Category Archives: Drama

Where the wild things are: We the Animals (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2018)

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In my 2009 review of Lea Pool’s film Mommy is at the Hairdressers, I wrote:

It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of a carefree childhood, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

I could almost say the same thing about Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals. I say “almost”, because Zagar’s film falls short of “perfect” (more on that shortly). Still, it does succeed in conveying how those “selective” memories of childhood become increasingly ephemeral and abstract as we careen through adult life, slipping ever closer to the abyss.

Adapted by the director and Dan Kitrosser from Justin Torres’ novel, the film is a lyrical slice of life about a working-class Puerto Rican family living in central New York State. The narrative primarily unfolds through a 9-year-old’s point-of-view. His name is Jonah (Evan Rosado). He and older siblings Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isiah Kristian) are de facto latchkey kids, because their young parents (Shelia Vand and Raul Castillo) are often too preoccupied with the drama that generates from their tempestuous marriage.

As a survival mechanism, the brothers have created an idiosyncratic sub-family unit a la Lord of the Flies, with their own set of rules, hierarchy and ritualistic behaviors. Joel and Manny are already displaying signs that they may be inheriting their father’s prideful machismo, whereas Jonah shares his mother’s empathic sensitivity and emotional frailty.

Jonah’s internalized dialog throughout implies he is sharing these sense memories with some benefit of hindsight from an indeterminate point in the future. Oddly, unlike the adult Sean Penn character reassembling bits and pieces of his lost childhood in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (a film that feels like a looming influence, to put it politely), it’s Jonah’s 9-year-old “self” who is doubling here as our omniscient narrator (far out, man).

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with emulating Malick; after all, as Woody Allen retorts in Manhattan after someone derisively tells him he has a God complex, “I gotta model myself after someone.” I’m willing to grade on a curve, especially given this is Zagar’s first narrative feature (his previous films have been documentaries). On the plus side: Zagar coaxes naturalistic performances from the first-time child actors, Zak Mulligan’s “magic hour” cinematography is striking, and Nick Zammuto’s soundtrack nicely complements (I strongly suspect his favorite album is “Dark Side of the Moon”).

On the down side: there’s nothing wrong with an art film, but this one leans toward being a little too self-consciously arty for its own good. I think Zagar is a talent to keep an eye on; I’m just hoping that his future narrative features will feature a little more…narrative.

Blu-ray reissue: Woodfall-A Revolution in British Cinema [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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In 1958, taking their cues from the Italian neo-realist movement and Cahiers du Cinema crowd, director Tony Richardson, writer John Osborne, and producer Harry Saltzman founded Woodfall Films, an indie production studio that aimed to shake up the staid UK movie industry by creating what would come to be known as the British New Wave. The studio’s oeuvre was initially pigeonholed as “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” films, but there was more diversity in style and content than that labeling would infer, as this 8-film collection demonstrates.

This 9-disc set features 5 films directed by Richardson: Look Back in Anger (1959; ***½), The Entertainer (1960; ***), A Taste of Honey (1961; ****), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962; ****), and Tom Jones (1963; ****). That would make for a fabulous collection in and of itself; but also included are Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; ***½), Desmond Davis’ Girl with Green Eyes (1964; ***), and Richard Lester’s The Knack…and how to get it (1965; **½). This is also a showcase of breakthrough performances from the likes of Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham, and Tom Courtenay.

There are over 20 hours of extras (in which I have made but a small dent so far) spread out over the 8 films plus a 9th disc dedicated solely to bonus material. In addition to new and archival interviews with filmmakers and actors, there is a treasure trove of rare shorts by Richardson, Reisz and others, plus an 80-page booklet with essays on all 8 films.

Picture and sound quality are excellent (many of the films are newly restored; Tom Jones looks particularly gorgeous) with one caveat: for whatever reasons, The Knack…and how to get it is glaringly unrestored. The transfer of the film is decent enough, but the print is a little rough in patches and the audio somewhat muffled (thankfully there is a subtitle option). It’s a minor hiccup in an otherwise stellar package. A film buff’s delight!

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this bold, anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time.

In his breakout performance, Malcolm McDowall plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would reprise his “Travis” persona in Anderson’s (loose) sequels O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis leads a trio of agitators (revolutionaries) who foment insurrection against abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e., the draconian System).

Some reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). Politics aside, Anderson’s film could also be a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, The Chocolate War, and Heathers. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

SIFF 2018: The Crime of Monsieur Lange ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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With its central themes regarding exploited workers and the opportunistic, predatory habits of men in power, this rarely-presented and newly restored 1936 film by the great Jean Renoir (La Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) plays like a prescient social justice revenge fantasy custom-tailored for our times. A struggling pulp western writer who works for a scuzzy, exploitative Harvey Weinstein-like publisher takes on his corrupt boss by forming a worker’s collective. While it is essentially a sociopolitical noir, the numerous romantic subplots, snappy pre-Code patter, busy multi-character shots and the restless camera presages His Girl Friday.

SIFF 2018: The Drummer and the Keeper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Irish singer-songwriter Nick Kelly’s debut feature is a touching drama about an “odd-couple” friendship that develops between a troubled young drummer with bi-polar disorder and another young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. While it initially borrows liberally from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Rainman, the film eventually establishes its own unique voice, and thankfully avoids the cloying sentimentality of, say, I Am Sam. An infusion of that dark, dry Irish humor helps as well.

SIFF 2018: Happy Birthday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Remember that generation-gap comedy, The Impossible Years? The one where David Niven plays a Professor of Psychology who has to deal with with the embarrassment caused by his free-willed hippie daughter’s shenanigans? Writer-director Christos Georgiou’s family melodrama reminded me of that 1968 film…except here Niven is a Greek cop, and his teenage daughter is a wannabe anarchist. After Dad spots his daughter hurling projectiles at him and fellow officers during a demonstration, tension at home comes to full boil. Mom intervenes; insisting the pair take a time out for a weekend at the family’s country home-where they can hopefully reconcile. What ensues is a kind of family therapy session, which becomes analogous to the sociopolitical turmoil plaguing modern Greece. The film is slow to start, but it becomes quite affecting.

SIFF 2018: Angels Wear White ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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An orphaned teenager without work papers becomes a pawn in a collusion between her sleazy boss and corrupt officials, who scramble to cover up a local politician’s sexual assault of two primary school girls at the hotel where she’s employed as a maid. There’s no sugarcoating in writer-director Vivian Qu’s drama about the systemic exploitation of women in Chinese society. Qu directs her younger actors with great sensitivity; particularly when handling the more difficult material.

SIFF 2018: After the War **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Director Annarita Zambrano’s feature film debut concerns a left-wing radical who fled his native Italy for political asylum in France after assassinating a judge in the 1980s. Now, 20 years later, the French government has rescinded his extradition protection; and to compound his anxiety, a professor in Italy is murdered in the name of the old revolutionary cell he founded. When several of his ex-compatriots are taken into custody, he and his 16 year-old daughter go underground. It’s similar in theme to Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, but not as involving; Zambrano’s film starts strong, but gets too draggy and dramatically flat.

SIFF 2018: Sansho the Bailiff ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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The great Japanese director Kenji Mazoguchi made nearly 100 films between 1923 and his death in 1956 (he was only 58). This 1954 drama is one of his most admired and beautifully photographed efforts, which is why its recent 4K restoration gives cause for celebration. Based on an 11th-Century folk tale, it’s the story of what happens to the wife and children of a beneficent governor after he is arrested and sent into exile. While traveling to reunite with him, his family is kidnapped by bandits. His wife ends up in a brothel; his son and daughter are sold to the eponymous bailiff, a sadistic land owner. Their subsequent struggles add up to a moving observation on the human dichotomy-from the most unfeeling cruelty to the most selfless act of compassion.

All in the family: Love After Love (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

Love After Love

Aldous Huxley once wrote:

Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

There is certainly no consistency in how people react to the death of a loved one. Some keen and wail and then peacefully move on. Some remain stoic and grow a tumor. Some sublimate grief by acting out over a period. And the dead, as usual, retain their even keel.

In his feature film debut Love After Love, writer-director Russell Harbaugh examines the effects of a death in the family on a freshly-widowed mother and her two adult sons. In an audacious opening scene, a beautiful middle-aged woman (Andie MacDowell) and a young man (Chris O’Dowd) engage in an almost uncomfortably intimate conversation about love and happiness (after all, we’ve just met these two people). Imagine our surprise when we find out that they are not lovers, but mother and son. Not a shy family.

They are, in fact, a family in crisis. The woman, Suzanne, her son Nicholas, and his younger brother Chris (James Adomian) are bracing for the imminent passing of husband and father Glenn (Gareth Williams). Nicholas, his girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rhylance) and Chris have come in from New York City to attend a gathering at their parents’ upstate country spread (Suzanne and Glenn, both theater professors, have obviously done well financially). We see Glenn up and around, enjoying himself with friends and family.

However, once the party is over and Chris, Nicholas and Rebecca drive off, it becomes apparent that Glenn is receiving in-home hospice care and is clearly near the end. When the inevitable occurs, Harbaugh depicts Glenn’s death in a stark, unblinking manner; maintaining that tone of seat-squirming intimacy that he establishes in his opening scene.

From this point forward, there are time jumps showing how mother and sons are coping. Suzanne pursues half-hearted relationships (“I still feel like I’m being unfaithful,” she blurts out to one lover, while in a post-coital funk). Nicholas cheats on Rebecca; after she dumps him he impulsively asks his clandestine girlfriend (Dree Hemingway) to marry him. Chris flounders; frequently embarrassing himself and his family due to a drinking problem. Long-suppressed resentments between Suzanne and Nicholas come to a head. There are many accusations and recriminations.  What family doesn’t have its problems?

The emotional centerpiece is an astounding 10-minute monolog about death and grieving from Chris, who is doing an open mic set at a comedy club (Adomian is a stand-up in real life). Harbaugh holds Chris’ face in close-up for most of the scene, which also serves as a Greek Chorus that contextualizes everything we’ve observed in the film up to that point.

Harbaugh (along with co-writer Eric Mendelsohn) has delivered a tautly-scripted 90-minute film about a difficult subject that is brutally honest, yet genuinely resonant. There are strong echoes of John Cassavetes. I’m sure Harbaugh has studied his work; I sensed this from the naturalistic tone, and in the comfortable manner the actors inhabit their characters, without coming off as “actor-ly”. Not always easy to watch…kind of like life.