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Reviews for September 25th, 2015

99 Homes

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

      Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father, gets evicted from his family home along with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and son, Connor (Noah Lomax). While living out of a motel and struggling to make ends meet, he agrees to work for the very same real estate broker, Mike Carver (Michael Shannon), who had seized his home and evicted him. Little do his mother, son and other evicted individuals living in the motel know that Dennis helps to evict homeowners, many of whom have families and owned their homes for many years.

      99 Homes unfolds much like a thriller and has its fair share of suspense, but along with that it's also character-driven, provocative, profoundly moving and organic. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi deserve to be commended for tackling a sensitive, important and timely issue without resorting to sugar-coating or veering off into unnecessary tangents. Roger Ebert would be proud of Bahrani for co-writing such an intelligent screenplay that remains grounded in humanism. By focusing on the evolving, complex dynamics between Dennis and his greedy boss, Mike, the film remains electrifying from start to finish. Lesser talented screenwriters would have included distracting flashbacks that would explain what happened to the mother of Dennis' child or to Dennis' father for that matter. But, alas, Bahrani and Naderi know better than that: instead, they omit the backstory and exposition while leaving them up to your own interpretation and imagination. Moreover, they avoid painting Mike as a cartoonish villain; he is a human being after all, and a product or perhaps a victim of our poorly and under-regulated capitalistic economy where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If Mike had taken any courses in Economics or Finance, he'd learn what everyone is taught: higher GDP is good. Good for who or whom? It's not good for the economy if growth occurs without including the poor along with it. My very own Finance professor in college said to the class: "Greed is good." and "I like selfishness." Everyone in the class took those statements for granted like the monkeys they they were. I was considering to bring them all bananas on the last day of class, but my conscience got the better of me. Mike would've easily been one of those monkeys had he taken that course. It wouldn't be surprising if underneath his appearance of confidence and strength lies a lot of weakness, shame and sadness, but, again that's up to your own interpretation based on your understanding of human nature. He clearly lost his conscience a while ago while Dennis is in the process of losing his, although you can sense that deep down he's a good person and wants to do the right thing.

      Part of what makes the characters of Dennis and Mike feel so real are the Oscar-caliber, well-nuanced performances by Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. They're both very well-cast and at the top of their game. Garfield sinks his teeth convincingly into a character that's strong yet fragile and vulnerable at the same time. You'll find yourself truly caring about Dennis and feel sorry for him when he goes door to door to evict homeowners. Those scenes are among the most haunting and powerful of film--they're just as heartbreaking as the scenes in Oren Moverman's The Messenger when two soldiers had to go door-to-door to notify families of the death of their loved ones. 99 Homes would probably make an interesting double-feature with The Messenger.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Broad Green Pictures.
Opens at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square.

The Keeping Room

Directed by Daniel Barber


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Drafthouse Films.
Opens at Village East Cinema.

Mississippi Grind

Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck


Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

Theresa is a Mother

Directed by C. Fraser Press and Darren Press

      Theresa McDermott (C. Fraser Press), a singer/songwriter, lives with her three children, Maggie (Schuyler Press), Tuesday (Maeve Press) and Penelope (Amaya Press), in a New York City apartment. Facing eviction, she and kids moves back into the rural home of her parents, Cloris (Edie McClurg) and Roy (Richard Poe). There, she finds a job doing yard work for a neighbor, confronts a traumatic event from her childhood that had been buried deep inside her. She also befriends Jerry (Robert Turano) of Seth (Matthew Gumley), the kid who had been doing the yard work before she offered a lower wage to the neighbor. Jerry asks her to help Seth write a song for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Meanwhile, Theresa struggles to raise her three young kids.

      For a dysfunctional family dramedy to work as a whole, it must effectively balance its dramatic and comedic elements as well as stay grounded in humanism. The screenplay by C. Fraser Press finds that balance, for the most part, while avoiding veering into uneven, melodramatic or sitcom territory. Press uses off-beat and refreshingly witty humor as a means of generating laughter---the most laugh-out-loud scene is Seth's Bar Mitzvah speech rap which you'll have to see to believe. In between the film's humorous moments, there's a sadness and darkness involving Theresa's innate struggles that's relatable to anyone who's ever been stuck in a rut or going through a turning point in their life. That sliver of darkness adds a richness that gives some substance to the film. One particular scene that blends drama and comedy seamlessly is when Theresa sits at a kitchen table looking glum a while her parents are enjoying themselves in their hot tub, and her father joyfully enters the kitchen in his towel. It's a very well-edited scene to boot. To be fair, though, the third act falls a part a bit as many films tend to do, some more than others. The solution provided for one of Theresa's problems feels too convenient, and it's introduced in a rather sudden, tacked-on way that's not particularly believable nor does it convince you that it's a permanent, effective solution.

      Despite that minor, forgivable flaw, Theresa is a Mother boasts a raw, natural, brave and well-nuanced performance by C. Fraser Press who's the film's heart and soul. Her performance helps to keep you captivated and emotionally engrossed from start to finish, and you'll find yourself caring about Theresa as a character and want her to overcome her hardships. Given that the film was directed by C. Fraser Press and her husband, and starring her and her kids, it's good to know that it never actually feels like a vanity project, navel-gazing, monotonous, vapid mess like Towheads for instance. It's ultimately a well-acted dramedy that's heartfelt, funny and refreshingly witty.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Garden Thieves Pictures.
Opens at Cinema Village.
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