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Film Review: My Happy Family

A wholly engrossing feminist drama that verges on perfection.

by A.R. Solar

From the country of Georgia comes a taut modern tale that feels perfectly real. That’s thanks to the exciting talents of writer/director Nana Ekvtimishvili and her co-director Simon Gross, who somehow manage to stay out of the way of: 1. their brilliant star, 2. a dynamic ensemble cast, and 3. their simple but totally engaging story.

Fifty-two-year-old Manana—we see as we’re immediately immersed in the crowded family home—is independent minded and willing to think outside her traditional default role as an obedient daughter and wife. A subtle, symbolic microcosm of her general frustration, a slice of cake before dinner brings a scolding from her intrusive mother. The old woman won’t let a minute go by without reminding her husband, adult children, and adult grandchildren who the head of the household is. Through her, Manana’s conflict is magnified.

My Happy Family is a fine representation of filmcraft wherein the camera becomes “invisible.” That is, there is no distraction from its placement or movements, either to the cast or the audience. In that “forgetting” of the camera we have the first element of a filmic story that feels utterly natural. We are amidst this family, observing every humorous interaction, every nuance, and painstaking detail.

Of course, to achieve such convincing, involving realism, one must also have talented actors who are emotionally invested in the story. Ms. Ekvtimishvili and Mr. Gross have this in abundance. Ia Shugliashvili, as Manana, effortlessly evokes introspective melancholy, integrity, and a love for her family which requires no displays for the benefit of neighbors. Merab Ninidze, as her husband Soso, plays the character with minimalism and a brooding power (when required). The supporting actors are well on board with the directors, and we witness grand arguments and celebrations with the feeling that we are there.

One gets the impression that such a naturalistic work was achieved, ironically, through extensive preparation by the directors. Perhaps only then could they have the confidence to open their lenses wide and let the action flow in.

As we see the courageous Manana set up her very own apartment, leaving behind the guilt-trips and cultural pressures of her family, we feel we might somehow summon similar strength from within ourselves. We might live our lives truer to our authentic selves.

In Georgian with English subtitles.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Wordless Film Review: Arkansas

by Andres Solar

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Quick Look: What Love Looks Like

L.A.-soaked romantic comedy sees prolific director take on challenge of large ensemble cast—with a few quality laughs along the way.
by Andres Solar

The latest rom-com feature from trailblazing indie filmmaker Alex Magaña gives us more (and less) of what we’ve come to expect from the young Angelino. What Love Looks Like, available on Amazon Prime, offers a good-looking, likable ensemble cast (including the pleasant screen presence of Kate Durocher, Josh Gilmer, Margo Graff, Tay McVeigh, Calvin Peters, Tevy Poe, Connor Wilkins, and Kylee Wofford) and some big laughs in the form of clever one-liners from sometimes purposely awkward characters. Missing are the sweet, unexpected twists in the love stories like the one Magaña wrote into the third act of 29 to Life (2018).

In that year, the writer-director released a whopping three feature films (Narco Valley and Slapped! The Movie were the other two). Clearly Magaña doesn’t shy away from hard work, and it shows. The other side of that coin is that he often also shoots and cuts his own movies, and that work ethic might be too much of a good thing.

As his talents continue to expand, he might do well to recruit other hands for writing and editing, especially since his strengths appear to be in cinematography and working with actors. Thinking about What Love Looks Like’s incorporating an imaginative and touching relationship between a young man and his deceased ex-girlfriend, Magaña might even consider co-writing a future screenplay, thus gaining help with the screenwriting task while still including his proclivity for imaginative characters.

What it really comes down to in this latest from his ACM production company—and the rest of his oeuvre—is the wonderful heart the filmmaker reveals to varying degrees. Along with his apparent drive to continually challenge himself and the impressive work ethic, it is that heart which will before long turn out a work that commands international accolades.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

 

 

 

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Summer Checklist

Three Dog Nights

With the dog days of summer upon us, the movie theater seems more like a smelly kennel than a traditional refuge from the scorching heat. (Hey, Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, ever heard of air conditioning? Oh, and straighten out that crooked screen while you’re at it.)

But it’s not just exhibitors who have gotten lazy. Below, we look at the recent, worst-ever works by two indie icons who have somehow grown maddeningly complacent. The third dog is a wildly overrated debut from a filmmaking duo who (mistakenly) assumed their self-important autobiographies would make for two hours of compelling cinema.

Thankfully, there was a cool breeze preceding all of this; a refreshing splash from Under the Silver Lake. It’s now available via Amazon Prime, so the a/c controls will be in your own hands.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino gave us fair warning that he was capable of dropping his dirty business on the rug. The first half of The Hateful Eight (2015) and its cleverly placed intermission promised a smart, irreverent, neo-Western classic. But, in the second half, we watched the director mindlessly chew up his own film, like Fido destroying his owner’s favorite slippers.

Like many Tarantino fans upon seeing previews of his latest, I thought “Tarantino turning his camera on Hollywood itself… Sounds good.” Wrong. It feels more like he simply wanted the easiest path to completing the “9th film from Quentin Tarantino” (Is he now more focused on quantity than quality?) I couldn’t find a single moment (in its two hours and 45 minutes) that showed any writer/director inspiration. Who would have guessed that the director of Jackie Brown (1997), Django Unchained (2012), and so many other memorable movies could squander Leonardo DiCaprio in a lead role?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing short of an embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the 60-something old dude sitting by himself, guffawing at every measly visual gag. I was embarrassed for the three stoners nervously giggling while looking at each other for approval. These are the folks who are making this Tarantino self-parody his most profitable project to date.

If you’re like them, by all means, go see it. Maybe you’ll feel that, finally, there’s a Tarantino movie that’s not challenging in the least. Finally, you might get why so many people like his movies, because now he’s done you the favor of pre-masticating everything. Here’s an art film with the art removed for mass consumption. And if you think images of Brad Pitt sniffing and tasting dog food, plopping it out of a can into his dog’s bowl, could be hilarious, you’ll have a wonderful experience. Tarantino repeats them four times.

The Film Critique rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the summer of 2019 was less of a disappointing disaster than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that’s not much of an endorsement. “What were they thinking?” seems to be this season’s motto.

One can hardly blame the Akron-born-and-raised auteur for loving the zombie genre. In its early incarnations (if you will) there’s a lot to love. The AMC television series The Walking Dead, though, beat the genre to death (ironically), and The Dead Don’t Die feels like a moderately humorous epitaph.

Even from the hand of a massive talent like Jarmusch, the filmic “love letter” comes with a substantial risk of skewed perspective in the ode. (See also this year’s Maria By Callas.) Unsurprisingly, the movie is plenty enjoyable in its dialogue, deadpan humor, and acting. The mini-ensemble of Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, along with Tom Waits, almost saves the proceedings. Ultimately, however, Jarmusch caves to the pressure of providing zombie action instead of respecting the pressure to deliver something of greater artistic merit.

The brilliant stroke from Jarmusch is the purposely stunted, self-referencing dialogue that both works as a tribute to B-movie horror and provides genuine comedic notes.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: The two most intriguing things about this film involve decisions made by people other than the filmmakers. Namely, the funding of the production and the glowing reviews. What one member of the filmmaking duo (writer/co-lead Jimmie Fails) did do in advance of those decisions really explains a lot: He made himself into an Internet star.

But let’s get one thing clear right away: Fails does have some important things to say and unusual ways of both seeing and saying them. Among them are the definition of “home,” what it means to “own” something, and the marginalization of Black history, even in liberal strongholds like California.

The problem is that The Last Black Man in San Francisco (as written by him, as directed by co-lead Joe Talbot, as acted by both of them and a mostly misguided supporting cast) is a second-year student film with a $4.1 million budget. Take away the pretty cinematography, first-rate production design, and professional editing, and what’s left is raging sophomorism. In the age of crowdfunding—through which Fails raised the first $75,000—this is something of a new normal.

It’s hard not to assign most of the blame to the movie’s U.S. distributor, the usually dependable A24, which released Under the Silver Lake (2019, see short review below), The Spectacular Now (2013), and Oscar Best-Picture winner Moonlight (2016), among other fine films. Without A24 or another large distributor, Talbot & Fails’ debut would have made its splash at Sundance—as it did, not a tremendous feat these days—and would have taken its rightful place on DVD and streaming services. The (albeit brief) theatrical run of The Last Black Man in San Francisco can’t be justified, and most critics know it.

Yet, the movie sits happily on Metacritic with an aggregate rating of 84 out of 100. This matters, because the degree to which a critic wants to like a film and feels the need to advocate for the filmmakers should not factor into their rating of the work. Off the record, reviewers and industry insiders will confirm that this is precisely what happened, 50 times over in this case.

I love young filmmakers, too. The voices of Black and LGTBTQIA writers, directors, and actors should be heard—must be heard. If their work is to be highly rated, however, they mustn’t be relieved of the responsibility of making good work.

The Film Critique rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Under the Silver Lake: Thanks to the bizarrely talented David Robert Mitchell (It Follows [2014]), my first summer in Milwaukee was not a total wash cinema-wise. The latest work by the Michigan-born writer/director features Andrew Garfield as an adrift, unambitious 30-something drawn into a crazy L.A. maze by a naked neighbor and a fleeting femme fatale.

Mitchell’s signature is atmospheric, dreamlike mystery with surprise visual and plot twists. The Los Angeles arts and party settings lend themselves well to all aspects of his storytelling, including his breezy-yet-carefully-considered camera angles and movements. From Garfield on through to the extras, on-screen talent here is a treat.

The kinetic, vividly colored neo-noir of Under the Silver Lake satisfies deeply, as you accompany Garfield’s Sam through a freakish labyrinth of serial dog murders, edible psychedelic party invitations, and a wise, homeless monarch played by The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★★☆

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Movie Reviews

V.O.D. Review: Slapped! The Movie

Swingin’ &  Swappin’

Baudy, buddy raunch-com from talented L.A. troupe

By Andres Solar

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The young Angelino director-writer-producer Alex Magaña is one of the freshest, most intriguing indie voices in Hollywood today. I lauded the potential I saw in his previous V.O.D. piece 29 to Life (2018) right here on these pages.

The good news is that his latest on Amazon Prime, Slapped! The Movie, shows just as much potential, and in totally different aspects of filmmaking. Basically, the list of Magaña’s apparent talents has just doubled in length.

Okay, so I’m going to get the bad news about this most recent V.O.D. release out of the way, because the focus ought to be on what’s coming down the pike (or the Pacific Coast Highway, if you prefer) from the bunch at the helmer’s ACM Films imprint.

I’ll even take it a rare step further and tell you a bit about myself, as a disclaimer of sorts, so highly do I regard this burgeoning filmmaker Magaña. Firstly, Slapped! indicates over and over—as a raunchy buddy comedy with plenty of gross-out humor—that it’s aimed at a late-teens to early-20s audience. Your critic is 51 years old, and I’m certain I would have liked this picture a whole lot more if those digits were reversed. Secondly, for the most part, I review art films. In my own defense, I should say that I watch all kinds of movies, including vulgar comedies, and I happen to love more than a couple of them. But more on that later.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with traveling well-worn trails in movie-making. “It’s very difficult to be original,” the fabulous director and sexploitation queen Doris Wishman (Nude on the Moon, 1961) once told me. Makes sense. So, one hopes that a filmmaker who’s heavily influenced by another (director, film, genre…) will make it their own, thereby rendering the influence of the source material neutral when assessing the overall work.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with Slapped!, which the director himself describes as Freaky Friday (1976) meets American Pie (1999). Despite fine acting by the co-leads (Magaña as “Alex” and co-writer Matt Lowe as “Matt”), the “bodily switcheroo” nearly always feels like the old gimmick that it is. More than once while watching, I wished that they had written the film without the Freaky-Friday-for-bros device. The buddy chemistry between Alex and Matt always feels real and deep, so one would like to see them work together again sans the gimmicks.

Next, we look at the comedic aspects themselves, the heart of the debaucherous teen comedy (with the above disclaimer in mind). The attempts at gross-out humor are all misses here. The mere presence of semen and vomit on screen is not enough for laughs. It takes more work than that. For a fairly recent example, look at the successful potty humor of Bridesmaids (2011), and the “dress fitting” scene, in particular. The hilarity there derives from the gross-outs being only one element of the scene. The means, not the end.

There’s also at least one problematic instance of misfiring in the insult comedy department, involving a play on the word “Groupon.” On the other hand, in another scene, the fictional star of a YouTube cooking show says at one point that Sriracha can be substituted for ketchup as “a weird Mexican thing.” Though the latter isn’t hilarious either, here’s the difference: Insult humor only works when a character is doing it. When the movie itself is the source of the insult, the requisite comedic harmlessness vanishes.

Okay, so I’ve already hinted at some of the great stuff in Slapped!, and now I’ll elaborate on it. Magaña, we now know, is a heck of a good actor. So is Lowe, and we also know they work well as a team. Visually, the movie is a step up from 29 to Life. It’s also a bigger film, and it’s promising to see the filmmakers flexing that versatility.

Two scenes, one complex and the other relatively simple, are big standouts. The first and less surprisingly satisfying is a mushroom-trip sequence with fun makeup art, neon set design, and impressive practical & special effects. The second is my favorite, featuring the aforementioned YouTube star “E-Zee” (boldly played by Diana Marie—if ACM folks are reading this: cast her again!) The special effects, combined with Marie’s spicy character make for the best-feeling, funnest scene in the movie.

So, we yet await a film with start-to-finish excellence from Magaña & company. Happily, the talent and skills are all there.

2 of 5 stars

 

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Film Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is based on cartoonist John Callahan’s autobiography of the same name. Directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s known for indie films such as My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Drugstore Cowboy (1989), we get what feels like an indie/documentary-style film that doesn’t quite reach the level to which it aspires. Van Sant’s style of storytelling focuses on the humanistic side of life; the ordinary individual struggling with inner demons while trying to find their way through life.

The film starts out promising enough. Van Sant utilizes tight close up shots, “rack focus” (going in and out of focus) and that grainy look that makes you think he is actually shooting on film. This gives the audience that sense of his indie/documentary style, but as the film progresses and our protagonist begins to evolve, the film takes a turn into the long, boring fare of the type you might find in your dad’s 1970s VHS collection. I have to say though that the writing, the dialogue, and the cast of actors are superb.

Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan plays the quadriplegic cartoonist flawlessly. Phoenix takes his method acting to a new level, diving into the role with such finesse that you forget the actor is bipedal. But Van Sant must have lost interest in his own film somewhere along the way, and Phoenix loses some of his finesse when his character finally reaches an emotional climax towards the end of the film. Phoenix falls completely flat, as John finally understands the reason for his drinking. Flat to the point that I was unable to connect with his performance at that point.

It’s a shame because right around then, Jonah Hill who plays Donnie, a rich homosexual alcoholic and John’s sponsor, gives a performance that has never before been seen in Hill. Jonah reaches deep for this scene, when he tells John why he stopped drinking. It is at this moment that the audience finally gets a feel for his character that has been one dimensional right up to this point. It is a breath of fresh air to know that Jonah Hill’s acting has matured and he has finally outgrown his former dumb-witted characters.

The movie doesn’t lack for intrigue. If you like humanistic films, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is one you’ll enjoy: the true story of John Callahan, Portland-based musician and cartoonist who overcame his drinking after his life altering experience that left him paralyzed and unable to fend for himself.

Jack Black plays Dexter; His performance is mediocre at best. His character, though important to the storyline, is forgettable. Rooney Mara plays Annu, a character who’s also forgettable, as Van Sant breezes through John’s life in snippets. The remainder of the cast includes Udo Kier as Hans, Ronnie Adrien as Martingale, and Kim Gordon (bassist and singer for the rock group Sonic Youth) as Corky. Beth Ditto as Reba, despite minimal lines, gives the best performance of the bunch.

My only real dislikes here are that the running time is just too long, and you lose interest near the end.

3 of 5 stars