Category Archives: Dramedy

SIFF 2018: Little Tito and the Aliens ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss.

Setsuko doesn’t live here anymore: Oh Lucy! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 17, 2018)

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Writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s dramedy Oh Lucy! (which earned her a “Best First Feature” nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards) is a bit like Lost in Translation; lonely hearts, urban isolation and linguistic confusion…all bathed in Tokyo’s neon lights.

Shinobu Terajima is Setsuko, a single, middle-aged office drone in Tokyo. She trudges through indistinguishable days with dour expression and existential malaise; barely noticing when somebody deliberately jumps in front of an oncoming train at her station.

Her young and vivacious niece Mika (Shirori Kutsuna) feels Aunt Setsuko needs to get out and mingle more, so one day she hands her a flyer with the address for an ESL class that she’s been attending, taught by an American named John (Josh Hartnett). Reluctantly, Setsuko acquiesces and gives it a go. John’s teaching methods are unconventional; in addition to doling out uncomfortably long hugs, he picks out a wig and Anglicized name for each student. Setsuko (he decides) is now a blonde named Lucy.

In spite of herself, Setsuko begins to enjoy the class; she may even be developing a little crush on John. However, much to her dismay, John unceremoniously quits his job; it seems he has fallen hard for a young Japanese woman, and has spirited her back to Los Angeles. Setsuko quickly discovers that the young woman is Mika. And so she and Mika’s concerned mother, her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) hop on a plane to California.

What next ensues can be labeled equal parts road movie, “fish out of water” story, social satire, and family melodrama. Granted, it’s a stylistic miss-mash, vacillating between light comedy and dark character study, but director Hirayanagi manages to juggle it all with a deft hand. She also works in subtle observations on the evergreen “ugly American” meme. Fine performances abound, but the glue holding it all together is Terajima, who gives a wonderfully nuanced and layered performance as Setsuko/“Lucy”.

Blu-ray reissue: Tampopo ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Tampopo – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the eponymous character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Alan Ladd in Shane). Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl.

A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love. Criterion’s edition features a nicely restored print and a generous helping of extras, including Rubber Band Pistol, Itami’s 1962 debut short film.

One and-a-half bar mitzvahs and a wedding: The Women’s Balcony (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 4, 2017)

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In his 2009 Guardian piece “Does Judaism discriminate against women?” Dan Rickman writes:

There is however, a deep conflict between Judaism and feminism which stretches from the public (in synagogue) to the private. For example, in all Orthodox synagogues men pray separately from women and in many women are relegated to an upstairs gallery. Gender hierarchies are entrenched in Jewish thought: a blessing orthodox Jewish men are required to say everyday thanks a God “who has not made me a woman”. […]

There are many couples where the husband is involved and the woman is estranged. What drives this is the dissonance between women’s lives in society at large where, at least in principle, all options are open to them, and their role in traditional Jewish life which is limited and constrained by laws developed by (male) rabbis.

Oy. So that begs an obvious question: Can you really be an Orthodox Jew and a feminist? Funnily enough, that is the name of a 2014 Telegraph article by Emma Barnett (an Orthodox Jew by upbringing and a feminist), who writes:

You see as a fully paid up feminist, I demand and expect total equality in my secular life and yet some would view what I accept as normal in my religious Jewish world, as anything but equal. Although believe me, no women in my personal Jewish life feel oppressed; if anything, they are in total control. […]

In the secular world, common sense must be the order of the day. It isn’t reasonable not to have women occupying the same roles as men and vice versa. But in a religious sphere, where faith is the binding force of a group of people, rationale has less sway or place. If you started applying logic to the beliefs held in most faiths, things would start to fall apart pretty quickly at the seams. […]

Male-led religions present a big dilemma to feminists in the modern world. And yes, on this topic, I am a full fat hypocrite. But as they say, faith begins often where logic ends.

This dilemma lies at the heart of a warm, witty and wise new Israeli dramedy called The Women’s Balcony, from director Emil Ben-Shimon and screenwriter Shlomit Nehama.

The story is set in present-day Jerusalem, in the predominately orthodox Bukharan Quarter neighborhood. As the film opens, a small but lively and close-knit congregation, led by venerable Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) gather at their modest synagogue for a bar-mitzvah.

Unfortunately, what begins as a joyous celebration takes a dark turn when the “women’s balcony” collapses mid-ceremony. Luckily, all survive, but sadly, the rabbi’s wife sustains serious injuries that require indefinite round-the-clock hospital care. The aging Rabbi Menashe, not in the best health himself, has a nervous breakdown.

This leaves the congregation with two major deficits; no place to worship until repairs can be facilitated, and no spiritual leader at the helm until the rabbi (hopefully) recovers from his debilitating mental trauma. A few days after the accident, several of the men from the congregation are discussing the future of the synagogue and decide to pray on it.

However, they realize that they are a few bodies short of a minyan (a quorum of 10), which they will need in order to conduct a service. They ask a young man who passes by.

As fate would have it, he happens to be a rabbi, who is more than happy to fetch some of his students and shore up the minyan. The men instantly take to the charismatic Rabbi David (Aviv Alush), who quite quickly ingratiates himself as the “temporary” head of their synagogue. A little too quickly, perhaps, for the women of the congregation, who are chagrined to learn that the hastily remodeled synagogue eschews the open balcony model for a stuffy glorified walk-in closet where they’re now relegated to sit for services.

The more the charming but duplicitous Rabbi David’s ultra-orthodox slip begins to show, the less enthralled are the women, who eventually find themselves reluctantly engaged in virtual guerilla warfare against this fundamentalist redux of their previously progressive synagogue. Still, they must step lightly; with marriages and long-time friendships on the rocks (much less the future of their once harmonious congregation) there’s much at stake.

This formidable coterie of strong female characters are well-served by their real-life counterparts (Israeli comedian Orna Banai, in her first major screen role; popular Israeli singer Einat Sarouf, making her film debut; acclaimed Moroccan-born actress Evelin Hagoel; actress-comedian Yafit Asulin) who deliver a wonderful ensemble performance.

How this extended family resolves their fractious row is relayed with compassion and astute observation, steeped in what I once described in a review as “…a rich tradition of comedic expression borne exclusively from a congenital persecution complex and cultural fatalism (trust me on this-I was raised by a Jewish mother).” That said (if I may re-appropriate a classic advertising slogan) “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” or in this case, to love Ben-Shimon and Nehama’s real Jewish wryness.

Family affairs: Landline **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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Why are New Yorkers always screaming at each other? Is it in order to be heard above the constant din of traffic, sirens, and subway brakes? Maybe there really is something in the water (that same “whatsit” in NYC tap water that makes the bagels taste so…intense).

There’s even more screaming than usual in the latest NYC-based film, Landline. That’s because director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) sets her tale of two sisters in the mid-1990s, a not-so-bygone era when humans were still experiencing “face time” with each other (now the only time people turn off their goddam personal devices is when they pay $15 to sit in the dark-and watch characters in a film text each other for 2 hours).

Not that there is anything wrong with a dialog-driven film…and every character in Landline has plenty to say, particularly the two sisters I mentioned earlier. Dana (Jenny Slate) is the older of the siblings. She’s recently become engaged to her live-in boyfriend Ben (Jay Duplass), who is a bit of a milquetoast in contrast with his quirky, bubbly fiancée. That could explain why Dana seems to be vacillating about this big commitment.

Something else has been weighing on Dana’s mind…she suspects that her father (John Turturro) has  been carrying on a longtime affair. When she confides this to her sullen teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn), the previously estranged pair now find themselves bonding as they team up to dig deeper. The trickiest part is how to carry on sleuthing without sending up red flags to their mom (Edie Falco).

Lots of family angst (and yes, screaming) ensues. Fortunately, there are laughs as well. That said, you do have to wade waist-deep in neurotic New Yorker whingeing for 90 minutes to net the choicest zingers (which average about once every five minutes or so).

Frankly, what keeps this derivative mashup of Hannah and Her Sisters and a glorified episode of HBO’s Girls afloat is an appealing cast. The always-reliable Turturro and Falco do that voodoo that they do so well, and Slate and Quinn hold their own against the seasoned players. Slate, in particular is a young actor I’d love to see more of; she has a naturally goofy charm that is hard to resist. She’s like the lovechild of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. For all I know…she is.

SIFF 2017: Ears **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This entry from Italian writer-director Alessandro Aronadio is a deadpan dramedy in the Jim Jarmusch vein. Filmed in stark B&W, it follows the travails of a sad sack protagonist who awakens in his girlfriend’s apartment to a ringing in his ears and a cryptic, scribbled note on the fridge. This kick-starts an increasingly bizarre and surreal day in the life. At times, it recalls Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, but unfortunately, it’s not as compelling. A few good chuckles here and there…but this film goes nowhere, fast.

SIFF 2017: Boundaries **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Have you ever heard of the tiny island-nation of Besco, which is located “50 km off the coast of Labrador”? Me neither. I sheepishly asked Mr. Google, and found out that it is from the mind of writer-director Chloe Robichaud (next thing you’ll tell me is that movies are totally make-believe). I admit, she really had me going for 98 minutes (oh, those Quebecois film makers!). The film is a feminist parable about an emergency summit called for by the newly-elected female president of “Besco” to negotiate possible foreign investment in the island’s iron ore. At its best, it reminded me of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero; at its weakest, it’s uneven and ultimately too “inside” for anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics.

SIFF 2017: A Date for Mad Mary ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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The phrase “star-making performance” is overused, but it’s apt to describe Seana Kerslake’s turn in Darren Thornton’s dramedy about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood. Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20 year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Charlene refuses her a “plus-one”, assuming that her volatile friend isn’t likely to find a date in time for the wedding. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists that she will; leading to a completely unexpected relationship. The director’s screenplay (co-written with his brother Colin) is chockablock with brash and brassy dialog, and conveys that unique penchant the Irish possess for using “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective. Kerslake’s remarkable debut reminds me of Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here (my review).

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?

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.