The Truffle Hunters

A bunch of old men and their dogs traipse around the forests of northern Italy finding and digging up truffles. That’s the quick synopsis of The Truffle Hunters. But, of course, there’s a bit more to the story.

Along with the elderly gents who harvest the coveted white truffles, the film spotlights their dogs and the love the dogs receive from their humans. Dogs are shown sharing meals and baths with their owners and even being blessed by a local priest.

Truffle dealers buy from these hunters with whom they haggle over compensation. And later the dealers engage in more negotiation with the people they sell to.

The aroma of the truffles is a key element of the story. Truffles on display are sniffed by an assortment of folks. “The scent is all that matters,” says one man of the truffles. A dealer, on a call to a potential buyer, talks up their pungent fragrance and bemoans the fact that “I can’t send you the aroma by phone.” 

This new documentary consists mainly of static shots—no camera movement at all—with a couple of exceptions. The brilliant opening shot of the film is a slow zoom in that lasts a full ninety seconds, gradually revealing a truffle hunter and his dogs scrambling up a woodsy hill. 

The other exception is a pair of sequences shot from a camera mounted atop a truffle-sniffing dog. That dog’s eye point of view recalls similar segments from the early days of David Letterman’s show.

My favorite truffle hunter is Carlo who reminds me of my wife’s 90-year-old uncle on his farm in Minnesota. Carlo’s wife tells him that he should give up his pursuit of the underground fungi—especially heading out at night—but he persists.

The film’s “money shot” In my opinion is the scene featuring a dealer dining alone, enjoying a meal of fried eggs topped with truffle shavings. We should all savor tasty delights as slowly and contemplatively!

The Truffle Hunters is a nice change of pace from the politics, proselytizing and crises often encountered in documentaries. The men and the dogs are charming and the pace of the film is moderate.

The Truffle Hunters is in Italian with subtitles. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw share directing and cinematography credits. 

French Exit

How do you make an art film? You might start with some eccentric characters and have them doing odd things in exotic places. Say, for instance, Paris. But a gray and rainy Paris, not the colorful one.

Add a soundtrack dominated by pensive piano music with the occasional woodwinds. Throw in some an assortment of side characters, some of whom are a bit off-center. And maybe have something gimmicky like a séance and a black cat that may be… special.

To get the money to make such a film, line up a well-known star like Michelle Pfieffer. And cast an up-and-comer like Lucas Hedges. They co-star in the new movie French Exit.

Here’s the good news: Michelle Pfieffer, now in her early 60’s, looks great! She is rocking red hair in this film. Her wardrobe is spectacular, even her housecoat. 

Here’s the bad news: French Exit is a bore. 

When New York socialite widow Frances Price (Pfieffer) is told that her money is running out, she liquidates what’s left of her valuables and takes her adult son Malcolm (Hedges) with her to Paris. Frances carries huge stacks of currency which she hands out freely. 

Early in the film Frances says, “my plan was to die before all the money ran out.” Later in Paris, she writes, “when the money runs out I’ll kill myself.” Throughout the film the stack of bills on the closet shelf keeps getting smaller.

Frances is not an especially likable person. Nor is Malcolm. The relationship between mother and son, testy at times, should have been better developed. 

Sadly, it’s hard to root for a happy ending. Or for an unhappy ending. What I was rooting for when I watched French Exit was simply… an ending. (But Michelle Pfieffer does look good, even as she makes her… French Exit.)

(For what it’s worth, Wiktionary says the term “French exit” means “A hasty exit made without saying farewells to anybody.”)

French Exit is rated R. (Language. No nudity. A smidge of violence.)

The Father

What is it like to experience dementia? The new film The Father provides a glimpse. The picture is not a pretty one. And not just for the individual suffering cognitive decline.

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is the father of Anne (Olivia Colman). He has trouble remembering. Little things. And big things. When she tells him she is moving to Paris, leaving him in London, his difficulties become worse.

A cleverly constructed screenplay presents the film’s events with some ambiguity. What is real and what is imagined is conflated just as Anthony’s recollections are mashups of his life’s experiences.

That screenplay is co-written by French playwright Florian Zeller. He also wrote the play. Oh, and he is also making his feature film debut as a director with The Father. Wow!

Sometimes a stage play loses something when it is adapted for the movie screen. But in the case of The Father, the film version allows for facial closeups that display depths of expression one might not perceive from the distance of a stage performance.

Faced with the dilemma many baby boomers have had to address (and now some gen-xers, too), Anne seeks outside help to care for her father. One candidate, Laura (Imogeen Poots), when told about his unpleasant tendencies by Anne, assures her that her father’s behavior is “quite normal” for those in his state. 

Paul (Rufus Sewell), the man in Anne’s life, suggests she put her dad in a home. Is he being selfish or is he offering the objective view that she does not have about Anthony’s condition? 

If you have cared for aging parents you may identify with Anne and her stressful circumstance. And if you are approaching senior status—or just hope to live a long life—The Father might be a preview of what could await you or some of your contemporaries unless you are lucky.

Anthony Hopkins recently turned 83. (His character Anthony in the film gives his birthday as December 31, 1937—same as the real-life Anthony.) His performance in The Father has already netted him award nominations (and losses to Chadwick Boseman). And when the Oscar noms are announced on March 15, expect him to be on the list. 

Olivia Colman has also received multiple nominations this award season. 

Just as 2001’s A Beautiful Mind tries to show what life is like for a person with schizophrenia, so does The Father reveal a subjective view of dementia. Like that film from twenty years ago, this new film is not just entertaining but also instructive. 

The Father is rated PG-13. 

Coming 2 America

Coming 2 America is funny. The costumes are amazing—quite colorful. There are many surprises. Music and dance sequences are lit.

Eddie Murphy commands the screen. But co-star Arsenio Hall brings his A-game, too.

Add Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan to the mix for more laughs.

Has it really been 33 years since the first Coming To America was released? Actually 32 years and eight-and-a-half months but, as they say, who’s counting? In an industry that loves sequels and reboots, the big question is what took so long? Murphy, after all, made two sequels to Beverly Hills Cop with another rumored to be in development.

(There’s actually a conversation about movie sequels in the film with one of the characters uttering the line, “If something is good, why ruin it?” Irony intended.)

Prince Akeem (Murphy) of the fictional African country Zamunda is reminded by his dying father (James Earl Jones) that the throne must eventually be passed to a male heir. But Akeem and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) have only had girls. Word comes that Akeem may have a son in America from barely remembered one night stand in the U.S. in the 80’s.

Akeem and his sideman Semmi (Hall) head back to America and find the son. Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) agrees to come to Zamunda but insists that his mother Mary (Leslie Jones) and uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) be included in the entourage. Jones is a brilliant addition to the cast—she brings laughs and, yes, charm.

Another wrinkle is General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), leader of the neighboring nation Nexdoria, threatening to declare war on Zamunda unless one of Akeem’s daughters marries his son or, later, unless Lavelle marries his daughter. Meanwhile, Lavelle falls for his royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha).

As with the 1988 Coming To America, a major highlight of the sequel is Murphy and Hall portraying multiple characters, including the barbershop guys in New York. The makeup and prosthetics crews have done great work here, but Murphy and Hall are the guys who make these characters hilariously memorable. 

The film is filled with with entertaining bits including a ridiculous “ceremonial circumcision.” Surprise faces pop up throughout—not naming names here; they’ll be out there soon enough.

Coming 2 America is rated PG-13 with some suggestive material. But it’s a bit tamer than the first one which was rated R. 

Coming 2 America is available on Amazon Prime Video with no upcharge for Prime members.

The Mauritanian

After 9/11, the United States sought to round up all the bad guys responsible for the attacks and bring them to Guantanamo Naval Air Station in Cuba. Their fates there were to be determined.

Among the detainees: a Mauritanian, Mohamedou Slahi (Tahar Rahim). In the film The Mauritanian, Nancy Hollander (Jody Foster) is the Albuquerque-based attorney who is drafted to defend Slahi. Assisting her is Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Marine, is the government attorney assigned to prosecute Slahi. 

But what is the charge against him? The film, based on Slahi’s book Guantanamo Diary, reveals the nuanced form of jurisprudence practiced by the U.S. toward the detainees. The scope of the 9/11 attacks made the nation less concerned about the rights of those accused of perpetrating such horror and more concerned about meting out punishment.

Slahi’s initial meetings with inquisitors at Gitmo are shown to be civil, sort of the “good cop” approach. Slahi, as presented in the film, does not appear to have the temperament one might expect of someone accused of being part of the Al Qaeda terrorist conspiracy. 

Slahi is slow to warm to the Hollander-Woodley team’s effort to obtain justice for him. But as their visits continue and his frustration builds, he comes to appreciate their work on his behalf.

Did the opposing barristers Hollander and Couch actually first meet in Cuba at the Gitmo airport or is that an invention of the screenwriters? Doesn’t matter. It serves to show that the two, while sharing beers in the airport bar, are steadfast in their beliefs regarding Slahi.

Both the Hollander-Duncan team and Couch have difficulty gaining access to documents that might help them in their respective cases. When they do finally get it, some of the info is so heavily redacted as to be useless.

The telling of Slahi’s story by director Kevin McDonald progresses at a modest pace before concluding bombastically with revelations of some missing elements of the narrative. 

Jody Foster as the stern-faced, doggedly committed advocate is at her best and, in the wake of her recent Golden Globes win, may be Oscar nomination-worthy. Her bright red lipstick gives her a more mature look compared to some of her prior roles. Cumberbatch brings one of the most authentic Southern accents I’ve heard in a while to his portrayal of Couch. (Sorry, but as a native Alabamian, I often cringe at the terrible attempts by some actors to sound Southern.
Especially Brits.)

Rahim brings a multi-dimensional performance as a man who is, at times, charming but who may also have been involved in the terrible events of 9/11. To cast an unknown in the title role was a risky move, but Rahim shows it to have been a good choice.

The weakest aspect of The Mauritanian: its title! Hard to believe that that’s the best they could come up with. 

True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee

If you’ve seen a Marvel movie any time during the last 20 years, you’ve seen Stan Lee. His cameos in those films became a trademark bit of fan service, anticipated by many just as much as the bonus scenes after the credits.

According to Andrew Riesman, author of the new Stan Lee biography True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee, the man who put Marvel comics on the pop culture map appeared in more than forty Marvel films. Riesman writes: “Stan was paid peanuts for the Marvel cameos, and although he was given executive-producer credits for those movies, it was a purely ceremonial title with no financial rewards.”

Stan Lee died in November 2018. He left behind a co-authored autobiography (Exclesior!, published in 2002) and an archive of notes, tapes and personal effects that are stored at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Those sources along with numerous personal interviews have provided Riesman with the story of Lee and his life’s ups and downs.

The “Rise” of Stan Lee in the book’s title begins with the publication of Marvel’s Fantastic Four #1 comic book in 1961. Novelist Walter Mosely is quoted saying, “FF #1 crystalized an art form that has had an impact on our culture rivaling jazz, rock and roll and hip-hop.” But how much of Fantastic Four and other Marvel favorites came from the mind of Stan Lee and how much came from the minds of Marvel’s artists who drew them?

That is a forever argument that this book does not resolve and suggests will never be resolved. Jack Kirby, whose new and imaginative style of drawing made Fantastic Four a standout, died in 1994. Did he invent the characters and the narratives that attracted legions of fans? Or did he simply draw what Stan Lee created and guided him to draw? Lee is quoted in the book as giving Kirby significant credit in interviews and appearances, but Lee is the one who is generally perceived to be the creative force behind Marvel. As Riesman writes: “In the absence of conclusive data, history has been written by the victor.”

Riesman also offers this disclaimer: “Stan Lee’s story is where objective truth goes to die.” He shares a movie quote suggested by Lee’s brother Larry Lieber: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That line comes from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Steve Ditko who drew the first Spider-Man comic books also had his problems with Lee. As with Kirby, there were disagreements over credits and compensation. Ditko, whose 2018 passing preceded Lee’s by just a few months, was not as vocal in his complaints about lack of fame and fortune as was Kirby and Kirby’s heirs.

Stan Lee’s letters sections in Marvel comic books cemented the company’s and Lee’s connections with fans. His responses in that venue gave birth to many of his catch phrases such as “Exclesior!” “‘Nuff Said!” and “Face Front, True Believers!”

Lee’s legend grew with media profiles in the New York Herald-Tribune and later in other media with national and worldwide footprints. As demand for Marvel comics ebbed and flowed, Lee led a move to California and launched efforts to make inroads in the worlds of movies and television.

Stan Lee was a font of ideas: for comic books, magazines, movies, TV, etc. Many were quickly rejected. He once suggested to his associates that they repackage a Japanese TV show which featured superheroes in Spandex jumpsuits. They passed and another production outfit came up with an American version which became the successful Power Rangers. Stan Lee gained a bit of added notoriety in the early 80’s as narrator of the animated Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends TV show.

In the final two decades of his life, came the “Fall” of the book’s title. After parting with Marvel, Lee became involved in Stan Lee Media, which crashed and burned in short order due to mismanagement and nefarious money dealings. That was followed by POW Entertainment, of which the author writes: “POW was, by many accounts, a largely criminal enterprise.” 

Lee himself was not charged with any legal wrongdoings though some of his associates at those two companies were punished for their tricky financial misdeeds. Meanwhile, Stan was traveling to conventions across the country where fans were charged big bucks for autographs and selfies with the Marvel legend.

In 2005, Lee settled litigation against Marvel when the company agreed to a huge payout which the author writes was for a reported amount of $10 million. 

Lee’s final days are recounted with the sad details of a variety of hangers-on trying to micromanage his affairs amid continuing friction with Lee’s high-maintenance daughter JC. 

Stan Lee’s personal charm with media, co-workers and others in his orbit carried him far in this career. He scored many achievements and made a ton of money. But, by Riesman’s telling, he always wanted more. 

One more thing: Among the many photos in the middle of the book is a pic of the author in what appears to be his teen years getting an autograph from Lee at a Wizard World show near Chicago in the late 1990’s. Nice.

Land

Grief is a powerful emotion. It can lead to impulsive, radical behaviors.

In the new movie Land, Edee (Robin Wright) is so devastated with grief that she chooses to disappear from human society. She leaves Chicago for a cabin in a remote area of the Rockies, far away from people and civilization.

Her break is complete: in the small town where she lines up the cabin, she tosses her cell phone into a trash can. She asks the guy who leads her to her mountain home to send someone out to take her vehicle away.

She achieves the solitude she seeks in the gorgeous mountain setting but is unprepared to live alone in the rugged back country. Does she have a death wish? Is she naive like Chris McCandless, the subject of the book and movie Into The Wild

Her grief centers around the loss of her husband and son. They appear in quick flashbacks and in the photos Edee lingers over. She still wears her wedding ring. 

Amidst challenging weather, Edee collapses in her cabin and is found by a passing hunter. Miguel (Demian Bechar) summons a nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) who gives the dehydrated Edee an IV. And so begins Edee’s relationship with Miguel.

Her new friend offers to teach her to trap and hunt so she can survive by herself in the wild. Then, he tells her, “you’ll never see me again.”

No, the film does not become a Hallmark movie. But she does begin to enjoy his visits. When they sing Everybody Wants To Rule The World together in silhouette in the gathering dusk, it’s one of the film’s rare light moments.

Along with her deft acting in Land, the film’s marks Robin Wright’s directorial debut. She wisely allows the outdoor scenery to dominate the film’s visuals—dang, those mountainsides full of Aspen trees are stunning!—and keeps the pace moderated during the film’s few conversation scenes.

Land is a rather generic title for a movie that is more about emotions and human connections (and disconnections) than it is about the film’s setting. Yes, she yearns to live off the land but, even after telling Miguel and Alawa “I don’t want to be around people,” it becomes apparent that she does, in fact, appreciate human contact.

We all deal with grief in our own personal and various ways. Land is the story of one person facing grief in her chosen manner. Can it inform us about addressing grief in our own lives? I wouldn’t go that far. But Land might provide just a bit of solace. 

One Night In Miami

It doesn’t matter how much of the movie One Night In Miami is historically accurate. The conversation presented here shines a light on what these four influential black men might have been thinking at this key point in time. And on where our country and our culture was headed.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) gather in Malcolm X’s Miami hotel room late in the evening of February 25, 1964 after Clay has defeated Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight title.

Will it be a party with booze and women? Well, no. Malcolm X, a practicing Muslim,  has supplied his room with… ice cream! Oh, boy!

Each of the men has accomplishments to be proud of but feels the challenges of dealing with an America still dominated by white society. Clay has just upset the heavily favored Liston. Cooke is a consistent hit maker. Brown has begun a movie career to go along with his NFL success. X is about to launch his offshoot of the Nation of Islam.

Like other movies that are adapted from stage plays, efforts are made to liven up the presentation and make it visually interesting… more than just four guys talking. 

One Night In Miami opens with vignettes introducing the four principles. Clay in a boxing match versus Henry Cooper; Brown in a conversation with a Southern racist played by Beau Bridges; Cooke failing to win over a white crowd at the Copacabana; Malcolm X and his wife discussing his falling-out with Elijah Muhammed. 

A trip to the hotel’s roof partway into the conversation, ostensibly to check out those who are surveilling Malcolm X, provides a different setting for the group’s discussions.

The conversation becomes, at times, contentious. The men like and respect one another but also launch a few barbs—some light, some not so light. The most pronounced is Malcolm X’s challenge to Cooke to do more meaningful music.

The film suggests that Cooke followed up on that suggestion by going on to perform his classic hit A Change Is Gonna Come on the Tonight Show shortly thereafter. In reality, that performance came a few weeks before the events of the movie occur.

The actors do, in fact, resemble their real life counterparts. Odom sings Cooke songs beautifully. Goree captures the cadence of Clay’s speaking but his accent, to my ear, sounds more like Charles Barkley’s. 

The film is directed by Regina King who won an acting Oscar for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk. She has directed numerous TV episodes. The script is by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the stage version. 

One Night In Miami begins streaming on Amazon on Friday, January 15, which just happens to be Regina King’s 50th birthday!

Half Brothers

In making a comedy/drama, sometimes it’s hard to balance those two elements. A prime example is the new movie Half Brothers.

The plot setup is not a new one: a person discovers that he or she has a previously unknown sibling. Layered atop that situation in Half Brothers is a story of their father’s immigration from Mexico to the U.S.

Renato (Luis Gerado Méndez) is an engineer in Mexico who finds out that his dad is dying. Although he carries anger at his father because dad left Mexico and never returned, he goes to Chicago to say goodbye.

He learns that his dad has another son, Asher (Connor Del Rio). Renato and Asher are extreme opposites: The straight-laced engineer and the weirdo free spirit. As he makes a deathbed apology, dad sends the half brothers on a road trip/scavenger hunt to find out the whole story of his abandonment of Renato.

Here’s where the comedy/drama balance goes off track. After a heart-tugging opening, the film ventures into a tale of Asher’s goofy behavior (including his adoption of a goat as their traveling companion) versus Renato’s desire to wrap up the mystery and return home to Mexico for his wedding. The movie’s drift back into dramatic territory before its non-surprising ending is clumsy and seems not to jibe with the rest of the movie. 

As I viewed Half Brothers, I kept thinking of the 2010 movie Due Date starring Robert Downey Jr. as a guy on a road trip with a similarly annoying goofball played back Zack Galifianakis. And Asher comes off as a poor imitation of Zack G.

Will the brothers bond and get along? Will Renato make it back in time for his wedding? Will Renato warm up to his distant stepson-to-be? You can probably guess those outcomes.

In its favor, the film is not at all condescending toward Mexicans and and shows a good deal of sympathy for those who attempt to come into the U.S. from Mexico.

Half Brothers is directed by Luke Greenfield whose resumé includes Let’s Be Cops and The Girl Next Door. It is playing at a handful of theaters. When it shows up on cable and streaming platforms early next year, you may find it worthy of 90 minutes or so of your time. It’s an okay movie: not bad, not great. Rated PG-13.

The War With Grandpa

Any movie starring Robert De Niro, arguably our greatest living actor, is worth checking out. Even lighter fare like The War With Grandpa.

In films like Meet The Parents (and its sequels), The Intern and several others, De Niro has shown that he can deliver a deft performance even when he’s not being intense.

The War With Grandpa is family entertainment. Rated PG. No profanity. No nudity. You can take everyone to see this movie. (And you will need to TAKE them because it will be playing, initially at least, in theaters only.) It is silly fun.

Sixth grader Pete (Oakes Fegley) is forced to give up his bedroom and relocate up to the attic when his widower grandfather Ed (De Niro) moves in with the family. Goaded by his schoolmates, the resentful lad declares war on grandpa who fights back. The pair agree to rules of engagement which include no collateral damage. But their back-and-forth mischief involving drones, snakes, hot sauce, a jar of marbles, a remote control car and other forms of aggravation does indeed affect others including mom and dad (Uma Thurman and Rob Riggle).

The cast includes Christopher Walken and Cheech Marin as grandpa’s buds and Jane Seymour as a chum/love interest. Singer-songwriter and Disney Channel star Lara Marano appears as Pete’s older sister.

The family feud leads to a dodge ball battle between Ed and his posse and Pete and his friends. An attempt to patch up differences by going fishing features a low-speed boat chase as the adversaries attempt to elude a game warden. And a Christmas-themed birthday party results in a multitude of unsurprising physical antics.

In any movie that has a child actor in a key role, the question must be asked and answered: Is the kid any good? Yes. Fegley handles his role well and doesn’t overplay as some young actors do.

The comedic De Niro has a different sort of appeal compared to the characters (likeable and otherwise) he has played in films like last year’s The Irishman. But there is real charm and a twinkle in his eyes (along with an occasional smirk).

The War With Grandpa is a bit of fluff. But so is cotton candy and who doesn’t like cotton candy?