The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

Goodbye Honey


Dawn just keeps on truckin’.

(2020) Thriller (Freestyle) Pamela Jayne Morgan, Juliette Alice Gobin, Paul C. Kelly, Jake Laurence, Peyton Michelle Edwards, Rafe Soule, Aaron Mitchell, Stacey van Gorder, Keara Benton, J Bones. Directed by Max Strand

 

Truckers are unsung American heroes. They are sometimes portrayed as not too bright, or hellraisers, or rednecks (which some would see as a badge of honor), or corrupt (particularly when discussing the Teamsters Union of the Jimmy Hoffa era) and while there are instances of those things that have occurred and continue to occur. What is rarely discussed is the sacrifices that long-haul truckers make, moving goods and sometimes, our lives, across the country getting little sleep and being away from their families for extended periods. During the pandemic, they continued to work and a good many of them were rewarded with doses of COVID.

Dawn Miller (Morgan) is one such trucker and she owns her own company, Nate’s Haul and Go, named for her late husband who founded the company. After his recent passing, she took over his seat in the cab, and this night she is moving the belongings of one Cass Rodick (Kelly) who is one of those clients who has a tendency to micromanage. It is late at night and she can barely keep her eyes open, so she pulls off the road into the parking lot of a state park to get a few hours of shut-eye before finishing the job.

But her plans for a nap are interrupted by an insistent banging on the door to her cab. A pretty young woman, who introduces herself as Phoebe (Gobin), at first requests some water which Dawn is happy to share. Then, a request to use the phone to call the cops. You see, Phoebe has just escaped from being abducted and has spent the last four months in a guy’s basement. Just then, Dawn’s client calls and has a million bazillion questions, with Phoebe getting more nervous by the second. What if her captor comes along while Dawn is on the phone answering questions from this guy? She reaches for the phone and as you would expect, bad things happen. The phone falls and becomes an expensive paperweight. Although Dawn is a little skeptical about Phoebe’s far-fetched tale, she agrees to drive Phoebe to the nearest town to find a police station, but there’s just one problem – Dawn can’t find the keys to the ignition.

Strand shows a marvelous touch for thrillers, keeping the suspense at a high level throughout. He’s aided by the (necessarily) underlit cinematography that creates all sorts of shadows, perfect for those who would do these women harm to hide in. He is also aided by an electronic musical score (unfortunately uncredited) that is very reminiscent of the 70s work by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. It gives the viewer a feeling of unease.

Also worth noting is the performances of the two leading ladies, particularly Morgan who gives Dawn a kind of rough-around-the-edges personality. Her suspicious nature may be hard for some to identify with, but then as the movie goes on it is revealed that she has good reason to be the way she is, and while the revelations aren’t mind-bending in any way, they do justify some of the action although not all of it.

And there’s the rub. Some of the writing here is not very good, to put it bluntly. There’s a whole section in which a couple of young men, looking to do some drugs in the park, decide to humiliate and torture Dawn in exchange for the use of their cell phone. The scene doesn’t play at all well, and Dawn, who comes off in every way as a strong, no-bullshit kind of gal during the rest of the film, gives in way too easily to the degrading requests of the boys. That part of the film feels like titillation for its own sake, an just a hair misogynistic.

That tone is at odds with the rest of the movie, in which Morgan comes off as a capable, strong woman who makes a wonderful lead character. It also calls forth the sad truth that few middle-aged women get roles like this; when they do, they are generally in supporting or even cameo roles. We need more movies with characters like Dawn in the forefront. It would have been nice if she could have been allowed to show that strength of character throughout.

REASONS TO SEE: The suspense level is kept at a nice boiling point.
REASONS TO AVOID: The storytelling can get muddled from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity in plentitude here as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strand previously directed a couple of short films. This marks his feature-length debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snatched
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
State Funeral

Nomadland


This is what mesmerizing performance looks like.

(2020) Drama (SearchlightFrances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes, Douglas G. Soul, Ryan Aquino, Bryce Bedsworth, Annette Webb, Teresa Buchanan, Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Makenzie Etcheverry, Rachel Bannon, Brandy Wilber, Suanne Carlson, Roxanne Bay, Sherita Deni Coker.  Directed by Chloé Zhao

 

Many people look at the Okies of the Depression, entire families who put all their belongings in their trucks and tried to find somewhere they could work and believe that those folk were a symptom of their times. What most Americans don’t know is that the economic realities of the 21st century have led to an entire new generation of rootless migrant workers, going from one seasonal job to the next, living out of their vans or in camps.

Fern (McDormand) has been hit by two catastrophes. First and foremost, her beloved husband Bo has died. To make matters worse, the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, where they were both employed, has shut down. Empire, being a company town, now has no work and has itself shut down. Fern has been thrown out of her company housing where she has lived for decades. She decides to gather what belongings she can fit and put them in a van where she makes herself as comfortable as possible, getting a temporary job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for the Christmas rush. She is given free parking in a trailer park, paid for by Amazon. When the job goes away, so will the space.

She befriends a woman named Linda May (May) who urges her to attend a convocation of nomads in Arizona, to be presided over by nomad guru Bob Wells (Wells) who has garnered an impressive following with his pragmatic and imaginative videos of how to survive living out of a van. She tells the child of a close friend in Empire who asks her if she’s homeless, “Oh no, honey, I’m not homeless…I’m houseless!”

She is loathe to head out to Arizona but when finding more work proves fruitless, she changes her mid and drives down there. There she meets Dave (Strathairn), an old man who becomes sweet on her, and Swankie (Swankie), a veteran nomad who is dying of cancer and wants to see as many natural wonders as she can while she still can. Her impending fate doesn’t prevent her from remonstrating with Fern that she needs to be more pragmatic because they are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody to help them if their van breaks down “You can die out here!”

Fern remains something of an enigma throughout the movie until near the end where we start to get the picture as to why she makes the choices that she does. McDormand, one of the most gifted actresses in the business with Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and three other nominations. This film will undoubtedly give her a fourth, as she has already won this year’s Golden Globe for the role (the movie also won the Best Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe at the recent awards ceremony). While Fern isn’t the most talkative person ever, her eyes are often haunted, staring out in the distance, her thoughts kept to herself but her eyes betraying her melancholy. She works hard and makes due without complaining, taking what joys she can where she can – like going skinny dipping by herself in a rock-strewn river in Colorado.

The one false note that the film strikes is the relationship between Fern and Dave. There is a sweetness to Dave, but Fern isn’t having it and that would be fine, except it feels like the relationship seems to be added on just to add romantic tension. The movie doesn’t need it.

Zhao utilizes the magnificent vistas of the prairies, the Rockies and the desert Southwest, taking Fern to a variety of jobs, from working the lunch counter at Wall Drug in South Dakota (a place to which I’ve actually been and it is so much more impressive than the film shows), a beet harvester in Nebraska, and a trailer park hostess in Arizona. She finds quiet moments of peace amongst concrete dinosaurs or under the stars. And despite Dave’s sweet advances, she seems content to remain on her own.

This is a slice of life that most Americans have no idea even exists, but the movie is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. While Zhao tends to leave details out of her film, there’s no doubt that this is a perilous way of life, especially now with so may more out of work than when the movie was filmed, let alone when it takes place (approximately 2011). People who have worked hard all their lives and couldn’t quite get ahead find themselves unable to afford a place to live in, forcing the to live from gig to gig. And what happens to them when they are no longer able to drive? It isn’t a question the movie asks but it was definitely on my mind, given that most of the characters in the film or either middle aged or elderly.

There is a lyricism here, a dignity that is all the more apparent because many of the actors in the film are non-professionals; they are actual nomads who live in their own fans. They, too, live with the specter that jobs aren’t guaranteed and that despite their willingness to work, they may get somewhere, find that the job they expected was already gone, and not be able to afford the gas to get them somewhere else. Most of these people have no health care insurance, so when people like Swankie get seriously ill, their only choice is to let nature take its course.

It seems impossible to believe that Americans can live like this in the 21st century; our nation is wealthy and prosperous, or so we’re told, but that’s only if you own the business. For those who toil in those businesses and make money for the 1%, their future may not be all too different than the one Fern faces.

REASONS TO SEE: McDormand gives another in a long line of outstanding performances. Gritty and realistic examination of American economic realities. Rings true as a human story. Honest in every way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Fern and Dave seemed forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some full-frontal nudity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhan interviewed several real life nomads to get some informational background for the film; some of the more articulate interviewees were given roles playing fictional versions of themselves in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Leisure Seeker
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Days of the Bagnold Summer

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

The Curse of La Llorona


Can I get an amen?!

(2019) Horror (New LineLinda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola, Irene Keng, Oliver Alexander, Aiden Lewandowski, Paul Rodriguez, John Marshall Jones, Ricardo Mamood-Vega, Jayden Valdivia, Andrew Tinpo Lee, Madeleine McGraw, Sophia Santi. Directed by Michael Chaves

Hollywood has yet to mine the extremely fertile soil of Mexican, Central and South American folklore. Some mythic stories go back thousands of years to the Mayans, the Aztecs and other native cultures. Given how repetitive most Hollywood horror movies are, it would seem a slam dunk to try other sources for scares.

Anna (Cardellini) is a widow whose husband, an LAPD cop, died in the line of duty. She’s a social worker who often works with the cops, particularly close friend Detective Cooper (Thomas) who often supplies her with child endangerment cases. One such involves an apparently insane Hispanic mom (Velasquez) whose children have burn marks on their arms and are discovered locked in a closet surrounded by religious icons. This being a horror movie, it’s not the frantic mom who is responsible; it’s La Llorona, a.k.a. The Crying Woman, a 17th century beauty who in a fit of jealous rage drowned her two children when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful.

Now she’s after new children to replace her own little ones and she’s got her eye on Anna’s two kids (Christou and Kinchen). A kindly priest (Amendola), gun-shy after a recent brush with the supernatural, steers her to an ex-priest turned curandero (Cruz) who means to help Anna out by any means he can. However, La Llorona doesn’t take no for an answer easily.

The film is loosely tied to the Conjuring universe by the priest, who appeared in another spin-off that also didn’t involve the Warrens. This is the only movie to date in the Conjuring universe whose big bad didn’t appear in a previous movie which doesn’t hurt the movie as Chaves does a good job of setting the film up in the opening sequences of the film.

The actual La Llorona apparition is pretty cool, appearing often in billowing curtains or emerging from water. There are plenty of attempts to create a spooky atmosphere but too many jump scares ruin the broth. Cardellini is generally a proficient actress but she’s given little to work with here; her That ultimately comes off as colorless. Cruz fares a little bit better, offering a little comic relief.

The movie feels a little bit too much like a paint-by-numbers horror film trying to check all the boxes off on the scorecard. That’s a shame because there was certainly potential for a really whiz-bang horror film here. They got the technical end right; now if only they had the courage of their own convictions and allowed the main character to scare the bejeezus out of us.

REASONS TO SEE: The creature effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of jump scares as well as an overabundance of child actor overacting..b
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and plenty of scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amendola reprises the role he played in Annabelle.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of La Llorona
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2019 concludes!

Book Club


In any decade, nobody parties like Candice Bergen.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Mircea Monroe, Tommy Dewey, John Shartzer, Ravi Kapoor, Lili Bordán, Marisa Chen Moller, Amanda Martin. Directed by Bill Holderman

 

Four literate ladies have been friends for ages and have seen the curvature of their lives move towards the downward slope. One of the hallmarks of their friendship is their regular book club meetings in which the four women read a book and then discuss it the following week. The membership includes Vivian (Fonda) the somewhat oversexed owner of a boutique luxury hotel chain; Sharon (Bergen), a divorced judge who is notoriously career-driven; Diane (Keaton), a recent widow whose bossy daughters (Silverstone and Aselton interchangeably) want her to move to Scottsdale into a basement apartment even though she’s perfectly happy and capable of supporting herself in Los Angeles and finally restaurateur Carol (Steenburgen) whose husband (Nelson) has been notably absent in the bedroom of late – corresponding with his retirement. The reading of Fifty Shades of Grey inspires them to ramp up their love lives.

This is one of those films that perpetuates the myth that senior sexuality is at best cute and at worst a colossal punchline to a bad joke. Being that I’m climbing towards those rarefied age climes, perhaps I’m a little more sensitive to that sort of thing but with modern medicine allowing us to live longer than we used to, sex drives are correspondingly lasting well into our sixties and seventies, sometimes even into our eighties. While there may be those who still giggle at the thought of Granny and Grampy getting busy, it’s not realistic anymore to expect that they don’t.

At least Holderman, a veteran producer making his directing debut, doesn’t waste the talents of his cast. All of these pros deliver performances that range from strong to terrific. Bergen in particular brought to mind past glories as we’re reminded watching her that there has never been another Murphy Brown and there likely never will be.

The film suffers from having too many characters and not enough backstory; I would have been much happier with fewer but better developed characters in the mix. Still, I’m glad that these ladies are still drawing a paycheck and I would love to see much more of them, albeit in better films than this one. At least it has a killer soundtrack going for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The great cast also gets a great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The myth that senior citizens having a sexual life is ridiculous is perpetuated here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references as well as other sex-related content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bergen, Fonda and Keaton all dated Warren Beatty at one time or another.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Patient 001

The Cakemaker


Bake me a cake just as fast as you can!

(2017) Drama (Strand) Sarah Adler, Tim Kalkhof, Roy Miller, Zohar Shtrauss, Sandra Sadeh, Stephanie Stremler, Eliezer Shimon, Iyad Msalma, Tagel Eliyahu, David Koren, Tamir Ben Yehuda, Sagi Shemesh, Gal Gonen. Directed by Ofir Raul Gralzer

The loss of a loved one is always devastating. Some find themselves having a hard time facing the fact that their loved one is gone. Others feel the need to wrap themselves in everything that reminds them of their late loved one, holding onto it before the memory fades. We all cope with grief differently.

Oren (Miller) is an Israeli businessman whose travels frequently take him to Berlin. His travels to Berlin frequently take him to a café run by Thomas (Kalkhof). It might be for the Black Forest Cake that Oren loves or the cinnamon cookies he takes home to his wife, but as it turns out the connection between the German and the Israeli goes far deeper.

When Oren doesn’t show up at the appointed time and Thomas’ texts and calls to his lover go unanswered, Thomas makes his way to Oren’s Berlin office and there discovers that Oren has been killed in an automobile accident. Gutted, Thomas decides to go to Jerusalem where he finds the café that is being started up by Oren’s wife Anat (Adler). Impulsively, Thomas asks for a job and Anat gives him one as a dishwasher.

However his skills as a baker become much more apparent to the horror of Anat’s brother Moti (Shtrauss) who is deeply distrustful of a gentile and a male one at that in the kitchen. He is concerned that the café’s kosher certification will be threatened. Meanwhile, Anat finds her bond with Thomas deepening, still having no idea of her employee’s relationship with her late husband. Her son Ital (Eliyahu) also begins to open up to Thomas. If the truth should come out, the two will be utterly destroyed.

This is a movie that doesn’t do what you expect it to – and that’s a good thing. I honestly never could figure out where Gralzer was going (he also co-wrote the script) and the choices he made were all good ones. There is a very melancholic air here, understandable considering the subject matter. There are times that Thomas’ actions seem almost creepy but as the movie progresses some sense can be made of them, largely thanks to a flashback late in the film. Still, Kalkhof has a brooding, gentle presence that draws the audience in. Adler is a bit more shrill, but she softens a bit as her character’s relationship with Thomas grows more romantic.

The movie takes it’s time getting where it’s going to which is fine with European audiences but not so much for American filmgoers who are notoriously impatient with slow-paced films. I found the unhurried pace to be actually somewhat soothing; it allows the viewer to process what’s happening. It also allows the filmmaker to linger over some shots of pastries and cakes that are just mouth-watering short of being food porn. My advice is to see this film in a theater that is within walking distance to a nice bakery. You’ll be hungry by the time this is done.

This is an impressive debut for Gralzer and there are few wrong steps taken here. The late-film flashback that explains some of what happened between Thomas and Oren probably should have occurred sooner in the film and the ending was a bit muddled but beyond that this is the kind of rainy day movie that will whet your appetite in more ways than one.

REASONS TO GO: You never know where the film is taking you. The cakes and cookies look incredibly appetizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature to be directed by Gralzer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six L.A. Love Stories

Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang

Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark

Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny