Category Archives: Dramedy

The Haole and the IV: The Descendents ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2011)

In the course of (what passes for) my “career” as a movie critic, I have avowed to avoid the trite phrase “heartwarming family film”. Well, so much for principles. The Descendants is a heartwarming family film. There, I said it. Now, let me qualify that. Since it is directed by Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) it is a heartwarming family film riddled with dysfunction and middle-aged angst (which is how I prefer my heartwarming family films, thank you very much). Think of it as Terms of Endearment goes Hawaiian.

Despite the lush and verdant setting, Payne wastes no time hinting that there is trouble in Paradise. People who live in Hawaii get cancer, feel pain and encounter their own fair share of potholes as they caterwaul down the road of life, like anyone else. That is the gist of an internal monologue, delivered by Matt King (George Clooney), as he holds vigil in an ICU, where his wife (Patricia Hastie) lies in a coma, gravely injured from a water-skiing mishap. As he contemplates the maze of IV tubes and such keeping his wife alive, Matt, like anyone staring into the Abyss, begins taking inventory of his life up to now.

After all, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs? On the “up” side, Matt is financially set for life, as an heir to and executor for a sizable chunk of prime, undeveloped land on Kauai, held in a family trust (thanks to genuine Hawaiian royalty buried in the woodpile a ways back). On the “down” side, his workaholic nature has precipitated emotional distance from his wife and two daughters. His 17-year old, the sullen and combative Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is at boarding school; and precocious 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) is in hot water for antics like cyber-bullying a classmate, and bringing disturbing photos of her comatose mother to school.

In the past, Matt’s wife has served as the buffer between him and the day-to-day daughterly drama, but now that she is incapacitated, it’s all landed in his lap. He may be a respected pillar of the community, but now finds himself akin to the proverbial deer in the headlights. After awkwardly putting out Scottie’s fires, Matt decides that he will need to enlist the assistance of her older sister for riot control.

Besides, he figures it would be best to keep both of his girls close by, should the worst happen. As if this weren’t enough on his plate, Matt is also up against a pending deadline to sell the family’s land to a real estate developer. He is being egged on by a sizable coterie of cousins who (a couple anti-development dissenters aside) are eager to milk this potential cash cow for all its worth.

Then, the bombshell lands. The bombardiers are his daughters, who let it slip that, completely unbeknownst to Dad, Mom had been getting a little action on the side with a younger man (Matthew Lillard). And he’s a real estate agent, no less (shades of American Beauty). Poor Matt. He’s no sooner steeled himself for the looming possibility of becoming a grieving widower who must stay strong for his kids, but instead finds himself cast as a blindsided cuckold.

Flummoxed, Matt demands confirmation from his wife’s friends, who fess up. Although he has no real idea what he wants to say (or do) to him, Matt nonetheless decides that he must track down his wife’s lover (it’s a guy thing). With Scottie, Alexandra and her boyfriend (Nick Krause) in tow, he embarks on the patented Alexander Payne Road Trip, which in this case involves hopping a quick flight to Kauai.

While the setup may feel somewhat familiar (like the aforementioned American Beauty meets Little Miss Sunshine), or even rote, in Payne’s hands it is anything but. Yes, on one level it’s another soaper about a middle-aged male heading for a meltdown, but every time you think you’ve got it sussed, Payne keeps pitching curve balls.

His script (which he co-adapted with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) consistently hits the sweet spot between comedy and drama, giving us characters who, in spite of (or perhaps, due to) their contradictions and flaws, are people to whom we can all easily relate to. The film also showcases Clooney’s best work in years; it’s the closest he has come thus far to proving that he may indeed be this generation’s Cary Grant, after all.

This is one of the first  knockouts on the autumn release calendar, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. There are many reasons to recommend it, not the least of which is a bevy of fine performances from the entire cast. Lillard shows surprising depth, and it’s a hoot to watch veteran character actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges doing that voodoo that they do so well. I also like the way Payne subtly utilizes the Hawaiian landscapes like another character in the story, much in the same manner he employed the California wine country milieu in Sideways. After all, it is only when human beings are set against the simple perfection of an orchid (or a grape) that we are truly exposed as the silly, needlessly self-absorbed and ultimately inconsequential creatures that we really are.

The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie: The Women on the 6th Floor ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2011)

If there is one thing I’ve learned from the movies (at least ever since Alan Bates said “Zorba, teach me to dance” to Anthony Quinn) it’s that the Noble Peasant has much wisdom to impart to the Uptight Bourgeoisie (particularly when it comes to learning the sirtaki).

The latest example is a French import (set in 1960s Paris) called The Women on the 6th Floor, an “upstairs/downstairs” social satire from director Phillipe Le Guay. In this case, the servile class occupies the uppermost floor of an apartment building owned by a staid middle-aged stockbroker named Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini). Jean-Louis, who inherited the property from his father, lives in a swanky downstairs apartment with his neurotic wife (Sandrine Kiberlane) and two spoiled teenage sons. After the family’s cranky long-time maid quits in a huff, he hires lovely Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who takes a room on the 6th floor, where she joins a small group of fellow female Spanish émigrés.

It’s obvious from the get-go that Jean-Louis is quite charmed by the young Maria, who invites him upstairs to meet her friends. Although he has lived in the building since infancy, Jean-Louis has somehow never managed to venture up the 6th floor. At least, that’s the only possible explanation for his “shock” when he discovers the relatively dismal living conditions endured by the nonetheless high-spirited coterie of Spanish maids who live in the servant’s quarters.

Well, mostly high-spirited. One maid gives him a cooler reception. “Oh, don’t mind her,” another one of the women cheerfully offers, “she’s a Communist” (with a heart of gold). At any rate, Jean-Louis is seized by a sudden urge to make amends for the disparity (yes, that fast) and, spurred by his newly found sense of altruism, begins making some capital improvements to the 6th floor. Now that his armor has been breached, it’s only a matter of time until he’s hanging out with the gals, laughing, breaking out the good vintage from his cellar, and discovering the savory delights of authentic homemade paella. You know-he’s leaning how to dance the sirtaki.

With a trope this hoary, you’d better have something substantive to back it up with, and luckily, Le Guay offers assured direction and well-coaxed performances from his entire cast. Luchini (a 40-year film veteran) brings just the right amount of warmth, poignancy and self-effacing humor to his portrayal of a man coming to grips with an unexpected winter passion. The film’s secret weapon is Verbeke, a voluptuous Argentine who brings an earthy sensuality to the screen that reminds me of the young Sonia Braga. While this film doesn’t break any ground, it may teach you a few new steps.

SIFF 2011: Killing Bono ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

Killing Bono is a darkly funny, bittersweet and thoroughly engaging rock ‘n’ roll fable from the UK, based on a true story. A cross between Anvil: The Story of Anvil and I Shot Andy Warhol, it revisits familiar territory: the trials and tribulations of the “almost famous”.

Dublin-based writer/aspiring rock star Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes) co-founds a band called Yeah! Yeah! with his brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) right about the same time that their school chum Paul Hewson puts together a quartet who call themselves The Hype. The two outfits engage in a friendly race to see who can get signed to a label first. Eventually, the Hype change their name to U2, Hewson reinvents himself as “Bono” and-well, you know.

In the meantime, the McCormick brothers go nowhere fast, as the increasingly embittered and obsessed Neil plays Salieri to Bono’s Mozart. There are likely very few people on the planet who know what it feels like to be Pete Best (aside from Pete Best)-but I suspect that one of the players in this particular drama knows that feeling-and my heart goes out to him (no spoilers!). Nick Hamm directs a wonderful cast, which includes a fine swan song performance from the great Pete Postlethwaite (R.I.P.).

Staring at a blank page: Paper Man **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 8, 2010)

Did you ever encounter a married couple who left you pondering: “How in the hell did those two ever get together? Did somebody lose a bet?” I would lay odds that this thought has crossed the minds of husband and wife Kieran and Michele Mulroney, because in their first effort as co-writer/directors, Paper Man, they have created a fictional married couple who leave you pondering: “How in the hell did those two ever get together?”

“Those two” are Claire (Lisa Kudrow) and Richard (Jeff Daniels) Dunn. She is a successful and renowned vascular surgeon who works at a New York City hospital. He is a not-so-successful writer, whose last book went in the dumper. Needless to say, Claire is the breadwinner of the family; she’s the “responsible” one, and a bit of a control freak. Richard is a man-child; taciturn and socially awkward, with a tendency to daydream (typical writer). There is a third member of the family-but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Richard is struggling with a new book, and Claire has decided that setting him up in a rented cottage in the Long Island boonies will help him focus on his work. As we watch the couple getting settled in, it becomes apparent that Claire is more of a caregiver/guardian than a wife; she is not unlike a doctor clinically observing her patient.

Her exasperation over her husband’s chronic underachievement is palpable beneath her forced cheerfulness as she prattles on about her busy work schedule for the upcoming week, and then casually asks Richard what he has planned for his first week alone at the cottage. “I’ll start from the very beginning,” he says nebulously, adding  “…which is a very good place to start.” Before she leaves for work the next morning, she asks him, with an air of foreboding, “You didn’t bring ‘him’ with you, did you?”

‘He’ is Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). He is a figment of Richard’s imagination, his imaginary pal, ‘super-hero’, muse, conscience-that “little voice” in our heads (what…you don’t hear the voices?). Although he has assured his wife that ‘he’ didn’t come along, he “appears”, the second Claire pulls out of the driveway. “I sense danger,” he warns Richard.

This “danger” comes in many forms. Richard tends fixate on things (the couch in the cottage, for instance, really, really bothers him). Thinking too hard about his “half-dead marriage”, as the Captain refers to it. And of course, every writer’s nightmare: staring at an empty page for days on end, with no inspiration in sight.

The Captain’s early warning system goes into overdrive when Richard ventures into town on a Spyder bike and espies a young woman named Abby (Emma Stone) nonchalantly setting fire to a trash can. For some reason, this intrigues him. He follows her, and when she confronts him, Richard blurts out that he is new in town and needs a babysitter. For some reason, this intrigues her, and she says yes.

Imagine her surprise when she shows up and Richard tells her that there is no baby. He just wants her to hang out at his house while he goes out for a spell. In spite of the red flags, she says OK. In accordance with the rules and regulations of indie film, this marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So-is this yet another quirky, navel-gazing dramedy, a la Lost in Translation or Me and You and Everyone We Know, offering up a wistful and pithy examination of lonely, desperately unhappy people yearning to connect amidst the vast desolation of a cold and unfeeling universe, set to a requisite soundtrack of lo-fi pop and angsty emo tunes? And was I a tad gob smacked that Ellen Page or Zooey Deschanel were nowhere in sight? Yes, and yes, pretty much.

That being said, I still didn’t mind spending two hours with these characters, thanks to the sensitive direction and excellent performances, particularly by Daniels and Stone. Lisa Kudrow is always fun to watch, and I was surprised by Kieran Culkin’s touching turn in a small supporting role.

The Mulroneys seemed unsure  how to best end the film, but I’m willing to grade them on a curve since this is their first collaborative writing-directing effort (Kieran Mulroney is the younger brother of actor Dermot, if you care). Perhaps they are staring at a blank page, cooking up their next project. I hope Captain Excellent is looking over their shoulder.

Mopey white guy with guitar, pt. 2: Wonderful World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2010)

Wait a minute…didn’t I review this film last week?

Well, sort of…

Can blue men sing the whites?

Or are they hypocrites for singing woo, woo, whoo?

Oh Lord, somebody help me!

-The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

There was a famous children’s radio show that ran on WOR in New York from the late 1920s through the late 1940s that became infamous when it was rumored that the host, Uncle Don Carney, had once signed off with his signature cheery goodbye to the kiddies, then (not realizing that his microphone was still “hot”) immediately wisecracked, “There! That oughta hold the little bastards!”

I remember listening to it back in the 70s on an LP of legendary broadcasting bloopers compiled by Kermit Schaefer. I was disappointed to learn in later years that the gaffe was actually faked for the album (although most of the other cuts were genuine). Still, the enduring popularity of the urban legend says something about the  appeal of the subversive cynic hiding behind the clown face.

This concept has spawned a  sub-genre of films that can  be traced back to the 1957 Elia Kazan entry, A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith stars as a backwoods conman-turned media superstar whose vitriolic disdain for his public belies his image as a benignly goofy, “family-friendly” entertainer. Tony Richardson’s 1960 film adaptation of John Osborne’s cynical and scathing portrait of a fading vaudevillian (Laurence Olivier), The Entertainer also deserves a mention. More recent films like Bad Santa, Shakes the Clown and Death to Smoochy have toyed with the same theme. Wonderful World, the directorial debut from Joshua Goldin, fits right in.

“The only crime left in the fucking world is negative thinking,” laments Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) who holds the view that everything is fixed, yuppies are the root of all evil, and we’re all doomed anyway…so why bother. A failed children’s singer (his sole album long relegated to the dusty cutout bins of history), the divorced Ben now works a dead-end job as a proofreader. When one of his co-workers chastises him for not sharing in the congratulatory excitement surrounding the news that another co-worker (an aspiring actor) has just landed his first television acting gig, he dismisses the scold with a shrug and says “I don’t delude myself with hopes and dreams.” He’s a real piece of work.

Interestingly, however, he does have friends. He participates in a weekly after-hours jam session in the back room of a music store with some pals, and proves to be a decent guitarist; it makes us wonder why he’s squandering his talents. As the music store owner  observes, “That’s a shame, to be good at something no one cares about…” (as a blogger, don’t I know that feeling). His roommate Ibu (Michael K. Williams) a Senegalese immigrant, doesn’t let Ben’s chronic glumness dampen his own perpetually sunny disposition, and considers him a friend, despite all of his negative waves.

Ben does approach a state approximating enjoyment when he spends time with his precocious 11-year old daughter (Jodelle Ferland); although his rampant cynicism is markedly straining their relationship and becoming a source of concern to Ben’s ex-wife (Ally Walker). Ben seems quite happy to continue wallowing in his half-empty glass bubble of apathetic detachment, until a series of unexpected and personally challenging events shakes up his world, not the least of which in the person of Ibu’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) a Senegalese national who shows up on his doorstep one fateful day.

While this is familiar narrative (the self-pitying mope gets snapped out of his myopic torpor by the Free-Spirited Other), writer-director Goldin gives it a fresh spin. I expected things to go in another direction (another black comedy about a bitter children’s entertainer); but was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and humanity at its heart. Broderick gives a nuanced performance that I would put up there with his work in Election. Lathan does a lovely job, as does Williams (you may recognize him from HBO’s The Wire). Wonderful World may not be a major film, but it is a rewarding one.

60 is the new 40: Solitary Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2010)

Michael Douglas dispenses some not-so-sage advice to Jesse Eisenberg.

Did you know that the average human life expectancy in the Neolithic era was 20? Which means that you would have your midlife crisis around what…age 10? Of course, 12,000 years later, thanks to advances in medicine, science and technology, that number skews a bit higher now. This probably accounts for 65-year old Michael Douglas getting away with portraying a 60 year-old who is suffering a midlife crisis, in the film Solitary Man.

Douglas is Ben, a divorced 60-year old New Yorker at a personal and professional crossroads. His physician has given him sobering health news. However, having a bad ticker (and a ticking clock) is the least of his problems. A classic narcissist, Ben’s main concern is not that he might be “going” any time now, but that he may not get to go out with the most toys.

You see, Ben’s a “used to be”. He used to be a successful car dealer, but lost the franchise due to unethical business practices. He used to have a lot of money, but the resulting legal expenses decimated most of his net worth. He used to be married to lovely and supportive Nancy (Susan Sarandon) but blew it with serial philandering. He’s not a likeable guy. He is a “closer”- on the car lot, or on the pull.

His girlfriend, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), is a well-connected Upper East Side divorcee with a college-bound daughter named Allyson (Imogen Poots). Ben accompanies Allyson to his alma mater; Jordan has asked Ben to use his pull with the dean to assure admittance. The dean used to be happy to see him, when he was a benefactor (the campus library carries Ben’s name), but his public fall from grace in the business community has made him a pariah.

To paraphrase Steely Dan-the weekend at the college doesn’t turn out like they planned. Ben’s penchant for getting himself into hot water gets the better of him. We spend the rest of the film watching self-sabotaging Ben crawl slowly from the wreckage of his life.

Director-screenwriter Brian Koppelman and co-director David Levien navigate the tricky waters of “dramedy” on a fairly even keel. It’s  a fine performance by Douglas (no one plays a self-serving prick as convincingly as Douglas …remember Gordon Gekko?).  Danny Devito is reunited with Douglas in an engaging supporting role, and Jesse Eisenberg once again plays, erm, Jesse Eisenberg…or maybe he’s playing Michael Cera (or perhaps those two young men represent a new paradigm in post-modern acting too subtle for me?).

I would have liked to have seen more scenes with Sarandon and Louise-Parker, those two wonderful actresses feel under-utilized; but this project was obviously developed as a showcase for Douglas, so it is what it is, and I accepted it as such. I find myself becoming more accepting as I get older. Besides, according to this film, I still have about six more carefree years before my midlife crisis.

First world problems: Eat Pray Love **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 27, 2010)

Do you remember this popular Top 40 song from the late 70s ?

Oh, I’ve been to Nice and the Isle of Greece,
while I’ve sipped champagne on a yacht
I’ve moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo,
and showed ’em what I’ve got
I’ve been undressed by kings and I’ve seen some things,
that a woman ain’t supposed to see
I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me

God, I hated that song.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the singer’s admirable journey of self-actualization, slogging and suffering along the way through the champagne and tiresome Mediterranean cruises and all, but any schlub who has been to at least two world’s fairs and a rodeo could have saved her the trip by quoting Buckaroo Banzai’s favorite adage:

 Remember…wherever you go, there you are.

 On the plus side, it only took 4 minutes for the singer to arrive at her epiphany. Unfortunately, it takes the globe-trotting heroine of Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love 133 minutes to reach that same conclusion (OK, so it took Tyrone Power 145 minutes in The Razor’s Edge…but who’s counting?)

Julia Roberts stars as Gilbert’s avatar in the film, where she is briefly introduced to us as a seemingly happy, thirty-something NYC-based writer with a loving and supporting husband (Billy Crudup). I say “briefly introduced”, because soon after a research trip to Bali, during the course of which a shaman (Hadi Subiyanto) foretells that she will lose all her money, but eventually return to study under him so that he may impart his great wisdom, Liz decides that she needs to bolt from the marriage; much to the puzzlement of husband and audience.

Since there is virtually no exposition as to why she has the sudden change of heart (perfunctory flashbacks down the line do little to clarify), we just have to assume it’s one of those spur-of-the-moment, “I’ve never been to me” moments.

While the ink is still drying on her divorce papers (at least in screen time), Liz tumbles headlong into a relationship with a hunky young off-off Broadway stage actor (James Franco). The lust, however, soon turns to wanderlust, and Liz decides that maybe what she really needs is to take a year off from…everything.

So, leaving her new relationship somewhere in the neutral zone, she embarks on a three-pronged attack in order to “find herself”, first to Italy (eat), then India (pray) and then Bali (love…oops, is that a spoiler?)

So what does she learn? Want the speed-dating version? Here goes! In Italy, they have like, killer pasta and pizza. Awesome! And the gelato…it’s to die for! Oh…and Italians live in the moment, and they talk with their hands…just like the people on Jersey Shore! And when Liz decides to treat her new Italian friends to an all-American style home-cooked Thanksgiving meal with trimmings, one of the Italians, being unfamiliar with our ways and customs, forgets to defrost the bird. But, not to worry-Liz puts it in the oven, they all go to bed, and then, they have turkey for breakfast. How whimsical!

Next stop: India, where Liz learns piety by scrubbing floors at an ashram. Oh, and gurus live in the moment. Then, it’s back to Bali, where she goes back to the shaman who started the whole thing (he lives in the moment). Then, she meets a sexy Brazilian! (Javier Bardem).

Roberts is suitably radiant, flashes her million dollar smile and delivers her patented hearty guffaw right on cue, but she oddly spends a good portion of this very long film as an observer of her character’s journey, rather than an active participant. Consequently, it’s hard for us to really care about what happens to our leading lady; and that is a fatal flaw.

The always wonderful Richard Jenkins (as another American at the ashram) briefly perks up the middle third. But as soon as his character disappears, so does the spirit and energy he brings to the film.

The locales are gorgeous, and there’s plenty of culinary porn for the foodies, but that doesn’t candy-coat Robert’s phoned-in performance and the flat, soap opera-ish dialog (co-written by Murphy and Jennifer Salt). It’s like randomly surfing between Lifetime, The Food Network and The Travel Channel.

Frankly, the Pottery Barn angst on display here is tough to sympathize with in these hard economic times (how many of us can afford the luxury of “taking a year off” to navel-gaze?), and seems bent on perpetrating the Ugly American meme.

In fact, I thought that the depictions of the “colorful locals” encountered by the protagonist on her whistle stops bordered on the kind of colonial stereotyping I assumed Hollywood had abandoned ages ago. You know how they say that “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? In this case, the trip could not be over soon enough.

SIFF 2010: The Extra Man **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

SIFF’s opening night film is an uneven, yet at times drolly amusing dramedy from American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The directors co-scripted with Jonathan Ames (adapting from his source novel). Once again, Berman and Pulcini plunge into a writer’s mind-well, two N.Y.C. writers-a young aspiring novelist (Paul Dano) obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a playwright (Kevin Kline), who rents him a room. Both characters’ eccentricities pile up faster than you can say “cross-dressers and gigolos”. The film is a quirky, oddball mash-up of The Producers and Midnight Cowboy. John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes also join the fray. Kline’s wondrously insane performance is the main attraction, and Dano officially confirms what I have suspected for some time now: he is the Bud Cort of his generation.

SIFF 2009: Poppy Shakespeare ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

Sometimes I get a little twitch when a movie breaks down the “fourth wall” and a protagonist starts talking to the audience in the opening scene. When it works, it can be quite engaging (Alfie); when it doesn’t (SLC Punk), it seems to double the running time of the film. In the case of Poppy Shakespeare, the device pays off in spades, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and acting chops of an up-and-coming young British thespian by the name of Anna Maxwell Martin.

Martin plays “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up ostensibly as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

In an introductory scene (reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), we learn that most of the patients in Poppy’s particular day ward appear to gather not so much for the therapy group sessions, but to swap tips on the latest loopholes in England’s socialized health care system. Poppy is a a rock star in the group, due to her savvy  in working the system (she’s “crazy”, alright…like a fox).

She is a polar opposite to Cuckoo’s Nest hero R.P. McMurphy. Rather than looking for ways to break out of the laughing house, she is always scamming ways to avoid being discharged from state-sponsored care (bye-bye gravy train). She seems perfectly happy to bide time at the hospital by day, and make a beeline to her lonely flat at nights and weekends to gobble meds and shut in with the telly. N’s comfortable routine hits a snag, however when her doctor “assigns” her to mentor a new day patient named Poppy (Naomie Harris).

Unlike the majority of patients in the ward, Poppy’s admittance for observation has been mandated by the state, based on answers she gave on a written personality profile she filled out as part of a job application (some Orwellian overtones there). She desperately implores N to use her knowledge of the system to help her prove to the doctors that she isn’t crazy. In a Catch-22 style twist, the financially tapped Poppy realizes that the only way she can afford the services of the attorney N has recommended to her is to become eligible for “mad money”. In other words, in order to prove that she isn’t crazy, she has to first get everyone to think that she is nuts.

This may sound like a comedy; while there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare (on my way out of the screening, I asked an usher if he had a bit of rope handy). That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed an excellent sleeper a few years back called The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system reminded me a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular). Harris is very affecting as Poppy, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good.

SIFF 2009: Mid-August Lunch ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

Eccentric ladyland.

This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor.

In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.