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Review of LICORICE PIZZA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  C+/B-
Comedy-Drama
Rated R

Sometimes hype can be the kiss of death. It was for me, as far as Licorice Pizza was concerned. All the way through this self-consciously quirky film from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), I kept getting wannabe Almost Famous vibes but found myself thinking, when is this going to end?

That’s not the reaction I expected, given that the coming-of-age film Licorice Pizza, even at a sprawling 133 minutes, was the darling of the 2022 awards season. It earned Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay and won Best Screenplay at the BAFTAs. Licorice Pizza was also touted as the first MGM picture produced and distributed since Rain Man to earn a BP Oscar nod. Smaller film critics associations loved it too, but I kept wondering if maybe that was proof of how starved everyone has been for another small pebble to make a big splash, as Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Juno did.

I didn’t find myself as engaged by the characters or their situation as I wanted to be, and the quirkiness level was ramped up so high that it all felt absolutely contrived. As for the plot, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Juno all had strong narrative trajectories, by comparison. Licorice Pizza felt meandering, but not in a way that seemed terribly organic. Small annoyances kept popping up, like why was one character arrested but then quickly released? Why was one character’s world so random? And why wasn’t the developing “love” more perceptible in its development?

Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics loved the film, as did critics on the aggregate site Metacritic, which scored it a 90 out of 100. In other words, just about every critic out there says I’m wrong. If I am, so is the rest of my family, who also wanted more than the quirkiness Licorice Pizza had to offer. More humor, maybe. Or more believable attraction. Or a plot that seemed less aimless. Or a more tightly edited story.

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Review of BELFAST (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

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Review of CRUELLA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Comedy-Drama
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

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Review of THE PAPER TIGERS (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

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Review of MINARI (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Drama
Rated PG-13

Minari, a film in Korean and English, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Youn Yuh-Jung and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Score. Youn, a legendary actress in the Korean film industry, plays a grandma who travels from Korea to Arkansas at the request of her daughter, who is having a hard time adjusting to her family’s move from California.

In California, Monica (Han Ye-ri) and husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) were on track to pay off debt by “sexing chicks” and separating males from females. But Jacob wanted more for her and their children Anne (Noel Cho) and fragile young David (Alan S. Kim), so he moved the family to Arkansas to sex chicks for an outfit that also gave Jacob an opportunity to start his own farm specializing in Korean vegetables. 

Leisurely paced, lyrical, and stylistic kin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this film hit close to home for the director. Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the young son of Korean immigrants who settled on a small farm in rural Arkansas, and there’s a truthfulness that quietly percolates beneath the surface of Minari—the name of a plant also known as Korean watercress or parsley that the grandma decides to plant on the banks of a nearby creek.

“Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds, so anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!” the grandma Soonja tells David.

Director Chung had said he initially wanted to make a film adaptation of My Antonia but found that avenue closed. He then decided to make a film about his own upbringing in rural Arkansas.

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Review of FINDING FORRESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Drama/Comedy
Rated PG-13

J.D. Salinger wrote three books, then disappeared into Howard Hughes-style oblivion and inspired at least two films.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character shakes a Salinger type (James Earl Jones) recluse out of his inertia, paranoia, and humanity-avoidance in order to satisfy the voices in his head that also told him to build a baseball field.

In Finding Forrester, aspiring 16-year-old writer Jamal Wallace ends up finding the all-time greatest mentor when on a dare he climbs through the window of a “ghost” who had been watching him and his friends play basketball and, scared off, leaves behind a backpack containing his writer’s notebook.

In a case of life imitating art, Rob Brown showed up for tryouts as an extra on this picture by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) hoping to earn enough money to pay his cell phone bill. But Van Sant liked what he saw and cast him as Jamal, who soon after that break-in finds his backpack tossed out on the street and his writer’s notebook marked up and critiqued by the older writer. On one page he sees a handwritten scrawl, “I want to support this writer.” And so begins a mentorship between Jamal and famed writer William Forrester that will benefit both parties.

It’s kind of refreshing to see African American youths in their lower-income neighborhoods playing basketball and going to school and hanging out without there being any hint of violence or gang activities—the kind of cinematic clichés that have befallen films having to do with residents of “the hood.” The only f-bomb in this PG-13 film comes from an old white man (Sean Connery as Forrester), and the worst behavior comes from uppity adults associated with the private school that recruits Jamal after his test scores expose him as a bit of a genius. It’s refreshing, too, that none of Jamal’s neighborhood friends resent him for transferring to a private school and, ultimately, playing for a championship that’s televised.

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Review of MAMBO MAN (DVD)

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Grade: B/B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG)

Good art of any kind expands your world or your mind—often both. And films that show us a way of life, a way of perceiving life in another region or country can be more than fascinating. They can be instructional on a subliminal level. If you’re the kind of person who drives through a small town and looks in the windows of houses and shops wondering what it would be like to live there, the fictional Mambo Man is your kind of movie. And if you loved Buena Vista Social Club because it was awash with Cuban music, well, Mambo Man is your kind of movie too.

This 2020 Cuban film is full of fantastic images of life as it’s lived in in mostly rural Cuba, and the wonderful cinematography by Luis Alberto and Gonzalez Garcia is further enhanced by near-constant non-diegetic Cuban music that, along with several performances written into the screenplay, really capture the essence of life on this Caribbean island just 105 miles from Key West.

Edesio Alejandro and Mo Fini co-directed this film, which was shot mostly in the southeastern cities of Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba. Fini is the founding director of Tumi Music, which has produced more than 300 Latin CDs and videos, so it’s no wonder that music plays as much of a role in Mambo Man as the scenery and cinematography. Some scenes include live music performed by such legendary Cuban musicians as Candido Fabre, Maria Ochoa, Alma Latina, David Alvarez, and Arturo Jorge. The soundtrack features members of the Buena Vista Social Club—among them Grammy winner Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Omara Portuondo, and many others that fill the screen with a rich tapestry of songs. More

Review of ONCE UPON A RIVER (DVD)

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Grade: B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her. More

Review of MISTER ROBERTS (1955) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG)

Mister Roberts (1955) is set during the waning days of World War II, but it’s not a war movie. There are no battles, no strategic planning sessions, and no missions. That’s a problem for Chief Cargo Officer Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, reprising his Broadway role), who desperately wants to see action. Stuck on a cargo ship stationed off a small island in the Pacific far away from the fighting, Roberts’ serves his country by procuring and delivering such commodities as toilet paper and toothpaste to other ships that are headed for combat.

It’s not like he’s itching to become a hero or put his life in danger. He just feels like he ought to be serving in the “real” war instead of being anchored where on one side he watches a task force slipping by under the cover of darkness, and on the other side his men aboard the appropriately named Reluctant discover some excitement one morning by training their binoculars and spyglasses on a group of nurses who just landed at the local hospital.

In addition to fighting tedium, Roberts and the crew have to deal with a tyrannical captain (James Cagney) who prizes the palm tree he received from the admiral for delivering the most cargo in the Pacific. But the captain has his sights set on something more: a big promotion. Like the factory boss who refuses to give his line workers a break because they’re so productive the company would lose money, he keeps his crew on the ship. Always. No leave. No shore liberty. And the time off they get for good behavior? Ten minutes of swimming.

If the crew collectively feels like the exaggerated characters we met in the musical South Pacific without the songs, it’s no coincidence. Joshua Logan had a hand in writing the screenplays for both of the cinematic adaptations. Tonally Mister Roberts isn’t all that different either. It’s a light story with mostly comic moments and several serious ones. More

Review of THE DANCING DOGS OF DOMBROVA (DVD)

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Grade: B
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

It’s not uncommon to take a chance on a CD or movie based on the title. But don’t be misled by this one. The “dancing dogs” in The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova is singular—a memory embedded in the mind of an old Jewish woman we never see onscreen, except for a brief cellphone video. Dombrova itself, as depicted in the film, is a desolate wintry place populated with characters and scenes that the Coen brothers might have concocted, had they decided to make an indie film abroad. The Coens specialize in films for mature audiences, and The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova, from director Zack Bernbaum, follows that same road, but with far less violence or language. His third and most accomplished full-length feature would probably merit a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

There’s a little bit of a Fargo feel to this Canadian film in English and Polish, with English subtitles. Shot in Romania, it follows an estranged adult brother and sister who have traveled from Canada to Poland in order to fulfill their dying grandmother’s wish: that they should find the house in Dombrova where she lived before she was herded off to the concentration camps and dig up the bones of the beloved dog she left behind. The dog could dance, she tells them.

We first meet recovering alcoholic Sarah Cotler (Katherine Fogler, from TV’s Suits, Murdoch Mysteries) and her prissy, superior brother Aaron (Douglas Nyback, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, TV’s Hell on Wheels) when they land at an isolated train station late at night. Told that there are no taxis, they wait on the platform until less cautious Sarah walks toward a car in the shadows that has a driver sitting in it. And so the adventure begins: with a sullen, peasant-stock female driver who understands English but never speaks and drives a car with a leaky gas tank that has to be constantly refilled.

That’s the level of quirkiness viewers encounter on this understated, dark-comedy road-trip, where you’ll meet:

—Two local “mafia” types that sit in lawn chairs in the snow outside a food truck in the middle of nowhere

—The proprietor of the only B&B in town, who’s subbing for parents that just up and left

—The young son of the taxi driver, who keeps taking notes because he’s an aspiring “human detective”

—A rabbi whose synagogue seems as empty as the rest of Dombrova

—A clerk at the local town hall for whom it takes three months to find a local street address

—Revelers at a local wedding reception held in next to the parking lot of a convenience store

—A peasant farmer with a scythe who curses and shoots her German Luger at trespassers

—A priest who also has something to confess

Quirky characters make an indie film fun to watch, and when the sequence of events and tone smack of the original theatrical Fargo, but without the extreme violence and language, it becomes even more appealing for families wanting to push their own cinematic boundaries—even if the underlying premise of estranged family members finding each other again is one we’ve seen before.

The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova won Best Feature at the 2019 Canadian Film Fest and the Canadian Filmmakers’ Festival, and Fogler was voted Best Actress at the Albuquerque Film & Music Experience. But really, people, it should be The Dancing DOG of Dombrova.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 102 minutes (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Omnibus / Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: 5.1 Surround Sound (English, with some Polish)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language and adult situations)

Language: 4/10—There’s one f-bomb and fewer than a dozen lesser swearwords

Sex: 3/10—Nothing is shown, but an unmarried woman talks about having “buns in the stove” and there’s an argument over her “bastard child”

Violence: 2/10—A gun is fired and someone is shot

Adult situations: 4/6—The wintry landscape is bleak and vodka is the social drink of choice, offered often, and there is some smoking 

Takeaway: Quirkiness is a tightrope, but director Bernbaum manages to walk it nicely from beginning to end, with pacing that’s indie leisurely but not indie dragging

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