Don’t Sell Me a Dog


Out for a ride in the country.

(2021) Crime (Bren Enterprises) Andy Yule, Liadh Blake, Mark Agar, Damien Lumsden, Mark Hampton, Harrison Hampton. Directed by Pauric Brennan

 

One of the wonderful things about what I do is that from time to time, you run into a film that you know nothing about but proceeds to exceed every expectation I might have had. To be honest, most self-distributed films suffer from a number of sins, ranging from clunky dialogue to stiff acting to overcomplicated plots. When you run into a movie that has strong performances, great dialogue and a smartly written script, it is manna from heaven for most film critics.

CD (Agar) and his girlfriend Adele (Blake) are both junkies. CD works for the local crime boss, but he yearns for a fresh start away from the small Irish town he lives in. But getting away requires money and he doesn’t have any. So he decides to rob his boss, Brian (Lumsden) but Brian surprises him in the act. Fortunately, Adele sneaks up on Brian and knocks him out.

The two have to leave and right now. They attempt to carjack Joe (Yule), an older man, but the car is the only thing he has in the world. He won’t part with it, but he agrees to drive them wherever they want to go. So the three embark on the strangest road trip ever through the lovely Irish countryside.

But Brian hasn’t forgotten them, and he’s after the two of them. He has found out that they are in Joe’s car and is looking for them. In the meantime, CD’s paranoia has begun to cause problems, and Adele and Joe have begun to bond. Brian’s hot on their heels. Is there a new beginning waiting in the future for CD and Adele?

The film has a pop to it that comes from a confident filmmaker and given that this was filmed on a microbudget during a pandemic, the accomplishment is all the more impressive. The writing is crisp and real; the actors deliver the lines without making it seem like they’re acting, the opposite of which is a mistake inexperienced actors often make – acting a part instead of inhabiting a role. Yule as Joe and Blake as Adele are particularly impressive, garnering viewer sympathy even though Joe can be a codger at times and Adele is prone to making bad decisions. Agar is also good in the thankless role of the impulsive and often abrasive CD (don’t call him Clarence), while Lumsden gives Brian an affability that is underlined by a cruel and vicious nature that his job requires of him.

The ending works pretty well, although it takes Brennan maybe a little too long to get there; the last ten, fifteen minutes seem a bit padded out and might have used some punching up. Even so, this is a movie that takes you under its wing and weaves an enchantment on you. It is quintessentially Irish, if that makes any sense, but it is still the best way to describe this charming and highly enjoyable film. It is currently enjoying a spot on Plex’s most popular films list and for good reason. Pop on in to Plex or Vimeo and check it out. And Brennan assures me that there will be more VOD outlets for the film in the coming weeks. Do look out for it; this is one you’ll want to see. And if you don’t, away with ye.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and resonant script. Yule and Blake absolutely command your attention.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending could have been tightened up a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in eight days between COVID lockdowns in Ireland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Plex, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ruthless People
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
CODA

Fatherhood


You and me against the world.

(2021) Dramedy (Columbia/Netflix) Kevin Hart, Alfre Woodard, Lil Rel Howley, DeWanda Wine, Melody Hurd, Paul Reiser, Anthony Carrigan, Deborah Ayorinde, Frankie R. Faison, Thedra Porter, Holly Gauthier-Franel, Ellen David, Julie Trépanier, Julian Casey, Anne Day-Jones, Teneisha Collins, Maria Herrera, Anthony Kavanaugh, Puja Uppal. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Some actors fill a niche, and pretty much stick to it their entire careers. Most actors, however, feel a need to branch out, to flex their dramatic (or comedic) wings and fly out into uncertain winds. Sometimes the result is a steep drop into a faceplant on the tarmac. However, when the landing is stuck, the actor then faces the double-edge sword of raised bars and higher expectations.

Kevin Hart has mostly played irascible immature men conning their way through life, but in this film, based on the experiences of author Matthew Logelin as chronicled in his book Two Kisses for Maddy, Hart plays Logelin, a tech engineer in Boston who is about to be a dad. His wife Liz (Ayorinde) gives birth to a beautiful baby girl, but a pulmonary embolism cuts short her life.

Now Matt faces the daunting task of being a single father and a grieving widower. He is devastated by the grief, but doesn’t have time to let it be front and center; he’s got a career to deal with and a baby to take care of, even though he doesn’t have a clue how to do it. Initially, he gets help from his mom (Porter) and his somewhat overbearing other-in-law Marion (Woodard) who are willing to stay much longer than they are welcome, but Matt is firm; he can do this, although Marion has her doubts. She exacts from him a promise that if it gets to be too much that he’ll move back to Minnesota – where he met his wife – and where Marion can keep a better eye on him.

Hart delivers a career-defining performance here. He dials back the volume and emphasizes Matt’s loneliness and humanity without sacrificing the confusion and loneliness he feels. He’s so unprepared for being a dad that he doesn’t even know what colic is – and let’s not get started about the joys of assembling a stroller. His Matt has skated through, notorious for procrastinating until he realizes he is in a situation where he simply can’t afford to put anything off, particularly when it comes to his daughter. And the love he feels for Maddy (Hurd) shows through in every frame.

Movies like this can easily become maudlin and manipulative but with the sure hand of Weitz (About a Boy) at the helm, it never descends into either pitfall. The movie does occasionally stumble; the character of Jordan (Howley), Matt’s immature best friend, is a little too over-the-top for the film. However, it does better in pointing out the difference in the ways men and women approach parenthood; women get it far more intuitively than men do (for the most part – there are always exceptions) but Weitz wisely doesn’t let this descend into a “men are buffoons who couldn’t tie their shoelaces without women” tone that movies sometimes descend into.

What we have here is a really good movie about the challenges of facing single fatherhood alone. It is well-acted with a great ensemble cast and the interplay between Hart and Woodard is priceless. This is easily one of the best movies that the streamer has delivered to its subscribers (although to be fair the movie was originally intended for theatrical release until COVID put a stop to it) and if you have a Netflix subscription, this one should be on your radar.

REASONS TO SEE: Hart gives his best performance by a mile. Great chemistry between Woodard and Hart. Really gets how men fumble around for what women understand intuitively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Howley’s Jordan character may be a bit TOO inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Channing Tatum was originally going to play the role of Matt when the project was first announced in 2015, but couldn’t get it to work in his schedule; he remained on board as an executive producer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bring Your Own Brigade

The Fever (A Febre)


Justino stands guard.

(2019) Drama (Kimstim) Regis Myrupu, Rosa Peixoto, Johnathan Sodré, Edmildo Vaz Pimentel, Anunciata Teles Soares, Kaisaro Jussara Brito, Rodson Vasconcelos, Lourinelson Vladimir, Suzy Lopes, Erismar Fernandes Rodrigues, Dalvina Pinto Neves, Sandro Medeiros, Ricardo Risuenho, Silvia Pimenta, Josimar Marinho, Gabryelle Araujo Dos Santos. Directed by Maya Da-Rin

 

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian rainforest has endured a record deforestation that has displaced untold numbers of indigenous peoples living in the rainforest of the Amazon basin. As they move into more urban environments, their culture is in danger of being lost forever.

Justino (Myrupu) is one of those displaced people. A member of the Desana people whose native language is Tukano, he has lived for decades in Manaus, a massive port city on the Amazon where container ships stream in and out, leaving a sort of maze-like structure of cargo containers on concrete docks of the port. He is a security guard there, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded gun, but mostly he stands watch, silent, his face expressionless.

He is called into the office of a doncescending HR manager who expresses condolences at his recent widowhood, but then upbraids him for being distracted on the job. He has reason to be, as well – his daughter Vanessa (Peixoto), a nurse in one of the understaffed Manaus hospitals, has been accepted to medical school and will soon be leaving for Brasilia, leaving her father alone in his tiny house on the edge of the rainforest.

The commute from the docks to his home is brutal, requiring two bus rides on which he often naps while standing up, followed by a long walk from the road to his house, where hammocks swing inside although he also has a more traditional bed. As news reports detail animal attacks in the city, he begins to come down with a mysterious fever, which leads to waking dreams that are terrifying and yet illustrate his lack of place in this world.

Da-Rin has both a marvelous visual and audio sense. The visuals have a lovely juxtaposition of light and shadow. In the cinematography of Barbara Alvarez, forest becomes city and city becomes forest. And hen there are the sounds; the clanking of the massive machines that lift the cargo containers from the ships onto the dock, and the natural sounds of insects, leaves rustling and the violence of the frequent rainstorms which become more expressive than the dialogue, which is kept to a minimum. Most of the actors here are given little to say.

And they don’t need to. Myrupu has a marvelously stoic face but he allows a half-smile to betray his bemusement, or his wry disgust. His voice is quiet, but he is eloquent in other ways. While supportive of his daughter going to college, there is a part of him that doesn’t look forward to the loneliness of her absence. He tells a story early on of a hunter who goes hunting despite the fact his family has all the food they need, and is taken by the monkeys of the forest to a land of dreams. And that’s where Justino has been taken, a place between the modern world and the natural one. He retains a foot in each.

He endures casual racism from a white co-worker (Vladimir) and chiding from his brother (Sodré), and brushes off the concerns of his daughter (“I’ll be fine,” he murmurs) even as his mysterious fever grows worse. The movie seems to be a metaphor for what we are losing when we wipe out the indigenous of a region. The United States did much the same thing and the loss of the culture of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country is incalculable. They still exist and retain parts of their culture, but the way of life they had is long gone and so are many of their stories and mythology. These are stories that we will never get back, and Brazil seems to be heading for the same fate. The destruction of the rainforest is an ecological issue, to be sure, but it is also a cultural one that sometimes gets overlooked in our rallying cries to save the rainforest.

REASONS TO SEE: Very straightforward and powerful. A rare look at the indigenous of the Amazon basin and how they cope with modern civilization. Myrupu gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced for American sensibilities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Da-Rin’s first narrative feature film; she has previously made documentaries including Lands and Margin, both of which have partially inspired this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Embrace of the Serpent
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Groomed

Dead Air (2021)


Breaker! Breaker!

(2021) Thriller (FreestyleKevin Hicks, Vickie Hicks, Chris Xavier, Luca Iacovetti, Madison Skodzinsky, Mackenzie Skodzinsky, Ryan C. Mitchell, Mark Skodzinsky.  Directed by Kevin Hicks

 

What happens to the voices that go out over the airwaves? Do they just fade and dissipate into the ether, or do they carry forever, bouncing around the cosmos, giving a kind of immortality to those who have used HAM radios or broadcast radios? Makes you think.

William (K. Hicks) has known his share of tragedy. His father (Mitchell) died when he was young; his wife passed away from leukemia not long ago, leaving him with two teen daughters (the Skodzinsky sisters) to raise by himself. His mother has also recently passed, and left him a pile of boxes of old junk to sift through. In one box, he finds his dad’s old HAM radio apparatus. On a whim, he decides to give it a whirl.

To his surprise, he makes contact with Eva (V. Hicks), a lonely woman with a touch of paranoia and more than a touch of agoraphobia. She lives in what appears to be a bunker-like basement, and spends most of her day chatting on the radio. The two strike up a friendship despite some wariness on Eva’s part brought on by William’s cheerful curiosity.

But William has some issues of his own, mostly dealing with some traumatic repressed memories. He’s seeing a psychiatrist (Xavier) who is pushing for hypnotherapy which William is resistant to. But as he finds opening up to Eva is emboldening him, he agrees to be hypnotized and what he discovers about his past, and it’s connection to Eva, will change his life forever.

This microbudget indie thriller is billed as a horror movie, but it really isn’t. There are some supernatural elements, yes, but nothing really scary as such. Vickie Hicks wrote this and Kevin directed it; both elected to star in it, giving it a kind of home movie “let’s put on a show!” vibe, but their enthusiasm doesn’t translate to the screen. The acting is largely stiff and low-energy and the dialogue doesn’t help matters.

Thrillers almost demand twists and there are a few here, but by and large they’re fairly predictable, particularly if you’ve seen the trailer which I don’t recommend that you do if you’re going to watch this; the experience will be much better if you go in without any idea of what’s going on. While Kevin Hicks does a pretty decent job of building up suspense, he loses marks because much of the movie’s payoff is telegraphed in advance. This is the kind of movie that you watch once, and forget quickly.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of establishing a suspenseful aura.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting and dialogue are both subpar.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Melder.“ from the HAM radio handle that Eva uses, is German for “reports.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frequency
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Happy Times

The Mimic (2020)


One of these guys is just like the other.

(2020) Comedy (Gravitas) Thomas Sadoski, Jake Robinson, Austin Pendleton, Gina Gershon, Jessica Walter, M. Emmett Walsh, Marilu Henner, Tammy Blanchard, Didi Conn, Matthew Maher, Josh Pais, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Doug Plaut, Steve Routman, Teddy Coluca, Vanna Pilgrim, Drew Porschen, Victoria Mahal-Sky, Diane DeSalvo-Beebe, Connie Porcellini. Directed by Thomas F. Mazziotti

 

There’s no telling how we’re going to react to other people upon first meeting them. Some folks just charm the bejeezus out of us and we respond to that; others we can take or leave – most of the others, in fact. Then there are those where are feelings go the other way; we can’t quite put our finger on it, but we know there’s something off about that person and we instinctively dislike them.

Our Narrator (Sadoski) – who is never given a name – works for a community newspaper in a tony small town while he works on a screenplay. A new neighbor comes into his life, a man that the Narrator calls The Kid (Robinson), mainly because it irritates the Kid to be called that. The Kid is almost puppy-eager to please, but amid his wide-eyed gosh shucks demeanor there is an undercurrent that the Kid might not be quite so gosh shucks – trending more towards the No Please Don’t Hurt Me side. The Narrator is quite sure that the Kid is a sociopath.

And so the Narrator takes it upon himself to keep the Kid in close proximity so he can better observe him. The Narrator isn’t always able to hide his contempt for the Kid, and they often have disagreements. The Narrator, a widower, is also beginning to develop feelings for the Kid’s wife (Pilgrim).

The dialogue has a lot of snap to it, taking its cues from screwball comedies (the fact that it’s set at a newspaper could well be a nod to His Gal Friday). But for all the machine gun-like delivery hat Sadoski and Robinson manage, the laugh-out-loud funny quotient is unusually low. A lot of it is because the two leads are mainly just too unlikable; the Narrator is a bit of a pompous know-it-all and the Kid is just downright creepy.

In some ways, Mazziotti is trying too hard to make the movie relevant and fresh. It feels sometimes that he’s not confident enough to let the film stand on its own merits; he has to kind of gink it up a bit with screwy situations that don’t feel real, and with zippy one-liners that occasionally fall flat. I get the sense that Mazziotti is trying a bit too hard; if he had done some punchier jokes and went less for oddball and more for snappy he would have had something here

I do see what Mazziotti was trying to do, and to be honest while he isn’t always successful, he doesn’t always fail either. I can’t say I wouldn’t mind seeing a well-made comedy in this style again; it is definitely a lost art. The movie needs a bit more punch with the humor and a little less highbrow. Never talk down to your audience, a maxim that serves well in all sorts of artistic endeavors. I felt a bit talked down to after viewing this, but on the plus side there is definitely some strong points here to recommend the movie.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty snappy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a little too hard to be different.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mazziotti got his start doing television production at WPIX in New York City
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Keeping Up With the Joneses
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Young Hearts

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

Anna and the Apocalypse


The apocalypse will have musical numbers.

(2017) Musical (OrionElla Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye, Sean Connor, John Winchester, Euan Bennet, Ella Jarvis, Myfawny Morgan, John McGeachie, Janet Lawson, Ruth McGhie, Kristy Strain, Tyler Collins, Daniel Cahill, Therese Bradley, Jackie Bird, Calum Cormack, Michael Annis, Louise Macphail. Directed by John McPhail

 

Genre mash-ups are a dime a dozen these days, but who would have ever expected a Christmas zombie musical set in Scotland? Think of it as High School Musical being performed in an episode of The Walking Dead.

The tiny Scottish town of Little Haven is home to Anna (Hunt), a high school senior with big dreams and a bright future. That future isn’t what it used to be, however, when a zombie pandemic hits her town, leaving her and her mates John (Cumming), her best friend who wants to be more than that, neurotic American rich girl Steph (Swire, who also choreographed the film) and Chris (Leveaux), an expert on movies and zombie pandemics, to fight their way to school where their loved ones may be holed up.

I don’t know if the world was waiting for George Romero’s Broadway musical, but this would fit the bill in both the positive and negative connotations of the concept. Most of the plot was cribbed from other sources, with the film’s funniest moment directly ripped off from Shaun of the Dead. Worse still, the music is bland and forgettable, lame pop that rarely rises above to be interesting (with Headmaster Savage’s delightfully evil glam number late in the film an exception). If you think Broadway musicals have achieved of repetitiveness born of a lack of creativity, this might well not be the movie for you.

The fresh-faced cast, at least, does their level best to be earnest and they do make fine pop stars as well as Scream Queens (and Kings). The movie’s concept, inspired by a Vine by the late Ryan McHenry (and how much more 2017 can you be than that?) gets an “A” for originality but falls somewhere between ordinary and extraordinary in execution.

REASONS TO SEE: A wildly original concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: The music isn’t anything to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity and brief sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school in which principle filming took place, St. Stephen’s High School in Inverclyde, Scotland, was demolished shortly after filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 63/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Instant Family

Searching


Somewhere you never want to see your daughter’s photo.

(2018) Thriller (Screen Gems) John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee, Dominic Hoffman, Briana McLean, Roy Abramsohn, Kristin Herold, Ric Sarabia, Gage Biltoft, Lasaundra Gibson, Connor McRaith, Dominic Hoffman, Erica Jenkins, Johnno Wilson, Rasha Goel, Erin Henriques, Steven Michael Eich, John Macey, Betsy Foldes, Katie Rowe. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Every parent’s nightmare is for their child to go missing. In a world filled with predators who lurk disguised as would-be friends on social media sites, it is all too easy for a naïve youngster to get in over their heads in a situation that could prove to be dangerous.

David Kim (Cho) is a widower who hasn’t quite come to grips with the death of his wife and has become, in many ways, a helicopter parent, hovering over his daughter Margot (La) – the only family he has left other than his brother Peter (Lee) – to prevent the possibility of him losing her too. But when she doesn’t return home after an all-night study session and after some inquiries he discovers to his horror that she left the study session early, he calls the cops. Helpful detective Vick (Messing) gets his case and suggests he search through her laptop, which she had left at home (another ominous sign), to find out who she is close to and start contacting them.

The more David looks into his daughter’s online life, the more he realizes how little he really knew his daughter. With time ticking away and only a precious few clues as to her whereabouts to peruse, David grows more desperate.

The entire film is seen through laptop screens, smartphone screens, surveillance footage and news broadcast – very much a product of the 21st century. This could have been extremely gimmicky and towards the end it starts to feel that way, but first-time feature director Chaganty keeps things pretty fresh; he uses actual websites and apps in an effort to play to the target demographic who live their lives online. The problem with that is it is going to horribly date this movie in a matter of just a few years and it will lose its relevance quickly.

Still, Cho’s performance as a grieving husband and terrified father is universal and he is as good as I’ve ever seen him.  The director’s point of how rather than being connected by the Internet, we have actually grown more isolated and fragmented, is well-taken. Unfortunately, all the good will the film builds up is nearly lost with a preposterous ending that will lead to much face-palming, even with the online crowd.

REASONS TO SEE: Cho delivers the most powerful performance of his career. Really plays up the disconnect of the digital age.
REASONS TO AVOID: Jumps the shark a bit at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual references, adult thematic content and some drug references as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The firm where David works, AppEnsure, actually exists. It was founded by Chaganty’s father and both his parents are executives there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes::92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfriended
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mile 22

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost Christmas


Danny Glover is never too old for this sh...stuff.

Danny Glover is never too old for this sh…stuff.

(2016) Holiday Comedy (Universal) Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Jessie T. Usher, John Michael Higgins, Gabrielle Union, Nadej Bailey, Alkoya Brunson, Marley Taylor, D.C. Young Fly, Keri Hilson, Gladys Knight, Chloe Spencer, Gregory Alan Williams, Tara Batesole, Jeff Rose, Tara Jones, Rachel Kylian. Directed by David E. Talbert

 

Christmas is a time for family. When a family member is taken from us, it can leave an awfully big hole. Sometimes trying to fill that hole can only make it deeper.

Walter Meyers (Glover) is the patriarch of the family and he is gathering his family together for Christmas, but it will be the first one without his wife Grace (Kylian), who passed away recently. She was the one who did most of the cooking and her box of recipes was filled with absolutely magical dishes, in particular the sweet potato pie that Walter adores. Sadly, nobody can find the box and so Walter is left to try to recreate the pie recipe with unfortunate results.

Still, the family does gather – divorced Rachel (Union) who is trying to put herself through law school but the financial means just aren’t there. She and her more successful sister Cheryl (Elise) can barely speak a civil word to one another, but Cheryl’s husband (Smoove) isn’t exactly a catch. Christian (Malco) is mounting a political campaign which keeps his cell phone twittering but also may require him to make compromises that will put him at odds with his father. Finally, there’s the youngest – Evan (Usher) – who’s a college football star. He’s just recovered from an injury in time to play in a holiday bowl game, but continues to take the pain meds he’s addicted to, partially to numb the pain of his mother’s loss.

Also present is Aunt May (Mo’Nique) who has made a career as a backup singer to some of the biggest stars in music but which has kept her on the road for too many Christmases. Now she’s trying to help Walter adjust by providing some exotic meals which the family isn’t quite prepared for, and by keeping the alcohol flowing.

Add to the mix Rachel’s old flame and next door neighbor Malachi (Epps) and a houseful of kids and you have a recipe for chaos. However, the rivalry between Rachel and Cheryl threatens to upend what good feelings there are there and tear the family apart. It would take a Christmas miracle to repair the damage.

In the 70s, we were treated to sitcoms about African-American families like Good Times and The Jeffersons and in a lot of ways this movie owes its pedigree to those pioneering shows; the former in vibe, the latter in layout. The family economic circumstance is (with the exception of Rachel) in the comfortable middle class.  The family is used to a heart-warming Christmas of lots of food, nice presents and a comfortably big home. It’s the kind of Christmas we all dream about.

Most of us want a heavy dose of heartwarming with our Christmas movies and Almost Christmas delivers on that front, thanks largely to Glover whose personality fits this role like a (‘scuse the pun) glove. It is also nice to see Mo’Nique onscreen. The Oscar winning actress is onscreen far less than I would like; she’s an amazingly gifted actress who elevates roles that could be campy and gives them heart, as she does here. While to my mind it is Danny Glover who makes the most of his role, the entire cast is top notch and takes each of their roles and run with them, even though there is an element of cliché to the film. Yes there are family squabbles and crises, but you just know it will end with the family pulling together. Nobody wants to see a Christmas film in which the family implodes.

I would have liked to have seen a little more background context, particularly to the Rachel/Cheryl feud which is never explained, for the most part we get fully fleshed-out characters which is something of a Christmas miracle given the size of the cast. Quite frankly, I expected this to be a rote Christmas movie with really no meat on the bones but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong on that score. No, this isn’t reinventing the genre to be sure but it does confirm the best aspects of it. For a lot of people this is going to be a perennial Christmas movie. Count me among those people.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of Glover’s best performances in years. This will definitely give you a case of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Very much a been-there done-that kind of movie. Some of the family dynamics shown here don’t really have any rhyme or reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third time Usher has played a football player onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gathering
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Office Christmas Party