Before the credits role, we see a woman in various rolls: nurse, flibbertigibbet, magician's assistant, scientist. The minute she opens her mouth, to a roommate in Portland, she is incredible, literally, unbelievable -- at least to the audience. But the people inside are more credulous, for why wouldn't they be?

After the credits, we meet Tom and his lovely wife, preparing for Tom's dinner party. Tom. Only his birthday cake says, "Happy Birthday, Tony." Wife allows that she should have checked, but this cake's frosting is the writers' way of letting us know that identities are going to be switchable -- as if the opening scenes weren't a broad enough hint. Tom and his wife are at odds regarding her career and his support of same.

We see this woman, we'll call her Alice because that's the name she's going by, flirt with Tom's assistant, Clyde. Alice accompanies Clyde to Tom's birthday party. Hmmmm? Wonder if she knew that Tom would be there? Wonder if Tom knew that she was an old flame named Jenny? Wonder if we care?

For all the mystery in this short, odd film, the writers, Julian Sheppard and Joshua Marston, play with the reveal and with the re-seduction of Tom by Jenny. Marston, who directed Maria Full of Grace, keeps the camera close up on Alice's and Tom's faces, trying to read them. He uses montages of flashbacks to tell Alice's story as she relates it to Tom.

The main cast brings strong work to this film. Rachel Weisz makes like a chameleon in this role, or roles. Michael Shannon, the lines in his face architectural, is a study in solemn. The supporting cast, Kathy Bates and Danny Glover, glow knowingly all over their parts as an odd couple who interact with Jenny and Tom. The four work better than the material.

Complete Unknown offers a bit of difference to a late summer scene, not a beach film nor a blockbuster.

 

In the appropriately named Little Men, 13-year-olds Jake Jardine and Tony Calvelli are unexpectedly thrown together. After the death of Jake's grandfather, the Jardine family moves from Manhattan to the Brooklyn home father Brian grew up in. Tony's Chilean mother Leonor rents the Jardine storefront for her dress-making business. Economic pressures will test the boys' bond as their families clash. 

The difficulties are understandable and regrettable. An aspiring but little paid actor, Brian fortunately has his wife Kathy's psychotherapist practice to rely on for financial stability. But when Brian tells Leonor he must raise her unfairly low rent, she quietly targets Brian's reliance on Kathy, a conflict resolution expert no less. At the same time, Brian's sister Audrey petitions for her fair share of the parents' assets. 

All of this plays out against the backdrop of Jake's and Tony's developing friendship, with ripple effects felt profoundly by both of them, especially Jake already struggling to readjust as an uprooted teenager. Wisely, co-writers Ira Sachs (who directed) and Mauricio Zacharias paint in shades of gray, avoiding depicting either family as hard hearted or cruel. They're coping with societal demands familiar to all of us today, i.e. making ends meet. But, as the crisis of losing her shop looms, Leonor uses the only weapon she has, an emotional one. She makes clear that she knows more about Brian's father than he does; and, though calmly, she doesn't hold back on describing Brian's failings in a sexist culture. Little Men builds gradually and honestly, eavesdropping on real conversations tinged with anger and sometimes bitterness. 

Greg Kinnear as Brian has always embodied his many middle-class characters with ease. He doesn't rely on off-putting mannerisms or effects. As his wife, Jennifer Ehle feels equally authentic, and Paulina Garcia as Leonor is a great Chilean actress, best known here for her star turn as the title character in Gloria. And the boys, Theo Taplitz as Jake and Michael Barbieri as Tony, convey a documentary quality essential for the emotional impact of the film, especially in the climactic scenes. Technically, director Sachs relies on unembellished camerawork and art direction, perfect for this thoughtful slice of life. Little Men is at Landmark's Tivoli Theatre.

 

 

The story of legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán and his Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel is a complex, fascinating one. That makes it more disappointing that in Hands of Stone Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz muddies their story, hurrying from one unnecessary, underdeveloped scene to another.

In so doing, he loses focus on the real drama playing out between Durán and Arcel as Durán rises to glory and falls from grace, most infamously in his bouts and interaction with Sugar Ray Leonard. We're immersed in the boxing world in the first scene: 1971, Durán vs. Muertas at Madison Square Garden. The chronicle of Durán's and Arcel's lives will include flashbacks before proceeding to 1983 with Arcel's intermittent voiceover narration, a loose thread picked up and dropped at will.  

Arcel trains and, most importantly, advises Durán on the psychological principles of boxing. It is these emotional connections, more than the physical training, that rattle Durán and captivate us. This psychological relationship, so critical to many successful boxers, is what should have been the film's focus. Instead, clichéd scenes distract from the coherence and nucleus of the story without adding or developing important points. These include the love making scene between Sugar Ray and his wife, the orgy aftermath with Durán, the insertion of Arcel's daughter late in the story, the appearance of Durán's father, the relationship with Durán's loopy childhood friend, and as usual, almost every scene with the wives who remain undeveloped characters. These scenes' inclusion interrupts the flow, squandering the momentum achieved in the training and boxing passages. In addition, Durán's promoter merited more attention.

It is refreshing that the political and ethnic elements are acknowledged: Arcel's Jewish heritage, the Carter and Reagan actions regarding U.S. occupation of and treaties with Panama, and the use of appropriate Spanish dialogue. In addition, the actors contribute superb performances, especially Robert De Niro as Arcel and Édgar Ramirez as Durán. Equally good is the always reliable Rubén Blades, Usher as Sugar Ray, and John Turturro in a wasted role. The cinematography and editing lend a documentary feel, especially in the bouts, though in domestic interaction some overhead shots signal a director's intrusion. Hands of Stone is showing at area cinemas.

 

 

Teenage years are awkward and challenging at best. Quadruple that for Morris, 13 years old, slightly overweight, living in Heidelberg, Germany with his soccer coach, widowed father Chris. Unfortunately, with only the exception of the language barrier, writer/director Chad Hartigan introduces one cliché after another, without supplying insight or anything new to racist, sexist attitudes too familiar here.

The relationship between son Morris and father Chris is the most refreshing aspect of Morris from America. Sure, they squabble over hip-hop and Morris' foolish choices, but their love informs every attempt by Chris to guide his son to smarter choices. Meantime, Morris succumbs to his infatuation with blonde, blue-eyed, 15-year-old Katrin who aligns too often with her bullying male friends. 

Except for Morris' need of a German language tutor, this story with pervasive and unchallenged sexist attitudes and stereotypes could be plopped down anywhere in the U.S. The pleasure of foreign films or serious American films with foreign locations can be the opportunity for at least a slightly different perspective, some new attitudes and situations. It doesn't happen here.

Technically Sean McElwee's cinematography is appropriately unpretentious, focusing on close-ups since conversation dominates. In those scenes, Markees Christmas, who plays Morris, shows a fine screen presence as does Craig Robinson as his father. All the teenage German students feel as cookie cutter as the narrative, which is the millstone that sinks this film. 

Morris from America skims the surface of its potentially thorny psychology and settles for insulting banalities without confrontation or discernment. The conclusion is equally, particularly unsatisfying. Finally, not surprising by today's standards of the genre, there's a fair amount of crude language in Morris from America, playing at Chase Park Plaza Cinemas. Check area listings. 

 

 

Writer/director Richard Tanne's Southside with You manages a delicate and thrilling balancing act. One afternoon in the summer of 1989 Barack Obama manages to entice Michelle Robinson, his advisor at the law firm where he's interning during his summer break from Harvard, out for an afternoon community organizing meeting.

Over several hours they become more fully acquainted while visiting a celebratory African American art exhibit, seeing Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, and, most significantly, walking and talking through Chicago's South Side. It's always challenging to depict real people. That this man will become President of the United States and this woman the First Lady increases the risk. Wisely, Tika Sumpter as the 25-year-old Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barack worked, as Sumpter says in an IMDB interview, "to embody the essence of who they are," not to imitate them. Tika and Parker did watch interviews to capture their mannerisms and accurately suggest their vocal rhythms and inflections. 

Both actors look relaxed and yet are very present, involved in conversations, listening thoughtfully to each other and responding. It's so refreshing to hear intelligent, appealing individuals quoting literature, proud to be educated, and talking about the dynamics of the corporate workplace including attitudes toward women, notably black women, in addition to other racial elements. Their honest, pointed discussions remind us that these are certainly not new issues but ones that demand careful, direct consideration if we're going to make constructive progress. 

Technically, Stephen James Taylor's music expressively reinforces the time period and moods, enhanced by the touching new song "Start," written explicitly for the film by John Legend. Patrick Scola's cinematography uses light well and art director Adri Siriwatt's color palette intensifies the milieu, though the soft focus dominates in a few scenes that merit a cooler choice. Evan Schiff's editing moves the narrative at a pleasing pace without ever making it feel hurried. Attention stays where it should--on the interaction between Barak and Michelle. Above all, Southside with You is a wonderfully entertaining love story of two people getting to know each other. Check local listings for area cinemas.

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