Thursday, September 21, 2023

Film Reviews: A Trio of Films Celebrates the Triumphs of the Little Guy in “Flora and Son,” “Cassandro” and “Dumb Money"

Flora and Son (c) Apple TV+

Film:  Flora and Son 
In Cinemas, on Apple TV next Friday 

Director John Carney’s films all have one plot, and yet each one has been unique and enjoyable in its own right. From Once, about a busking Irish singer and his newfound bandmate, to Begin Again, about a young songwriter finding her singing voice, to Sing Street, about a band of young Irish lads who form a band out of necessity, Carney has always celebrated the power of music to elevate one’s mind (if not one’s actual economic status). So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his latest film, Flora and Son, is about the eponymous working-class single Mom (Eve Hewson, who is the daughter of rock royalty) and her rebellious son, Max (Orén Kinlan), who discover that their shared love of music might bring purpose to their current downward social-class trajectory. It all starts when Flora finds a beat-up guitar and gives it to Max for his birthday, but Max, being the ungrateful 14-year-old that he is, only likes making his rat-a-tat-tat spoken word songs on his computer. So, Flora takes up the guitar herself, even finding a teacher on YouTube: a Zen SoCal aspiring songwriter named Jeff (a mellow Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and before you know it, Flora is co-writing songs, which gives her a new outlet to deal with her life problems. This is pure John Carney, with no real surprises, but it sure is enjoyable comfort food, which is very similar to another Apple TV produced and Oscar-winning movie, CODA. Will Flora and Son, which, like CODA, prominently uses Joni Mitchell’s “Both Side Now” as its spiritual inspiration, have the same awards outcome? It will certainly be an unabashed crowd pleaser. How can it not when a cheeky character calls himself the Dublin O7 (as in the Irish James Bond)? John Carney, the screenwriter, takes his characters down a very familiar path, but Carney, the director, tweaks the visual style a bit for some surprisingly fun moments, including how to make a Zoom call a bit more cinematic. And then there’s Carney, the songwriter. His catchy tunes, co-written by Gary Clark, is the beating heart of Flora and Son, from “Meet Me in the Middle,” which beautifully evolves throughout the film, to the finale crowd pleaser, “High Life,” which sings “This song’s a love song/It’s not an apology.” Duly noted. 

Cassandro (c) Prime Video

Film:  Cassandro 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Amazon Prime Video 

Biopics are a dime a dozen, but sometimes the person’s life is so compelling (and the actor who inhabits the character is so committed) that it transcends the standard beats of its genre. The epitome of this has to be Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It.  Cassandro, the debut film from Roger Ross Williams, about the real-life flamboyant and iconic gay wrestler known as the “Liberace of lucha libre,” is serviceable at best. It gives us the familiar beats of young Saúl’s life, from being a yeoman generic wrestler (who always loses to the star attraction) to becoming an exótico (a much derided drag archetype in the lucha libre world) named Cassandro, with only a dash of Psych 101 cliff-notes in regards to his relationship with his parents that planted the seed to his success. What Williams does get right is the grimy and rundown world of the local lucha libre matches, which includes a fellow wrestler Gerardo (Raúl Castillo) and a promotor’s assistant Felipe (Bad Bunny) who are not immune to the charms of Cassandro. And who could resist when Cassandro is played with such magnanimous charm by Gael García Bernal, in the best role of his career. To say he embodies Cassandro is a bit of an understatement. Bernal inhabits the man’s spirit and his ego with such ferocity (don’t let his constant smiling fool you) that nothing, except perhaps for his roles in a couple of Pedro Almodóvar movies, has prepared us for his Cassandro. Saúl’s only constant in his life is love for his much put-upon but fierce single mother Yocasta (the wonderful Perla De La Rosa), whose wardrobe Saúl raids to come up with Cassandro’s look. The film goes down familiar tropes of corruption, drugs and homophobia of the Mexican wrestling world, but its ending, while completely sentimental, is surprisingly effective, because of the way Bernal plays the scene. He barely says a word, but we can see in his face that he has finally achieved his biggest goal. One of Cassandro’s most notable changes from the lucha libre was doing away with the luchador mask. He wanted to world to see who he was. And thanks to Bernal’s fearless and acrobatic performance, we do indeed see him. No mask. 

Dumb Money (c) Sony Pictures

Film:  Dumb Money 
In Cinemas 

Dumb Money dramatizes one of the more interesting distractions during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. No, not Tiger King, but the fate of GameStop, the once thriving video game retail store found in most suburban malls, which had been hurting since the digitalization of the video game industry. This makes hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) so interested in GameStop stock and its eventual and imminent failure. But what eventually saves GameStop (there’s one in my neighborhood still) might have been the pandemic itself. It stayed opened because it classified itself as an essential business (providing electronic hardware like keyboards). But with bored mid- to lower-income Americans stuck at home, turning to the internet for some source of distraction, many of them found the musings of Keith Gill (Paul Dano) aka Roaring Kitty, whose penny-trading posting on YouTube and Reddit made him a minor celebrity. So, when he seems to have an optimistic outlook on GameStop, its stock begins to climb, slowly at first but eventually enough to catch the attention of the financial news media. Soon after that, it becomes a David and Goliath battle between the Wall Street Hedge Funds, whose term for this kind of penny stock market trading is “dumb money,” and a coterie of ordinary folks who want to stick it to the rich. They include a single mother nurse (America Ferrera), a couple of debt-ridden college students (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold) and even a GameStop employee (Anthony Ramos). But mostly, it is seen through the lens of Keith, a humble low-level finance guy who finds joy in creating these videos, with the support of his wife (Shailene Woodley) and the derision of his loser brother (Pete Davidson). Paul Dano, who was so good in The Fabelmans and so scary in The Batman last year, is this film’s anchor and the everyman role is probably his best and most relatable to date. The film owes a lot of its stylistic turns to films like “The Social Network” (the Winklevoss twins are producers of Dumb Money) and The Big Short, which tells its own hedge fund takedown through the prism of the housing crisis. Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) does a good job juggling all these threads, although the film somewhat short-shrifted the narrative of the Robinhood app (where most of the amateur investors bought the stock), which wastes the talents of Sebastian Stan as its CEO Vlad Tenev. This is certainly a fun and funny movie, but alas, its joys are sort of bittersweet as not much has happened legislatively since this whole brouhaha came to light to change any Wall Street practices. But, for a couple of months, it certainly felt like we 98% could finally stick it to the 2%. And this film successfully celebrates that can-do spirit.

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