Category Archives: Family Issues

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.

Conviction of the heart: Outside In (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 7, 2018)

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There’s a timeworn josh betwixt residents of Western Washington that we’re all D-deficient. Speaking for myself, after 26 years in these parts, I think I’m growing moss on my north side, if you know what I’m saying. Still, while chronic light deprivation does have its downside, there’s something about the prickly-piney smell of perennially soaked, verdant evergreen forests swaying under drizzly, steely-grey skies that pulls me back in.

The moody atmospherics inherent in those verdant evergreen forests and drizzly, steely-grey skies has not been lost on certain filmmakers. David Lynch filmed most of the exteriors for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and both iterations of his Twin Peaks TV series in this neck of the woods. And of course, the wildly popular Twilight franchise has turned the previously sleepy town of Forks, Washington into a Mecca for its rabid fans.

t’s not just fancy-pants Hollywood types who have “discovered” the Pacific Northwest as a backdrop for their projects. For some filmmakers, it’s more like playing in the back yard. For example, take Ohio-born and Seattle-raised writer-director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) who has made 6 feature films since 2006, and had them all set in Western Washington. Her 7th and most recent effort, Outside In, is no exception.

The rain-washed, backwoods-y town of Granite Falls (population 3400) is a palpable character in this drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome; not to mention catching up with a world fraught with iPhones and laptops.

Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher. Not only did she visit him on a regular basis; tutoring him and helping him keep his spirits up, but advocated tirelessly to get him released. Once he’s out, it becomes obvious that Chris’ sense of gratitude has turned into something deeper.

Perhaps this was inevitable; the soft-spoken Chris is frozen at 18 years old emotionally and socially; he doesn’t feel that he has received much love and support from his dysfunctional family while he was locked up. On one level Carol is flattered, but as she is married and has a teenage daughter, her immediate instinct is to keep Chris at arm’s length. She is adamant that the two of them have always been, and must remain, “just” friends. Then again, there are hints that her marriage is troubled. Things get complicated.

Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco’s presence. She is such a great player; she says more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors could convey with a page of dialog (and I feel very strongly…strike that, I decree that she and Frances McDormand must do a film together at some point…someone simply must make this happen). Duplass (who co-scripted with the director) gives a sensitive and nuanced performance as well.

I don’t know if it was my imagination, but I think Shelton and Duplass (consciously or not) are paying homage to The Graduate. Not just the (virtual) age spread between Chris and Carol, but the interesting dynamic that develops between Chris and Carol’s daughter (a nice performance from Kaitlyn Dever). One short monolog in particular, in which Chris laments he’s tired of everyone telling him that he’s got a bright future and offering unsolicited advice about what he should do with his life, strongly recalls Benjamin Braddock’s angst. Also, not unlike the late great Mike Nichols, Shelton always finds the sweet spot between dramatic tension and wry levity. One of the best films so far this year.

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”.

Forgotten crimes: Memoir of a Murderer **½ & The Sinner ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 9, 2107)

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You know what they say: watch out for the quiet ones. Consider Byung-su (Kyung-gu Sul), a taciturn, 50-something veterinarian who enjoys a quiet, retiring life with his adult daughter Eun-hee (Seol-Hyun Kim). He is the central character of South Korean director Shin-yeon Won’s psychological crime thriller, Memoir of a Murderer (in theaters now).

The single, 20-something Eun-hee is concerned about dad, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As inevitably occurs in the early stages, Byung-su is becoming forgetful, to the point where he keeps a mini-voice recorder with him so he can dictate reminders to himself. However, Alzheimer’s may be a blessing. There are certain things about his past he would just as soon forget all about-like the “career” he has “retired” from: serial killer.

Eun-hee is blissfully oblivious to her father’s macabre double life, which abruptly ceased 17 years previous, after Byung-su was involved in a serious car wreck. Whether or not the accident literally knocked him back to his senses is not made clear, but he decided then and there to end the killing spree and concentrate on being a loving father to his daughter, who he is raising as a single parent.

First-person flashbacks reveal that Byung-su’s murderous impulses may have been seeded in his childhood; he was frequently beaten senseless by his violently abusive father. Subsequently, when he becomes a serial murderer as a young adult, he targets those who are (to his determination as judge, jury, and executioner) abusers of all stripes. This is his self-justification; like television’s “Dexter” he feels he’s doing society a favor.

At any rate, that was the “old” Byung-su. Now, he wouldn’t harm a fly. Or would he? After several random murders with eerie similarities make local authorities suspect a new serial killer is on the prowl, Byung-su begins to fear that he himself could be the perpetrator (especially when he factors in his constant fuzziness from the Alzheimer’s). As if all of this weren’t enough to send him over the edge, he’s getting a disconcertingly “familiar” vibe from Eun-hee’s mysterious new boyfriend (Kim Nam-gil), a young cop.

Won’s film (adapted by Hwang Jo-yun and Won Shin-yun from Kim Young-ha’s novel A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization) recalls three other crime thrillers: Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979), and Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder (2003); the former for its amnesiac, morally ambiguous protagonist, and the latter two for finding the humanity in otherwise repugnant characters.

That is not to say that this film is necessarily in the same class as the aforementioned. The premise is clever, leading man Sul has a brooding presence, and Choi Young-hwan’s atmospheric cinematography sustains a suitably nightmarish mood…but it gets bogged down by jarring tonal shifts; attempts at injecting humor become distracting, and you get a feeling Won wasn’t quite sure how to end his film. Still, it’s perfectly serviceable for dedicated fans of twisty crime thrillers…among whose company I can usually be found.

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Speaking of twisty crime thrillers, if you don’t feel up to schlepping to the multiplex this weekend to overspend on a bucket of popcorn, you might have a summer TV sleeper  in your on-demand queue, begging for a “catch-up” binge-watch. It’s USA Network’s limited series The Sinner, currently 6 installments into its 8-episode run.

Starring Jessica Biel (who also serves as an executive producer), it’s a deliriously lurid Zalman King-meets-Stephen King psychological mystery thriller (with a dash of Hitchcock tossed in for giggles). Here, Biel is the “quiet one” you need to watch out for.

They certainly know how to grab your attention in the series opener. Hot young mom Cora (Biel), her handsome hubby (Christopher Abbott, who you may recognize from HBO’s Girls) and their toddler son are enjoying a lovely sunny day at a crowded beach, when Cora espies a nearby group of young singles who are cranking the tunes and having a grand old time. When Cora suddenly leaps up without a word, purposely strides into their midst, and proceeds to brutally stab one of the young men to death, no one is more surprised than she. Turns out this ain’t exactly a typical day at the beach after all.

With hundreds of witnesses to this shocking and grisly crime (committed in broad daylight), it seems an open-and-shut case. But that would be too easy (and besides, 7 episodes still remain). Cora isn’t helping her own case by essentially shrugging and saying “dunno” every time someone asks her the obvious question. While the D.A., police, and the public are already chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!”…there is one soul intrigued enough by the fact that Cora has no previous criminal record to dive into her psyche and discover the trigger for this seemingly inexplicable act of violence.

He is detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, in an oddly mannered performance that grows on you). Socially-challenged Harry is a hot mess; he is on the outs with his wife, pursuing a passionless affair with a dominatrix,and  fancies himself as a world-class arborist (he seems to doing a bit of a reprise of the eccentric detective character he played in Jake Kasdan’s 1998 mystery dramedy, The Zero Effect).

Not unlike the protagonist in Memoir of a Murderer, Cora gives us a glimpse, via first-person flashbacks, of a twisted family upbringing; including a perennially moribund, voyeuristic young sister (obsessed with pushing Cora to lose her virginity) and a creepy, bible-thumping mother (straight out of Carrie) who goes out of her way to make Cora feel that any of her misbehavior (real or imagined) is somehow responsible for fueling her sister’s chronic illness.

There are also elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie; particularly in the dynamics that develop between Cora and Harry as they team up to unlock the repressed memories that are feeding her P.T.S.D. symptoms. Toss in some Red Shoe Diaries-worthy soft-core titillation, and you’ve got yourself some must-see TV. Pass the popcorn.