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Little Bit of Everything in Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Little Bit of Everything in MoviesOur Friend - Photo via IMDb
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Social commentary, feel good dramas, rock docs, Westerns, rom-coms, mafia movies, war movies, and all of them streaming! Lazy viewing all weekend long. Here’s what’s what. 

The White Tiger

On Netflix

by Hope Madden

Rarely do we root for the social climber. Certainly not the social climber who intentionally harms others of his station, unabashedly sucks up to his masters, and disregards the family he left in poverty. But Ramin Bahrani’s sly thriller The White Tiger does a lot of things you might not expect.

His own adaptation of Aravind Agida’s prized novel, the film shadows a cunning young Indian man as he fights to rise from the abject poverty of his caste.

A deeply impressive Adarsh Gourav is Balram, entrepreneur. Bahrani opens the film as a mustachioed, suave-looking Bahrani tells us his “glorious tale” of overcoming poverty and becoming his own master. And as much as that story takes some unexpected turns, it’s the tone Bahrani develops that is especially audacious.

The White Tiger offers a blistering class consciousness that makes the filmmaker’s 2014 film 99 Homes feel positively cozy with the effects of capitalism.

Bahrani eviscerates India’s caste system along with a cinematic history of romanticizing the adoration and martyrdom of the Indian servant. He takes a not-so-subtle jab as well at dreamy redemption tales like Slumdog Millionaire.

Balram worms his way into the service of his master’s youngest son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra), both back after years in America. Rao and Chopra represent a different and altogether more insidious look at class warfare—insidious because of its self-righteous and superficial beliefs in equality. Their performances are stellar and altogether slap-worthy.

Balram’s social climbing gets him only so far, and a sudden and violent shift in perspective leaves him fully aware of his own vulnerability.

Bahrani’s masterful direction makes the most of background to establish and reestablish Balram’s position and his thinking. And as utterly contemptuous as this film is concerning the wealthy and powerful, director and lead make you feel the depth and history involved in a servant’s culture of devotion.

Grade: A-

Our Friend

VOD and theatrical

by George Wolf

We don’t tell the truth about dying.

Writer Matthew Teague came to that realization in 2012 when his wife Nicole died of cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind Matt, two daughters, and one very special best friend.

Five years later, Matt detailed their ordeal in an award-winning piece for Esquire magazine. Though it wasn’t Matt’s original intent, as the piece took shape it became clear his focus was Dane Faucheux, the friend who put his own life on hold to be there for Matt, Nicole and their girls.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby deliver Teague’s memoir to the screen with a tender focus on the daily details, and a stellar trio of leads delivering authentic, emotional performances.

Dakota Johnson has never been better as Nicole, bringing a heartbreaking sweetness to the journey into physical and mental decay before her character’s final breaths.

The quiet, committed stoicism that Matt fights to maintain is a natural vehicle for Casey Affleck, and he absorbs the role seamlessly. The Oscar-winning Affleck allows Matt’s hurt to register even in the lightly humorous moments, revealing a man caught between remaining strong and truly processing what the future will bring.

But much like in Teague’s original story, Dane is the soul of this film, thanks to Jason Segel’s warm and vulnerable performance. We see – even before Dane does – that his place in the Teague family has given his life the purpose he’s been craving. Segel never stoops to melodrama, and his scenes with the Teague girls (Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw, both terrific) sparkle with the charm of a man who has found peace within this family.

A wonderful cameo by the always-welcome Cherry Jones as a hospice nurse only cements the effectiveness of this cast, and of Cowperthwaite’s dramatic instincts.

The drawback here is the non-linear structure in Ingelsby’s script. Though you can see how the shifting timelines might fit a magazine article, on screen they keeps us at a distance, and prevent the trio’s backstory from truly taking root. The chapters in these lives are not equally important, each builds on the other to strengthen the human bonds. Our connection suffers with the re-set of each new time stamp.

Is this a tear-jerker? For sure, but Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Megan Leavey) creates a mood that steers clear of sappy. That elusive truth of dying will always be uniquely intimate, and the way Cowperthwaite’s camera gently wanders away from characters and conversations provides a consistent reminder that the nature of grieving is that it’s often for the lives left behind.

Because this isn’t really a story about dying, it’s one about caring – caring about other people enough to care for them when it helps. As one family found out, there’s a true beauty in that, and Our Friend lets us glimpse it.

Grade: B-

No Man’s Land

On VOD

by Cat McAlpine

The liminal space between Mexico and Texas is home to fear, anxiety, and confusion. It is in this taut, emotional maelstrom that two families tragically collide.

The Greers have a struggling cattle ranch directly on the border. Young Fernando and his family are making their way into Texas illegally, led by their father, Gustavo.

“Texas looks like Mexico,” Young Fernando observes.

“Yes, it does,” his father agrees.

No Man’s Land hinges on the relationship between sons and fathers and their shared legacies. The film is a family affair in its own right, co-written by Jake Allyn (who also stars as Jackson Greer) and directed by his brother Conor Allyn. Also written by David Barraza, No Man’s Land attempts to tackle national tensions along the border.

This is a new and old western. It prods at current events but follows the familiar beat of a man on the run seeking redemption. Forced to flee, Jackson makes his way deeper and deeper into Mexico, paralleling an immigrant’s journey northward. He doesn’t speak the language but he’s willing to work, and work hard.

No Man’s Land subconsciously uses the same “he had his whole life ahead of him” argument we often see used for violent, young white men. Jackson is at the mercy of a culture, and in particular a grieving father, who owe him nothing. And yet it is their kindness, compassion, and forgiveness that truly save Jackson from the mistakes he’s made. He becomes more compassionate and understanding after experiencing Mexican culture, instead of simply recognizing the intrinsic value of other humans from the start.

Visually, the film is breathtaking. Technology is largely eliminated from the screen, horses are used as often as cars, and there’s a timeless western quality to the story. Jackson’s journey into Mexico is not made hazy with yellow filters, but instead shows a place more vibrant and green than his home.

The cast is another shining element in No Man’s Land. Allyn delivers an agonized but mostly understated performance as Jake. He’s matched by a wonderful Jorge A. Jimenez as Gustavo, a man constantly battling with himself. And George Lopez – as a Texas ranger who can’t speak Spanish – adds great dimension to the stories as they intertwine.

No Man’s Land is beautifully shot, emotional, and an honest extension of the western genre, but ultimately its call to unity could use some work.

Grade: B-

Yung Lean: In My Head

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Thanks to the internet, the world of new music is vast and wide. Anyone can put a song on their website, or upload a poorly produced music video to YouTube. Most of it goes unnoticed. That lack of notice is usually justified.

And then occasionally someone like Yung Lean comes along. 

In the early 2010s, a group of Swedish teens began uploading rap demos to Tumblr and Soundcloud. The same group gained even more notoriety when they began uploading videos to YouTube. This trio, the “Sad Boys,” and their de facto leader, Jonatan Leandoer Hastad (Yung Lean), soon found themselves on a meteoric rise across Europe and then the rest of the world. 

Music documentaries have become a popular subgenre in recent years. The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, and The Beastie Boys have all been the subject of recent, popular docs. Of course, these are artists already known and immortalized through their music and pop culture. The beauty of Yung Lean: In My Head is how the film uses Lean’s underground status to its advantage. The air of mystery is half the point. 

This documentary isn’t one that suffers from a lack of involvement from the principals. Lean’s story is told through his friends and collaborators, video footage shot while on tour, and family photos and video. Thankfully, the film doesn’t get too caught up in talking heads explaining every little detail. The copious amount of footage shot during the American and Canadian tour helps paint a picture of artistic freedom that slowly unraveled into drug-fueled chaos. 

Lean’s story takes a dramatic turn later in the film, one that shifts the focus away from music. This is an area where other films might stumble or even choose to not devote much time at all. Instead, In My Head pivots with ease. The focus was never just the music – it was Lean himself. 

In My Head may not have a subject with the culture cache of the Fab Four or Elvis Presley, but what Yung Lean does have is a compelling story born out of artistic creation and personal perseverance. 

Grade: B+

1982

by Matt Weiner

Wars are complicated. War movies? Not so much, at least not in this country. How, then, to tell the story of an invasion unfolding in the middle of a decades-long civil war?

In 1982, writer and director Oualid Mouaness narrows the lens in his feature debut to focus on the smaller picture. Set at the onset of Israel’s June 1982 invasion in Lebanon during the country’s ongoing civil war, Mouaness’s camera almost never leaves the fenced-in confines of one Beirut school.

Encroaching tanks and fighter jets begin the day as distant updates on the radios, with concerned teachers and school staff furtively trying to stay updated without alarming the children. But as the invasion progresses, it becomes impossible for anyone to keep the reality of war at bay.

How this plays out in a diverse country already torn apart by years of fighting becomes the subject of two love stories. For Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), concerns about her militia member brother outweigh keeping her relationship going with Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman), a fellow teacher with opposing political views.

Their complicated allegiances serve as a stand-in for the rapidly shifting political landscape in the country, and their uncertainties—toward each other, and the future—are played to great effect by both Labaki and Sleiman.

The film’s other main star-crossed love story is a much lighter one, as 11-year-old Wissam attempts to woo a classmate in the face of challenges both typical—pre-teen embarrassment—and extraordinary, like the one checkpoint to her house being closed.

The split between the faculty and the students is effective, to a point. Although as the idyllic bubble of the students clashes more and more with the war just beyond the school walls, the intensity given to Wissam’s courtship feels increasingly at odds with the stakes.

Some of that seems by design. Mouaness hints at the greater sectarian strife tearing the country apart, but there’s only so much metaphorical weight you can load onto the school’s metaphorical stand-ins. The film does such an economical job sketching the complexities of the war that any single, tidy resolution would do the message a disservice.

In the meantime, we are left feeling much like Wissam, aware for the first time of the complicated forces that determine our lives. And aware too of just how powerless we are to alter their direction.

Grade: B

Stallone: Frank, That Is

On VOD

by George Wolf

The title of this documentary is a correct assumption that Frank is not the first name you associate with the last name Stallone.

So that’s a nice, self-aware start to things. But despite a succession of famous faces telling us what a great and multi-talented guy Frank is, the film never can convince us that he’s worthy of a documentary in the first place.

One of the first things writer/director Derek Wayne Johnson lets us know is that Frank loves to talk. He does that often in the film, running through the events in his life with rambling, disjointed stories about how many times he was soooo close to being a contender…only to have fate snatch his dreams away.

Using his own words, many archival stills and too few videos, the Frank Stallone timeline begins to feel propped up by tall tales. These stories are often lacking in specifics (especially for a 73 minute film that clearly has the time) and loosely connected with a magical “and then I get a phone call.”

Still, Frank clearly does have talent. He has a fine voice, has written plenty of songs and even scored one big hit (“Far From Over”, from the film Stayin’ Alive that his brother directed). He’s also shown acting chops in some of the film roles he’s done (Barfly and Tombstone, for example).

But seeing his name as producer of this film only adds to the feeling that it’s nothing but a calculated promotional effort. Many of the platitudes from celebrity friends and facelifts seem more manufactured than authentic, and even though Frank appears fine with poking fun at himself, he never directly address the ironic elephant in the Stallone living room.

He tells us how hard it’s been overcoming the “Rocky’s brother” image even as he’s taking us through a career full of breaks he’s gotten for being just that.

A little self-awareness on that point and SFTI might feel less like, frankly, the insincere vanity project it becomes.

Grade: C-

Brothers by Blood

On VOD

by Hope Madden

It can be tough to find a fresh way to tell a mob story. Brothers by Blood doesn’t bother.

Director Jeremie Guez’s film, based on his own adaptation of Peter Dexter’s novel Brotherly Love, offers an intimate look at masculinity, loyalty, faith and redemption through the eyes of two men who are as close as brothers. They’re part of the criminal underground, and one (the brooding, quiet, good one) is worried that the other (the loose cannon) may have gone too far.

Like Mean Streets. Like The Drop. Eastern Promises, Casino, Legend.

Like a lot of movies.

Luckily, Guez has a strong cast with the potential of finding something uniquely human in these characters.

Matthias Schoenaerts is the quietly observant Peter, a reasonable man who isn’t proud of what he does but he keeps his head down, his mouth shut, and does the work. Michael (Joel Kinnaman), on the other hand, likes attention. He likes power and respect, and he’s quite sure he isn’t getting enough of either.

Kinnaman brings a weaselly quality to Michael that suits him. His best scenes showcase a level of insincere congeniality that really is sometimes chilling. Meanwhile Schoenaerts—a truly talented actor able to disappear into characters—is hamstrung by a role that requires little more than disappointed headshakes, askew glances and sighs.

The surrounding ensemble offers opportunities as well. Paul Schneider (nice to see you!) carves out a little authenticity as Jimmy, a restauranteur in over his head. Maika Monroe plays Jimmy’s kid sister Grace. They all grew up together—Jimmy, Michael, Peter and Grace—and now Grace has come back home.

Monroe, by the way, is fully twenty years younger than her co-stars, which makes the prospect of a love scene the single creepiest aspect of this film.

Talent be damned, Guez can’t find an original thought to explore. Everything about Brothers by Blood feels absolutely garden variety, although competently made. Except for the obligatory flashbacks, which are wedged in so poorly you almost overlook the fairly decent acting going on in them.

Mean Streets is $2.99 on Prime right now, by the way.

Grade: C

Breaking Fast

by Rachel Willis

Most rom-coms, or rom-dramedies, follow a very specific pattern. You already know when each plot point will happen: the meet, the first date, the montage of falling in love, etc.

Writer/director Mike Mosallam’s first feature, Breaking Fast, follows this predictable model to the letter.

So, what makes Breaking Fast different? Mainly, the characters.

Mo (Haaz Sleiman) is a gay Muslim living in West Hollywood. His best friend, Sam (Amin El Gamal) is eager to see Mo get back into a relationship after his last ended when Mo’s closeted boyfriend broke up with him to marry a woman.

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, Mo meets Kal (Michael Cassidy). From here, you know the plot, but Mosallam weaves into the narrative elements with which you might not be familiar. Mo is adamant that his faith is not incompatible with his sexuality. And as he gets to know Kal, the two grow close as Kal breaks fast with Mo nearly every night during Ramadan.

Most of the gay men we meet in the film, including Sam, have turned their backs on any form of religion due to the harassment they have experienced in the name of faith. But Mo’s experience has been one of love and acceptance, and his devotion to his faith is a large part of the film.

Awkward dialogue makes for some tedious moments. Part of the problem is that Mosallam wants to paint us a new picture of Islam, one that is full of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, that lands on the screen feeling more like a lesson than an integrated narrative layer.

This isn’t the first movie to try to educate its audience, but the clumsiness of the execution weakens the film.

There are also some uncomfortable moments between Kal and Mo, and not the kind of uncomfortable that comes across as cute. These scenes are not awkward enough to leave you rooting for a couple, but embarrassing to the point of being hard to watch.

But then, there are the sweet moments between the two, and you do find yourself pulling for them as they weather the difficulties of a new relationship.

Too bad Breaking Fast never finds the right balance between what it is and what it wants to teach you.

Grade: C

Read more from George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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