‘I Love My Dad’ a Delightfully Cringe-Worthy Comedy

To be catfished: lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona. Now what happens if your dad is the one catfishing you? That’s the based-on-a-true-story basis for James Morosini’s funny, heartfelt, wildly entertaining I Love My Dad starring Patton Oswalt in the titular role as dad … or as Becca, if you will. 

Franklin (Morosini) is a troubled young man, dealing with mental health issues, no drivers license and an absentee father (Oswalt) Chuck who lies his way through life. Flipping the perspective from himself to his father, Morosini tells this bizarre story from his father’s point of view. Wanting to reconnect with his son after many failed attempts at friending him on Facebook, Chuck uses a photo of a beautiful local waitress and creates a fake profile. Click – he friends his own son and starts chatting away. 

Claudia Sulewski and James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In an old-school way of filmmaking with that waiting-for-things-to-implode feeling that keeps you engaged for 90 minutes, I Love My Dad hits all the right beats of storytelling. You’re shocked, you’re amused, you’re sad, you’re empathetic, you’re horrified – all the emotions that both the script and Patton Oswalt make you feel. The casting is perfect at every turn, with an endearing Morosini in the leading role, playing a character (quite literally) only he could play. Claudia Sulewski has the not-so-easy job of bringing Chuck’s text message to life and nails the comedic timing beat after beat; as fake “Becca” she is a standout in I Love My Dad. Amy Landecker co-stars as Franklin’s rightfully concerned mother, balancing the tough job of being happy and nervous for her emotionally fragile son. 

In a sea of depressing films and blockbuster franchises, this comedy is both refreshing and nostalgic. It’s an old-school style with hijinx and gasps and belly laughter – and based on the reaction of the sold-out crowd at the Chicago Critics Film Festival closing night … it’s one really good time. 

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‘Thirteen Lives’ a Captivating Retelling of 2018 Rescue Mission 

Ron Howard does it again. This time, the prolific director takes his talents to Thailand in a fast-paced, enthralling retelling of a miracle. Thirteen Lives (On Amazon Prime Video August 5) tells the incredible true story of the Thai Cave Rescue, an event that captivated the world. Starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as the heroic volunteer divers, this dramatic thriller leaves you on the edge of your seat – even when you know the ending.

Written by William Nicholson with Don MacPherson, the film goes back to the summer of 2018 when a dozen young soccer players and the team’s coach kill time between practice and a birthday party by exploring the Tham Luang cave. Though the cave was known to flood during Thailand’s monsoon season, the group of boys went in through the narrow entrance and quickly found themselves in trouble —the water was rising fast and there was no way out.

Days turned into weeks and their rescue became an international story, with people from all over the world rooting for their survival. Unbelievably, they were. All thirteen members of the group were rescued after an unprecedented effort by the Thai military, international volunteers, and local villagers – and most importantly – because of experienced British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton.

The film’s intense pace, tone and ticking clock start from the opening sequence, with a pressure that eases occasionally throughout – but only for a moment before it’s back in the caves. The visual recreation of winding, flooding caves are a cinematic feat for the filmmakers and crew whose efforts to recreate a painstakingly complicated rescue will not go unnoticed by any viewer. 

Viggo Mortensen is a calm, steady presence throughout an otherwise tense movie. He and Colin Ferrell, together, bring a comforting and familiar energy to an otherwise anxiety-inducing two and a half hours. But the anxiety is proof that Howard is doing his job – and doing it right. He brings you back to those unpredictable few weeks to remind you of the humans who succeeded in their superhuman efforts to save lives – thirteen of them.

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Thompson Shines In Charming ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ 

Two-time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson stars in writer Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde’s endearing story of a retired school teacher who embarks on a journey of sexual reawakening. Spending the entirety of the dialogue-centric film opposite sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), the film is very much like theater for the big screen.

As the film unfolds, we learn more about Nancy Stokes and the life of passionless sex she’s had over the course of her 60-something-year-old life. Her kids are grown, her husband is gone and all Nancy wants is for something – or someone – to reignite that passion within her. Enter: Leo Grande, a character that could have been one-note had it not been for McCormack’s charisma and likability. He and Thompson work in sync to bring Brand’s witty, endearing, relatable, and interesting characters to life. 

Set almost entirely in a luxury hotel room, the characters’ emotions ebb and flow throughout the course of several weeks. We get to know them both as they get to know each other, a rarity between a sex worker and a client and one that makes the film so unique and charming. It’s full of light, humor, honesty and intimacy with enough drama to carry the story from act to act. 

Both characters are fully formed, but a character like Nancy Stokes is rare – especially for the big screen. The woman is regretful, not fully in love or obsessed with her children, wants an exciting sex life, and is unconfident in her aging body. And herein lies the beauty of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – all of those things are beautiful. And a powerhouse like Emma Thompson elevates the already strong material to a level that should make her an Oscar contender yet again. Good luck to her.

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In ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ Cooper Raiff Makes His Own Kind of Music

Writer-director Cooper Raiff stars alongside producer Dakota Johnson in the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” streaming now on Apple TV+. The endearing dramedy follows Andrew (Raiff), a recent postgraduate who accidentally gets a job hosting bar mitzvahs for the kids in his younger brother’s class. When he meets a young mother named Domino (Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), he finds a whole new perspective on life in his twenties.

Despite his clear confidence and charisma, it’s clear Andrew still doesn’t quite know who he is or what he wants, and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” tells the unique story of how he figures it out, with the help (or hindrance) of the people in his life. In addition to being a love story, it’s also about growing up and growing into yourself – and making peace with the way things turn out, even when they’re the opposite of what you imagine. It is a painfully-realistic, beautifully-executed rendering of life after college. It will especially resonate with people in Andrew’s age group, but can also acts as a tribute to single parents and caretakers in families with special needs. The charm of  “Cha Cha” truly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, and that’s a rare feat – a true testament to its originality.

Raiff already has a signature voice that feels important. Not only because of his age, although critics and interviewers seem to enjoy pointing out his accomplishments as relative to his young years. But instead it’s what he dares to do – or not do, telling the Financial Times he turned down Blumhouse Productions in favor of a collaborator which felt more in tune with his hopes as a storyteller.

Thank goodness. It’s a message his characters seem to send, too: be you, even when that is not who you want to be, even when that person seems to be making all the wrong choices. Andrew will figure it out, and so will you.

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In profound ‘Phoenix Rising,’ an actor becomes an activist

Actor and activist Evan Rachel Wood tells a harrowing story of surviving domestic violence in “Phoenix Rising,” an HBO documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Director Amy Berg directs the two-part film, now streaming on HBO Max. It follows Wood’s journey from establishing herself as a young actor to becoming staunch advocate for fellow survivors of domestic violence. In between, the trauma she endured at the hands of her abuser is chronicled in graphic detail. As they should be, her stories are incredibly disturbing and difficult to hear. But her clear and direct mission to help other survivors feels deeply profound and necessary.

At just 34 years old, Wood is known in the public sphere for memorable performances in independent film and award-winning television, even lending her voice to beloved family animation. Though Wood explains how her relationship followed several patterns established by serial abusers, this film is also very personal, bringing her friends and family into the fold. While the first half of “Phoenix Rising” is about using her experience to fight for change, the second part chronicles in detail how she was essentially tortured by her fiance for years, dating back to when she was as young as 18.

Because Wood and the abuser are public figures, she and Berg made the important choice to use their platform to educate about domestic abuse legislation in the U.S.

“Phoenix Rising” is named not only for Wood’s story of survival, but for an act of legislation which extends the statute of limitations for acts of domestic violence in the state of California. Wood is the titular phoenix, but so is the law – and the painstaking process of sharing the most painful period of her life in such detail is viewed through this lens as heroic and necessary in order to help others.

“Phoenix Rising” is now streaming on HBO Max. (Courtesy of HBO)
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Day, Slate Finally Center Stage in Charming ‘I Want You Back’

A refreshingly mature romantic comedy from writers Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger, I Want You Back stars Charlie Day and Jenny Slate as strangers-turned-friends who help each other in the disappointing love department. Set apart from cookie-cutter “romcoms” from the last two decades, this Valentine’s Day release gets back to basics: characters who form a believable bond like When Harry Met Sally, who have unfulfilled dreams like in While You Were Sleeping and who create a tangled web of sabotage a la My Best Friend’s Wedding. Director Jason Orley and director of photography Brian Burgoyne bring the story to life through wide shots in and around Atlanta, Georgia, creating a delightfully old-fashioned, contemporary classic. 

Day and Slate are center stage, finally. The shift is welcome after years of both actors being pigeonholed into zany, wise-cracking supporting roles. Here, they play Peter and Emma, respectively, two thirty-somethings who are both reeling from their unexpected breakups. He wants Anne (Gina Rodriguez) back, she wants Noah (Scott Eastwood) back and, together, they devise their own Parent-Trap plan to make it happen. The film works well not because of the hook, but in spite of it.  Contrived plots can be easily slathered with cliches, twinkle lights and twinklier actors and be called a romantic comedy. But This is Us vets Aptaker and Berger go deeper with both the romance and the comedy. 

Romance in I Want You Back looks like Peter and Emma laughing at a movie together, eating french fries in an unglamorous diner, talking about their unfulfilled dreams and helping an old woman with her food tray. It’s poignant in its simplicity, surprising in its maturity. And while the script itself is full of funny beats like hot tub jumping and awkward threesomes, Day and Slate elevate the material naturally; both pros at comedy and sincerity in equal measure. 

What sets this film and the aforementioned classics apart is the idea that the universe reveals its plan while you’re looking the other way. That trope in the genre can become – and has become – cliched, but when done correctly, it can work like a charm. For the first time in a long time, there’s a romantic comedy that works. 

I Want You Back is available exclusively on Prime Video on February 11, 2022.

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Sorkin Scores Again With Smart, Intimate ‘Being the Ricardos’

It doesn’t get better than this. Much like Lucille Ball, Aaron Sorkin is a master storyteller and uses his magic, once again, to write and direct Being the Ricardos, an intimate look at a woman, a marriage and a high-pressure job of performing for 60 million people every Monday at nine o’clock. While some viewers may expect a chronological biopic or a recreation of grape-stomping, chocolate conveyor belts and Vitameatavegamin, Sorkin instead places the film’s heroine during a tumultuous week of shooting I Love Lucy, from the Monday morning table read to camera blocking to the Friday night live studio audience. It allows viewers not only into the world of the television sitcom and the genius behind the physically comedic Lucy Ricardo, but into the intimate, unglamorous world Ball. 

Together with the talented Nicole Kidman, Sorkin doesn’t tell the audience who Lucy is, he shows us what she wants: a home, a faithful husband, a voice, to name a few. She wants freedom to be pregnant on air, to run a show without infringing on Desi Arnaz’s ego, to challenge the producer and writing staff to be better, to not dumb things down for either the characters or the viewers. The script, unsurprisingly, is compact and rich, always keeping you at attention with flash forwards and flashbacks, all while keeping you wondering what was going to happen. If Lucille Ball is accused of being a communist, will the show go on? We know it will … yet, we still watch with suspense of what happens next. 

NICOLE KIDMAN and JAVIER BARDEM star in BEING THE RICARDOS | Photo: GLEN WILSON | © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

Kidman and Javier Bardem embody the spirit of Ball and Arnaz, painting a picture of a doomed marriage and wildly successful business partnership. The backdrop of Los Angeles infuses their story with both old Hollywood glamour and tired melancholiness, whether they’re at the top of Mulholland Drive at sunrise or on a Desilu Productions soundstage on a weekday afternoon. It’s done tastefully and subtly, never over-playing the time period or showing even a glimpse of the Hollywoodland sign. 

Along with a stellar supporting cast in J.K. Simmons, Tony Hale, Nina Arianda, Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy, Being the Ricardos is an entertaining, important story that reminds us that our heroes within our four walls at home or three walls on television are just as human as we are. 

Amazon Studios will release BEING THE RICARDOS in theaters on December 10, 2021; Globally on Prime Video December 21, 2021.

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Nostalgic ‘Tender Bar’ a Subtly Poignant Coming-of-age Story 

Based on J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir, The Tender Bar is a nostalgic, coming-of-age story that’s simple in premise and complex in character. Directed by George Clooney and adapted by screenwriter William Monahan, the film centers on a young man’s (Tye Sheridan) life in Long Island; a lower-middle-class life full of eccentric characters like a struggling mom (Lily Rabe), a grumpy grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and, most importantly, a very cool uncle (Ben Affleck). 

Against all odds, J.R.’s smarts and skills land him at Yale University where he makes friends, falls in love and gets the idea to become a writer. But it’s the “remember where you came from” feeling that fills in the gaps where most people expect plot. And herein lies the beauty of stories like The Tender Bar – its characters are plot enough. 

Sheridan’s charisma and likability magnetically carry you along J.R.’s journey from his college acceptance letter to his first day as a young writer at The New York Times. He leads a charming supporting cast, most notably Affleck in an atypical role of paternal bartender Uncle Charlie. While it can be difficult to adapt an entire life’s memoir into a two-hour film, Monahan highlights the necessary points in J.R.’s journey for the story to make sense to the viewer: his girlfriend, his father, his mother’s cancer diagnosis. It all comes together to create a subtly poignant story of growing up, moving out and returning home again – through memory.

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‘Long Promised Road’ Celebrates Brian Wilson’s Musical Legacy

“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” hits theaters and On Demand platforms Nov. 19, celebrating the life and work of the iconic titular Beach Boy. More a conversation between friends than a formal interview, Wilson and Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine drive the streets of Wilson’s old neighborhood, chatting less about life and more about music – which, in their case, is undoubtedly intertwined.

There are artists who know it’s part of their job to discuss their work at length, to sit on panels and Q&As and attend press junkets and speak extensively about what they’ve made. Wilson isn’t one of them – he says from the start that being on camera makes him nervous.

Even in television clips of interviews with Wilson, the style of media coverage has changed. The questions were more about success than the art, and in present day he struggles to put words to the process. Speaking about it is hard, maybe because it speaks for itself. 

Fine puts him at ease, though, and director Brent Wilson (no relation) welcomes viewers along for the ride through the singer-songwriter’s life and work.

The most compelling aspect of “Long Promised Road” is hearing what other talented musicians, producers and writers have to say about the complexity of Wilson’s work at such a young age. Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Nick Jonas all praise not only his melodic genius, but the trail he blazed for younger musicians who wanted to do something different. It is a joy to hear their stories. 

Watching Wilson in the studio is especially fun – a glimpse of how his work is put together and comes to life before it reaches listeners. (“Long Promised Road” also features a new song, “Right Where I Belong,” written and performed by Wilson and Jim James.)

This documentary does for Wilson what “I’ll Be Me” did for Glen Campbell in 2014 – it allows us to celebrate the work and artistry and success of a man, rather than his personal life. Though the film doesn’t shy away from his personal struggles with mental illness and abuse from his father, it doesn’t make them the center either. 

To have this kind of tactful tribute and examination while an artist is still here – still touring – is rare, and should happen more often. As Wilson said about his later years: “It became more about the music again.” And “Long Promised Road” is as much about the music as the man, making it a must-watch for music fans of any age.

Wilson’s story about completing the album “Smile” 30 years after he started it is especially inspiring. A musical reminder that it’s never too late, and we shouldn’t be afraid.

“When I hear his music, it makes me smile,” John says in the film. “It makes me realize that there’s a lot of songs still left in me.”

It will do the same for you. Or at the very least, when the movie is over, you’ll stream the Beach Boys, or get out your dad’s old records which are tattered at the edges and skip in places from being played so many times. 

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Long Brothers Bring Silly Back in ‘Lady of the Manor’

“Laughter is such a great part of life,” Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) explains to a ghostly Lady Wadsworth (Judy Greer). And laughter is what writing/directing team Justin and Christian Long know best. From a stoned tour guide to a spoiled man-child (Ryan Phillippe), the Long brothers show off their keen observation of ridiculous human behavior in the purely silly, entertaining Lady of the Manor.

Starring Lynsky as an “aimless ne’er do-well,” the Pygmalion-like story centers on the unlikely friendship between a tour guide of a historic estate and the manor’s prim-and-proper ghost with unfinished business. And if you take the premise too seriously, then you’re really not in on the joke. Lady of the Manor is filled with farts, funny faces and complete mockery of humanity’s douchiest (i.e. Phillippe ordering a “vod sodes,” short for vodka soda). The outtakes of “tangerine juice” and “mint chocolate chip shake, no chips” are worth watching in their entirety.

This original buddy comedy is reminiscent of films that would line the shelves of family-owned video stores; the kind that would jam up the VCR because the rewind button was hit one-too-many times. Here, Hannah’s knack for accidentally flatulating in front of people is a particular highlight. Lady of the Manor might not be the comedy for everyone, but it’s a fun Friday night film if you’re willing to suspend your seriousness for a mere 90 minutes.

If Lady Wadsworth can do it, so can you.

Justin Long and Melanie Lynskey in ‘Lady of the Manor.’ Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate
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