Category Archives: Culture Clash

Primal doubts and all: Tommaso (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2020)

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The artist is the medium between his fantasies and the rest of the world.

 — Federico Fellini

There are few tougher sells to moviegoers than a film that simmers in the navel-gazing angst of a creatively blocked filmmaker. Yet it has become a venerable sub-genre you can trace at least as far back as Preston Sturges’ 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels. Joel McCrea plays a director of populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road masquerading as a penniless railroad tramp. His crash-course in “social realism” becomes more than he bargained for. What did he expect? I mean, talk about “bitching in Paradise”…am I right?

As I noted in my 2013 review of Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza (aka The Great Beauty), a drama regarding an acclaimed novelist who is weathering an existential crisis:

Sorrentino’s film left me ambivalent. Interestingly, it was very similar to the way I felt in the wake of Eat Pray Love. In my review of that film, I relayed my inability to empathize with what I referred to as the “Pottery Barn angst” on display. It’s that plaintive wail of the 1%: “I’ve got it all, and I’ve done it all and seen it all, but something’s missing…oh, the humanity!” It’s not that I don’t understand our protagonist’s belated pursuit of truth and beauty; it’s just that Sorrentino fails to make me care enough to make me want to tag long on this noble quest for 2 hours, 22 minutes.

While The Great Beauty is not about a film maker, it is nonetheless a direct descendant of Federico Fellini’s . Fellini’s 1963 drama about a creatively blocked director stewing over his next project offered a groundbreaking take on the “blocked artist” trope. With a non-linear narrative and flights of fantasy, it injected the “metaphysical” into the “meta”.

It was outrageously over-the-top and completely self-indulgent (especially for 1963), but Fellini’s film managed to strike a chord with audiences and critics. That is not an easy trick to pull off. In a 2000 retrospective on the film, Roger Ebert offered this explanation:

Fellini is a magician who discusses, reveals, explains and deconstructs his tricks, while still fooling us with them. He claims he doesn’t know what he wants or how to achieve it, and the film proves he knows exactly, and rejoices in his knowledge.

It also was (and remains) a hugely influential work. Films like Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) are a few of the more notable works with strong echoes of 8½.

Writer-director Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso [now playing nationally in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee] is the latest descendant of ; although it offers a less fanciful and decidedly more fulminating portrait of a creative artist in crisis. The film’s star (and frequent Ferrara collaborator) Willem Dafoe is certainly no stranger to inhabiting deeply troubled characters; and his “Tommaso” is (to say the least) a troubled, troubled man.

Tommaso is a 60-something American ex-pat film maker who lives in Rome with his 29 year-old Italian wife Nikki (Cristina Chiriac) and 3 year-old daughter Dee Dee (Anna Ferrara). At first glance, Tommaso leads an idyllic life; he has ingratiated himself by taking Italian lessons from a private tutor and appears to be a fixture in his neighborhood, cheerfully going about his daily errands with the unhurried countenance of a native local.

However, as we are given more time to observe Tommaso’s home life, there is increasing evidence of trouble in Paradise. Aside from the classic schisms that tend to occur in May-December relationships, Tommaso and Nikki obviously struggle with some cultural differences. Tommaso is also on edge because he is working on a storyboard for his next film (with elements that recall The Revenant) but can’t decide what he wants it to “say”.

The angst really kicks in when Tommaso attends an AA meeting. And then another, and another. While these scenes (i.e. monologues) are somewhat static and are potential deal-breakers for some viewers, they are key in communicating Tommaso’s inner turmoil.

Of course, the question becomes…do you care? Is this all just more of that “Pottery Barn angst” that I mentioned earlier? Dude…you have a beautiful young wife and an adorable little girl, you’re slumming in Rome, you’re an artist who makes his own schedule…and all you do is whinge and moan about how your life sucks, meow-meow woof-woof. Oh, please!

On the other hand, keep in mind this is an Abel Ferrara film. Historically, Ferrara does not churn out “light” fare. If you have seen China Girl, Ms .45, Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Addiction, The Funeral, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, et.al.-you know he is a visceral and uncompromising filmmaker. What I’m suggesting is, don’t give up on this too early; stay with it, give it some time to stew (I confess- it took me two viewings to “get there”).

The main impetus for sticking with the film (which ultimately shares more commonalities with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life than with ) is to savor Dafoe’s carefully constructed performance. Handed the right material, he can be a force of nature; and here, Ferrara hands Dafoe precisely the right material.

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2020)

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(June 6, 2020)“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” Frederick Douglass said that in 1852. In an infamous gaffe uttered while attending a breakfast with some African-American supporters in honor of Black History Month back in February 2017, President Donald J. Trump described the famed (and long-dead) 19th century abolitionist as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” In recognition of the fact that even a stopped clock is is accurate twice a day, and in light of the extraordinary worldwide protest movement that unfolded this past week in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic, senseless death, I am re-posting my 2019 Martin Luther King tribute .

(January 19, 2019)

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)– The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining. (Full review)

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Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith

Chicago 10

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Medium Cool

Secret Honor

— Dennis Hartley

Blu-ray reissue: Until the End of the World (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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Until the End of the World – The Criterion Collection

Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic is finally available as a beautifully restored transfer by Criterion, in a 287-minute director’s cut (which Wenders himself has called his “ultimate road movie”).

Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, the story centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure at best. However, to see it as it was originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

The 4K digital restoration is gorgeous, and a new 5.1 surround HD DTS audio track accentuates the film’s excellent music soundtrack (which includes songs by U2, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Julee Cruise, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, et.al.). Extras include a conversation between Wenders and David Byrne and several film critic essays.

Blu-ray reissue: Local Hero ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Local Hero – Spirit Entertainment (Region “B” Blu-ray)

This magical, wonderfully droll and observant 1983 social satire from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth has been on my Blu-ray wish list for many years. I was beginning to despair that I was waiting in vain for “someone” to do a restoration/HD upgrade…and bam! Two studios simultaneously release 2K digital restorations on Blu-ray in 2019 (more on my dilemma in a moment).

Peter Reigert is perfectly cast as Macintyre, a Texas-based executive who is assigned by the head of “Knox Oil & Gas” (Burt Lancaster) to scope out a sleepy Scottish hamlet that sits on the edge of an oil-rich bay. He is to negotiate with all the local property owners and essentially buy out the entire town so that the company can build a huge refinery.

While he considers himself “more of a Telex man”, who would prefer to knock out such an assignment “in an afternoon”, Mac sees the overseas trip as a possible fast track for a promotion within the corporation. As this quintessential 80s Yuppie works to ingratiate himself with the unhurried locals (quite impatiently at first), a classic “fish out of water” transformation ensues. It’s the kindest and gentlest Ugly American tale you’ve ever seen.

Full disclosure: I can only base my assessment of image quality on the disc that I own, which is from the UK outfit Spirit Entertainment (please note it is Region “B” locked). As mentioned earlier, this is a new 2K restoration, and it’s breathtaking (it’s a beautiful looking film to begin with).

Now, the “other” studio who has put out an edition of the film is The Criterion Collection. I have not viewed their edition, but based on their product description, I can safely assume that their 2K transfer is from the same recently struck restoration. Both editions have good extra features (several of them duplicate), but what swayed me to the Spirit Entertainment version was a new 2019 interview with Mark Knopfler (which the Criterion edition does not contain) discussing his classic soundtrack.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – Kino-Lorber

One of the highlights of the “Australian New Wave” that flourished in the 70s and 80s, writer-director Fred Schepsi’s 1978 drama (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is loosely based on a true story) is set in Australia at the turn of the 20th Century.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a half-caste Aboriginal who goes out into the world to make his own way after being raised by a white minister and his wife. Unfortunately, the “world” he is entering from the relative protective bubble of his upbringing is that of a society fraught with systemic racism; one that sees him only as a young black man ripe for exploitation.

While Jimmie is inherently altruistic, every person has their limit, and over time the escalating degradation and daily humiliations lead to a shocking explosion of cathartic violence that turns him into a wanted fugitive. An unblinking and uncompromising look at a dark period of Australian history; powerful and affecting.

Kino-Lorber’s transfer is excellent. The 2-disc release has two versions of the film, the original Australian version, and the “international” cut (several minutes shorter). The longer cut features a commentary track by Schepsi. There is also an interview with Schepsi and DP Ian Baker, as well as an archival interview with the late Tommy Lewis.

Blu-ray reissue: Year of the Dragon (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Year of the Dragon – Warner Brothers

This brutal, visceral crime thriller/culture clash drama from 1985 is one of writer-director Michael Cimino’s most polarizing films. Nonetheless, it has garnered a sizable cult following over the years.

Co-written by Oliver Stone and based on Robert Daley’s novel, Cimino’s follow-up to his critically drubbed 1980 epic Heaven’s Gate (no pressure!) divided both critics and audiences with its uncompromising take on gang violence, the international drug trade, and ethnic stereotyping.

Mickey Rourke stars as a decorated NYC police captain newly assigned to Chinatown who embarks on a single-minded mission to bust up the various criminal enterprises run by the district’s powerful triads (by any means necessary). Rourke’s combative “cop on the edge” (also a Vietnam vet) is equal parts Popeye Doyle and Archie Bunker; his casual racism suggests that he may have not been the ideal political choice for this posting.

Rourke really pulls out all the stops. John Lone also does a great turn as his sociopathic nemesis, a politically savvy rising star in the Chinese mob.

As usual, Warner skimps on extras (there’s a commentary track by Cimino), but image and sound quality are tops.

Blu-ray reissue: Stranger Than Paradise (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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Stranger Than Paradise – Criterion Collection

With this 1984 indie classic, Jim Jarmusch established his formula of long takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, evoking strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

Criterion’s restoration is beautiful. Extras include commentary by Jarmusch and Edson, and Jarmusch’s 1980 color feature debut Permanent Vacation (also restored).

Blu-ray reissue: The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 13, 2019)

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The Landlord – Kino-Lorber

Hal Ashby’s 1970 social satire follows the travails of a trustafarian (Beau Bridges) who buys a run-down Brooklyn tenement, with initial intentions to evict current residents and renovate (much to the chagrin of his blue-blood parents, who scoff at his “liberal views”). The landlord’s sincere but awkward attempts to “relate” to his black tenants is sometimes milked for laughs, other times for dramatic tension-but always rings true-to-life.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring Lou Gossett (with hair!), Susan Anspach (hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister) and Diana Sands. The scene where Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant get drunk and bond over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a classic. Ashby and screenwriter Bill Gunn’s observations about race relations in America are dead-on (and still timely).

Image transfer is sharp. Extras include interviews with Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, and producer Norman Jewison.

SIFF 2019: Go Back to China (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Writer-director Emily Ting’s family dramedy/fish-out-of-water story concerns a young woman (Anna Akana) living high off her trust fund in L.A. who gets cut off by her prosperous dad in China. If she wants back on the gravy train, he demands she must first come back to China for a year to work at his toy factory. Not groundbreaking-but all-in-all it’s an amiable, audience-pleasing charmer.

SIFF 2019: Driveways (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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There is beauty in simplicity. Korean American director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bo and Paul Thureen fashion a beautiful, elegantly constructed drama from a simple setup. A single Korean American mom (Hong Chau) and her 8-year old son (Lucas Jaye) move into her deceased sister’s house. She discovers her estranged sis was a classic hoarder and it appears they will be there longer than she anticipated. In the interim, her shy son strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Brian Dennehy), a kindly widower and Korean War vet. I know…it sounds like “a show about nothing”, but it’s about everything-from racism to ageism and beyond. Humanistic and insightful. Wonderful performances by all, but the perennially underrated Dennehy is a standout.