Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)


Mother comforts daughter.

(2018) Drama (Focus) Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Eduard Fernandez, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Minguez, Ramón Barea, Carla Campra, Sara Sálamo, Roger Casamajor, Josė Ángel Egido, Sergio Castellanos, Iván Chavero, Tomás del Estal, Imma Sancho, Paco Pastor Gómez, Jaime Lorente, Mari Carmen Sánchez, Carla Campra. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

When a family gets together for an occasion (a wedding, a christening, a holiday etc.) it’s usually a joyful occasion. Oh sure, there may be some relatives you’re not keen on seeing like alcoholic Uncle Al, creepy cousin Wendell or Grandpa the conservative political troll but by and large you’re happy to be around those who have blood ties. Then again, they all know where the bodies are buried – sometimes literally.

Laura (Cruz) lives in Argentina now but she returns to her rural Spanish village to attend her sister Ana’s (Cuesta) wedding to Joan (Casamajor). She has brought with her teen daughter Irene (Campra) who is just getting into that rebellious age, her younger son Diego (Chavero) but not her successful husband Alejandro (Darin) who has a successful business to attend to. Also in attendance are bitter patriarch Antonio (Barea) who gambled and drank away most of the land the family once owned, son of a former servant Paco (Bardem) who bought part of that land and turned it into a thriving vineyard, and Paco’s wife Bea (Lennie) whose childlessness is a source of much village speculation.

The night of the reception is greeted with a violent thunderstorm which knocks out the power. As the evening begins to wind down, Laura goes upstairs to check on her children – and finds Irene missing with newspaper clippings of a local kidnapping that ended up tragically scattered on the bed. This is followed up with a texted ransom demand for an exorbitant amount of cash that as it turns out, Laura and Alejandro do not have – her husband being not quite as successful as the family was led to believe.

The fact that Paco and Laura were once lovers until Laura dumped him was no secret – everybody knows this, but not everybody knows…well, the real reason Irene was kidnapped and we won’t get into that here. The kidnappers are very clear that the police should not be called if Irene is to return home alive but they do consult with a retired detective (Egido) who suspects an inside job and in effect tells them to “trust no-one.”

On the surface it sounds like a standard potboiler but when you have a cast like this one and an Oscar-winning director as Farhadi is you can depend on good things happening. Cruz and Bardem are two of the best in the business and Cruz delivers a powerful emotional performance, alternately anguished over her child’s kidnapping and forlorn over what might have been with Paco. Bardem has a bit of a hangdog look but his inner decency stands out from the venality of much of the rest of the family.

Beautifully photographed in idyllic sepia tones, the movie manages to move at the same pace as the rhythms of country life which is a bit odd for a movie with so many thriller elements but works nonetheless. Some American viewers might find this maddeningly slow-paced but most avid cinephiles won’t have a problem with it. Yes, there are twists and turns and none of them are particularly remarkable but the thriller side is pretty effective. The reveal of the identity of the kidnappers though is a bit of a disappointment and never really makes much sense. Me, I liked the view of rural Spanish life more but that’s just the kind of guy I am.

Sometimes a movie can be forgiven its flaws because of the reputation of those behind the camera and the performances of those in front of it. This is such an occasion. Farhadi, who has some amazing films to his credit (including A Separation and The Salesman) didn’t deliver one of his best works here – and keep in mind this is his first Spanish-language film, a language he does not speak. This isn’t for everybody and that and it’s somewhat anti-climactic ending kept it from a perfect score but it’s still a worthwhile viewing for cinema lovers and casual movie fans alike.

REASONS TO SEE: Bardem and Cruz deliver outstanding performances. The film gives a nice glimpse at Spanish rural life. While the twists and turns don’t rewrite the book, they are nonetheless effective
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bardem and Cruz, who play former lovers here, are actually married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ransom
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Los Reyes

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Mine (2016)


Armie Hammer considers his options.

(2016) War (Well Go USA) Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Geoff Bell, Juliet Aubrey, Inés Piñar Mille, Luka Peros, Daniel Sandoval, Agustin Rodriguez, Yesarela Arzumendi, Manuel Medero, David Kirk Taylor (voice), Edoardo Purgatori (voice). Directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

 

Our adventures in the Middle East have put the United States in a Gordian knot of a predicament. We cannot withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without creating chaos and yet if we stay we seem to become more tightly ensnared. We cannot stay put and yet we cannot step away.

Mike (Hammer) is a U.S. Marine sniper on a mission to take out a high-ranking terrorist. Intel has put him in a remote part of the desert far from anywhere, accompanied by his spotter Tommy (Cullen). Mike has the suspect in his sights but it turns out that he is there not to plan mayhem with his fellow terrorists but to see his son married. Mike hesitates and inadvertently gives away their position. The mission is officially FUBAR.

He and Tommy are forced to flee across the unforgiving desert. Sand storms have grounded the helicopters that would normally pick them up so they’re going to have to hoof it to a village six kilometers across the desert. With limited supplies, it will not be an easy journey but given their military training they should be able to make it. That is, until they walk dead into a minefield.

Mike ends up stepping on a mine but is able to stop himself from lifting his foot and detonating it. Tommy isn’t so lucky. He blows himself in half and leaves Mike to fend for himself. Using a little bit of improvising, he is able to contact his handlers and tell them of his predicament; they still can’t get their helicopters off the ground and with their assets deployed elsewhere it will be 52 long hours before someone can get to a lone Marine standing on a land mine.

As Mike is baked in the desert sun and runs out of water, he meets a friendly Berber (Dyer) who urges him to take a chance, step off the mine and free himself but Mike can’t do it. He begins to hallucinate and flashes back to a beautiful girlfriend (Wallis) he can’t quite commit to (but definitely should), an abusive alcoholic father (Bell) who called Mike’s spine into question and a mother (Aubrey) whose recent bout with cancer has left Mike shaken to the core and running away rather than facing what has befallen him at home.

With thirst, wild dogs, vengeful terrorists and sand storms besetting him, it is a test of Mike’s will in order to survive. Can he survive with one foot planted on the mine or will he take a leap of faith and free himself from his situation?

The movie is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Middle East, but that’s not really what drew me to this film. It isn’t easy to make a movie about a man locked in place in the middle of nowhere interesting and engaging and I wasn’t sure if the Italian duo known as Fabio and Fabio could pull it off but pull it off they did.

Much of the reason they did is that Hammer delivers a performance that improves and grows as the movie goes on. Initially he’s a ramrod-straight Marine with not just a stick up his butt but a dang Redwood up there, but as he starts to face his past so close to death, he becomes much more relatable. Hammer is extremely likable as an actor but the Lone Ranger debacle effectively derailed his career for big budget franchise films. This is the kind of movie that can put him back in the running for those sorts of roles.

There are some lapses in logic here; for one thing, a Marine sniper team never sets out into the desert all by their lonesome. There is going to be a support crew and a backup plan in case the sniper can’t get a shot at his target – and anyway a drone strike would have been far more effective in that situation. Also, standing with your weight on one foot for more than two days would have physiological effects on his muscles; there should have been some sort of reference to that in the movie. Even a Marine can’t prevent his body from doing what it is meant to do. Finally, a sand storm the size and magnitude of what was depicted in the film is not going to just leave a few cupfuls of sand on someone caught in it; it’s going to just about bury him and likely either suffocate him or at the very least blow him off of the land mine. The winds in one of those things are not that far from hurricane force.

All those unwelcome plot points aside, the movie still worked for me although I can understand why there was some eye-rolling in critical circles. I found that Hammer’s performance made up for the writing deficiencies and while the broken home-abusive father-commitment phobia subplots were a bit clichéd Hammer gave his character enough depth and dignity to put some real bite into those old tropes. I might have wished that Wallis had been given more than a generic “awesome girlfriend” character to work with – I would have liked to see what made Mike fall in love with her in the first place – and I might have wished that the Berber hadn’t been so much the “Magic Negro” trope of the sort that made The Legend of Bagger Vance so annoying. But as far as gripping premises go, I certainly got more than I wished.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing concept that is pulled off nicely. Hammer gives a performance that gets stronger as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses points for logical lapses and plot holes.. .
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in the Middle East, the movie was filmed in the Canary Island substituting for the desert. The sandstorms were added digitally.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Get Out

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2


Hopa!

Hopa!

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Louis Mandylor, Bess Meisler, Bruce Gray, Fiona Reid, Ian Gomez, Jayne Eastwood, Rob Riggle, Mark Margolis, Rita Wilson, John Stamos, Jeanie Calleja. Directed by Kirk Jones

Woman Power

Like many others, I was a victim of the charm of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I won’t say that I fell in love with the movie, but it did blindside me a little bit and I regard it fondly, even though it was fairly flawed. Some movies will do that to you.

And now most of the original cast is back. Toula (Vardalos) has been married more than a decade to Ian (Corbett) who is now a principal at the local high school. Her travel agency went out of business and she is back working at the family restaurant and has proven herself an adept business woman. Her family is still around her like the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. She lives in a block of four houses on a quiet suburban Chicago street that all belong to members of her family.

That family includes patriarch Gus (Constantine) who believes himself to be descended from Alexander the Great and that everything useful or wonderful in the world came directly or otherwise from Greece, often with the flimsiest of evidence to back him up. His long-suffering wife Maria (Kazan) wants nothing more than to lead a semi-normal life, but with sisters like Voula (Martin) who never met a bodily condition too gross to discuss with anyone, that is quite the challenge.

Throw an angsty teenage daughter (Carides) into the mix and you get all the flavors of Greece in one soup. But even that is not enough when the discovery is made that due to a clerical error, Gus and Maria were never actually married. While Gus is eager just to rectify the error and go on with his life, Maria wants a big fat Greek wedding, the one she never got in the old country. It falls upon Toula to arrange everything and balance the family business, her husband’s frustration that the two of them have not been intimate for awhile, and her daughter’s collegiate choice that may take her away from Chicago and of course with her maniac relatives interfering in every way possible, this is a dance that even Zorba couldn’t manage.

All the elements of the first movie are here in the second, but as is usually the case, lightning doesn’t get captured in the bottle quite so easily. While Vardalos remains one of those rare actresses who simply is irresistible and cute onscreen, so much so that you want to take her home with you, for some reason this movie doesn’t work as well as the first. Perhaps it’s just a case of the first existing because it set a high bar for the second. But there are flaws here that can be explained.

For one thing, it feels sometimes that Vardalos who as in the first movie wrote the script was trying too hard to make her family eccentric. I think we got the point and a little more restraint would have been just as effective. I love Andrea Martin as a comedienne and she steals a lot of scenes here and Constantine who hasn’t made a full length feature film since the first big fat Greek wedding 14 years ago (yipes!) also dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.

The Nikki subplot really didn’t interface as well with the rest of the material. I can kinda see what Vardalos was trying to do – show that Toula was becoming exactly like her mother – and while that is an admirable and salient point, it wasn’t made as well as it could have been, particularly since the comedy is a little bit over-the-top. Again, restraint would have been welcome.

The movie is curiously flat when it comes to onscreen energy, which is normally the purview of the editor and the director. I’m not sure if that is the case here, but certainly the movie doesn’t have the same vibrant feel of the first. Perhaps there is the stigma of repetition, in that most sequels rarely capture the same magic as the original, but it could also have been that much too long has passed since we last visited this Greek comedy and that had its effect on our perception of the finished product as well.

I am a fan of Nia Vardalos and I was rooting for this movie to be better than it was. It will likely make it to cable earlier than intended and then fade away into obscurity but I am strangely glad that it got made anyway. I can’t really recommend it (hence the score) but I still have a soft spot for it anyway. If you were as charmed by the first movie as I was, you will likely be disappointed in the second, but you may very well find a soft spot for it as well. So please don’t mind if I get a second helping of spanikopita and enjoy a movie that should have been better.

REASONS TO GO: Occasionally shows the charm of the original. Vardalos remains sweet and charismatic in the lead role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks energy. Occasionally the material becomes overbearing. The plot is wafer-thin.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Toronto, substituting for the Chicago location of the original.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Boss

The Bank Job (2008)


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2008) True Crime Drama (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, David Suchet, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson, Richard Lintern, Peter de Jersey, Keeley Hawes, Hattie Morahan, Craig Fairbrass, Gerard Moran, Colin Salmon, Georgia Taylor, Peter Bowles, Alastair Petrie, Julian Lewis Jones, Andrew Brooke, Sharon Maughan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

We’re all out to simply survive in a world that isn’t always conducive to survival. We occasionally take risks, hoping to better ourselves but sometimes those risks can be devastating simply because we don’t always know the whole story behind them.

Terry Leather (Statham) is a small-time crook who has been trying his damnedest to lead a life on the straight and narrow, but he just can’t get a break. He is in debt to the sort of people who send out big guys with small intellects and crowbars to make their collections at his used car dealership. Eddie (Jibson), one of his long-time mates and employees, is getting married and most of his close friends who have lived life on the dodgy side – Dave (Mays) and Kevin (Moore) – are there. So is his wife Wendy (Hawes) with whom Terry is deeply in love, and it’s for her he’s trying to tread the path of the righteous.

Enter Martine Love (Burrows), a former flame of Kevin’s and, as we find out later, of Terry’s as well, with an offer that sounds too good to be true. There’s a little neighborhood bank that is getting its security system upgrade, but during the upgrade apparently the vault alarm has been getting tripped by tremors caused by the nearby underground, so until things get squared away the alarm has been turned off. The safety deposit boxes are completely vulnerable, a little-known fact that she’d found out from her boyfriend, ostensibly the contractor doing the security upgrade. Naturally, she thought of her old pal Terry to do the job which could be the big score he and his circle have been dreaming about all their lives.

However, things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Love’s strings are being pulled by an ambitious MI-5 agent (Lintern) who is out to get some potentially catastrophic photos from one of the safety deposit boxes in the bank, this one owned by Michael X (de Jersey), a would-be Black Power revolutionary who is in fact a drug dealer and a criminal who is blackmailing the government with those photos. There is also a pornographer (Suchet) whose ledger of payoffs to crooked cops have not only the straight-and-narrow police looking for the thieves, but also every corrupt cop in London as well. Terry is entering waters infested by sharks in a leaky boat, and doesn’t know it. The action here is all the more incredible because it is based on actual events.

Ever since I saw Statham in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Italian Job I thought he was destined to be a big star. At this point in his career, he was more of a B-level star, making mainly European action films although a couple of American films like Crank were on his resume as well. He remains to this day one of the most sought-after action stars in the business but this movie gave us notice that he could be much more.

Most of the rest of the cast are for the most part not well known to Americans, although Burrows has starred in Boston Legal and Deep Blue Sea and Suchet has been seen as Hercule Poirot in the PBS series. I did love the characterizations here; there is guilelessness to most of the blokes in the gang that is charming. When contrasted with the sophistication of those in the government and in the underground. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

Director Donaldson keeps the pace moving along; the nearly two hours of the movie went by very quickly for me. He doesn’t resort to using the fashionable hand-held camera or slo-mo action sequences which seem to dominate action movies these days, but prefers to allow the characters and their actions to tell the story, a very refreshing touch if you ask me.

Statham plays Terry as a devoted family man and far from a criminal mastermind, but street-smart, clever and tough enough to make it all work. As you watch events unfold, there is a certain inevitability that things are going to get very bad for the gang of thieves and that creates a good kind of tension as they spiral into an unavoidable morass that is not of their own making but are the unwitting catalysts for.

The villains here are absolutely hateful and are clearly not messing about; during an interrogation scene, there isn’t a lot of chit-chat or cliché, just a brutality that you would expect from desperate men. The story is compelling and keeps our interest throughout, and while the lines are clearly drawn, the motivations for everyone concerned are equally as clear, which makes this movie work as a rich tapestry. There is enough comedy here to give the movie a kind of light touch, but Donaldson never lets it get away from the action-driven tone. He understands what side of his bread is buttered.

Although the movie is set in the early 1970s, the filmmakers don’t really set the period as well as other movies have, so at times you’re almost fooled into thinking the movie is set in a modern time frame. Also, the coda is a little bit unfulfilling; you want to know what became of some of these characters you’ve been rooting for, as well as perhaps wanting to know more about the actual robbery itself but to be fair, much of the details of the actual crime have been suppressed by British authorities and while the filmmakers claim to have information detailing why that is (which is revealed here), their sources have never been revealed and as far as the truth goes this may merely be clever marketing on the part of the producers.

This is a well-made heist movie that moves at a comfortably quick pace without being so frenetic it makes you dizzy. The twists and turns are nicely done and Statham does a terrific job. You may wind up comparing it to The Italian Job or the Oceans movies, but I think you might rule favorably for this movie as opposed to the others I’ve mentioned.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham stakes his place as a big star. A real sense of impending tragedy. Nicely paced, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t set period as well as it might have. Ending is a bit unfulfilling.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a great deal of nudity, sexual innuendo and a gruesome and disturbing torture scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: If you look carefully, you can catch a cameo by Mick Jagger as a bank employee.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the actual 1971 Baker Street heist.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.8M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Lamb

Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2

Mateo


Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

(2015) Documentary (XLRator) Matthew Stoneman, Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano. Directed by Aaron I. Naar

If you go by the assumption that the best individual subjects for documentaries are those who fall furthest outside the mainstream of society, then Matthew Stoneman might well be the perfect subject. A mild-looking red-headed ex-convict mariachi singer from New Hampshire currently residing in Los Angeles, he regularly spends time in Cuba where he has spent seven years recording an ambitious record titled Una Historia de Cuba with Cuban musicians, including members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. He is often described in his press as the “gringo mariachi” which is fitting.

Facially resembling Bill Gates a little bit, Stoneman has a gentle, voice that is at odds with the typical big voices spawned by American Idol that dominate pop music at the moment. His songs express a good deal of longing, a kind of melancholia that cuts right to the heart. This is the kind of music that simply isn’t made in the American and western idioms; this is music from the Latin soul and it isn’t for everybody.

Stoneman, who uses the stage name Mateo and is addressed as such by the Mexican mariachi musicians he hangs out with in Los Angeles, plays in restaurants and scrounging for tips as well as at weddings, quinceañeras and whatever gigs he can find. He lives in an apartment that resembles an episode of Hoarders and saves every penny to fly to Cuba.

It is in Havana that he feels more at home, working with Cuban musicians on his ambitious record which as far as I could tell was original songs by Stoneman documenting the various styles of music in that Caribbean country as well as detailing its history. The Cuban musicians have accepted Stoneman as one of their own, a kindred spirit and praise his work ethic repeatedly, as well as his talent. While some will find his voice a little tentative, his low-key delivery is perfect for the tone and vibe of his music.

The documentary captures Stoneman in all his elements, and not all of them are savory. In the studio he is exacting, knowing exactly the sounds he wants to create but he collaborates with the musicians and accepts their input, sometimes with some contention but the experience looks to be joyful – certainly the musicians are having a good time.

Stoneman himself, though, seems more driven than happy. During the film he admits that he doesn’t have much use for friends and family and prefers to keep to himself which I believe is poison for an artist. He is clearly a lonely man, and his music reflects that; he could use a wider variety of emotions in his music with the caveat being that I’ve only heard what’s on the soundtrack – for all I know the rest of his music is upbeat and fun but something tells me that the melancholy dominates. When you deny yourself all the colors on your palate as a painter, your painting is going to be limited; so it is with music as well, with emotions being the colors that a musician employs. Still, the music I heard here is haunting and many viewers are going to be looking to order the CD the first chance they get although to be honest, I was unable to locate a website that it was available for purchase – my search was necessarily cursory however. If I find one, I’ll be sure to update this review though.

This isn’t a travelogue so the views of Cuba are more of the everyday life of the Cuban people and less of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture that we associate with the island nature, although there are some views of both. Mostly we get a sense of how Cubans live and while they don’t have a lot of the goods that we here in the States have, they don’t seem to miss them (it was refreshing not to see anyone carrying the ubiquitous cell phone around).

Stoneman does have a checkered past and while he doesn’t bury it, there isn’t a lot of detail about it in the film (most of the information as to what he did was culled from interviews I read with the filmmakers). It was while he was doing time for armed robbery that he was first exposed to the ballads that Mexican-American inmates listened to and sang, and he became so enchanted with them that he decided to give up on his career in pop music and concentrate on the beautiful Latin music that he became enamored with.

We do get a glimpse of Stoneman’s darker nature; he has a bit of a thing for Cuban hookers and there are several sequences detailing his search for them, including one fairly graphic scene in which he finds one to his liking. He is also a little bit confrontational from time to time, although you don’t get a sense that he has a temper; he never raises his voice during the course of the film. Not that he doesn’t in real life. Further, he is certainly estranged from his parents and the impression they give is that he abruptly severed ties with them; they seem a bit puzzled about it but the father is a bit fatalistic; he doesn’t expect that they will have any sort of relationship with their mercurial son for the rest of his days. Whatever rift exists between Stoneman and his parents is never detailed in the film.

Neither is the question of how Stoneman can afford to make his album. In Los Angeles he ekes out a hardscrabble existence, and yet the filmmakers state that the album took seven years and cost $350,000 to produce. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change and it doesn’t seem likely that an existence of tips and parties could produce that kind of cash, which if you average out would be $50K per year. Unless Stoneman has another job that isn’t shown in the film, the math really doesn’t add up; Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live.

Stoneman himself is a bit o a question mark; you get the sense that he is mostly a pleasant person and he is certainly driven and his passion for his music is undeniable. On the flip side, he doesn’t seem to let anyone in too deep; he can be affectionate with his friends but onscreen anyway he doesn’t seem disposed to revealing too much about himself. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten to know him better but something tells me that wouldn’t be possible in any case; some people like to keep others at a comfortable distance and Stoneman is clearly of that ilk.

In many ways this is a courageous documentary, and given the recent re-opening of the American embassy and the swelling movement of ending a half century of sanctions that have accomplished nothing and normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it is a timely one. Being the son of a rabid anti-Castro Cuban myself, I can only wonder what my late father would have made of Stoneman. I’m not sure he would have admired the man, but he certainly would have been fascinated by his music.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and beautiful images. An insider glimpse at Cuba. Enigmatic yet fascinating subject.
REASONS TO STAY: Stoneman not really forthcoming about his background, other than in broad strokes. The prostitute sequences may be offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rough language, brief nudity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stoneman was arrested for fencing stolen recording equipment, breaking his leg while attempting to elude the police. He spent four years in prison for his crimes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Park Bench

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets


How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Ron Davis, Leland Brunson, Tommie Stornes, Tevin Thompson, Lucia McBath, John Guy, Cory Strolla, Vic Micolucci, Angela B. Corey, Russell Healey, Alia Harris. Directed by Marc Silver

Florida Film Festival 2015

The United States has never really been able to have peace between different racial groups, particularly the white European segment and the African-American segment. In places like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City, there have been massive protests about the murders of young unarmed African-American men by white European-American men, mainly police officers.

In Jacksonville, Florida on November 23, 2012 – ironically, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving – four young African-American boys pulled into a gas station to pick up some sundries at the convenience store on the premises. They’d just come from the local mall where Jordan Davis’ girlfriend worked and had plans to enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend. Like young men of any color often do, they had the music on way too loud. The driver, Tommie Stornes, went inside to make his purchases.

Into the spot next to them pulled in Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend Rhonda Rouer. They had just come from his son’s wedding and had enjoyed several cocktails; they were looking forward to continuing the party in their hotel room before driving home to Brevard County. While Rouer went inside to buy wine and chips, Dunn asked the boys to turn the music down.

Initially Tevin Thompson complied but this apparently upset Davis who turned the music back on, exclaiming that he didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. This led to a verbal confrontation between Davis and Dunn. According to Dunn, Davis threatened to kill him and when Dunn saw the boy pull a shotgun out and point it at him, he pulled his own gun from the glove compartment and fired into the vehicle. Stornes, who had returned to the vehicle by this time, pulled out of the parking space and Dunn left the vehicle, continuing to fire – ten shots in all. Rouer returned to the parking lot shortly after, and Dunn calmly left, returned to his hotel room and ordered pizza.

Three of the shots had hit Davis however, and when Stornes stopped the car a short distance away, they noticed Davis gasping for air. He’d been struck in the leg, the lungs and in the aorta. They made a frantic 911 call but it was too late. Davis would die from his injuries. Dunn never called the police, never took any responsibility for his actions. He was arrested later because an eyewitness got the license plate number from his car. Police searched the boys’ vehicle and no weapon of any kind was found.

This powerful documentary doesn’t really concentrate much on the actual shooting, although there is a poignant sequence in which the last moments of Davis’ life are described while home video footage of him as a baby is displayed on the screen. Mostly, this is about the aftermath – the devastation on his parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath (they had separated when Jordan was young and his mom had since remarried), his friends and his girlfriend.

They cover the trial, following the awful ordeal of reliving the death of their son, the demonizing of the four boys that the defense used to try and apply Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. The movie is an indictment of that law as well as the mentality surrounding it. A mentality that has led to open season on young black men, that has led to massive racial tensions in a country that is supposed to be far too enlightened for them.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel angry. The pain and suffering of Jordan Davis’ parents and friends is palpable. The arrogance and self-delusion of Dunn is chilling. And even as his parents were dealing with the trial of their son’s murderer, off-camera other African-American boys were getting shot down. Given the circumstances that America has found itself in over the past year and a half, it’s hard not to put this film in that context.

However, that context has to be done by the viewer; the filmmakers make little note of them, although surely they had to be aware of what was happening elsewhere. While the movie overall is incredibly moving and emotionally wrenching, one thing was missing: Jordan Davis. We never really got a sense of who this 17-year-old young man was, or what his plans for the future were other than they probably didn’t include the NBA (his friends joke regularly about what a lousy basketball player he was). At the Q&A following the Florida Film Festival screening of the film (one of the best I’ve ever attended, by the way), his father described him as hoping to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after he graduated. He wanted to serve his country. Sadly, he never got the chance. In any case, I would have liked to have seen more of Jordan in his own story. He was more than just his murder and I think the movie would have been even more effective had we gotten to know him a little bit better.

This is the kind of tragedy that is far too common in our society. It is a senseless waste of human life. These four boys weren’t ghetto kids; they were from middle class families and had never been in trouble with the law. Even if they had been from a poor neighborhood, that still didn’t warrant what happened to them. Davis might have lost his temper and said some intemperate things, but that wasn’t worthy of a death sentence.

I don’t know that Dunn would have reacted differently had not the Stand Your Ground law been in effect. I think it’s impossible to know whether he would have or not. Chances are, the law wasn’t on his mind when he drew his weapon. What  was on his mind was anger and fear. Anger that these boys stood up to him; perhaps fear that they were guilty of being young and black. Which in his mind, did carry a death sentence.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely riveting.  Couldn’t be more timely. Nonpartisan.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have explored the underlying issues more thoroughly. Would have liked to have known more about the victim.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was initially titled 3 1/2 Minutes but has since added the 10 Bullets to the title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound