Category Archives: Family Issues

Arriba, abajo: Roma (***)

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By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2019)

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (currently available on Netflix) is one of those contemporary arthouse flicks that has “A Compendium of Classic World Cinema” tattooed on its forehead (either that, or “I’ve Seen Too Many Goddamned Movies” is tattooed on mine).

For example, take the title, which recalls Fellini’s Roma (1972), his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years. Cuaron’s film is his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years; although in this case it refers not to Rome, Italy but to the eponymous neighborhood of Mexico City where he grew up.

The story centers on a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who is employed as a maid for an upper middle-class family living in politically turbulent Mexico City during the early 1970s. There is another maid in the household named Adela (Nancy Garcia), but Cleo looks to be the de facto nanny, showing a close and loving bond with the 4 children.

The father (Fernando Grediaga) is a physician, who travels frequently due to his work. Or so it seems; when he takes an extended trip to Quebec on “business”, the worst fears of his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) are confirmed when she learns he’s decided to play house for keeps with his mistress (World Cinema Rule #142…there’s always a mistress).

As Sofia struggles with how she is going to gently break the news to her kids that daddy has split town on them because he is a cheating bastard, the family dynamic is further complicated when Cleo finds herself struggling with how she’s going to gently break the news to her employer that she is with child by her short-term boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who splits town on her faster than you can say “I think I’m pregnant.”

If the narrative is beginning to sound not dissimilar to a tawdry telenovela, you are very perceptive. Cuaron’s cliché-ridden script is not the film’s strongest suit. That said, the man knows how to set up a shot, and his eye is keen (Cuaron pulled cinematography duty here as well). In fact, his B&W photography is stunning enough to forgive a flimsy story.

Where Curaon excels here is in giving the viewer an immersive sense of time and place. There are several memorable set-pieces; most notably a scene wherein the children’s grandmother helps a very pregnant Cleo shop for a crib. That everyday mundanity may not make for riveting cinema, but the situation percolating in the street right in front of the store, which suddenly escalates and engulfs the women in a horrifying manner…does.

I’ll admit being a little late to the party on this film, which has popped up on a surprising number of critics’ “10 best” lists for 2018. I say “surprising” because it has had limited theatrical engagements since late November and has only been streaming on Netflix since December 14th (I stumbled across it quite by accident while scrolling through the network’s maddeningly unsearchable programming menu).

It has also been nominated for 3 Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (as I have already discussed, I have to raise a Belushi eyebrow regarding that screenplay nom).

While many of my fellow critics have swooned mightily under its apparent spell, for me Roma is, alas, a mixed bag. Aparicio has a quietly charismatic screen presence and gives a fine, naturalistic performance as Cleo; although you wish she’d been given a little more to do with her substantial screen time beyond playing the quietly suffering, archetypal Noble Peasant.

Visually, it’s quite a beautiful film. And there is certainly nothing wrong with emulating and evoking the likes of Fellini, Kalatozov, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and other masters of world cinema. It’s just a bit of a disappointment from Curaon, who has given us some outstanding films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity.

I hate my sister: Mirai no Mirai (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 22, 2018)

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If you seek a family-friendly film for the holidays that doesn’t involve Grinches or umbrella-powered English nannies, the Japanese anime Mirai no Mirai (“Mirai of theFuture”) may be the ticket. The latest effort from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda is a fantasy-drama that plays like a cross between Where the Wild Things Are and Labyrinth.

The story centers on 4-year-old Kun and his busy parents (Dad is an architect and Mom is an executive). Not unlike many 4-year-old boys he’s a wrecking ball, but he seems like a happy kid, doing happy kid things like cavorting with his dog, playing with his toy trains, and generally enjoying all those perks that come with being the Center of the Universe.

Sadly, poor Kun has little clue that the dynamic of this pretty sweet deal is about to shift.

The thing is, Mom and Dad haven’t just been busy at the office. One day, Mom comes home with a little surprise for Kun. It’s a baby sister. Initially, Kun appears excited about the family’s new addition, much in the same manner a 4-year-old gets excited about a shiny new toy before the novelty wears off. His excitement soon changes to consternation when it becomes obvious that the novelty of “Mirai” isn’t wearing off for Mom and Dad. 

In fact, this little Mirai character is starting to suck all the air out of the room. Why are his parents treating Kun like he’s persona non grata? He was here first! What’s so special about her, anyway? She can’t even form a sentence. All she does is eat, cry and sleep. For this, she gets a medal?! In a fit of pique, Kun takes one of his toy trains in hand and menacingly looms over her crib. Luckily Mom stops him, then gives him a scolding.

Confused and angry, Kun pitches a major tantrum. He flees into the garden, where he bumps into a man lurking in the trellises, who imperiously introduces himself as the “prince” of the house. Or at least he was…until Kun dethroned him simply by being born (long story). This kick-starts a reality-bending journey through the time-space continuum for Kun, who learns the importance of unconditional familial love and ancestral bonds along the way (whether a 4-year-old is capable of such an epiphany…is open for debate).

Mirai no Mirai is less complex than Hosoda’s previous films (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) Still, its heart is in the right place. Kids will identify with the child’s-eye perspective, and adults may be transported back to that period of the life cycle when worries are few and everything feels possible (before your mental carousel gets clogged up with excess baggage, if you catch my drift).

Blu-ray reissue: The Magnificent Ambersons ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Magnificent Ambersons – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

It’s sad that the late great Orson Welles has (unfairly) become the perennial poster boy for “squandered talent” in the film industry. Granted, he was a rapscallion who loved to push people’s buttons; unfortunately, some of those “people” were powerful producers and studio heads who didn’t get the joke back in those days when “maverick” and “genius” were dirty words in Hollywood.

But he was a maverick, and he was a genius…he just wanted to make the movies he wanted to make, precisely the way he wanted to make them. But alas, the “boy genius” became enslaved by his own legend soon after making Citizen Kane at age 25.

Welles’ disillusionment with the studio system began with the release of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, as what hit theaters was essentially a butchered version of how he had envisioned the film. Unfortunately, he had conceded final cut in a deal made with RKO (a decision he came to regret). Adding insult to the injury of the 50 excised minutes from Welles’ original rough cut, studio heads ordered that the negatives of that footage be destroyed as well. Regardless, the film is still heralded as one of Welles’ finest efforts.

Welles adapted the script from Booth Tarkington’s eponymous novel. It’s the story of a well-to-do family whose “magnificence” (as Welles’ stentorian voice-over narration informs us) “…began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.” This sets the tone for what ensues, which is the rotting of that “splendor” from the inside out; not only the decline of a family dynasty, but of a mannered, measured way of life whose destruction was assured by the onslaught of the Second Industrial Revolution (the price of Progress can be steep).

Criterion’s new 4K restoration is a real showcase for Stanley Cortez’s striking chiaroscuro photography, and a testament to Welles’ mastery of visual storytelling. Extras include two commentary tracks by film scholars and critics, new video essays by film historians and scholars, an excerpt from the 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, written essays, and more.

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.

Nursery crimes: Three Identical Strangers (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

-John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

It’s a well-known secret that Elvis Presley had a stillborn twin brother. As biographers have noted, Jesse Garon Presley nonetheless remained “with” Elvis until his own death 42 years later. Family and friends recounted that during times of stress or bouts of depression, it was not unusual for him to have long conversations with his “missing half.”

There is one inarguable bond between multiple birth siblings. First and foremost, there is an empirically evident biological closeness, particularly with identical siblings, who literally come from the same zygote and thereby share 100% of its genetic material.

However, once you push beyond obvious similarities like physical resemblance and shared mannerisms, you quickly enter the realm of the theoretical. For example, do some (like Elvis) have a kind of unbreakable “psychic” connection from the womb until death? Are some “pre-programmed” by nature to share the same likes, dislikes, aesthetic taste, etc.-even after they’ve left the nest and gone their separate ways to live their adult lives?

Consider the long strange trip undertaken by Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman, three young men who grew up in separate families within the same 100-mile radius yet were blissfully unaware up until the age of 19 that they were identical triplets.

As recalled by one of the brothers in British filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-blowing documentary Three Identical Strangers, it was initially a case of random chance back in 1980 that led him to discover that he had a twin brother. However, the “twins” would not be such for very long; once the media picked up on this irresistible human-interest story, it was but days before kismet put the cap on a perfect hat trick: for then there were three.

The triplets were given up at birth in 1961 by their single mother. Separated immediately, they were placed with three families through the auspices of a New York City adoption agency. While it is not unusual for the identity of the biological parents to be withheld, it was somewhat unusual in this case that (for reasons unveiled as the film unfolds) even the three sets of adoptive parents were not told that their respective adoptees had siblings.

Interestingly, the families the three were placed with were socioeconomically disparate to a fault: one blue collar, one middle class, and the other well-moneyed. Even more remarkable then that the 19-year-old triplets not only bonded so quickly but discovered that they had grown up sharing many of the same predilections; ranging from a love of wrestling, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and even being attracted to the same type of woman.

Blessed with strapping good looks and exuding enough positive, goofy energy to power a small city whenever they were in the same room together, it’s hardly surprising that they became instant media darlings (archival footage demonstrates them working their charm offensive on Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue and Paula Zahn).

They were not shy about cashing in on their celebrity; they moved into a N.Y.C. apartment together, eventually opened a SoHo restaurant (“Triplets”) and were feted by the likes of Madonna (who landed them a cameo in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan). Each bro found the love of his life, adding “happily married” to their collective fairy tale.

Their story could’ve (should’ve?) ended there; a perennial feel-good 6 o’clock news kicker if you ever heard one. But that would be assuming that we don’t live in a cruel, unfeeling universe that can randomly taketh away…as casually as it can randomly giveth.

Here’s where my review potentially becomes…complicated. I could tell you what happens next, but then, I’d have to kill you. And I don’t even have your address. Besides, I am a man of peace and don’t own a firearm, so it’s an ineffectual, existential threat…at best.

Here’s what l’ll do for you. If you have no plans to see this film, just go ahead and Google the story (it’s a doozey). But, if you do plan to, and you enjoy documentaries that unfold like the best riveting conspiracy thrillers do, chock full of unexpected twists and turns, I’d recommend that (like me) you go in completely “cold”. Granted, some of those deeper questions vis a vis “psychic connections” and such between identical siblings are not answered, but Wardle’s film does have a lot to say about “nature vs. nurture”, scientific ethics, celebrity culture, and the unshakable bonds of familial love.

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.

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: 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.

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.