky cam. The film is fairly disjointed and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, sexuality, some disturbing images as well as a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally started life as a 2013 short with the same title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fly (1986)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: A United Kingdom

La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue

The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms