Swimming with Men


Rob Brydon is reaching for something.

(2018) Comedy (Sundance Selects)  Rob Brydon, Rupert Graves, Thomas Turgoose, Jane Horrocks, Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Parker, Ronan Daly, Chris Jepson, Spike White, Robert Daws, Charlotte Riley, Aschlin Ditta, Harry Demmon, Andrew Knott, Christian Rubeck, Orlando Seale, Luca Ribezzo, Margot Przymierska, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

We all need to blow off steam. Some do it by playing video games. Others do it with hobbies like cooking, gardening and so on. Some self-medicate while others go the sporting route. Some prefer physical exertions; running, working out or swimming.

Eric Scott (Brydon) is an accountant who is spiraling into crippling depression. His job is as boring as you might guess it is, his teenage son Billy (White) has little use for him (as teenage sons will do) and he suspects his wife Heather (Horrocks) who recently was elected to the borough council of having an affair with her obsequious boss (Daws).

Eric waits for six o’clock to check out of life for a little bit, heading down to the local municipal pool to swim laps and sometimes slip to the bottom to drown out the noise of his phone ringing endlessly, no pun intended. There he meets a group of seven men who get together to practice a sport men generally shy away from: synchronized swimming.

Yes, it’s an Olympic sport but only for the ladies. I think men are mainly confounded by the concept of working and moving in unison to create something beautiful. For the most part, the guys that Eric hooks up with – depressed Kurt (Akhtar), confidence lacking Luke (Graves), petty convict Tom (Turgoose), recently widowed Ted (Carter), non-talkative Silent Bob (Jepson), The New Guy (Daly) who refuses to give his name, even though he’s been part of the troupe for more than a year, and frustrated Colin (Mays).

Pool manager Susan (Riley) who knows something about synchronized swimming since she’s dating the captain of the Swedish team, sees something in these middle-aged, paunchy non-athletes. She endeavors to train them, thinking that they can represent Great Britain at the unofficial world championships (and yes, that’s really a thing) in Milan. The men other than Luke (who has a sweet on for the taken Susan) are a bit reluctant but they decide to go for it.

There’s nothing easy about it though and the men find themselves suspecting they are in over their heads. In the meantime, Eric’s marriage is continuing to crumble at an accelerating rate and work has gone from boring to irrelevant. Still, now he has something to believe in – if only his team can believe in each other.

Brydon is in many ways a poor man’s Hugh Grant; he’s a very handsome man who somehow manages to project an almost hangdog expression. He’s the anchor for the movie in more ways than one. I’ve enjoyed him as Steve Coogan’s second banana in the Trip movies but he’s not here doing impressions or wacky voices but relying on his charm and his comic ability and there’s more than enough here to carry the film. That’s a good thing because for most of the first part of the film Eric is quite the jerk.

The rest of the cast, mainly acclaimed British character actors and veterans of British television, acquit themselves well although their parts are mainly one-dimensional. It’s actually a little comforting that sort of thing happens in the UK as well as here. Anyway some of the characters could have done with a bit more depth.

Not all the comedy works and the end is more than a little bit predictable but this is a movie with a whole lot of heart and charm and while critics tend to grouse about movies like this being emotionally manipulative (which never fails to amaze me – all films are to some extent), this one found it a nicely made movie that gave me enough of the warm fuzzies to make it more than worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is really nice. The ending is not a shocker but still heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: The supporting characters lack depth even though they are well-acted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Swedish men’s synchronized swimming team was played by the actual Swedish national swimming team. This film is loosely based on their story.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man on the Dragon
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Snowflake

DriverX


After midnight, he’s gonna let it all hang out.

(2018) Drama (Sundance Selects) Patrick Fabian, Tanya Clarke, Desmin Borges, Travis Schuldt, Melissa Fumero, Oscar Nuñez, Nina Senicar, Iqbal Thebal, Max Gail, Josh Fingerhut, Jennifer Cadena, Camille Cregan, Kyra Pringle, Blake Robbins, Alison Trumbull, Tiffany Panhilason, Caitlin Kimball, Anne Moore, Heather Ankeny, Kristina Jimenez. Directed by Henry Barrial

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the workplace is changing. At one time, a single family member – usually the male – was able to support his family from working a job that he would likely stay at for most of his life. People were loyal to their employers and quite frankly, their employers were loyal to them.

Inflation changed all that and soon women were forced to enter the job market rather than their traditional role of staying home and taking care of the house and children. Both parents were working often long hours, giving them less time with the kids and less time for themselves. People were less loyal to their employers as they moved readily to better paying jobs elsewhere when the opportunity arose.

Employers were also less loyal to their employees, ending pensions in favor of 401k plans and slowly but surely cutting down on health care benefits, going for less expensive plans as the price of health insurance skyrocketed. To make matters worse, the availability of jobs that pay decently have dropped in favor of contract work, job sharing and gig employment, forcing a lot of people to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. The fact of the matter is that people are a commodity that have become less valuable over time.

Leonard Moore (Fabian) is a victim of a changing economy. He once was the owner of a thriving record store – back in the day when records came on vinyl – and stayed with it until the bitter end when even compact discs were rendered obsolete. Unemployed, he’s a stay-at-home dad whose wife Dawn (Clarke) is the breadwinner but who is getting stressed as the home insurance bill is coming due and they simply don’t have the funds to cover it. As most homeowners know, if you can’t get homeowner’s insurance, your mortgage company will foreclose. People can and have lost their homes because of a high insurance bill.

When his extensive vinyl collection proves not to be the financial windfall he was hoping for and an interview with a social media firm ends up fruitless, he does what a lot of people do – he takes up using the family Prius as a taxicab for a (fictional) ridesharing service called DriverX. Leonard stays home with the kids while his wife’s at work and when she gets back home, heads out into the streets of L.A., generally well into the night only to return home after his wife has fallen asleep.

He meets all sorts; drunken millennials riding from party to party and often ralphing in his car or on it which he dutifully cleans up; rude folks who belittle the driver or talk as if he isn’t even in the car and women who come on to him with a thought of a late night cable TV-like experience in the back of his car.

The service is so stingy that riders are unable to tip him, leaving him to rely on good ratings to get customers. Customers complain there’s no complimentary bottled water or charging cords for their phones. Although he is a friendly enough person, that doesn’t seem to factor in to how others relate to him. The middle-aged Leonard also finds it hard to relate to his Millennial customers, most of them more tech-savvy than he and few of them understand him either, seeing him as a relic with an encyclopedic knowledge of bands not relevant to themselves.

Writer-director Barrial based the film on his own experiences as an Uber driver and there is a feeling of genuineness that comes out of it. While there may be a few too many drunken Millennial scenes to do the movie any good – one gets the sense that Barrial isn’t too enamored of that oft-criticized generation – there is a lot of genuine insight into the older generations ability to adapt to a changing world. While the younger passengers are adept with their smart phones and seem to know what to expect from their tech, older passengers seem to struggle and often need instruction from Leonard to get to where they’re going.

Fabian, best known for his work on Better Call Saul, is an engaging presence. It’s a rare opportunity for this veteran character actor to get a lead role and he handles it nicely. The chemistry between Clarke and Fabian is a little weak but then again, their characters are having some fairly serious marital issues so it makes sense that the bond between them feels wonky. Clarke has the unenviable job of playing a bit of a bitch – she rarely gets any sympathetic moments. Few women in the film do, coming off as drunken hoes or cast-iron bee-yatches. A couple of sympathetic female characters would have been nice.

There are some nice cinematic moments as Leonard cruises the post-midnight streets of the City of Angels, his face aglow in the neon “X” that he displays to let all and sundry know he’s a DriverX drone. Although this is essentially a serious drama, there are some light hearted moments as well, as when Leonard gets into a fender bender and tries to resolve the insurance in paying for the damage; the office of DriverX has seemingly no human presence and when he finally speaks to a human being, she is as robotic as the machines that glide about the quiet, dark office of the app giant. I suppose that makes as proper a metaphor for modern society as any.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting points are made about the gig economy, the generation gap and the role of technology in the workplace. Fabian has an engaging screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: There is more vomiting here than any film needs. There are not many sympathetic female characters here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actresses who play Leonard’s daughters are sisters in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taxicab Confessions
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

Pick of the Litter


This film is truly about man’s best friend.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Phil, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot, Potomac. Directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman

 

All right, in the interest of full disclosure I will make my confession now: I am a dog nut. Not a dog lover – that implies some sort of sanity. I’m absolutely crazy about dogs. There was a meme going around Facebook not long ago about the seven signs your spouse is a dog nut – I fit all seven of them. It drives my poor wife to distraction sometimes. Naturally, when I found out about this documentary about puppies going through the rigorous training of becoming a guide dog I was all in.

Guide Dogs for the Blind is a Northern California-based organization that as their name implies provides guide dogs for those who are sight-impaired. The standards are high and the training rigorous. Many of the puppies that are enrolled in their training program are born right there at GDB and in this particular case we follow the five Labrador puppies from a single litter. Their names are Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and, incongruously, Phil.

Each of these puppies will be weaned from their mother in the San Rafael kennel, then placed at five months with “puppy raiser” families which include “empty nest” couples, a high school student and his mom, a PTSD-suffering man who uses the dogs as a distraction from his own issues, and families who simply want to help out. Each of the pups will have one of three outcomes. If they are unable to handle the standards of training, they will be “career changed” i.e. washed out of the program and placed with other charities or, occasionally, placed with families permanently. The second outcome is that females may be kept at the San Rafael facility to be bred. Finally the outcome everyone wants, to pass all the rigorous tests and be placed with a blind person to be their best friend and protector.

The puppy raisers go into this with the understanding that they will get the dogs for no more than a year and in some cases, much less. They are fully aware that they are training their charges for someone else’s benefit, not their own. Throughout the process, the dogs will be tested every three months for certain sorts of behaviors that might disqualify them; an inability to follow commands, a tendency to be easily distracted – that sort of thing. Some dogs may be taken out of the program before their time with the puppy trainers is done.

When their time with the raisers is done, the puppies are brought back to the GDP facility for more intensive work with trainers who will give them particular skills, such as dealing with traffic, with train platforms, walking on streets without sidewalks, the kinds of things that the sighted take for granted but can be deadly if not navigated correctly. The dogs go through a series of exams that test them on particular skills. If they don’t pass, they are given one more chance. If they pass, they advance. If not, they are career changed.

While this is like a lot of child competition documentaries that have proliferated like Starbucks franchises lately, there is a distinct difference in that while there is rooting interest in all the pups, there are no real losers here. None of these dogs have any awareness of the stakes involved; they are all going to wind up somewhere in caring environments.

We don’t see a whole lot of the training the pups go through with their puppy raisers, although the primary responsibility of the raisers is to bring the candidates into the world, learning to interact with their surroundings so that they are better able to do their jobs. The puppy raiser parents are trying to give their charges the best possible chance at acquiring the skills they will learn in the more intensive training phase in San Rafael.

The dogs have plenty of personality; Potomac is “mouthy” and loves to nip his handlers. Phil is endearing and has a bit of a hound dog appeal. Patriot has a ton of energy which sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus. Primrose is affectionate almost to a fault and Poppet is cool, calm and collected (for the most part).

This is as much about the trainers and the raisers as it is about the dogs themselves and I’m sorry that I didn’t get their names written down but I’d forgotten my notebook when I attended my screening. However, I was completely enchanted (dog nut) and was grinning ear to ear throughout the film (dog nut). I was rooting for all the dogs to succeed (dog nut) but I did have one particular favorite (dog nut). In these times of divisiveness and stress, dogs are a natural tonic (dog nut) and this movie may even convince a few non-dog nuts. However if you’re anything like me (and more power to you if you are) you’ll want to see this one every time you’re feeling blue. Expect that this one will be a permanent part of my video collection once it’s available for sale.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers, this is your jam. The stories of the trainers and foster families are pretty compelling. Gives you a sense of what the training the dogs go through. I was grinning ear to ear from beginning to end and never lost interest.
REASONS TO STAY: Cat people may take umbrage.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in San Rafael, California in 1942 to aid blinded soldiers returning home from the Second World War.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heart of a Dog
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
All About Nina

Tea With the Dames (Nothing Like a Dame)


What could be more English than old friends having tea on the lawn on an overcast day.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell

 

Four mature English ladies get together for tea and gossip – four ladies who happen to be some of the most beloved and respected actresses in the history of the British theater. Two of them = Dench and Smith – are fairly well-known in the States due largely to their movie work which the ladies in question are almost dismissive of. Clearly, the theater is the first love for all these ladies, three of them who were born in 1934 whereas Plowright, the eldest of the quartet was born in 1930.

Apparently they gather annually at the country cottage of Plowright which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. There, the four gather at the kitchen table and in the living room with tea and champagne to gossip and take a stroll down memory lane, augmented by a fair amount of archival footage and stills of the girls in their youth.

Michell, a veteran narrative feature director with such films as Notting Hill and Venus to his credit, is often heard directing questions at the ladies although he is not seen onscreen. That isn’t to say that we don’t have meta moments here; often the crew is seen setting up shots, while one taking still pictures off-camera clearly distracts Smith who chuckles “We would never actually sit like this, you know.” In fact, it is Smith who comes off as the most down-to-earth and delightfully droll as she discusses an occasion when she was acting onstage with Olivier and he actually delivered a real slap to her face. Not to be put off, she delivers the best line of the show “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”

While the movie doesn’t have many bon mots quite as clear as that one, it does have plenty of laugh out loud moments as the girls discuss their careers, their own foibles (Dench comes under much jovial fire as the others complain that they can’t get movie roles because Dench has nabbed them all) and quite a bit of gossip. Talking about her time in the Harry Potter films, Smith says that she and the late Alan Rickman had a great deal of difficulty coming up with original facial expressions for the innumerable reaction shots both of these decorated actors were forced to give at the antics of the children, which Smith is quick to point out “as was proper.”

Although the ladies rib the director for artificially setting up what is supposed to come off as an informal and natural conversation, in fact at the end of the day it feels exactly like that – as if we as viewers were sitting at the kitchen table with these extraordinary ladies and getting the benefit of their recollections, their humor and their honesty. As old friends are, the four are completely comfortable with one another.

Although all the actresses here are in their 80s, mortality isn’t discussed much other than Dench dismissing an inquiry from Miriam Margolyes about whether she had her funeral arrangements made with a curt but affectionate “I’m not going to die.” Plowright, who is retired now, has severe vision issues and is nearly blind but is still as regal as she ever was. In fact, the vitality of these ladies in their sunset years is impressive in itself; I hope that I’m as vital in my 80s as these marvelous ladies are now.

The thing about a movie like this is that it rises and falls on how the conversation goes. Not to worry on that account; clearly most viewers who see this will be wishing for more when the credits unspool. The thing is though, not everyone is going to be impressed with a film of this nature and that’s okay. It will appeal to cinemaphiles, theater lovers and particularly those of a certain age. It’s impossible not to like these ladies after spending a too-short hour and a half with them however. I’d be absolutely over the moon to share a cuppa with any of these magnificent women. To be in on a conversation between all four is something like manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: The conversation is fascinating throughout. This is very much like sitting around the kitchen with a bunch of old friends.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the wealth of archival footage feels a bit busy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the film title, none of the four actresses are ever seen in the film actually drinking their tea.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Optimum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mandy

Eating Animals


Dinner is served.

(2017) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Natalie Portman (narrator), Frank Reese, Larry Baldwin, Rick Dove, Craig Watts, Amelia Watts, Bruce Friedrich, Paul Willis, Bill Niman, Chris Leonard, Jim Keen, Connie Keen, Leah Garces, Lindsay Wolf, Temple Grandin, Gene Baur, Neal Barnard, Bob Martin, Pete Fisher, Tian Yi, Ethan Brown, Josh Tetrick, Eva Song. Directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn

 

When dinner is on the table, we rarely pause to consider how it got there. Most of the food we Americans consume – something to the tune of 98-99% of it – came from a factory farm. That is to say, from a large corporate-owned farming facility that mass produces vegetables, fruit and yes animals for consumption.

Those companies who are often the same ones who pack their packaged food with salt, sugar and/or fat use hormones to stimulate growth and genetically engineer their animals so that the preferred parts of their body grow ridiculously large, like turkeys and chickens with breasts so large that they can barely walk,

The animals in these factory farms live miserable, brief lives. They are literally born to die, although in this case they are born to be eaten. Our chicken, our beef, our pork – they rarely come from those bucolic farms that we see in our Hollywood visions of the heartland. They usually come from hellholes where animal waste is collected in ponds and seep into the groundwater that we eventually drink, but not before it kills all the fish in the local streams.

We get plenty of views of those bucolic farms – as it turns out, there are a few holding on in the face of nearly impossible odds – and we talk to some of the farmers who are holding on to time-honored traditions that may be less efficient but produce happier animals and let’s face it, better meat. That flies in the face of the factory farms who are about mass-producing product at a much lower cost than the small farmers can.

There are also plenty of views of horrific conditions in factory farms; pigs in cages barely able to stand, cows unable to walk due to growth hormones being moved by forklifts and turkey carcasses on an assembly line for your Thanksgiving meal. These are unsettling images that are enough to convert a carnivore into an instant vegetarian.

Which is to say exactly what the filmmakers are after. They are subtle about it early on, chatting up the small farmers raising heritage turkeys and free range chickens. Oh, this is about alternative sources of meat thinks I early on. However as the movie spirals to a conclusion, the true intentions of the filmmakers make themselves known as the virtues of eschewing animal products are extolled. Maybe I’m a little funny that way but I don’t like to be preached to and I get a sense of that near the end. True vegetarians and vegans likewise will find the factory farm footage disturbing.

So in the end the movie seems aimed at those who are on the fence and need just the right motivation to be tipped over the edge. I’ve read a couple of film critics who are vegetarians excoriate the filmmakers for being too subtle with their message and being less militant than they should be. This is why liberals can’t win elections; there is almost a self-righteous superiority. The fact of the matter is that we are not better than the other side. There is nothing wrong with eating meat no matter what militant vegans tell you; it is part of our natural instinct to eat meat. We are omnivores and if we weren’t meant to eat animal flesh, we wouldn’t.

For those who are fans of the documentary Temple Grandin, the lady herself makes an appearance raging at “ag-gag laws,” laws that prevent a real discussion of factory farm methods and

Still, the message is a worthwhile one if you’re willing to listen and have a thick enough skin that you can take the condescension at face value. At least the intentions are good – keeping in mind that if as a culture we ate less meat we would be doing the planet a solid. While they do a good job making a case against factory farming and also against the USDA, a government agency that was founded to protect consumers but it seems as if they are more interested in protecting big corporate interests these days, this might not be the movie for you if you’re looking for a good reason for switching to the green team. For one thing, I think the filmmakers assume you already have one.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is just gorgeous. The filmmakers make their case against factory farming very effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the filmmakers finally start preaching for vegetarianism which I surmised was the point all along.
FAMILY VALUES: The film has some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got a standing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Our House

Far From the Tree


Love knows no boundaries.

(2017) Thriller (Sundance Selects) Andrew Solomon, Jason Kingsley, Emily Kingsley, Charles Kingsley, Tyler Reece, Trevor Reece, Derek Reece, Rebecca Reece, Jack, Joe, Leah, Lonni. Directed by Rachel Dretzin

 

When we set out to have kids, it’s only human to have a picture of them in our heads; how they’ll grow up to be athletes, difference makers or famous. We see them as we see the us we wanted to be growing up ourselves; now our kids will get it right. Unfortunately for us, kids rarely turn out exactly the way we picture they will. They have their own ideas of who they want to be not to mention they don’t always turn out physically the way we wanted. Some our born with dwarfism, or with Down’s syndrome.

Andrew Solomon grew up being interested in tragic opera and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Realizing that he was gay, at first he went into denial, even using sexual surrogacy to try and jump start his heterosexuality. When this didn’t work, he came out to his parents who reacted with disappointment and a notable lack of support  As time went by he began to wonder about kids who turned out very different than their parents or their parents expectations. He wrote a book about it and it turned out to be a New York Times bestseller.

This documentary is based on the book or to be more accurate, inspired by. Solomon himself turns up in interviews to discuss how the book came to be and to put some of the onscreen stories in perspective. The stories themselves are varied and are about different sets of challenges – Solomon’s is the only one about straight parents raising gay children.

Jason Kingsley was born with Down’s syndrome at a time when the condition was little understood and something of a stigma – which it still is, but to a lesser extent. His parents, including his mother Emily who was a writer for Sesame Street refused to warehouse Jason as his doctor suggested. In fact, Emily arranged to have Jason appear on the show which forever changed the way that kids with Down’s syndrome are viewed. Jason continues to be an activist and although his obsession with the Disney film Frozen may cause some eye-rolling (couldn’t he have picked a better film?) he is articulate enough to quote Shakespeare and is a whole lot smarter than he appears.

So too is Jack, whose severe autism makes him unable to communicate conventionally. His parents however refused to give up on him and eventually found a way to allow Jack to communicate using a facilitator and a computer device.

Lonni, like most people, wants to be loved and to love someone. Born with dwarfism has made that a lot more challenging for her. Unspeakably lonely, her mother encourages to attended a convention for the Little People of America and her horizons are instantly opened up. Her mothers and sisters are amazed and pleased that Lonni has perked up discovering that she is far from alone – that there are lots of people just like her in the same boat she is rowing.

Fellow little people Joe and Leah are in a different situation. The two are blissfully, deliriously in love. They go through the challenges of planning a wedding – and then Leah gets pregnant. Joe, who is wheelchair-bound, is about to be a daddy and although the pregnancy has its own degrees of difficulty, both look forward to the experience.

The most heartbreaking story is that of Trevor Reece, a seemingly normal teenage kid who one day woke up and decided to slit the throat of an eight-year-old boy. Arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, his family struggles to pick up the pieces. Having moved from the urban New Orleans neighborhood they grew up in to a suburban Texas home, they communicate with Trevor regularly. His brothers Tyler and Derek have a hard time reconciling their big brother’s actions with the kid they grew up with.

The stories are all compelling ones and do push all the right emotional buttons. The problem is that we end up spending less than 20 minutes apiece on each story; what we end up with is a summary rather than an in-depth look at how these families coped. That’s a real drawback, particularly in that it makes the film less useful for parents who might be dealing with similar situations. Also Solomon’s segments, rather than giving the context we’re looking for, tend to be a bit more self-referential than I think the film needed.

Still, the movie’s heart is in the right place. The stories are inspiring and even if we don’t get the depth and context we’re looking for we still get a viewpoint not often shown in documentaries other than in passing. Jason’s story, the first one shown, is in many ways the most grounded and when Jason talks at the conclusion of his segment about his future is to my mind one of the best moments I’ve seen in a documentary this year. Those who are fans of the book will likely enjoy the movie but come away a bit disappointed. The overall message of both the book and the movie shouldn’t be discounted though – that those we see as different may have more challenges than we do but are not so different than us than they might appear.

REASONS TO GO: The stories range from inspiring to heartbreaking. The focus is more on the parents than on the kids which is a viewpoint we don’t often see. Jason’s final monologue is goosebumps-inducing.
REASONS TO STAY: The interludes with Solomon seem a bit self-aggrandizing. Having too many subjects keeps any of the stories from resonating as much as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for family viewing and should even be encouraged for the same particularly for parents who want to teach their children tolerance, empathy and loving without conditions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Of the stories told here only Jason Kingsley’s appears in the book; all the rest are new.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life, Animated
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Sid and Aya (not a love story)

Dheepan


The choices of a refugee are never easy.

The choices of a refugee are never easy.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasthamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaidi, Marc Zinga, Bass Dhem, Franck Falise, Joséphine de Meaux, Jean-Baptiste Pouilloux, Nathan Anthonypillai, Vasanth Selvam, Kartik Krishnan, Rudhra, Tassadit Mandi, Marie Trichet. Directed by Jacques Audiard

 

The issue of refugees from Asia and the Middle East in Europe is a real hot button topic these days. It was one of the key points that caused Britain to leave the European Union and the remaining countries in the Union continue to wrestle with the issue, trying to balance humanitarian concerns with an overwhelming of services in dealing with the influx of new residents.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is winding down and the Tamil Tigers, a fighting group of mostly adolescents but also young men is on the losing side. One of their number is fearful that his participation as a soldier in the Tigers will get him jailed and/or executed so he decides to flee the country. He needs a false passport and gets one for a man and his family, all of whom were killed in the war. The newly re-christened Dheepan (Antonythasan) needs a wife and daughter to make the illusion work; he recruits Yalini (Srinivasan) who is just as eager to get out of Dodge, and orphan Illayaal (Vinasthamby) who has nowhere else to go. The newly minted family takes a boat and heads to France.

They get settled in what appears to be government housing on the edge of Paris. The apartment blocks are overrun by gangs and drugs, much the same as they are here. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker for the blocks; he often has to dodge drug deals and gang meetings to get his job done. Yalini, who is forced to don a veil when in public even though she isn’t of that religious persuasion, takes care of a disabled old man who turns out to be a former gang member whose apartment is used as a kind of office and conference room for his former gang. Illayaal starts going to a public school where she has issues fitting in – nobody wants to play with her and she reacts the only way she knows how. She also has to learn how to eat with silverware, something she didn’t have to do in Sri Lanka.

The violence they escaped however finds them as the gangs around them erupt into open warfare. The fragile bonds of this family are beginning to dissolve and Yalini is ready to leave France altogether, but still, against all odds, the forced relationship is beginning to take – if the violence doesn’t rip them apart first.

Audiard is one of France’s premiere directors of crime dramas, often taking themes that Martin Scorsese has used and giving them his own twist. This one is superimposed with a timely political issue that seems to be one of Europe’s most pressing concerns at the moment. We get to see the issue from the inside, as the refugees struggle to fit into a society that fears and mistrusts them and in fact despises them. It is clear that all they want is to live in peace but that isn’t always possible in this world.

Antonythasan is a real find. His eyes are extremely expressive; they reflect mournfulness, anger, frustration and occasionally, hope. He is generally disheveled and unkempt but is a handsome man underneath it all as his character is a good man underneath all the wariness and pain. Dheepan has real demons in his past and they are always evident – through his eyes.

Srinivasan is new to the acting game, but she also delivers a raw, uncompromising performance. Her character isn’t always the nicest and she gamely allows the nastier characteristics to be shown as is without glossing it over. In many ways, it’s a brave performance depicting brave people going headlong into the unknown with an uncertain future. It is true that they felt compelled to do it for some pretty overriding reasons but nonetheless one has to admire people who are willing to do that to find a better life. Not all of us could manage.

The objection I have to this film is that the third act eventually becomes an action hero shootout with Antonythasan Schwarzeneggaring it through the last ten minutes or so. After all of that, the ending itself is an abrupt reversal of tone, making three in about fifteen minutes. Even the most skillful directors would have a hard time pulling that off effectively and Audiard certainly has the skills, but unfortunately it doesn’t work here, at least not for me.

Even with that said, this is an impressive movie. It really forces you to see things from the refugee’s point of view and that’s a point of view we rarely get to see amid all the rhetoric of pro-refugee folks who can be condescending about the actual immigrant, and of course the anti-refugee crowd who tend to demonize them as potential terrorists and criminals. Here, Audiard seems to suggest, the refugees have more to fear from the natives than the other way around. I’m not sure that’s true in every case, but it is certainly something to consider.

REASONS TO GO: A crime drama with social commentary thrown in. Searing performances are delivered by the leads. The film addresses a real cultural concern. This is a very human film.
REASONS TO STAY: The third act turns into an action film which is a bit jarring. The daughter’s situation is neglected a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, a bit of foul language and brief sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Antonythasan was actually a member of the Tiger Tamil as a boy and made corrections to the script in places.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in the Fifth
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Disappointments Room

King Georges


The joy of cooking.

The joy of cooking.

(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Georges Perrier, Nicholas Elmi, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Jean Perrier, Yvonne Perrier, Genevieve Perrier, Michael Klein, Abraham Abisaleh, Michael McDonough, Craig LaBan, Edmund Konrad, Ed Rendell, Bruce Holberg, Pierre Calmels, Lilianne Nina, Hilary Hamilton. Directed by Erika Frankel

Most of us who have never worked in a kitchen have absolutely no clue what it takes to run a fine dining establishment. When you’re running one of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, the pressure multiplies exponentially.

Georges Perrier emigrated from Lyon in hopes of founding an authentic French restaurant in the United States. He did just that but not in New York City but in Philadelphia where his Le Bec-Fin became one of the first iconic French restaurants in the country and paved the way for other French émigrés like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud to found similarly iconic establishments in this country.

Le Bec-Fin closed in 2013 after more than 40 years of service, and Frankel – a documentary producer making her feature film directing debut – spent three years backstage at the restaurant observing and chronicling Perrier’s somewhat abrasive manner and giving us one of the most realistic and intimate looks at what happens in the kitchen than any reality show does. You get a sense of how cramped and hot it is there; a close-up of one of the line cook’s hands reveals burns and scars a-plenty to remind us that loss of focus for even a moment can result in injury, sometimes of a serious nature.

We do get some talking head interviews from some celebrity chefs, Philly foodies and critics, former staffers from the restaurant, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and of course Georges himself, but the real meat and potatoes of the documentary is the scenes in the kitchen where we see Georges and his sous chef Nicholas Elmi work their magic.

It is the relationship between Georges and Nicholas that is particularly compelling. Where Georges is abrasive and manic, screaming at his team when things aren’t going exactly the way he wants them to, Nicholas is much calmer and seems to connect better with the younger line cooks and chefs. Georges is very hands-on; a renowned saucier, he holds his sauces in very strict regard. When a crab cake order is messed up, he fires a new one up himself, screaming at the offending chef the entire time. He’s not above vacuuming the carpet or washing dishes.

The relationship between Georges and his restaurant is almost as compelling as that father-son mentor-apprentice relationship with Nicholas. The restaurant is Georges’ passion; his drive for perfection has cost him his family and any kind of normal life, although Georges himself ruefully says that there is nothing normal about a chef’s life because of the hours; he’s often up shopping at local markets at 4:30am after having shut the doors at the restaurant at midnight. It’s not conducive to keeping a wife and children happy when you never see them.

The movie is extremely informative, particularly when we get to see a single meal for the Delaware Valley Chaine (a sort of gourmet society) prepared for them en masse but where it falls down is in connecting us to Georges on a more personal level. I get the sense that he is a private man and that may not be a fault of the documentary entirely, but still I would have liked to have known what drove him better, particularly as he sacrificed so much for his dream. I would have also changed the soundtrack as the music was often intrusive and annoying.

Many of us think of cheesesteaks and pretzels when we think of Philly cuisine; Le Bec-Vin did a great deal to change all that. No less an august institution than the New York Times crowned that restaurant as good or better than any in New York City, which at the time was the center of the dining out universe. Times have changed however; our dining habits have become more casual and we demand less pricey fare. These changing times did in Le Bec-Fin, sadly; it was the last of its kind in the United States and as much as there was no place for it, there was a need for it whether we choose to admit it or not.

There’s something about the fine dining experience, surrounded by opulence and impeccable service with an assurance of an incredible meal, fine wine and memories that will last a lifetime. Some may look at Georges Perrier as a dinosaur but I prefer to think of him as a conservator, a man dedicated to a craft that requires patience, skill, determination and above all, passion. I’ll always regret not having visited his establishment while it was extant, but his legacy will always be in those chefs he trained to bring some of his magic to their own establishments.

REASONS TO GO: A sense of being on the inside of a real kitchen. Informative as to kitchen politics and Philly cuisine.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give us too much depth in the portrayal of Georges. The score is a bit annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elmi won the Top Chef competition
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (check your local provider)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Son of Saul

45 Years


Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are up next on Dancing With the Stars.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are up next on Dancing With the Stars.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley, Sam Alexander, Richard Cunningham, Hannah Chalmers, Camille Ucan, Rufus Wright, Max Rudd, Kevin Matadeen, Paul Goldsmith, Peter Dean Jackson, Martin Atkinson, Alexandra Riddleston-Barrett, Rachel Banham, Michelle Finch. Directed by Andrew Haigh

There are things in a marriage, events of one’s past that our spouse isn’t aware of. Not because we want to keep it from them, but simply because it hasn’t come up. However, there are things we keep from our husband or wife intentionally, perhaps because we’re ashamed of it or because we want to keep that part of ourselves to ourselves. However, one thing is clear; without transparency, pain beckons.

Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary and they’re throwing a big party at a banquet hall in their native Norfolk. The misty grey mystery of that part of England makes for cozy cuddle weather and although the two are getting on in years, they haven’t lost the desire for one another. They don’t have any children but they do have plenty of close friends so all in all one has to say they lead a good life.

Then word comes of a discovery that directly involves Geoff’s past, before he’d even met Kate. The ripple effect is like a tsunami hitting their relationship; Kate discovers that her husband had kept things from her, things that have affected their relationship

As the days count down towards the big party, subtle changes begin to occur in their relationship. Geoff takes up smoking again, something he promised Kate he’d stopped forever. He becomes sullen, withdrawn and obsesses over the pictures he has found of an old girlfriend in the attic. She starts to snoop into his past and the hurt slowly changes her view as to how stable the relationship really is. As the party starts, Kate is beginning to wonder who the man she married truly is – and whether or not she wants to stay married to him at all.

Let me take the suspense out of this review – this movie is extraordinary and is truly a must-see for any lover of the cinematic arts. Rampling delivers a performance that is simply sensational. She does so much of her acting here with her facial expressions and her eyes and less with the dialogue. Sometimes a whole range of emotions plays over her expressive face in a matter of moments, expressing Kate’s thoughts far more effectively than dialogue. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved and while she didn’t win the statuette, she more than deserved to.

Courtenay is equally sensational. He spends much of the movie hunched over, drawn into himself and slowly he unwinds during the course of the film, becoming less hunched and more straight as if the revelation of his secret is slowly freeing his soul. In many ways, he’s reverting to a younger self in the movie with all the ridiculousness that implies. Geoff is not a bad man but he is a flawed man.

Haigh is a gifted director and really flowers here, the movie seemingly capturing a plethora of seasons during the course of the four days that the movie takes place over. He utilizes bad weather, a common occurrence in Norfolk, to great effect, the wind and the rain becoming part of the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, he peppers it with some wonderfully-chosen tunes from the 60s and 70s.

The movie, which is based on a short story by David Constantine, benefits from a beautifully written script. The dialogue is realistic; Kate and Geoff talk like a married couple that has been together for 45 years and their friends talk like real people as well. This feels like an unflinching look inside a real marriage. It’s occasionally uncomfortable – neither of the protagonists are perfect and neither one does the right thing all the time. But as the movie comes to an end, you sense a turning point has been reached and hard questions remain to be asked. What the answers will be are not necessarily the ones that either of the main characters – or those of us following them – wants to hear.

This is an amazing movie that I recommend highly for everyone. Yes, kids are not going to get the dynamics here and find the pacing slow and the grey landscape of Norfolk dreary. However those of us who love movies that give us insight into the human condition will find this to be an absolute jewel of a movie. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s real. And that makes for great cinema.

REASONS TO GO: Relationship of the leads is very realistic and natural. Emotional and raw in places. The dialogue sounds like real people talking to each other. Terrific soundtrack. Rampling and Courtenay do fantastic work, doing a lot of their acting with their faces.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too honest for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, a scene of brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rampling and Courtenay last appeared together in The Mysteries of Lisbon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Late Bloomers
FINAL RATING; 10/10
NEXT: King Georges

The Emperor’s New Clothes


Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

(2015) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Wealth inequality is a major social issue in 2016 and looks to be for a long while. The same people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 that very nearly wrecked the global economy have benefitted from trillions of dollars in financial bailouts generated by the taxpayers of the United States and United Kingdom.

We hear about these issues from progressive bloggers, left-wing news outlets and progressive politicians. Few have made these issues more relatable however than comedian Russell Brand. While his movie appearances and brief marriage to singer Katie Perry have made him fairly well known on American shores, it is in Great Britain where he is much more of a well-known figure, thanks to his comedy specials and television programs.

He is something of a gadfly, a populist comic who has become a social activist. He has always leaned to the left in his comedy but of late he has emphasized his activism a lot more, as shown in this documentary collaboration with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Trip) as he tilts at the windmills that are British bankers.

While Brand focuses on the problems in his native United Kingdom, the issues there are somewhat depressingly similar to what is happening in the United States. Using memes and an occasional in-your-face rhetoric in which statistics are shouted in a strident voice, Brand nevertheless builds up a convincing argument that Fundamentalist Capitalism as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives that have followed in their footsteps, is responsible for the runaway economic woes that have come from the rich not only getting richer and the poor not only getting poorer, but the disparity between the two growing wider than ever.

Statistics come at you like body blows from Rocky Balboa; OXFAM reports that the world’s wealthiest 80 people has the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world population, or that had the minimum wage gone up at the same rate as CEO salaries, then workers would be making a minimum salary of nearly six figures annually.

He utilizes a confrontational technique popularized by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in seeking out banking executives for interviews (who only give them when ambushed by Brand and his camera crew) to ask uncomfortable questions about the bailout, bonuses given by banking firms since then and their own excessively bloated compensation packages. Often he ends up spending more time with security guards with whom he discusses what he’s planning on asking their bosses, which is ironic since the guards are part of the 99% he’s preaching to.

And it is preaching. Even Brand himself admits that he’s a wealthy man and occasionally jokes about raising taxes on the wealthy to exclude himself, but he advocates 90% taxation on the wealthy, a plan that he seems to dash when he also brings up the tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere where trillions of dollars are being held benefiting essentially only the very rich.

Brand is an engaging and likable personality and when he is showing compassion to single working mums, he seems to be at his best although there are instances (as when he’s talking with a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy whose benefits were drastically cut) where you feel that he is playing to the camera a bit overly much.

I can’t say this is an indispensable documentary – there is a bit of pandering to the hipster left and some of the stunts are a bit disingenuous but the heart is in the right place. Your reaction to the movie will entirely depend on your political point of view; conservative audiences will no doubt dislike the film while more progressive viewers may well embrace it. Film buffs could admire the graphic presentation and disparage Winterbottom’s static camera work.

Certainly this is one of the more important issues (behind climate change) of our time. Brand makes a good case that this is money that these families didn’t actually earn, and whom for the most part inherited and used their power and influence to buy political votes in order to make the tax structures more accommodating to them and make it easier for them to not only keep their wealth but increase it – at the expense of everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A succinct explanation of wealth inequality. Brand is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes you feel shouted at. These sorts of confrontation hijinks have been done before.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two documentaries about Russell Brand’s crusade against wealth inequality released last year (the other being Russell Brand: The Second Coming by Ondi Timoner).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roger and Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Danish Girl