"Breaking Fast" is a sweet romantic comedy that shows how it's possible to observe nearly every convention of the mainstream romantic comedy yet still deliver something that feels new.
Written and directed by Mike Mosallam, the movie follows the romantic adventures of Mo (Haaz Sleiman, "The Visitor"), a thirty-something gastroenterologist from West Hollywood who also happens to be a religiously observant, gay Muslim. Right off the bat, Mosallam establishes that this is going to be a formulaic but earnest rom-com with a unique energy that comes from the characters' cultural backgrounds. A prologue finds Mo getting dumped by a closeted boyfriend that he adores (Hassan, played by Patrick Sabongui). Hassan has decided to marry a woman to appease his religiously and socially conservative family. The cognitive dissonance of the hero's identity is a source of observant humor that the movie will return to as the rest of the story unfolds. But note that the movie has sympathy for Hassan, too—Mo is an openly gay Muslim with a supportive and accepting family, a luxury that he takes for granted.
Jumping ahead one year, we find Mo still wounded in the aftermath. At a birthday party for his non-observant Muslim best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal), Mo meets a handsome white actor named Kal (Michael Cassidy) and spends the night walking around the city with him, in a series of relaxed dialogue scenes that might've treated Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy as partial inspiration. Kal explains that his name comes from Superman's original Krypton name, Kal-El, a tidbit that thrills Mo because he's a huge Superman fan. There's a bit of subtext here that's more effective for not being spotlit and turned into text: Superman is itself a tale of immigrant assimilation into the mainstream of American life, about an exceptional individual who must keep his specialness under wraps in order to live a "normal" life.
Mosallam has a good feel for the rhythms of conversations that are filled with expository dialogue and monologues—a tricky balance, not easy to pull off—and the performers are appealing and don't overdo things. Sleiman doesn't make the mistake of playing his character as a bland "Everyman" scrubbed clean of eccentricity. The character can be neurotic and a bit manic at times, and when emotions flare, the hero's delivery has hints of Nicolas Cage kookiness. And the movie doesn't make the mistake of turning Kal into a pinup for some sort of abstract "all-American" type, even though the hero initially is attracted to him for those reasons. He's in recovery and has a traumatic family background that comes into play.
There's no tour-de-force filmmaking or acting here, just skilled professionals taking a familiar template and doing something fresh with it. This is a movie that proves you don't have to reinvent the wheel to build a new road.
Now available on digital platforms and VOD.
One journey, full of hope, turns into the start of an aching search for answers in Fernanda Valadez’s “Identifying Features.” This artful Mexican drama begins when Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) tells his mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) that he is going north to the United States with a friend for a job opportunity. But months pass, and there’s still no word from him. Finally, Magdalena ventures out on her own journey to find out what happened to her son.
In many movies about immigration, the story often follows those on that journey towards a hopefully better place. The friends or family left behind may have some screen time at the beginning but they soon fade into the background as our hero or heroes move on. In “Identifying Features,” we see the concern and worry of a mother left behind, one forced to leave the comforts and familiarity of home in Guanajuato in search of her son. This was not her journey to make, but it is one she pursues out of love, despite the odds facing her. Did her boy die in the desert? Did one of the drug cartels get to him? Is the government pushing Magdalena to accept her son is dead, sight unseen, as a sign of a cover-up, or are they an overwhelmed bureaucracy tired of carrying so many unclaimed bodies? Although the film feels subdued—there are no scenes of emotional outbursts and there's only a brief chase sequence that ends almost as quickly as it begins—the movie propels itself forward through Magdalena’s search. "Identifying Features" has a subtle frantic quality, a kind of restraint in bearing witness to the unspeakable horrors facing countless others who must stay silent.
Valadez, who co-wrote the script with Astrid Rondero, balances this dramatic tension by dabbling with magical realism and otherworldly images. Some scenes look slightly distorted or doctored to make the viewer feel the mother’s unease in a visceral way. For instance, there are scenes set by a fire that look oversaturated in red, an intensity burning through the screen just as one character turns to violence for survival. In another scene, when Magdalena consults an indigenous elder to find out what happened to her son, we see what they see: visions of a horned silhouette, a devilish tail backlit by flames burning backwards. It is not a good omen. One morning, Magdalena relives the moment her son came to her to tell her he was leaving. Half of the color is faded out by dirty windows, but he is shown in sharp detail. She is haunted by a moment that now seems to be fading around the edges, but at its center, her son stands frozen in time and memory.
Like in Issa López's “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” the cartel violence that has plagued Mexico in recent years is transformed into a fantastical force of evil. People are afraid to acknowledge it or even speak its crimes aloud. Everyone is taught to accept its forced presence in their lives. There’s a scene at a bus station where Magdalena is trying to get answers when a kind stranger tells her what may have happened to her son through the door of a bathroom stall. It’s as if the ladies’ room was the only safe space away from men and their violence. This force feels almost supernaturally powerful when the woman says the bus company has lost entire buses and passengers, only their luggage arriving at the station. Often, Magdalena is helped by whispers and warnings, guiding her impossible search.
This trail of breadcrumb-like hints also layers in a texture of hushed fear to the film. In her travels, she meets Miguel (David Illescas), a recent deportee from the United States who reminds her of her son. On his journey back south, he crosses the militarized border in what feels like an entrancing Emmanuel Lubezki-esque one-take. The camera follows Miguel’s back as he and others walk towards Mexico through a cold concrete tunnel. After some tight bottlenecks and slight crowding, he looks to be on his own path walking in the dark night air. Then, he looks over his right shoulder at the blurry sea of red taillights lined up to cross the border back to Mexico. It’s a visual reminder that the personal tragedies of Magdalena, and now Miguel, are just one of countless others. In this moment, Miguel is alone, physically separated from the rest and isolated by his situation.
Growing up as the child of immigrants, I was taught that coming to the States was always a good thing, even if it was tough. It wasn’t until I was older that I fully started to realize the emotional and mental toll it took on a lot of families, and that was if those who left home made it to the other side at all. I noticed the scars between families that were separated by borders, the haunting detachment from everyone you ever loved and everything you ever knew. It is a pain that does not go away easily, if it ever goes away at all. In the hands of Valadez, cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, and the film’s sound team and composer Clarice Jensen, “Identifying Features” peels back that feel-good façade of the “coming to America” narrative for a much more painful reality, one that feels freshly steeped in tears, heartache, and headlines. It is a striking movie that boldly confronts both uncaring governments on either side of the border and the cartels that have warped these areas into the stuff of nightmares, while also mourning the human cost of losing a loved one to uncertainty and the ones who will never make it home again.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.
"It was a routine death in every sense. It was ordinary. Common. The only remarkable element was Dane. I had married into this situation, but how had he gotten here? Love is not a big-enough word. He stood and faced the reality of death for my sake. He is my friend."—Matthew Teague, "The Friend," Esquire Magazine, May 2015
There's good reason to be slightly skeptical of films that centralize cancer. Too often cancer is used as a plot-point or a short-cut to emotional engagement. In television series, cancer is used to boost ratings. Cancer patients are portrayed as inspirational, enlightened: they are here to teach us how to live. The worst and most bafflingly common "cancer trope" is the one where a young woman dies of cancer, and her boyfriend becomes a better man in the process. These types of films don't want to deal with the reality of cancer. In a way, the movies are designed to deny reality. One of the most refreshing things about Gabriela Cowperthwaite's "Our Friend," based on Matthew Teague's devastating 2015 essay about his wife's death and the friend who helped the couple through it, is the film's strict interest only in reality. "Our Friend" doesn't make cancer "mean" anything beyond what it already is, and it doesn't turn cancer into a symbol of something else. In his essay, Teague wrote, "We don't tell each other the truth about dying, as a people. Not real dying. Real dying, regular and mundane dying, is so hard and so ugly that it becomes the worst thing of all: It's grotesque. It's undignified. No one ever told me the truth about it, not once."
"Our Friend" tells the truth about it.
Matt (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) are a relatively happy couple living in Fairhope, Alabama. She's an actress with a local theatre, he's a journalist. They have two small daughters. Life has its bumps in the road, but in general all is well until Nicole is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the "silent killer." Things go from bad to worse to terrifying. Their mutual friend Dane (Jason Segel) decides to move in with them during the final year of her illness, to help out around the house, help with the girls, play support staff for a grieving overwhelmed family.
Why would Dane give up his own life like this? As the film makes clear, Dane is at loose ends. He works in a sporting goods store. He says he wants to "start to think about" doing stand-up comedy, not exactly an ambitious choice of words. All of his friends are husbands and fathers now. Dane wants that, too. But after a visit to Matt and Nicole's house post-cancer-diagnosis, he notices instantly that everyone is overwhelmed. He thinks he could be of use, pick up the slack, do errands, be there for whatever is needed.
Brad Ingelsby's screenplay sticks fairly closely to Teague's original essay. When the screenplay deviates, the film loses focus. The tangents feel like tangents, off-shoots of the main narrative. In some cases, these tangents muddy the waters. Teague's essay jumps around a little bit in chronology, backtracking to explain how he and Nicole met Dane. But Ingelsby goes full-bore into fractured chronology, leaping back 13 years, leaping forward 8 years, back 4 years, and etc. It's a challenge keeping the timeline straight.
But "Our Friend" is very good where it really counts and that's on the small details, the everyday life aspect of doing errands, cooking dinner, while your family is going through this harrowing ordeal. Cancer consumes the patient, but it also ravages the family. There's a beautiful sequence where Matt drives past a playground, seeing happy mothers and children playing on the swings. He is so far away from being able to do that, it's like he'll never join that warm carefree circle again. Death makes you self-centered. How can people just keep living their lives when my life is ending? As singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham says: "And the world has the nerve to keep on turning." "Our Friend" really understands this.
If you don't believe in Matt, Nicole, and Dane's friendship, then the film would not work. You believe it. Affleck's Matt can be a difficult man, prone to gloomy brooding. When he suffers, he suffers mostly in silence, interrupted by explosive impatience or sudden fainting spells. (Yes. He faints. Often.) Nicole is a warm and giving person, and people are drawn to her. She is forgiving, but not a pushover. What is unique here is Dane is friends with both Matt and Nicole. (Teague writes about this dynamic in his essay.) Segel is perfect for this sort of material, with his scruffy kindness, his humorous impulses (his scenes with the children are particularly wonderful), his openness. One can only imagine how awful it would be if Dane were portrayed as some saintly self-sacrificing angel. Segel plays to Dane's sense of disappointment, his loneliness for a mate, for children of his own. It's all there. He's a complicated man, and yet his impulses for friendship are simple and clear. Together, the three actors create a believable sense of shared history.
"Our Friend" is insightful on a lot of things nobody wants to talk about, like caregiver fatigue. To "take a break" consumes the caregiver with guilt. Dane suggests to Matt they go on a short hike. Matt puts up resistance, but Dane wins, and they have a good day out. There's a quick montage showing neighbors and friends dropping food off on the porch steps. Such a small thing, but so helpful. The film is also truthful about the less positive aspects. Right after Nicole gets diagnosed, friends swarm by the house in support. As Nicole gets sicker and sicker, the friends stop coming by. Only Dane remains.
Teague's essay is factual about the horrible things cancer did to his wife's body. "Our Friend" avoids some of the more gruesome elements, but it is honest about the breakdown of Nicole's personality, her psychosis, as well as her lashing out at Matt in frightening rages. (This is new territory for the gifted Johnson, and she is more than up to it.) Cowperthwaite directed "Blackfish," a documentary about orcas in captivity. She seems to look at situations without blinking. She doesn't sugar-coat. She doesn't sentimentalize. She brought this to bear in 2017's "Megan Leavey," a film I reviewed for this site. One could, I suppose, "write off" "Megan Leavey" based on the plot description, but Cowperthwaite's keen eye for details and empathetic sensibility made it a very powerful film. The same holds true for "Our Friend."
One critic called Dane's motives "a mystery." But it's not a mystery at all. Segel makes Dane's actions make sense. It's not all that complicated, really. Dane recognizes his friends need him, he doesn't have anything else going on, he moves in. It's that simple, or at least it's that simple to Dane. Teague himself described Dane's choice to move in with them as "ungraspable." William Butler Yeats' beautiful lines from The Municipal Gallery Revisited come to mind:
“Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
and say my glory was I had such friends.”
Being a friend like Dane is a choice. We all have that choice within us. We shouldn't just wish for a friend like Dane. We should try to be a friend like Dane.
Now playing in theaters and available on demand.
In telling a story of violence along the Texas-Mexico border from a different perspective, “No Man’s Land” clearly has the best of intentions. Director Conor Allyn and his brother, star, and co-writer Jake Allyn, are trying to make us look at this contentious swath of land through fresh and sympathetic eyes, an instinct that’s certainly welcome after the past several years of xenophobic, build-the-wall rhetoric.
But the path to get there is long and slow, and frustratingly filled with thinly drawn characters and on-the-nose dialogue. As our conduit, Jake Allyn has a direct and appealing presence, but seasoned supporting players like Frank Grillo, Andie MacDowell, and George Lopez get far too little to play. For a movie that’s about a character on the run, “No Man’s Land” meanders and takes its time in a way that feels conflicting with the narrative.
The title takes its name from the section of land that’s north of the Rio Grande but south of the border fence. That’s where Allyn’s Jackson Greer and his family have a cattle ranch. A talented pitcher, Jackson is being scouted by the New York Yankees for a possible minor league baseball deal, which his parents (Grillo and MacDowell) see as his ticket to a prosperous future.
A confrontation along the border, however, throws that exciting prospect in jeopardy. While patrolling their property, Jackson, his dad, and his older brother (Alex MacNicoll) discover a group of Mexican immigrants trying to cross into the United States in the middle of the night. Their leader is Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), who functions not as a mercenary coyote but as a kindhearted shepherd trying to help his fellow churchgoers. Tensions flare in the darkness and Jackson accidentally shoots and kills Gustavo’s teenage son, Fernando (Alessio Valentini). While his dad tries to take the blame and the local Texas Ranger (Lopez) grows suspicious, Jackson hops on his horse and rides across the river in a panic.
And so we have a reverse immigration story, which simultaneously feels novel and like the stuff of classic Westerns—tales of desperate men in danger seeking sanctuary south of the border. That’s an intriguing story to tell at this specific point in our nation’s history, when there’s so much bigotry and cruelty inflicted upon families trying to make their way here in search of a better life. But for someone who’s grown up in this region, Jackson is surprisingly ignorant of Mexican culture. Like Liam Neeson’s character in last week’s “The Marksman,” who has a ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border, Jackson somehow has managed to avoid learning any Spanish, which is just bizarre.
Once he makes his way deeper into Mexico, Jackson enjoys the quiet beauty of some striking desert vistas (the work of cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez). But he also takes his time going from place to place in search of peace and forgiveness, which saps the movie of the suspense it sorely needs. And with the exception of one coyote character who’s cartoonish in his villainy, every single person he meets is saintly in their kindness and generosity—which is an oversimplification in the opposite direction from the stereotypical way Mexican characters too often are portrayed in films and television. As he ventures toward Fernando’s hometown of Guanajuato, deep in central Mexico, he encounters a poor, elderly couple who share their meal with him and a single mom and her young son on a bus, to whom he reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the movie’s most awkward and contrived connection. But a brief stop at a fancy horse ranch is compelling, as it allows Jackson to show off his natural ability as a trainer. This stretch gives Allyn a chance to reveal an actual personality to his character, and it finds an engaging rhythm that’s elusive elsewhere, suggests the better movie that might have been.
Instead, “No Man’s Land” wraps up in a jarring burst of violence that comes out of nowhere during a sensitive moment of healing (Jimenez is quite good as the slain boy’s father). And we’re forced to hear Jackson literally say: “Mexico’s not like I thought it was … I was wrong. I was wrong about a lot.” (Allyn co-wrote the script with David Barraza). It’s a lovely sentiment, but more mature filmmakers would have found a more nuanced way to convey it.
Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.
Aptly matched by its descriptive title, writer/director Lili Horvát's "Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time" (Hungary's submission for this year's Best International Feature Film Oscar) boasts an intriguing premise. The movie is like a psychological labyrinth with many possible exits, but only one can set its disconcerted heroine free—or so it seems.
Exemplary neurosurgeon Márta Vizy (Natasa Stork), for whom reality is increasingly becoming elusive, flies back home to Hungary from the U.S. after 20 years. Her return isn't prompted by a longing for homeland or even family, so much as a love pact she made with a fellow Hungarian doctor named János (Viktor Bodó) after they met and fell in love at a convention in New Jersey. The deal was to meet at Liberty Bridge in Budapest a month later. She kept the promise, he didn't.
Instead of coming to terms with the ill-advised impulse behind traveling half the world for a spontaneous rendezvous with a stranger, Márta searches for János, only to learn he doesn’t recognize her. In fact he has no memory of ever meeting her. As if she were haunted by an apparition, Márta starts to see him everywhere and begins to doubt her sanity. The movie’s puzzling plot then bends in ways that could make Christopher Nolan salivate, but which are deployed with a narrative elegance that keeps it grounded.
As it leads us down confounding roads, “Preparations” fashions Stork’s stoic expression, a perpetual poker face, as a barrier protecting her inner world. But rather than generating disinterest, her unemotional state allows the movie to disclose its twists only in small doses as she tries to rationalize them. Obsessed with objectively finding out whether János’ dismissal means a hurtful betrayal on his part or the symptom of a pathology afflicting her, Márta arranges to live and work as close to him as possible.
Márta soon settles into a new job at a local hospital, and it’s obvious she’s not welcomed. However, this puts her in direct contact with János and his colleagues, and she ramps up her efforts to unmask him and unveil what she believes is an attempt at gaslighting her. The position also brings another, younger suitor Alex (Benett Vilmányi), whose attraction seems primarily attached to her profession. He is a med student who aggressively courts her.
As Mara shares with her therapist the possibility she might have built this romantic castle in the sky, Horvát shoots Márta from different angles that perhaps point to a shift in personality, as if implying a rupture in Márta's psyche. The spaces Márta interacts with further corroborate the director’s wish to bewilder viewers, with endlessly curving spiral staircases and hallways illustrating cinematographer Róbert Maly's visual representation of the mind’s complex web of thoughts.
“Preparations” is at its most fascinating when it engages the link between our emotions, what we believe is our reality, and the tangible nerve endings that compose the abstraction of who we are. How can we know if anything we feel or do is a manifestation of the personality that we’ve formed cognitively, or the consequence of failure in our wiring? That both of the film's protagonists are highly trained individuals who literally touch the brains of others to solve their malfunctions provides an even more absorbing angle.
And so we question how Márta, someone so vastly educated in the everything that affects how we behave from a physical standpoint, becomes a victim of her own yearnings. For her, it would be much easier to be able to pinpoint to an illness, to blame it all on a chemical imbalance and not a deeply rooted, unfulfilled desire for companionship. Horvát never debates the validity of medical practices, but notes that maybe certain aspects of the human condition are unexplainable, so much so that even science and those who practice it can completely unroll them in neat, irrefutable terms.
Though never overtly bizarre, “Preparations” exists in a wavelength uninterested in total realism. Márta and János' quirky, sidewalk mating ritual surely isn’t meant to reflect everyday interactions, but it's an exalted way of conveying how close and yet how far they are from the image they have of each other. And while the film loses some of its mesmerizing potency in the climax and subsequent wrap-up, it's still a beautiful and acute rendering of what could be if some of the most implausible lies we tell ourselves were in fact true.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.
More people will die from opioid overdoses while you are watching this film than have died from opioids in Switzerland in 15 years. That's according to one of the experts in "Coming Clean," a documentary about the staggering costs from the mishandling of addictive pharmaceuticals in the United States. In the first few minutes of the film, the death toll is compared to other kinds of disasters: like a 9/11 every three weeks, like a jumbo airliner crash every week, like a Super Bowl arena-full of people each year.
This is a big, complicated subject. Writer/director Ondi Timoner brings together a strong group that explores every aspect from the chemical to the cultural (drug abuse is seen as a crime when it is poor Black people and as a social or medical problem when it is middle- and upper-class white people) to governance (regulators and legislators swayed or thwarted by post-Citizens United dark money). We hear very briefly about the impact of categorizing pain as a vital sign, asking patients to select one from a line of emoticon-style faces ranging from peaceful to agonized, and about reimbursement to hospitals based on their success in pain management.
We also get a quick look at the problem of direct advertising of medication to consumers, which was restricted until 1997. It is fascinating to hear that one of the pioneers of that advertising is none other than psychiatrist-turned marketing whiz Arthur M. Sackler, whose eight relatives ran Perdue Pharma, developer of opioid-based pain medication. The connection between the neurochemical impact of opioids and the psychological seductiveness of advertising and financial bonuses in creating this epidemic is clear. So is the connection between opioids and tobacco, both high-profit commercial products whose manufacturers hid their pernicious effects from the government and consumers. The same lawyer who got a $246 billion payment from the tobacco companies, Mike Moore, is a striking figure in this film as he targets the pharma firms for his next big lawsuit. (There are also significant lawsuits brought by large shareholders.)
Each of these elements could more than fill an entire movie. Excellent films like "The House I Live In" and "The Definition of Insanity" have focused on the failures and inadequacy of the criminal justice system to deal with these issues and alternative programs that show encouraging signs of safer, cheaper, more humane, and more successful outcomes. In this film, some of the larger points are pushed to the side in favor of personal examples. One involves a 60-something white woman who says she had a comfortable and happy middle-class life until she fell and hurt her back. She was prescribed opioids and became an addict. Like many others, she then turned to heroin, often cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs.
We also see a young Colorado state legislator named Brittany Pettersen at a hearing on opioids. But we do not find out until further into the film that there is a connection between these two women. The addict is the legislator's mother. This example hits home, literally. Even with all of her contacts as a politician, Pettersen found that only ten percent of those seeing help for addiction have access to the programs they need. So Pettersen helped to make Colorado the first state to adopt a group of major legislative initiatives to address addiction. She and her warm-hearted and supportive husband, Ian Silveri, are among the movie's highlights.
Admiral James Winnefeld, Jr., who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, tells us about his son Jonathan, who died from an overdose at age 19 in his first week of college. The admiral and his wife have started a non-profit called The SAFE Project that works with educators, health care professionals, legislators, along with school, workplace, and veterans' groups to address opioid addiction.
One of the documentary's most compelling figures is Salt Lake City Mayor (later Congressman) Ben McAdams, who helped set up Operation Rio Grande, a diversion program that helps addicts detox and develop life skills. The program's first graduates include a woman named Destiny Garcia. To demonstrate that being a part of the community and having a job is the best way to keep people from returning to drugs, the mayor hired her to work in his office, where she was happy, responsible, and so good at handling stressed out constituents she was promoted.
"Coming Clean" is about how we got here. It is also about why our response has been so counter-productive, in part because we blame addicts for a failure of will or morality, in part because the people who are profiting from opioids have been very effective at thwarting government oversight. It is also about people who are trying to do better, like the Swiss program of providing heroin AND support services to addicts, which has eliminated overdose deaths for 15 years. We see politicians, lawyers, and doctors trying to find a better way, and we see those struggling with recovery. But it is not just the addicts who need to come clean; it is those profiting from the current system. The most deadly addiction is not drugs; it is money.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.
In theory, the kitschy supervillain comedy “PG: Psycho Goreman” seems like a guaranteed hit: a gory and knowingly goofy riff on fish-out-of-water action-adventures like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” combined with rubber-suit monsters from Japanese tokusatsu type shows and movies like “Ultraman,” “Masked Rider,” and even “The Guyver.” Throw in a couple of precocious kids, a bunch of practical effects that recall standout ‘80s sci-fi and horror movies (like “RoboCop” and “Videodrome”), and a murderous guardian angel sidekick, and you’ve got a surefire formula for success. That’s the theory, at least.
In reality, “Psycho Goreman” isn’t clever or lively enough to be more than fitfully fun, especially given how much time is spent mocking generic, but painstakingly recreated plot contrivances. Maybe there’s a more ambitious (or at least righteously silly) parody amidst all the schticky callbacks and corny dialogue, but it’s hard to tell based on the movie’s episodic sketches.
“Psycho Goreman” opens with what looks like a parody of ‘80s toy commercials: brother and sister Luke and Mimi (Owen Myre and Nita-Josée Hanna) play a spirited round of Crazyball, complete with slow-motion roughhousing, mid-air jumping, and electric guitar shredding. Mimi, being the more aggressive of the two children, wins, so Luke has to bury himself alive (ha, kids these days). He starts the process, but quickly stops once he discovers an alien gem from the Planet Gigax (sigh), which summons a murderous, potentially world-ending creature that refers to himself by his preferred nickname: “The Archduke of Nightmares.”
Mimi doesn’t like that title though, and since she’s got the Gigaxian gem that somehow controls the Archduke, she (and Luke) rename our guy Psycho Goreman (Mimi on this new name: "It's fun, it's hip, it's now, and it's wow!"). They bond and mix it up with PG while we wait for a clash between him and religious zealot/robot angel Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch), Psycho Goreman’s vicious, holier-than-thou arch-nemesis. In the meantime, Mimi forces Psycho Goreman to play with her and her brother, which sets up a few chintzy set pieces and/or splattery monster fights, none of which are personal, dynamic, or weird enough to be memorable.
Unfortunately, waiting for something to happen in “Psycho Goreman” is often the hardest part of watching this otherwise soft-boiled spoof. There are even a couple of jokes about how aimless the movie is, or more specifically: gags that either draw out or interrupt the already slack set-up for new plot developments and confrontations. At the end of a dream sequence, Luke asks Psycho Goreman, “What happens now?” to which PG growls, “We wait for this dream of yours to conclude.” There’s a long pause as a random gaggle of zombies moan and crawl around the two characters. “’kay,” Luke adds, whole seconds before the scene wraps up.
Soon after that: Psycho Goreman gets into a fight with a gang of men in rubber monster suits, all of whom look like ripoffs, I mean tributes to other shows or movies. Luke, who observes the scene with his sister, asks her: “How long is this going to go on for?” The implied answer is, in this case, the right one: too long, though that’s ostensibly part of the joke’s appeal.
The other part is just how proudly juvenile and silly “Psycho Goreman” is. Imagine a Troma movie, but without the goony anger or social conscience of founder/guiding light Lloyd Kaufman, or the usual horndog-placating, above-the-waist nudity. That’s “Psycho Goreman,” a sour comedy that never stops reminding us, often through Luke’s tinny dialogue, about how formulaic and incredible this sort of story is. No lessons are learned, as they joke at film’s end, but there’s a bunch of monsters hitting and/or disremembering each other, so presumably that’s enough to tick off most viewers’ boxes. I wish I enjoyed watching a fine, but unremarkable cast dig into dialogue that feels like an otherwise lazy mashup of sitcom and sci-fi tropes, like when Psycho Goreman learns to say “frig off” as his catchphrase after Pandora tells him that he “will not stand between me and my holy destiny.” I guess “hasta la huego, babe” was too on the nose.
I have to admit, I’m mostly disappointed by “Psycho Goreman” because everything in it is up proverbial alley, from the critique of action-figure-friendly superheroism to the nuclear family gone ballistic power dynamic of Luke and Mimi’s family. I just wish that the movie was either funnier and/or more focused on a scene-to-scene or joke-for-joke level. There’s some funny ideas here, like when the kids’ dad Greg (Adam Brooks) receives a pestering, urgent psychic distress call from PG while Greg tries to use the toilet. But the execution of this gag is so characteristically flat and uninvolving that I often wondered what the point of this genre exercise was, apart from being the cinematic equivalent of a geeky mood board. I theoretically understand the appeal of “Psycho Goreman”—I just didn’t see it on-screen.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Environmentalism and feminism are one and the same in Agnieszka Holland’s gloomy, dystopian fable “Spoor.” Co-directed by Holland and her daughter Kasia Adamik with dreamlike quality, the film’s mossy world is a lush and damp one, where Mother Earth is threatened by men in ways both insidious and blatant. Imagine if the Coen brothers wrote and directed one of those darkly revisionist Disney films like “Maleficent,” and you will find yourself within the borders of this tale’s mountainous town pitched somewhere between Poland and Czech Republic, where men are ruthless, ungentlemanly hunters, empowered to disturb nature’s peace and wreck the well-being of the animals that reside within it.
They are also the destroyers of everything that matters to the movie’s central character Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), a hippy-ish, retired engineer and school teacher as well as a flesh-and-blood mother of the nature herself, leading a lonesome but principled life in that bloodthirsty village. Passionate about animal rights and astrology, the Klodzko Valley resident enjoys a decent, quiet existence with her two beloved dogs and plenty of Bach in the background until blood starts spilling mysteriously. It all begins with the inexplicable disappearance of her four-legged best friends one day. Facing man after unsympathetic man in her quest to find them—including one especially deranged priest who shames her for referring to her dogs as her children and denies a fact as obvious as animals having souls—Duszejko finds herself in the midst of an blood-splattered maze with an increasing body count.
One of the first victims that the crime wave claims is a violent poacher who lives next door to Duszejko. Then others join the ghastly aftermath: a police chief, a farmer, a local celebrity with shady connections. In the meantime, if only people would take Duszejko’s instincts seriously; that nature is finally fighting back and taking revenge from mankind for all their abuse and harm, and learn to read the earthly sings of dead deer and moody woods the way she does. But her warnings to all the local folk fall on disturbingly deaf ears, with curt and misogynistic authorities dismissing her worries (among them is a routine breaking of hunting laws) as crackpot theories from a crazy old woman. At least Duszejko proves to have some people around her that she could allegedly depend on—an interesting and deeply mysterious bunch with distinct peculiarities you’d expect in the orbit of such an eccentric character. There is Dyzio, an epileptic computer specialist who works at the police force. There is Matoga, a long-time neighbor who discovers the body of the dead poacher along with Duszejko. Also in the picture is a young woman on a heroic quest to regain the custody of her brother by any means necessary.
Adapted from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, there is a loud political edge to “Spoor,” one that deals with animal rights and patriarchy head on, if not a little heavy-handedly. In that regard, her tale is a crowded one covering competing themes, genres and an array of multifaceted characters (an even a romantic plot-line somewhere in there), making one wonder whether an episodic treatment would have suited the source material better. Still, Mandat’s committed performance that wears the horrors of the tale on its sleeve makes the affair more than worthwhile. Not to mention Holland’s cinematic mastery itself that charges every frame of her misty, mud-ridden and chilly-to-the-touch film with the grandeur and ominous aliveness of the nature that surrounds Duszejko’s world. (Sensitive eyes should be warned that dead animal bodies and related grisly scenes won’t be uncommon throughout “Spoor.”) While it doesn’t measure up to some of the director’s greatest such as “In Darkness” and “Washington Square,” “Spoor” makes an unmistakable political statement nonetheless, with Holland’s lens capturing the heart and soul of the animals some of the film’s despicable characters cruelly disregard.
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In a 2019 interview for a mixed martial arts (MMA, that is) website, Edson Barboza, a real-life MMA star who plays a key role in this motion picture, said “MMA fans will really enjoy it.” This assessment is so sufficiently to-the-point that I’m almost tempted to reproduce it hundreds of times, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” style, and submit it as my review. But my editor don’t play that.
So let us consider “Born a Champion” from the perspective of a non-MMA-fan. It so happens I am this thing. I don’t have anything against the sport (I don’t? Well, I mean, if I gave it any thought I actually might, but never mind), but it’s just not my bag.
It is, apparently, the bag of actor Sean Patrick Flanery, who wrote the movie and stars in it and is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, which is the fighting method depicted and practically proselytized for in the movie. Whether I should call this movie a “passion project” or a “vanity project” is something I’ve thought about, and since it appears from the evidence of the fight scenes in this film that Mr. Flanery could render me unconscious within half a minute of being introduced to me, “passion project” is the way to go.
Directed by Alex Ranarivelo (who co-wrote with Flanery), a bit of a veteran in sports films, “Born a Champion” takes a pseudo-documentary tack from the very beginning. In a window boxed frame, tattooed Rosco (Maurice Compte) speaks of his first meeting with Desert Storm vet Mickey Kelley (Flanery). It was in a parking lot, and some toughs were giving Rosco a hard time, and in a racist way, too. Mickey took three of them out, Rosco recalls in awe, “without throwing a punch.” And then the two became such great friends that Rosco let Mickey nickname him “Taco.”
Mickey’s non-punching method derives from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which has a specialty move that lets you, well, render your opponent unconscious within half a minute of being introduced to them, if that’s what you’re into. Seems to work every time, too. Mickey is soon seen flying to Dubai, teaching some sheikh’s kids, and rescuing an American woman from the clutches of an industrialist who wants to turn her into a prostitute. The woman, Layla (Katrina Bowden) is swept off her feet and follows him back to L.A. (San Pedro to be exact) even though she lives in North Carolina.
Narrator Rosco/Taco then informs us “Those two were f**ing …” Now if you guessed that the next two words would be “like rabbits,” then shame on you, you dirty dirty person. No. The line is “Those two were f**ing inseparable after that.” And soon they’re parents, too, and very good ones. I bring this up only because it’s kind of curious that Flanery and company maintained the language at a level that was sure to get it an “R” rating, because in almost every other respect this is a very wholesome story. It’s not entirely “Rocky”-esque but it is pretty faith-and-family in its stresses.
But it is, also, very martial arts-detail oriented. The story takes the aging Kelly to a pro MMA tourney, hovered over by Dennis Quaid’s Mason, a manager trying to legitimize the sport. Kelley’s relatively advanced age solicits skepticism, but he acquits himself beautifully until Barboza’s character steps in the ring. And beats Kelley in a bout that ends up leaving him with a detached retina and other vision-related complaints. “He would never be medically cleared to fight again,” Rosco tells us.
So how does Kelley end up in a rematch with Blaine five years later? And how is it discovered that Blaine cheated in the first bout, with the evidence going viral on the early internet? Flanery and Ranarivelo lay the groundwork for all the plot turns pretty well, but of course the destination is predictable. And actually, Rosco tells the audience the outcome of said rematch in the first ten minutes of the movie.
That “Born a Champion” is able to maintain suspense despite that is a testimony to craft, to be sure. It’s impressive enough to earn the admiration of a lay person such as myself. But those who are not just disinterested but out-and-out uninterested when it comes to jiu-jitsu moves and their analysis should be aware that watching Ranarivelo's film will give you more of that than you may need.
Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.
“Brothers by Blood” is a waiting game in which both the audience and the movie lose. For all of its posturing—its grimacing tough guys, their many leather coats, and the gruesome real-life mob corpses in the opening credits—the film struggles to builds a sense of danger that makes the slow burn worth it. Even the movie's main conflict, of whether or not to kill your hot-headed gangster cousin, lands with a shrug of an ending. The lives of two cousins may be at stake in “Brothers by Blood,” but only on paper.
This the kind of brooding crime drama that lives or dies based on a tough guy's silence, and here it become a dead weight. In this case, such quiet moments belong to Matthias Schoenaerts, a usually fascinating mug and bulky body in nearly anything (including “The Drop,” which this movie dearly wishes it could be). The aforementioned cousin murder quandary falls on his shoulders as he wrestles with what to do about Michael (an irascible but mumbly Joel Kinnaman), who he grew up with like a brother, and has watched slowly turn into a destructive, petulant heavy. There's an ongoing battle between the Irish and the Italian gangs in the city, and Michael's desire to finally end it on behalf of the Italians, with some extreme power plays, is going to do more harm than good.
Schoenaerts’ Peter spends a good deal of “Brothers by Blood” thinking about what he should do, or so we project. There’s not a lot going on in this script by writer/director Jérémie Guez (adapted from the 1991 novel Brotherly Love by Pete Dexter), which sorely feels like it's had atmosphere and character development ripped away from it, so we have to assume that there’s a lot going on behind Schoenaerts’ weary gazes. In some shots, he appears tortured. In many others, you’re more inclined to think that he’s just chilly.
The brash masculinity of this story—which is meant to be its main selling point—turns into gibberish, especially with the muffled conversations from Kinnaman and the script’s tediously vague sense of what violent business these cousins are in. When Michael says between his constantly gritted teeth an aside about "taking over the business," it’s confusing. (It’s not a good sign when a gangster movie has you thinking, “Take what, exactly?”) “Power” is the easy answer, "turf" a little more so, but there's still no sense of what's really at stake. At the beginning it’s the notion that Michael and Peter can get bribing customers decoy "jobs" as roofers, but that’s hardly an interesting scandal. The film stubbornly refuses to really elaborate on this, instead making it a story of Peter slowly accepting what he must do, all while getting whacked seems like the circle of life.
Part of this movie’s interest in toughness involves a cycle of violence, which is represented with flashbacks that involve young Peter (Nicholas Crovetti) witnessing the traumatic dissolution of his family. Each time we check back in with Peter, treading softly through his childhood home, the boy is closer to his final form as A Disturbed Man: first it's the tragic death of his sister, then the mental illness of his mother, and later the fate of his gangster father (Ryan Phillippe), who tries to guide his son in the ways of smart strength. Phillippe is in the film for maybe ten minutes tops, and yet he gets both the best line in the movie and its solely memorable moment. When speaking to young Peter, he offers legitimately meaningful and poetic advice: “It’s one thing to put your fist though drywall. It’s something else when you hit the studs.” If the rest of the movie didn't seem so obviously defective with the gangster movie blueprint, you might lament that it didn't have more of that poignancy.
Midway through the generic bravado of "Brothers by Blood," it hits the studs. Killings and beatings happen at such a clip that they don’t create any emotional momentum, especially when the film is little but Michael's reckless behavior as wannabe leader (which Kinnaman treats with dull restraint) followed up by Peter's delayed admonishment. All the while, its actors—a solid bunch who are often as good as their scripts—are stranded. Maika Monroe appears in a few scenes as Grace, the bartending sister to the slimy Jimmy (Paul Schneider), a restaurant owner who owes Michael money and is going to pay. But Monroe also gets little to work with, and the relief that the movie gives her a little more to do than pouring drinks is the type of kudos "Brothers by Blood" demands.
A superficial force eats at this movie from the inside, including the way that it’s a brawny script with nil visual grit, and a style that mostly announces itself with sporadic neo-noir lighting. Even Peter’s hobby of boxing is a shorthand to reference American masculinity (and recalls Schoenaerts, dukes up, in the Belgian film “Bullhead”) without having to dig into it. For eye-rolling context, Guez also introduces Michael as a Trump voter in 2016 (“He made billions, he can run this f**king country”), a detail that you can tell the filmmakers think is brilliant character development, but simply isn't.
You don’t need to know Philadelphia to be frustrated about how much the city is a non-factor in this film. First the story was called Brotherly Love when it was a book, and before this final title the movie was known as “The Sound of Philadelphia.” But there’s no sense of specificity aside from generic B-roll shots of the city, as the movie's main locations (of a boxing gym, a restaurant, an apartment) make this American microcosm as generic as possible. Rarely does a movie with a specific location and metaphor seem so lost. When one of this film's tough guys brushes off violent business with a “Hey, this is Philadelphia,” they might as well be talking about Phoenix.
Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.