Category Archives: Family Issues

Just watch it through your fingers: Donald Cried ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 25, 2017)

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In my 2014 tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, I wrote:

You know how I know Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor? Because he always made me cringe. You know what I mean? It’s that autonomic flush of empathetic embarrassment that makes you cringe when a couple has a loud spat at the table next to you in a restaurant, or a drunken relative tells an off-color joke at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a good sign when an actor makes me cringe, because that means he or she has left their social filter on the dressing room table, and shown up for work naked and unafraid.

There are many things about Donald Cried that will likely make you cringe. In fact, the film’s titular character (played by its writer-director Kris Avedisian) is the type of role Hoffman would have felt quite comfortable tackling…expressly for the purpose of making us feel uncomfortable.

A sort of twisty cross between Vincent Gallo’s cringe-inducing black comedy Buffalo ’66 and Miguel Arteta’s equally discomfiting character study Chuck and Buck, Avedisian’s story centers on a thirty-something Wall Street banker named Peter (Jesse Wakeman) who returns to the blue-collar Rhode Island burg where he grew up to bury his grandmother and tidy up all of her affairs.

During his taxi ride from the train station to his late grandmother’s house, Peter realizes (much to his chagrin) that he has lost his wallet while in transit. Quickly exhausting all other options for assistance, the panicked Peter has little choice but to walk across the street, where his childhood pal Donald lives. We quickly glean why he just didn’t go there first-Donald is beyond the beyond.

Donald is overjoyed to see Peter again after all these years. Disturbingly overjoyed, like a deliriously happy puppy who dances around your legs like a dervish because he was sure you were abandoning him forever when you left the house for 2 minutes to check the mail. In other words. Donald seems oblivious to the time-space continuum. While Peter has chosen to put away childish things and engage the world of adult responsibility, Donald was frozen in carbonite at 15.

Still, if Peter is to stick to his timetable of wrapping up the grandmother business in 24 hours, Donald (who has a car) looks to be his only hope. From their first stop at the funeral home, it’s clear that Donald’s complete lack of a social filter is going to make this a painfully long 24 hours.

The tortuous path of the “man-child” is rather well-trod, particularly in modern indie filmdom. That said, there is a freshness to Avedisian’s take, as well as an intimate authenticity to the performances that invites empathy from the viewer. Once you get past the cringe-factor, you actually do care about the characters, especially when you realize we’ve all known a Donald (or a Peter) sometime or another. Perchance we’ve even seen one looking back at us from a mirror, no?

SJFF 2017: Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This bittersweet yet life-affirming documentary, which recalls the PBS series An American Family, takes an intimate look at the travails of a 40 year-old Israeli man named Saar, who has lived a happy and fulfilling life being out and proud in London, despite the fact that his move was precipitated by getting barred from the  kibbutz where he grew up. However, he is currently weathering a midlife crisis, with an added poignancy: he is HIV-positive and yearns to meaningfully reconnect with his estranged family in Israel, who seem unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their familial love for Saar with their deeply held religious fundamentalist tenants regarding homosexuality. Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann were given extraordinary access to Saar and his family, resulting in something rarely experienced at the movies anymore-real and heartbreaking emotional honesty, handled with great sensitivity and compassion.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SJFF 2017: Moos ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This charmer from Dutch writer-director Job Gosschalk follows the plight of a young woman who is torn between care-giving for her widower dad and pursuing her dreams for a life in the theater. When an old childhood friend comes for a visit, everything goes topsy-turvy. Hanne Arendzen is a delight in the lead; her quirky performance (and the character that she plays) reminded me of the young Lynn Redgrave in the 1966 dramedy Georgy Girl.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set

Few names have become as synonymous with the “road movie” as German film maker Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World are the most well-known examples of his mastery in capturing not only the lure of the open road, but in laying bare the disparate human emotions that spark wanderlust. But fairly early in his career, between 1974 and 1976, he made a three-film cycle (all starring his favorite leading man Rudiger Vogler) that, while much lesser-known, easily stands with the best of the genre. Criterion has reissued all three of these previously hard to find titles in a wonderful box set.

Alice in the Cities  (***1/2) stars Vogler as a journalist who is reluctantly saddled into temporary stewardship of a precocious 9 year-old girl. His mission to get her to her grandmother’s house turns into quite the European travelogue (the relationship that develops is reminiscent of Paper Moon). It’s my personal favorite of the three.

In Wrong Move (**), Vogler is a writer in existential crisis, who hooks up with several other travelers who also carry mental baggage. It’s the darkest of the trilogy; Wenders based it on a Goethe novel.

Kings of the Road (***) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens to be in the right place at the right time when a depressed psychologist (Hanns Zischler) decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The two traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other, but they have plenty of time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it, though, you’ll find it rewarding…it kind of  grows on you.

All three films have been given the usual meticulous Criterion restoration, showcasing Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography.

Sour notes: Max Rose **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)

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“Have you heard about the restaurant on the moon? Great food, no atmosphere.” For better or worse, that’s the best line in Max Rose, Jerry Lewis’ first starring vehicle since Peter Chelsom’s 1995 sleeper Funny Bones. Not that Max Rose is intended to be a comedy…far from it. Writer-director Daniel Noah’s film has much more gravity (ahem) than that timeworn groaner may infer.

Lewis is the titular character, a retired jazz pianist grieving over the recent death of his wife (Claire Bloom, relegated to flashbacks and the odd hallucination). Understandably, Max is a little morose (endless static shots of a brooding, stone-faced Lewis ensure that we “get” that). Even his sunny-side up granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe) can barely get him to crack a smile. Again, Max did just lose his wife of 60 years; yet some deeply buried injury seems to be tugging at him.

Max’s eulogy at his wife’s funeral turns into an oddly self-deprecating rant, alarming both Annie and his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak). Soon thereafter, Max has a health scare while alone at home that prompts The Talk (the one we all dread…about assisted living). Max reluctantly acquiesces and checks in to a nursing home, but remains stubbornly aloof toward staff and fellow residents, until he gets liquored up one night with a posse of lively codgers (Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Lee Weaver). Defenses down, Max now opens up about his deeper hurt, something he discovered about his wife’s past while sorting through her personal effects after her death. He realizes the only way he’s going to have closure is to go meet face-to-face with an involved party.

Despite the bevy of acting talent on board, this film (an uneven mash-up of The Descendents with The Sunshine Boys) ultimately feels like a squandered opportunity. Lewis has proved himself to be a capable enough dramatic actor in the past (particularly in The King of Comedy, Arizona Dream, and the aforementioned Funny Bones), but here his performance flirts with mawkishness. To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was doing his best with the sappy script. There are good moments; a protracted scene between Lewis and the always interesting Dean Stockwell hints at what could have been, but is not enough to raise the film above its steady level of “meh”.

Sunrise, sunset: Mia Madre ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2016)

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

–from the “Serenity Prayer”, by Reinhold Niebuhr

In my lukewarm 2012 review of Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope, I did give props to the Italian writer-director for “…humanizing someone who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility by depicting them to be just as neurotic as anybody else.” I observed that Moretti’s protagonist was a (would-be) pontiff who “…elects to leave a hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation to revel in the simple joys of everyday life; to rediscover his humanity.”

Although Moretti’s latest effort is but the second film I have seen by this director, I’m sensing a theme. That’s because Mia Madre also centers on a protagonist who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility (in this case, a film director), and is depicted to be just as neurotic as anybody else. One could even say that a film set is also a “hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation” (of a sort). And indeed, over this cloistered, make-believe world, Margherita (Margherita Buy) holds sovereignty. But when it comes to her “real” life-not so much.

Every time she steps foot off her set, we sense Margherita’s power over her world diminishing. We see her literally gathering up the scant remnants of a failed relationship; dropping by her (soon to be) ex-lover’s apartment to collect some of her odds and ends. Her morose boyfriend (who, in a nice little directorial flourish, is sulking and listening to Leonard Cohen while she packs) gives her a desperate hug. “We know how things are,” she says a little unconvincingly, as she gently breaks away, “We’ve already decided.” To which he counters, “No…you’ve decided.”

Other aspects of her personal life are slipping through her fingers. She is stressed over the declining health of her hospitalized mother (Giulia Lazzarini), which in turn is exacerbating a gulf between Margherita and her teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini). The only rock she can seem to cling to in her destabilizing spin is her Zen-like brother Giovanni (director Moretti), who urges her to get a grip (he’s the only person in her orbit who intuits that she is headed for a crash).

We know Margherita is losing it, because she is having Fellini-esque, metaphor-laden daydreams suggesting as such (echoes of 8 ½). In fact, chaos (internal and external) seems to be a central theme. The fictional director’s film within the film is a polemic concerning factory workers in the midst of a tumultuous labor dispute; Margherita’s set itself gets thrown into disarray upon arrival of a mercurial American actor (played to the back row by the ever hammy John Turturro).

While Maretti’s meta-narrative of a harried director juggling creative and personal issues while slogging through a film shoot begs comparison to Truffaut’s Day for Night, he ultimately digs into more elemental themes, revealed incrementally. Maretti’s measured pacing may give you some pause, so be advised that it does require your attention (and patience) to fully appreciate the denouement: one word of dialog that not only packs an emotional wallop and beautifully ties the entire film together, but gives us all a reassuring moment of clarity amidst the chaos of adult life.

We’re here, we’re soccer moms, get used to it: Gayby Baby ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2016)

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NEWS FLASH: Just like the Russians, same-sex parents love their children, too.

And…their daily lives are virtually indistinguishable from any other typical family!

The parents feed, clothe, nurture their kids, have jobs…some even attend churches!

The kids go to school, play, laugh, cry, dream about their future…like normal kids!

I know, I know…I was just as shocked (shocked!) as you to learn all of these things.

Of course, I’m being facetious; although the sad fact remains that in the 21st Century,  there are still those who would be shocked to learn life for kids in same-sex households is in fact, not tantamount to a forced “indoctrination” into some ungodly type of  “lifestyle”.

Australian filmmaker Maya Newell sets the record straight in Gayby Baby, her documentary portrait of four kids who are growing up in same-sex households. Actually, the director herself doesn’t set the record straight; she just aims her camera, and the kids tell the story (that is to say, tell us their stories). Out of the mouths of babes, and all that.

This was a smart move, because children don’t view the world as a political battleground. They haven’t lived on the planet long enough to formulate any specific agenda. Ask them a direct question, and you’ll usually get an unadulterated answer (unless it’s “Who ate the cookies?”). Naturally, they are all aware that having two moms (or two dads) is atypical from their schoolmates…but that’s not something that any of them seem to obsess over.

They are mostly concerned with…kid stuff. A 10 year-old is preoccupied with all things WWF (and earns a stern talking-to when a wrestling match with his younger sister gets a bit too rough). One dreams of being a pop star; we watch her prepare for her audition that could get her into a performing arts school (warning: this likely will not be the first, or the last time you’ll weather a preteen girl’s approximation of “Rolling in the Deep”). An 11 year-old boy who grew up a foster child struggles with literacy. Another 11 year-old boy is dealing with a crisis of faith, pondering surprisingly deep issues for one so young.

Newell’s observational, non-judgmental approach is reminiscent of Paul Almond’s 7 Up, a 1964 UK documentary profiling 7 year-olds from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, sharing their dreams and aspirations. 7 years later the same subjects appeared in 7 Plus Seven, with director Michael Apted taking over. Updates continued with 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up and 2013’s 56 Up (my review). Newell’s subjects here are equally unfiltered and forthcoming; they leave you wanting for a similar update down the road.

In fact, I became so absorbed in the universal everyday travails of these families that I forgot all about any political subtexts until a brief jostle at the very end of the film where Newell inserts footage of some of the kids participating in a pride parade with their parents. Even in this arguably pointed coda, there is no palpable sense of proselytizing. At the end of the day, the film is not about being gay, or straight. It’s about being human.

Paper ring: The 10 worst date flicks for Valentine’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 13, 2016)

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To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

 –William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

You’re breakin’ my heart
You’re tearing it apart…so fuck you

-Nilsson, Son of Schmilsson, “You’re Breaking My Heart”

 Alright, I’ve covered the “warm and fuzzy” angle for Valentine’s Day. But there are two sides to every coin. This “holiday” depresses some people. It’s just a corporate invention; a marketing ploy to push overpriced cards and chocolates, right? So I say, embrace your melancholia! I mean, I may be “alone”, but I’m not “lonely”, right? Right? Anyone? Bueller? Hello? (tap, tap) Is this internet working?

Anyway…here you go, alphabetically:

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Baby Doll – In 1956, this deliciously squalid melodrama (directed by Elia Kazan and written by Tennessee Williams) was decried by the “Legion of Decency” for its “carnal suggestiveness”. Granted, there is something suggestive about a sultry, PJ-clad 19 year old (Carroll Baker) sucking her thumb, while curled up in a child’s crib. This is how we are introduced to the virgin bride of creepy old Archie (Karl Malden), who is breathlessly counting down to Baby Doll’s next birthday. They married when she was 18, but Archie is beholden to “no consummation” until she’s 20.

In return, Archie swears to renovate his rundown cotton gin so he can bathe her in luxury, ‘til death do they part. In reality, Archie is as bereft of coin as he is lustful in loin. This leads to an ill-advised act that puts him in hot water with his prosperous business rival (Eli Wallach). Instead of getting mad, Wallach decides to get even…by seducing Baby Doll. The seduction scene is a classic; it doesn’t “show” you anything, yet implies much (it is largely left up to your imagination).

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Crazy Love – For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the Bizarro World “love story” of Burt and Linda Pugach, I won’t risk spoilers regarding this 2007 documentary. Suffice it say, if you think you’ve seen it all when it comes to obsession and dysfunction in romantic relationships, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. One thing I will tell you, is that despite the shocking and odious nature of the act that one of these two people visits upon the other at one point in their life together, it’s still not so cut and dry as to whose “side” you want to be on, because both of these people got off the bus in Crazy Town a long time ago. This film is the antonym for “date movie”. Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens directed.

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Happiness – If you you’re partial to network narratives populated  by emotionally needy neurotics, this 1998 Todd Solondz film is in your wheelhouse. There are bold performances all around in this veritable merry-go-round of modern dysfunction, as you watch a sad parade of completely hapless individuals make desperate, cringe-inducing stabs at establishing meaningful connections sometime before they die (the human condition?). Standouts in the huge cast include the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lara Flynn Boyle, Jane Adams, Dylan Baker and Camryn Manheim. Keep a pint of Ben and Jerry’s handy.

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The Honeymoon Killers – Several decades before Natural Born Killers was even a gleam in Oliver Stone’s eye, writer-director Leonard Kastle made this highly effective low-budget exploitation film (based on a true story) about a pair of murderous lovebirds. Martha (Shirley Stoler) and Ray (Tony Lo Bianco) meet via a “lonely hearts” correspondence club and find that they have a lot more in common than the usual love of candlelit dinners and walks on the beach. Namely, they’re both full-blown sociopaths, who cook up a scheme to lure lonely women into their orbit so they can kill them and take their assets. Stoler and Lo Bianco have great chemistry as the twisted couple. The stark B & W photography and verite approach enhances the overall creepy vibe. Martin Scorsese was the original director, but was quickly fired (!). This was Kastle’s only film.

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The Night Porter – Director Liliana Cavani brilliantly uses a story of a sadomasochistic relationship as both an allusion to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany and an examination of sexual politics. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and a concentration camp survivor who become entwined in a twisted, doomed relationship years after WW2. It’s disturbing and repulsive…yet still compelling.

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Sid and Nancy – The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out. It is a bit of a downer (then again, that’s tonight’s theme), but the cast is great, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy (“Eeew, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”). The movie also benefits from outstanding cinematography by Roger Deakins.

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Smash Palace – Dramatic films about the disintegration of a marriage aren’t exactly a romp in the fields to begin with (and as date movies…it’s safe to say that they are right out), but can be particularly heart-wrenching when children are involved (e.g. Kramer vs Kramer or Shoot the Moon). Few genre entries I’ve seen are as raw and emotionally draining as this nearly forgotten 1981 gem from New Zealand.

An early effort from writer-director Roger Donaldson (The Bounty, No Way Out, Thirteen Days), the film features a tour-de-force performance by Bruno Lawrence, as an eccentric race car driver/salvage yard owner who neglects his wife (Anna Maria Monticelli) to the point where she has an affair. The cuckolded hubby (already a walking time bomb) does not react well. Donaldson sustains an incredible sense of tension. Riveting and unpredictable right up to the end.

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Swept Away – The time-honored “man and woman stuck on a desert island” scenario is served up with a heaping tablespoon of class struggle and an acidic twist of sexual politics in this controversial 1975 film from Italian director Lena Wertmuller. A shrill and haughty bourgeoisie woman (Mariangela Melato) charters a yacht cruise for herself and her equally obnoxious fascist friends, who all seem to delight in belittling their slovenly deck hand (Giancarlo Giannini), who is a card-carrying communist. Fate and circumstance conspire to strand Melato and Giannini together on a small Mediterranean isle, setting the stage for some interesting role reversal games. BTW, in case you are curious about the Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake? Here’s a two-word review: Stay away!

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – If words were needles, university history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) would look like a pair of porcupines, because after years of shrill, shrieking matrimony, these two have become maestros of the barbed insult, and the poster children for the old axiom, “you only hurt the one you love”.   Mike Nichols’ 1966 directing debut (adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning stage play) gives us a peek into one night in the life of this battle-scarred middle-aged couple.

After a faculty party, George and Martha invite a young newlywed couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap. It turns out to be quite an eye-opener for the young ‘uns; as the ever-flowing alcohol kicks in, the evening becomes a veritable primer in bad human behavior. It’s basically a four-person play, but these are all fine actors, and the writing is the real star of this piece.

Everyone in the cast is fabulous, but Taylor is the particular standout; this was a breakthrough performance for her in the sense that she proved beyond a doubt that she was more than just a pretty face. It’s easy to forget that the actress behind this blowsy, 50-ish character was only 34 (and, of course, a genuine stunner). When “Martha” says “Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any goddam table you want…so don’t worry about me,” you don’t doubt that she really can.

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Your Friends and Neighbors – With friends and neighbors like these…oy. A very dark social satire from the Prince of Darkness himself, playwright-writer-director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty). As in most LaBute narratives, there’s nary a sympathetic character in sight in this study of two unhappy couples and their circle of unhappy friends. Everybody makes bad choices and generally treat each other like shit. Cynical, appalling, and perversely funny. You’ll love it! Aaron Eckart, Jason Patric, Amy Brenneman, Catherine Keener, Nastassja Kinski, and Ben Stiller make a crack ensemble.

…and now here’s the late great Harry Nilsson to sing us out:

Masticating and gesticulating: An Italian Name ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2015)

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

 Not unlike Little White Lies, Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures.

The dinner party of note is a cozy and casual late night get-together at the home of school teacher Betta (Valeria Golino) and professor hubby Sandro (Luigi Lo Cascio). There are only three guests; Betta’s brother Paolo (Alessandro Gassman, son of the late great actor Vittorio Gassman), his wife Simona (Michaela Ramazzotti), and childhood friend Claudio (Rocco Papaleo), a bachelor, musician, and…referee (once the fur begins to fly).

If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. It’s apparent that these five have known each other a long time; and once Betta and Sandro have sent the kids to bed and cracked open a few bottles of wine, the evening begins to take its inevitable course. Paolo, whose preternatural good looks and easy charm have undoubtedly led to his success as a high-end real estate broker, is a bit of a prankster, who enjoys winding up brother-in-law Sandro. The lovely Simona, the best-selling author of a Jackie Collins-style novel, is pregnant. Paolo announces with a straight face that the couple have come up with a name for the baby (if it’s a boy)-Benito. Sandro, a pompous, left-leaning academe, takes the bait…and so the (verbal) bloodletting begins.

There are echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? throughout the evening’s proceedings, as dormant resentments resurface and new revelations come to the fore; the main difference here being that the overall tone isn’t as vitriolic. The smart, witty, rapid-fire repartee is executed with flair by the wonderful ensemble (in fact the dialog is so rapid-fire that I found it a challenge keeping up with the subtitles…and I’m a fast reader).

The breezy 94 minute film plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. Director Archibugi and co-writer Francesco Piccolo adapted their script from a play by Alexandre de la Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte. I was also blissfully unaware that de la Patelliere and Delaporte directed their own screen version of their play (released in France in 2012 as Le prenom), so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

Mingling with the help: The Second Mother ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 26, 2015)

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If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

-George Bernard Shaw

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

 -George Burns

Let’s face it, even “typical” families are weird. I can’t imagine how much weirder it would be growing up in a family with an attendant “staff” lurking about. This dynamic has inspired myriad “upstairs/downstairs” narratives for novelists and screenwriters (it has certainly kept PBS afloat). That’s why I approached the latest film to use this timeworn trope, writer-director Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, with trepidation.

The story centers on an upper middle class Brazilian family, living in Sao Paolo. Their live-in housekeeper Val (Regina Case) has been with the family for a number of years, long enough to have become a nurturing “second mother” to 17 year-old Fabinho (Michel Joelsas).While Fabinho’s parents (Lourenco Mutarelli and Karine Teles) occasionally get careless and let their classist slips show, they accept Val as a de facto member of the family. Despite their privileged lifestyle, the family appears fairly “normal” and unassuming; and the dynamic between Val and her employers comfortable and familiar.

However, family skeletons are about to dance for our viewing pleasure. Yes, it’s the incursion of The Free-Spirited Outsider; in this case, Val’s estranged daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila). Val has not seen her daughter, who is around the same age as Fabhino, in nearly a decade; she is coming to Sao Paolo to apply at an architectural college. Val is jazzed about seeing her daughter, but nervous when she asks her employers if it’s okay for Jessica to bunk with her in her cramped maid’s quarters. To Val’s horror, Jessica “puts on airs” from the moment she arrives, casually asking to stay in the spacious guest room. Not a problem, say the gracious hosts. But it’s about to turn into one (no spoilers).

There’s a part of me that wants to say that I have reviewed this film many times before. That being said, there are two compelling reasons why I still recommend it: Regina Case and Camila Mardila. Both women give wonderful performances, but Case in particular is a joy to behold. This is my first awareness of her; from what I understand she has been a popular actress and comedienne for some time in her native Brazil, working in film, television and the theater. Her characterization of Val is warm, compassionate, earthy, and 100% believable. Muylaert’s sensitive direction is also a plus. It may not get an “A” for originality, but still has something to say about love, family and class struggle.