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last update 17.Jan.18
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Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game
dir-scr Howard Weiner
prd Marshall Johnson, Peter Pastorelli, Eddie Rubin, Howard Weiner
with Martin Landau, Paul Sorvino, Maria Dizzia, Ann Marie Shea, Pamela Dubin, Alexander Cook, Lyralen Kaye, Kayla Harrity, Casey McDougal, Christine Vadnais, William Miller, Michele Proude
sorvino and landau release US 12.Jan.18
17/US 1h25
Abe & Phil's Last Poker Game There's a simplicity to this film that makes it easy to watch, even if it never feels like it breaks the surface. Anchored by the warm final performance from Martin Landau, the film has some nice things to say about growing old. It's all a bit slow and meandering, but the bittersweet mix of understated comedy and drama is evnjyable and sometimes moving. And there are honest observations about identity along the way.

When caring for his senile wife Molly (Shea) becomes too much, retired doctor Abe (Landau) moves with her into an assisted-care facility. There he meets Phil (Sorvino), a relatively younger man who is trying out an experimental cancer treatment he learned about from the home's cynical director Richard (Cook). Abe is also surprised to find his libido awakened by volunteer art teacher Sheryl (Dubin). Meanwhile, new nurse Angela (Dizzia) has joined the staff after being told that her biological father is a resident there. But she has no idea who it might be.

The film has a gently awkward tone that reveals first-time filmmaker Weiner's inexperience, balancing a rather sappy musical score with a script packed with moments that feel written from personal experience. Many of the nursing home scenes are anecdotal, featuring observations that are clearly meant to be amusing in a kind of geriatric gross-out sort of way. Where the film grabs hold is in the tender interaction between Abe and Molly, and the blossoming friendship between Abe and Phil.

Landau gives a grounded performance that taps knowingly into how it feels to have an ageing body and a lively mind. Abe's approach to life is aware and engaging, which makes his relationships with other characters engaging. Sorvino is solid as a good-time boy facing his mortality, and Dizzia brings a hint of spark as she seeks her father's identity and breaks Abe and Phil out of the facility for a break. Each of these people has business to take care of, and the actors add a personal touch to the rather obvious plot.

It's nice to see a film in which retirees' interest in sex is played realistically rather than for comedy value. These kinds of off-handed observations feel realistic and meaningful, even if the narrative never generates very much steam. So while the straightforward writing and directing and overlit sets resemble a TV movie, the salty dialog and strongly well-observed performances lift it into something slightly more interesting.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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Dance Baby Dance
dir-scr Stephen Kogon
prd Roy Bodner, Travis Huff, Stephen Kogon
with Stephen Kogon, Beverley Mitchell, Carlos Alazraqui, Lisa Brenner, Clare Grant, Jim O'Heir, Isaiah Lucas, Hayley Shukiar, Paula Bellamy, Jim Nowakowski, Aaron DeWayne Williams, Ellen Kim
kogon and mitchell
release US 19.Jan.18
18/US 1h33
Dance Baby Dance With a relaxed, sunny sensibility, this is basically the kind of movie someone makes when they have a camera and an idea, but no experience at all. Pretty much everything about the film is clunky, but it's all so super smiley that it's hard to remain cynical. It's also rather difficult to stay interested, unless perhaps the cast and crew are friends or family.

Jimmy (Kogon) is determined to tapdance in an upcoming showcase, and is trying to get dance studio owner Hector (Alazraqui) to sponsor him. But Hector has his eye on younger dancers Ravon and Dex (Lucas and Nowakowski), plus internet tapdance sensation Kevin (Williams). Jimmy's wife Tess (Mitchell) teaches aerobics for Hector, so does what she can to convince him. Meanwhile, Tess' newly single sister Lanie (Brenner) and her surly daughter Kit (Shikiar) come to visit. While Lanie hits the bars in anger, Kit turns out to be a tap dancer, so starts training with Jimmy.

The film's general likeability makes up for its amateurish production values: overlit sets, overplayed characters, condescending script and choppy direction. Bumbles abound, from Jimmy's bizarre way of applying shaving foam to a one-day montage involving at least five costume, location and weather changes. But the oddest thing is the utter lack of musicality in the dancing scenes, as the songs seem to have been added later with virtually no connection to the tap steps, some of which are plainly performed by a double.

The actors all go over the top, filling scenes with exaggerated reactions while punching every line to make sure the audience gets it. This basically means that there's no subtext at all. In the lead role, actor-filmmaker Kogon wears a goofy grin through every scene, never quite capturing the reality of a nice guy unwilling to accept that age and an injury have ended his dance career. As Jimmy's boss, experienced actor O'Heir (of Parks and Recreation fame) is the only one who underplays his role.

There's the nugget of a decent idea at the centre of this film, but the characters and plotting are so straightforward that it's impossible to identify with anyone or get caught up in the predictable story. It's amiable enough to hold the attention, but nothing feels terribly realistic, there's no edge to the characters or situations and very little momentum in the narrative. Still, as the story of someone dreaming against the odds, it does has a certain charm.

U some themes, language

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In Another Life
dir-scr Jason Wingard
prd Rebecca-Clare Evans, Hannah Stevenson
with Elie Haddad, Yousef Hayyan Jubeh, Toyah Frantzen, Biniyam Biruk Theshome, Shahid Ahmed, Adam Wittek, Elizabeth Bouckley, Mudar Abbara, Ahmad Malas, Bhasker Patel, Abdullah Afzal, Aqib Khan
haddad release UK 17.Jan.18
17/UK 1h24

raindance film festival
In Another Life This low-budget British drama has such a compelling story that it's impossible to ignore, even if the filmmaking feels somewhat loose. It's a rare look at the immigration subject from the perspective of a refugee, and the film beautifully captures his inner yearning for some semblance of stability in his life after everything and everyone has been taken from him.

Adnan (Haddad) is a lively young man stuck in the Jungle in Calais, trying with his friend Mima (Theshome) to sneak onto a train, truck or boat to England. He travelled here with his wife Bana (Frantzen), who has gone ahead of him. But there are many obstacles, including police and traffickers who are determined to rob these helpless people. When Mima disappears, Adnan teams up with his hopeful friend Yousef (Jubeh), trying to raise cash to pay a Polish handler (Wittek) to get them across the Channel while avoiding an Arab gangster (Ahmed).

Writer-director Wingard shoots this in striking black and white, which gives the film an everyman quality: this is just one story of millions. And the imagery mixes vivid aerial shots with documentary footage to add a strong sense of context, while flashbacks trace Adnan and Bana's journey from war-torn Aleppo across the sea to Greece, through Hungarian forests and Western European farmland. There are some odd holes in the plot, and a few scenes don't quite make sense, but the emotional journey rings powerfully true.

Performances are relaxed and realistic, as the actors seem to improvise most scenes. Haddad is a likeable protagonist with a wry sense of humour and intense loyalty to loved ones. Adnan's friendship with Jubeh's somewhat impulsive Yousef becomes the core of the film, as they have a series of adventures, some of which are terrifying. They also have an authentic sense of tenacity about sticking together, even after disagreements that, to be honest, feel a little scripted.

Indeed, the screenplay is the film's weakest element, as quite a few scenes feel incomplete or unconvincing, never quite generating the desired momentum or emotional intensity. But the internal narrative is so gripping, and the characters so sympathetic, that the audience has no trouble going along with it. There's also a terrific sense that these refugees have nowhere to turn, and are certainly not safe from either harsh officials or racist locals who can't see them as human. Thankfully, there also are people out there trying to help them. And that's both moving and inspiring.

15 themes, language, violence
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Saturday Church
dir-scr Damon Cardasis
prd Damon Cardasis, Adi Ezroni, Rebecca Miller, Mandy Tagger Brockey
with Luka Kain, Margot Bingham, Regina Taylor, Marquis Rodriguez, Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Alexia Garcia, Kate Bornstein, Jaylin Fletcher, Peter Kim, Evander Duck Jr, Jarrett Austin Brown
kain release UK Oct.17 lff,
US 12.Jan.18
17/US 1h22

London film festival
Saturday Church Gentle and introspective, this film beautifully captures the wrenching feelings of a young teen struggling to find a place where he's accepted. The main theme may be sexuality, but writer-director Damon Cardasis taps into it with a raw, earthiness that's disarming. So it's easy to identify with even the more extreme characters in the story. And what they have to say lingers.

After his father's death, shy teen Ulysses (Kain) has new responsibilities helping his mother Amara (Bingham), his strict Aunt Rose (Bingham) and his 8-year-old brother Abe (Fletcher). But Ulysses is hiding a secret from his religious family: he's questioning his sexual identity, dressing in women's clothing. Bullied at school for being soft, he longs for a world where he can unapologetically be himself. Then on a trip into the city, he meets fabulous tranny Ebony (Mj Rodriguez), who takes him to Saturday Church, an LGBT youth club where he can possibly release his inner diva.

Cardasis tells this story beautifully through Ulysses' eyes, including several colourful and moving musical fantasy numbers. For Ulysses, Saturday Church is his first glimpse into New York's flamboyant voguing scene, as well as a first boyfriend in Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez). But expressing his inner self requires living a double life, being the dutiful son at home and at church on Sunday. Trying to find a path through this situation isn't easy, and the film doesn't shy away from the darker moments. It also doesn't dwell on them, instead concentrating on deeper feelings.

This allows the actors to be understated and thoughtful, never taking the obvious route into even the most intense scene. Kain has terrific presence in the demanding central role, adding soulfulness to both Ulysses' reticence at home and as he comes out of his shell at the club. Kain is a strikingly gifted young performer who openly expresses his heart without resorting to sentimentality. And the actors around him have a nice complexity that feeds into his story and catches us by surprise.

As joyous as it is watching Ulysses finally stop hiding and express himself, the film maintains a sobering edge as he encounters religious-based rejection from the people closest to him. The shared experience of these people, rejected by those they trusted and needed, is powerfully evocative. When Rose calls Ulysses "weak", it's clear that she couldn't be any more wrong. The story may feel a little slight, but it carries an important kick.

15 themes, language

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