Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

Leviathan (Leviafan) (2014)


Dem bones, dem bones.

Dem bones, dem bones.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Alexi Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Sergei Pokhodaev, Alexi Rozin, Kristina Pakarina, Lesya Kudryashova, Valery Grishko, Igor Sergeev, Dimitri Byovski-Romashov, Igor Savochkin, Sergei Borisov, Sergei Bachurski, Natalya Garustovich, Irina Gavra. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Life can be unrelentingly bleak. When you live in a coastal town in the northwestern fringes of Russia, where corruption is how it’s always been and ever going to be, how does a single man find justice when the entire system is rigged against him?

Kolya (Serebryakov) is a mechanic living in just such a town. He lives with his son Roman (Pokhodaev) from his first marriage, and his second wife Lilya (Lyadova) in a house that has a stunning view of the harbor, and when the sun is shining (a rare occurrence admittedly) the front windows allow a great amount of light into the small but cozy home. There are worse places to be.

Until the corrupt Mayor Vadim (Madyanov) rests his eyes on the land and realizes that it could be a gold mine for him. However, he has to get his hands on it and that won’t be easy or legal – Kolya doesn’t want to sell. His grandfather built the home with his own two hands after all. But Vadim usually gets what he wants and he uses arcane laws to steal the land right from under Kolya.

However, Kolya knows a guy. In this case, it’s the lawyer Dmitri (Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy of Kolya. Dmitri has the goods on Vadim which might be enough to call off the dogs on Kolya. However, when Dmitri is invited by one of Kolya’s best friends for an afternoon of target shooting, events will transpire that will lead to an abrupt reversal of fortune that will leave none of those involved in the story unaffected.

It is incredible to me that this movie, a pointed indictment at corruption not only in the Russian legal system but in the Russian soul, would have been selected by Russia as their nominee for the Foreign Language film Oscar but not only was it submitted, it made the final short list, losing eventually to Ida for the statuette. I can see why critics and Academy voters loved this movie.

It is, however, unrelentingly bleak which is I suppose not to be unexpected from a Russian film – Russian literature and Russian movies are notorious for their grim outlook. This isn’t a happy, uplifting movie that is going to make you feel better about things; this is a movie about the travails of life, how those who have get the upper hand on those who don’t and how they generally wield it like a club against them. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, in this case, it is a well-acted picture, particularly in the case of Lyadova as the long-suffering Lilya. Her expression is mournful, her demeanor is mousy. Kolya is a bit of a hothead, given to smacking his son upside the head when he is rude which, as a teenage boy, is most of the time. Roman saves most of his vitriol for Lilya whom he clearly doesn’t care for much. There is some question as to what happened to the first wife and when – the film doesn’t explain that bit of particular information, but one gets the sense that Roman knew his mom.

In fact, most of the cast is top-notch although they aren’t well known in the U.S. They have that dour Russian mentality of expecting the worst and usually having their expectations met. Other than the hopelessly arrogant and corrupt Vadim, they know their lot in life is to suffer and to get no justice in their suffering, so they drink.

And they drink a lot. They drink to drown their sorrows. They drink to celebrate. They drink when they go out shooting. They drink when they have a meal. They drink because it’s Wednesday. They drink because they’re awake. If ever there was a movie that would serve as a poster child for temperance, it’s this one. Kolya is the biggest drinker of the lot, a raging alcoholic even by Russian standards.

This isn’t a movie for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate it. There are some difficult moments here, some telegraphed and some not. There are also some light-hearted movies, such as when the group goes out on a shooting outing, they pull out pictures of old Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Stalin to use as targets. My friend Larry, a student of Russian customs and society, found that particularly amusing.

However, the amusements come few and far between here and depict a life in Russia that is cold, miserable and unfair. Which is a lot like life everywhere else for the most part (except for those equatorial nations where it is hot, miserable and unfair).

REASONS TO GO: Searing social commentary. Lyadova is a real find. Well-acted throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly grim.
FAMILY VALUES: Coarse language, some sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While based on actual events both in Russia and in the United States, the screenplay was written as a modern reworking of the Book of Job.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Focus

The Sixth Sense


This is what people look like when they see dead people.

This is what people look like when they see dead people.

(1999) Supernatural Drama (Hollywood) Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis, Bruce Norris, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Angelica Torn, Lisa Summerour, Firdous Bamji, Samia Shoaib, Hayden Saunier, Janis Dardaris, Sarah Ripard. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

People who see a lot of movies, like I do, are like chocoholics in a candy store – after a while, it all tastes the same. Then again, once in a while something comes along that surprises you, makes you remember what it is you love about chocolate – or movies – in the first place.

The Sixth Sense is such a movie. The marketing campaign was ingenious. It was really meant to set your expectations to a certain level and it did so very effectively. Ho hum, another fright flick in a summer that saw Deep Blue Sea and The Haunting ad inconsistium. Stars Bruce Willis, you say? The Man With the Iron Smirk never seemed to get tired of playing the Bruno character he invented in Moonlighting and hadn’t varied the character much up to the time this came out.

He plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a psychiatrist (haven’t we seen this one before?) for children who as the movie starts is celebrating a mayoral award for his sterling service to the community. Unfortunately, his celebration is ruined by a former patient (Wahlberg) with a chip on his shoulder and, more importantly, a gun in his hand. Faster than you can say “plot complication” Willis is lying on his back, wondering what hit him. It turns out it was a bullet, which can really ruin a nice evening.

Time passes as it often does in grade-B thrillers and eventually Dr. Crowe is back at work, trying to reach a child who is taunted by his classmates, who suffers from extreme panic attacks and Hides A Deep Dark Secret and yes, there always is one in grade-B thrillers.

At first reluctant to share it with the kindly doctor after a particularly hideous episode at a party (and a few very spooky encounters beforehand), he finally confesses what’s on his mind: little Cole Sear (Osment) can see dead people, and not just ANY dead people – he sees really grisly ghosts who’d met gruesome fates. As the encounters become more and more chilling, the at-first skeptical psychiatrist comes to believe that there may be more than just your garden variety psychosis at work here.

The plot description hardly does the flick justice. It reads like a Direct-to-Home Video turkey just waiting to be plucked. But an astonishingly good performance by Willis (who carries his wounds not so much in the body but in his eyes) and the once-in-a-decade plot twist that will leave you literally gasping in your seat, wondering why the heck you didn’t spot it coming. You will want to see the movie AGAIN so that you can see it from a fresh perspective. Well, that makes it first-rate in my book. And lest we forget, Osment turned in one of the best performances ever by a juvenile actor. Although his juvenile career was brief, Osment is still one of the standards we judge preteen actors by.

Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan proved himself an exciting new talent, able to tell a story simply without resorting to cheap clichés or lavish effects, creating a wonderfully tense environment that sucks the viewer in without asking him to leave their brain in the popcorn bucket. Although there are some genuinely gruesome moments, and more than a few leap-out-of-your-seat-and-scream-out-loud shocks, The Sixth Sense never sinks to excess, becoming in effect a poster child for less-is-more. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the lessons to heart; his movies since then have become exercises in excess. His star has fallen so completely that his most recent movie, After Earthhis name wasn’t use in the promotion of the film at all for fear it would keep audiences away.

In an era of much-ballyhooed, effects-laden disappointments, it’s comforting to know that the two best movies of that summer, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense met with a great deal of commercial success as well. They remain even now, nearly 15 years after their theatrical release beacons of hope that a new breed of horror movies that are intellectual instead of (or at least as well as) visceral may be on the way to multiplexes that are still cluttered with too many movies about teens making bad choices.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing twist that sets the standard for plot twists. Terrific performances from Willis and Osment. Subtly creepy without resorting to over-the-top effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The twist is so good that most people will assume you’ve seen it and tell you what it is.

FAMILY MATTERS: A fair amount of violence and gore. Some very disturbing images and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie opened on director M. Night Shyamalan’s birthday.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: On the original DVD release, there was a short super-8 horror movie Shyamalan made as a teen (which sadly wasn’t included on the Blu-Ray or Vista edition DVD), plus interviews with audience members who’d just seen the movie, as well as a featurette on the rules and clues that signified the supernatural elements. A Vista edition DVD also added a featurette on paranormal investigations as well as a look at the storyboard process. All of the above (other than the super-8 footage) are also available on the Blu-Ray release.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $672M on a $40M budget; this was a massive blockbuster by any standards.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Big Bang

Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot)


Micmacs

The wild world of the Micmacs.

(2009) Crime Comedy (Sony Classics) Dany Boon, Andre Dussollier, Nicolas Marie, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrrier, Omar Sy, Dominique Pinon, Michel Cremades, Marie-Julie Baup, Urbain Cancelier, Patrick Paroux. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

For the most part we have to pick our battles. Getting upset over little things is a sure way to angina. However, some offenses require a response, preferably one which is justified by the offense. When the offender is rich and powerful, it requires a great deal of shenanigans to get even.

Bazil (Boon) is a sad sack video clerk whose father was killed by a land mine when Bazil was a boy. He steps out of his video store one night to investigate a commotion and is promptly shot in the head, the bullet lodging in his brain. The surgeon is left with the choice of removing the bullet which might well render Bazil into a vegetative state or to leave it in with the possibility that the bullet might kill him at any moment. The surgeon, not the most decisive of men, flips a coin and the bullet remains where it is.

When Bazil recovers, he discovers he’s been fired from the video store (and given the shell casing from his shooting as a parting gift) and evicted from his apartment. Homeless, he tries to earn his way by stealing (which makes him feel too guilty) and by being a street performer (which he kind of sucks at). Despondent, he meets Slammer (Marielle) who brings him into a cave created in a trash dump where a group of misfits, presided over Mama Chou (Moreau), so named because she does the cooking.

Also in the troupe are Elastic Girl (Ferrier), a contortionist; Remington (Sy) who speaks only in hoary old clichés; Buster (Pinon), a human cannonball; Tiny Pete (Cremades) who creates amazing Rube Goldberg-esque machines and Calculator (Baup) who can measure and calculate things with a single glance.

While out scavenging, Bazil discovers that the arms makers responsible for the land mine that killed his father and the bullet embedded in his skull have factories directly across from one another and are the greatest of rivals, each one suspicious of the other. Bazil sees a marvelous opportunity to pit one against the other, Marconi (Marie) against de Fenouillet (Dussollier). It will take meticulous planning and the unusual skills of the Micmacs to pull it off.

Jeunet has a marvelous visual sense as shown in Amelie and City of Lost Children. He doesn’t use a lot of CGI (although he does digitally manipulate the color and composition of certain scenes) but he has a love for things that are quirky and a sense of humor that recalls the exploits of silent comics like Chaplin, Keaton and to a lesser extent Jacques Tati.

Boon is amazing here. He is one of the top comic actors not just in France but anywhere. He has a very expressive face and impeccable timing for his physical stunts. He is the heart and soul of the movie and stands in for every little guy who ever stood up to the man.

Those who love the inventions of Rube Goldberg will be in heaven here. Some of Tiny Pete’s sculptures are a hoot. Those who love French comedy will also be in heaven. Some of the jokes take a sub-orbital flight over the heads of the mainstream American audiences but by and large the humor here is universal.

There is a bit of an allegory going on about might versus right, but the substance is surprisingly light. It’s quirky and eccentric like the aunt who wears too much lipstick and talks way too loudly. It has a terrific imagination and while it didn’t do gangbusters box office business, it still is worth checking out for adventurous viewers.

WHY RENT THIS: Incredibly charming and clever and Boon is one of the great screen comedians working today.  The Rube Goldberg devices are inventive.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The sense of humor is very broad and some of the French pop culture references might go over American heads.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality and some violence, as well as a few adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Jeunet has said that the film’s characters were defined by counterparts in Toy Story.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A session from the Tribeca Film Festival with director Jeunet and actress Ferrier, and also a feature on the progression of animations of the deaths of famous figures from history shown during the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on a $40M production budget; the movie didn’t make back its initial investment during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Killer Inside Me