Abe


MasterChef, Junior.

(2019) Family (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Noah Schnapp Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Tom Mardirosian, Salem Murphy, Daniel Oreskes, Gero Carillo Victor Mendes, Ildi Silva, Devin Henry, Steve Routman, Josh Elliiott Pickel, Alexander Hodge, Debargo Sanyal, Teddy Coluca, Jorja Brown, Troy Valjean Rucker, Vivian Adams. Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade

 

There are equalizers that remind us that we all are human regardless of our cultural, ethnic and religious differences; music is one. Family is another. Food is a third.

Abe (Schnapp) knows all about those differences. His father (Moayed) is an atheist whose parents are devout Palestinian Muslims. His mother (Dominczyk) comes from a Jewish family from Israel. Family gatherings, like Abe’s twelfth birthday, are a little bit like the Seven Days War at the dinner table. For the love of Pete, even a discussion of hummus can turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Abe – whose Israeli grandfather (Margolis) calls him Avraham, his other calls him Abraham and his paternal grandfather (Mardirosian) and grandmother (Murphy) call him Ibrahim – prefers just plain old Abe, and plain old Abe is just plain old nuts about food. He’s a twelve-year-old foodie, interested in trying out new things, new tastes and he lives in the perfect place in all the world for that – Brooklyn. He longs to become a chef, uniting cuisines and hopefully, in doing so, uniting people. Like his family, for instance.

His parents, too busy making decisions about his life without really listening to him, particularly his stubborn father who refuses to allow any other school of thought other than his own enter Abe’s sphere of consciousness. All Abe wants to do is cook. His parents, meaning well, want to send him to summer camp but the cooking camp they send him to is pretty remedial. He chooses to give this camp a miss.

Abe, like a lot of kids his age, is Internet-savvy and there’s a chef on Instagram who is an up-and-coming king of fusion. Chef Chico (Seu) is a Brazilian who brings bold flavors to his food. Abe seeks him out and pesters him into giving him a job so that Abe can learn from him. At first, the job consists mainly of taking out the trash but Abe picks up on things, eventually taking his grandmother’s recipe for lamb shawarma in to make tacos for the crew meal. Chico is actually impressed.

&His parents are not, however, when they learn what Abe has been up to. All the stress of familial pressures has been tearing his mom and dad apart and they separate. Abe is devastated; he looks to reunite his fractured family with a Thanksgiving meal featuring the flavors of both countries, but can a conflict nobody has been able to solve be settled over a meal of turkey and falafel?

Well, no, but that won’t stop this movie from letting you think that it can. I admit, food is a powerful thing, bringing emotions and memories of home to the fore, but for most of us, we are aware that some differences can’t be settled simply. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t send the message that it can, but it does send a message that people can have their minds opened up, which is the first step towards understanding which in turn is the first step towards peace.

For a movie about a foodie, there isn’t as much food porn as I thought there’d be, which is actually kinda nice. I didn’t leave this movie particularly jonesing for falafel, hummus or shawarma. Not even for ramen tacos, which is Abe’s first attempt at fusion.

Schnapp, whom Netflix viewers might recognize from Stranger Things, does a pretty credible job considering that the role is kind of Afterschool Special plucky kid 101. Abe is likable and Schnapp brings that across; he is also anguished that everything he does seems to offend one side of the family or another, and I can actually sympathize with his plight. It is every adolescent nightmare, but in Abe’s case it is literally true.

Andrade, directing his first American movie (it’s actually a co-production with Brazil), uses what is becoming a new cliché in showing the smartphone screens of Abe’s various searches and chat programs, which actually takes you out of the story a little bit. While I agree that if you’re going to show a typical 12-year-old kid in 2020, you’re going to have to show him/her having on online life, the way it is done here becomes somewhat intrusive, as does the Latin-tinged score. The comedy here, while gentle, feels forced and the ending is a bit too sitcom-style pat with everyone sitting to a meal together.

This is an appropriate movie for kids, but if I were you parents, I wouldn’t tell them what it’s about. They might not want to see it based on the description, but they will probably end up getting a kick out of it, although I might warn them that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict isn’t going to be settled over a good meal. Nonetheless it is a pretty decent family film that can be enjoyed over a nice bowl of popcorn; how you choose to season it is up to you.

REASONS TO SEE: Does tackle some serious subjects in a non-threatening manner.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit self-aware, a little too pat, a little too forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Margolis and Mardirosian, who play Israeli and Palestinian patriarchs here, both played prisoners in the hit HBO series Oz.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Polar

Camp Cold Brook


Shooting a ghost hunt in an abandoned summer camp where a bunch of campers died? What could go wrong?

(2018) Horror (Shout!) Chad Michael Murray, Danielle Harris, Courtney Gains, Michael Eric Reid, Loren Ledesma, Jason Von Erman, Mary Kathryn Bryant, Candice De Visser, Cate Jones, Mary Fjelstad-Buss, Juliette Kida, Doug Van Liew, Dale Niehaus, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland, Corbin Tyler, Chloe Blotter, Pamela Bell, Connor Scott Frank, Debbi Tucker, Katie Fairbanks.  Directed by Andy Palmer

 

The paranormal investigation TV show is a staple of entertainment over the last, I don’t know, ten years, let’s say. Setting one in a staple slasher film locale – the abandoned summer camp – would indicate a melding of the two sub-genres, a good idea whose time has come. Unfortunately, that’s not the idea the filmmakers went with.

Jack Wilson (Murray) is the ruggedly handsome host of a cable TV paranormal investigation show that is in the midst of filming its third season when Jack is summoned by a network executive to be told that there won’t be a fourth season. However, Jack convinces him that the group is about to film their biggest show yet, one that will conclusively prove the existence of life after death. Reluctantly, the exec gives them one more episode to air as a summer special. If the ratings warrant it, they can talk about renewing then.

All Jack needs is a killer show, but to date mostly the group has come up snake eyes when it comes to any sort of paranormal activity. They don’t want to film at places every other paranormal investigation show has done to death; they need someplace new and preferably with a gruesome past. Production assistant Emma (De Visser) suggests a summer camp in rural Oklahoma where 20 years earlier 28 young campers drowned. The church that owns the campsite has steadfastly refused to let anyone in since then.

By an amazing coincidence, Jack grew up not far from there (non-spoiler alert: that isn’t the last amazing coincidence the plot will utilize). His mother Esther (Fjelstad-Buss) is less than pleased that her son is going to that place. Same with the least-sheriff-looking sheriff ever (Van Liew) as well as assorted townspeople. You almost expect the Scooby Do gang to show up.

But into the camp they go, Jack and Emma and jaded cameraman Kevin (Reid) and producer Angela (Harris). The cameras are placed, the lights are lit and the four of them hunker down. Soon, it starts – the unexplained noises, the half-glimpsed figures. Then, fires light and extinguish by themselves. Objects move without anyone being there. Then, things start to get real. As it turns out, a local woman whose child was killed by a church transport van, needs the lives of 30 other children to resurrect her own child through witchcraft. 28 kids died that night and the witch disappeared. Now, maybe she’s back to finish the job?

The movie has some things going for it and other things going against it. For one thing, it’s a little light on scares and the plot is on the formulaic side. Most veteran horror fans will see just about every plot point coming, quite possibly including the twist ending which, while nifty enough, wasn’t particularly shocking.

Genre legend Joe Dante was one of the producers on this, and his participation is slyly referred to in a couple of places (for example, one of the show’s tag lines is “We make the illogical logical” which was also a line used by the dad in Gremlins to promote his business. I found those little Easter eggs endearing.

This isn’t a bad horror movie but it could have been better. A little less reliance on formula and a few more legitimate scares would have gone a long way. There is some potential here though and I have high hopes that may of the performers here both on and off camera have better things ahead of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Murray has some real leading man appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat formulaic and a little light on scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are images of terror, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made the rounds on the horror film festival circuit before getting a simultaneous streaming and limited theatrical release this weekend.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grave Encounters
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mid90s

Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me

The Story of Us


You mean...Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

You mean…Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

(1999) Romance (Universal) Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Julie Hagerty, Rita Wilson, Ken Lerner, Colleen Rennison, Jake Sandvig, Victor Raider-Wexler, Albert Hague, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, Red Buttons, Alan Zweibel, Art Evans, Lucy Webb, Paul Reiser, Marci Rosenberg, Bill Kirchenbauer, Jessie Nelson. Directed by Rob Reiner

Hollywood is a town built on ego. The stars, the producers, the directors, the studio execs all have heads so swelled they won’t fit into ordinary cars – that’s why they take limos everywhere. Hell, even the bicycle couriers got ‘tude.

Isn’t it funny, then, that with all that excess of self-worth, nobody will break Hollywood’s critical commandment: Thou Shalt End Happily (unless Thou Art Remaking Shakespeare). Sometimes, that formula gets in the way of a good movie.

The Story of Us chronicles a marriage in its final stages of dissolution, as Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a once-happy couple who can hardly be civil to one another for more than a few moments at a time. As their marriage crumbles, they try to figure out how they’re going to break it to their kids, who are away at camp. At the same time, they’re wondering where things went wrong.

Like so many Rob Reiner films (When Harry Met Sally most notably), both characters are likable enough to keep us interested, but flawed enough to be just like the people who surround us in Real Life. Although the focus here is on Willis, Pfeiffer’s character seemed more sympathetic to me. Thrust into the role of disciplinarian, pragmatist and organizer, Pfeiffer hates what she’s become (i.e. her own mother), but feels powerless to escape her situation. She takes out her rage on her husband, whom she blames for not lifting her burdens, or at least sharing them.

For his part he is bewildered by her behavior and is unable to sympathize, yearning for the happy-go-lucky woman he married. Neither one is able to see the other’s viewpoint, and therein lies their problem.

Willis followed one of his all-time career performance in The Sixth Sense with an outstanding effort here, his best romantic comedy work since his Moonlighting days. While Academy members have never really had Willis on their dance card, one wonders if they tended to view him as little more than Mr. Demi Moore, a label which hounded him when he was unable to match the success of the Die Hard film series throughout the ’90s. Then again, he’s generally played pretty much the same character with astonishing regularity with occasional diversions like The Jackal.

Viewers are bound to notice Rita Wilson, however. As Pfeiffer’s best friend (and wife to Willis’ best friend) she positively dominates the screen every time she’s on it. She is, as Da Queen put it, just like every woman’s best friend in real life. That is to say, brassy, catty, vulgar and supportive. It is no accident that most women who view the film howl at Wilson’s jokes while the men tend to squirm and scratched their receding hairlines perplexedly.

That Pfeiffer and Willis were both dealing with the breakup of their real-life relationships while The Story Of Us was filming undoubtedly gave both actors an additional wellspring of emotion from which to draw. A profound scene near the end of the movie when Willis at last sees himself through his wife’s eyes couldn’t help but get one wondering if he was thinking of Demi at that moment.

My biggest gripe with this movie is the denouement, which is forced and happens in such an unbelievable and predictable manner that it leaves you spitting out “Hollywood!” in a scornful tone at your empty popcorn bowl as you turn off your screen. We spend two hours exploring why the marriage is breaking up, but we never really understand what puts it back together again.

Pfeiffer and Willis are appealing, but it’s the realism of their characters that make this movie satisfying, until it’s shattered in the final reel. I still recommend it strongly, based on the performances and the depiction of a relationship that is not unlike those of friends and family. Not a bad date movie for a couple going through a bad patch.

WHY RENT THIS: Good chemistry between Willis and Pfeiffer. Extraordinary performance by Wilson. Realistic characters and situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE. Oh that Hollywood ending! Gaah!

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and some sexy stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The last full-length feature film for Red Buttons and Albert Hague.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A featurette on the locations the film was shot at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.9M on a $50M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jobs