Meet the Patels

(USA 2015)

Poking fun at cultural differences and the generation gap seems like an easy way to get a laugh, and maybe it is. Fortunately, it works in Meet the Patels, a genuinely funny documentary of one man’s search for love that becomes a family project. After breaking up with his Caucasian girlfriend of two years– a girlfriend he never mentioned to his immigrant parents– L.A. based comic Ravi Patel decides to try the traditional Indian system of hooking up: letting the parents arrange it. Why not? It worked for them, and his mother is known for her matchmaking skills.

Although we don’t see much of sister Geeta as she records everything, her presence is pervasive: she’s off-camera laughing mischievously, goading her brother and chiding him when he vacillates on dating matters. The real stars, however, are Patel’s parents, father Vasant and mother Champa, who fret endlessly over the fact that their children are approaching their thirties and are STILL single, as though this qualifies them as town lepers. Vasant goes so far as to declare, in all seriousness, that not getting married makes one “the biggest loser you can be.” They quickly put together Ravi’s “biodata,” which essentially is a dating resume, and forward biodatas of potential matches to him. They take him to weddings and give him pep talks. They send him all over the States to meet Indian girls. The results are amusing and illuminating. For example, I didn’t know “wheatish brown” is a thing to look for in a mate. I never heard that some skin tones and geographical areas are more desirable than others. I had no idea that many Patels prefer to marry other Patels.

Ravi’s deadpan “OMG” delivery is consistently fun, and animated bits interspersed throughout the film keep the mood light. In the end, it’s clear that no matter how disparate certain views may be, parents and their children can find a middle ground, adapt, and find happiness together. Meet the Patels is warm, relatable, and something pretty much anyone will find entertaining. I laughed a lot.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

Christmas, Again

(USA 2015)

Nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit like a gloomy holiday story. Noel (Kentucker Audley) sells Christmas trees on a makeshift lot on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. He works an all-night 12-hour shift. He constantly has to ride his worker, Nick (Jason Shelton), and Nick’s girlfriend (Oona Roche) to get anything done. He fields petty questions and solves petty holiday problems for petty, self-absorbed customers. He sleeps and eats—I wouldn’t call it living—in a trailer on the street, where he survives on a diet of energy pills and antidepressants stashed in an Advent calendar. He buys scratch-off lottery tickets for fun. Oh yeah, he broke up with his girlfriend sometime in the last year. Noel seems lonely. Or is he just someone who doesn’t need the company of others?

One night while working, Noel comes across a woman, Lydia (Hannah Gross), passed out on a bench in a park. Their paths—and her jittery boyfriend’s—cross a few times, and that’s it. 

Christmas, Again probably is not going to end up being anyone’s favorite Christmas movie anytime soon, but it works on quite a few levels. More a string of quiet events than a full story, its real achievement is the mood it sets. Dolorous and blue, the camera moves slowly and blurs the background leaving only hints of cold colors. The cinematography (Sean Price Williams) is beautiful, making the shots literally an opaque blue. I loved the old distorted Christmas music that sounds like it’s playing from an AM radio, the Christmas lights permanently out of focus in the background, and the uneasy, unnatural, and sometimes suspenseful interactions between Noel and Lydia, both of whom are easy on the eyes. There’s a palpable sense of despondency that comes through here.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

Gabo: the Creation of Gabriel García Márquez [Gabo, la creación de Gabriel García Márquez]

(USA 2015)

Despite a misleading title that suggests TMZ-like journalism, Gabo is a decent biography of one of the greatest authors from the Twentieth Century—and probably the best-known Latin American writer, ever. Justin Webster does a thoughtful and thorough job covering García Márquez‘s impressive life from his humble beginnings in Colombia to his lean days in college and his careers as journalist and then Nobel Prize winning author. He touches on major works and even gets into García Márquez‘s politics. Comments from celebrities like Bill Clinton are nice, but the best stuff comes from García Márquez‘s siblings, Aída and Jaime, and his friends.

Warning: those expecting an in-depth discussion of García Márquez‘s literary works or his “magical realism” will be sorely disappointed; Gabo is very much a factual account of the man’s life. It’s not a biography that humanizes its subject, nor does it mirror his work.

(Gener Siskel Film Center) C+


Heart of a Dog

(USA 2015)

At first blush, a film about a pet might sound funny, even stupid. Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s first feature-length in 29 years, is neither. The film’s center is Anderson’s rat terrier, Lolabelle, but don’t be fooled: there’s a lot more to this piece.

Focusing on “Lola”– who “fingerpainted,” “played” the keyboard, and apparently had a Facebook page– Anderson reflects on life, death, loss, grief, and love in an emotional yet restrained, objective way that probably only she can pull off. Drawing from her experiences growing up in the Midwest, life in Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11, her dreams, and even topics she must have researched, she zigzags between personal anecdotes– both serious and goofy– and information and the topic of death. Death is clearly on her mind: she circles back to Lola, her mother, children in an intensive care burn unit where she was stuck for months as a child, and eventually her famous husband, whose presence hovers like a ghost in the love story she references– it’s fitting that he sings over the closing credits (“Turning Time Around”).

As one might (or should) expect, Heart of a Dog has strong visual and auditory sides. Visually, it’s a pastiche of drawings, paintings, animation, home movies, dramatizations, and natural scenes that blur and mix together. The soundtrack is cool, with bits and pieces of orchestrated sounds and Anderson’s soothing, robotic cadence. The effect is a dreamy, airy, semi stream of consciousness. In the end, it’s a touching elegy that struck a chord with me. Heart of a Dog is an art film that manages to be accessible without losing its impact.

(Music Box) B+

70 Acres in Chicago

(USA 2015)

The title refers to the area between North and Chicago Avenues and Halsted and Orleans Streets, where the (in)famous Cabrini-Green housing project once stood. I remember when the last building came down in 2011. 70 Acres in Chicago is both an oral history and an essay on the rise and fall of “the CG” or “the Soul Coast,” which one speaker describes as “one mile from Downtown, yet in a whole ‘nother economic dimension.” Long before Cabrini-Green was built, the area was a depository for the poor– until the late 1990s and early 2000s when developers saw potential for something else. Today, a “mixed income” approach exists, which as this film demonstrates has advantages but presents a different set of problems.

Ronit Bezalel is pretty clear about her views on gentrification, but she’s not heavy-handed about them. The historical perspective is a nice backdrop. The many personal stories of those who lived in Cabrini-Green make this film special; they run the gamut from funny to poignant. One thing I did not expect was the amount of nostalgia that came through. 70 Acres in Chicago suggests that maybe someday race will no longer be an issue in America, but class is another matter altogether.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Paris, Texas

(USA 1984)

I wasn’t sure what to make of Paris, Texas at first. It opens with a twangy Ry Cooder slide guitar playing as some grubby dude in a tattered suit and a red baseball cap wanders through a desert in the American Southwest. Carrying only a plastic gallon water jug, he stumbles into a gas station bar and passes out. When he comes to, he’s in some town hospital– a sad, one-room affair staffed with a lone German physician (Bernhardt Wicki)– and refuses to speak. Insert eyeroll here.

This man, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), has a brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who comes from Los Angeles to a dubious rescue. Slowly, it is revealed that Travis has been M.I.A. for four years. He had a family and a life, and lost everything except a plot of land in Paris…Texas, that is. Walt reunites Travis with his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). After an awkward adjustment, Travis and Hunter hit the road in search of wife and mom Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who sends Hunter a check each month from a bank in Houston even though she no longer speaks to him.

I love this film, and I can’t come up with anything negative to say about it. Written by playwright Sam Shepard, adapted by L.M. Kit Carson, and directed by Wim Wenders, it’s closer to perfect than any other film I’ve seen in a long time. The story is beautifully simple, and unfolds poetically (as corny as that sounds). The characters, on the other hand, are anything but simple; they’re flawed, searching, frustrating, and real. So much happens without a lot of action: the small, quiet events that transpire here are big, magic moments of truth. The desert scenery, highways, and big sky are more than just a stunning backdrop: they reinforce themes of loss, redemption, and sacrifice that surface throughout the story. Absolutely timeless and flawless.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A+


(USA 1975)

Nashville has all the elements of a Robert Altman film: a massive ensemble cast of well known actors, a bunch of interconnected subplots under a general overarching story, naturalistic plot development and dialogue, social commentary, sarcasm, humor, sadness, and even a few cameos by celebrities playing themselves. Just like The Player and Prêt-à-Porter much later, Nashville takes on “the industry”—here, country music.

I don’t know much about Grand Ole Opry and I was never a fan of country, but neither matters: Nashville is a hoot to watch. An awful lot of talent is present, but the performances I like best are Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a wannabe star who can’t sing a note to save her life; Shelley Duvall (I didn’t recognize her until the credits rolled) as a skanky roller girl from L.A.; Henry Gibson as an old school George Jones (maybe?) star; Keith Caradine as Tom, a womanizing and opportunistic uber Seventies Kris Kristofferson type; and Lily Tomlin as Linnea, a session backup singer with two deaf sons. Jeff Goldblum has a very minor and silent part—probably one of his earliest. The songs, purportedly written by the actors, are great, arguably the best part of the movie. The ending comes out of left field, which scores big with me for being unpredictable.

Although I enjoyed Nashville, I had some problems with it. Like many Altman films, it’s gratuitously long; two hours and 40 minutes is more than enough time to tell this story. My mind wandered at times, mainly because of the meandering way the action plays out. It’s a lot of work to follow 24 characters. Many of the conversations take place over each other, forcing you to choose which ones to focus on—that gets tiring. The running gag with the BBC reporter (Geraldine Chaplin) goes on too long. I’ve heard some lofty praise for Nashville, some of it warranted. However, it’s not my favorite Altman film by any stretch—if you’re wondering, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or the aforementioned The Player are in my humble opinion much more satisfying.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Nashville “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Music Box) C+