One thing nobody ever misses about on-site work, especially the white-collar kind, is staff meetings. Even at their best and most productive, they are generally onerous. God knows it only takes one duff personality to drag them into the kind of teeth-pulling agony from which almost nothing productive ever emerges… not even successfully extracting permission to go off on one’s own and actually get something done. They are one of the most maddening among (arguably) necessary things. Nor it is generally any better when the meetings are not for a paid private-sector workplace but for a non-profit, or community group, or something else in which people feel a very personal investment… and/or the need to seize a personal platform. As everyone else twiddles thumbs and contemplates murder.
The new Czech-Slovak film—well, new to US release, it’s actually from 2019—The Owners captures that feeling of losing one’s mind amidst a quasi-democratic meeting process with alarming accuracy.
The exasperation is so familiarly true, in fact, that for a while I thought I’d barely be able to stand watching it. In the end, however, Jiri Havelka’s movie—a home-turf hit adapted from his own stage play—proves impressive as something more than just a harrowing replication of procedural constipation. It’s a political and societal metaphor, rooted equally deep in the rueful comedy of Czech New Wave (Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel etc.) and the bureaucratic nightmares of much Czech Lit (Kafka, Havel and so forth).
A co-operative apartment building in Prague is the setting and the subject here. Its occupants are lucky to have the stability of owning their flats, however uncommon gratitude is among them. But the site is old with a lot of deteriorating-structural issues and whatnot that must be addressed, sooner or later. It’s already… later. One immediately gleans from our nominal heroes—doggedly purposeful young mother Mrs. Zahradkova (Tereza Ramba) and her mild-mannered husband (Vojtech Kotek)—that all prior stabs at effective decision-making have been defeated by their neighbors’ obstinacy and nit-picking. But for the sake of their family’s future, the couple is determined that this time, there will be a tangible result.
Ha. Any such triumph will require agreement amongst members of a homeowners’ association who seem to take pride in never agreeing with anyone, even when it’s in their own best interest to do so. Simply having a meeting is rendered suicidal-ideation-provoking by Mrs. Roubickova (Klara Meliskova), a vinegary type who insists on “the rules” at the expense of any progress—she introduces endless, needless speed bumps like voting to decide whether to vote on the prospect of voting.
Also seeming to enjoy the power of derailing any forward movement are an old crank (Jiri Labus) who disapproves on principle of everything since the fall of Communist rule. Ditto a put-together matron (Pavla Tomicova) who turns out to be “subletting” her flat to six Ghanian-emigre male supposed-students—with whom her relations are said to be other than platonic. She’s brought along a “business partner” (Ondfej Maly) who has no legal standing here, but makes a giant pain of himself nonetheless.
All these petty squabblers take care to articulate their perceived superiority towards a lone gay resident (Andrej Polak). He seems the only reasonable person present, alongside the Zahradkovas. Bets might as well be placed on how long it will take to drive him, and them, away from this gathering of lunatics insistent on controlling the asylum.
There are others, too, either utterly useless or misleadingly harmless, including an adult simpleton representing his sickly mother’s interests (though he seems able to grasp only the snacks on offer), and two sleek, helpful, very corporate alleged heirs of a recently deceased tenant. (In calmly riding out everyone else’s storms, you get the feeling those men will ultimately steal the property whole, on behalf of some anonymous foreign investor.) An expectant newlywed couple that’s just moved in will probably start looking to sell after a first taste of this collective stasis.
Even though without collective action it’s noted that “the building will rot away before our eyes”—sections are already doing so—most of these people would rather it do so, if cooperation means surrendering one stubborn inch of their personal agendas. Soon emotions run so high, not just tears are spilled and insults thrown, but a marriage or two may get broken tonight.
The Owners functions as a satire of social dysfunction on both the individual and group plane. Capitalism has heightened greed, even if almost no one here seems to be benefitting. Yet the pervasive intransigence remains cemented in yesteryear’s Soviet bloc culture, wherein the mediocre rose to the controlling top precisely for their willingness to defend an entropic status quo. As every proffered solution is refused, increasingly for no real reason at all, many of these characters become so loathsome, we almost wish for a fire or bomb to put them all out of (our) misery. Even the nice ones reveal hidden pockets of racism or homophobia that wear at one’s patience.
Yet the film’s ingeniousness in structure and performance is its own redemption. This may in a sense be just another variation on the “Dinner party from hell” dramatic conceit, in which awful people tear each other apart in single-setting real time. But it finally reaches a point that feels transcendent (if not exactly upbeat), all brilliantly-cut sharp edges and lingering ambiguities making some kind of original statement. The Owners opens Fri/1 at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas.
The eruption of long-simmering tensions on a home front is also inevitable in two more newly arrived features. In Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s The Good Mother, Hilary Swank plays Marisa, a hard-drinking widowed newspaper reporter with two adult sons in 2016 Albany, NY. The supposedly “good” one is a cop (Jack Reynor). The bad one is a ne’er-do-well from whom they’re both estranged, though still shaken once he’s found dead in some sort of likely drug-related drive-by shooting.
Natch, she investigates. She’s soon joined by the late son’s pregnant girlfriend (Olivia Cooke), whom Marisa initially assumes enabled his downfall, only to find they were both on the road to sobriety. Despite his also being reluctantly involved in some skullduggery involving “Mother’s Milk” (a heroin-coke-fentanyl mix), and the bad guys are still trying to find the stash of it that he’d hidden.
The Good Mother (not to be confused with a Diane Keaton vehicle with the same title 35 years ago) means to be a vividly rough-hewn straddling of character drama and thriller, about up-to-the-moment issues as well as timeless family-tie ones. It’s not terrible, but nothing quite works as intended: This feels like an adaptation of a well-observed novel whose connective tissue got lost either during the scripting or editing processes. The actors can’t quite fill out roles that remain one-dimensional, their impersonations of hard living coming off as familiar affectations. The organized-crime elements are poorly developed, and not very suspensefully executed. We’re not mean to think of these characters as dumb, yet they keep traipsing recklessly into dangerous situations, like dolts.
The whole opioid aspect feels like an afterthought, its current-events vibe further undercut by sloppy anachronisms—the film seems to really want to be taking place in some vague past, perhaps the ever-“gritty” Seventies. Swank plays a supposedly stellar journalist, but this is yet another movie that seems to have no idea how journalism works. She’s described as so old-school she “barely knows how the internet works.” Come again? The actress herself isn’t yet 50—are we meant to think Marisa has spent her entire professional life somehow evading its basic relevant technology?
Such contrivances keep Good Mother from ever being particularly convincing. Nor does it work as stylish pulp: Joris-Peyrafitte makes poor directorial decisions that only render the narrative more cluttered and under-realized. Among them are an irritating penchant for kick-dropping illustrative flashbacks every time a character references any other person or thing or event. There are also tin-eared musical choices, the kind that make you think “OK, what producer owed a favor to some singer-songwriter friend who wanted soundtrack residuals?” Earnest, yet inauthentic and ineffectual everywhere it counts, the film opens in Bay Area theaters including SF’s Metreon this Fri/1.
Better is the UK-India-US coproduction Goldfish, which opens the same day just at San Jose’s Cinelounge. It’s another tale of parental failure and attempted recompense. Tightly wound Anamika (Kalki Koechlin) is forced to return to the London home she was raised in because her semi-estranged mother Sadhana (Deepti Naval) is slowly succumbing to dementia, but resists accepting any care. “Let’s just get through this,” the resentful daughter brusquely announces upon arrival.
But while director Pushan Kripalani’s script (co-written with Arghya Lahiri) crowds in myriad entertaining additional characters and subplots, the movie never quite clarifies the central issues between mother and daughter. We think it’s going to be an Anglo-Indian spin on Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata—like Ingrid Bergman in that film, Sadhana is also a retired musician of some repute—yet neither the expected backstory dirt or long-suppressed argumentative fireworks ever quite surface.
Still, the whole works, more or less. Overstuffed, unevenly cast, awkward in attempting to pull together a lot of quirky tonal shifts, it’s like a big, messy novel that keeps you engrossed even as you wish it were more carefully crafted. I was particularly glad to see Koechin, an unusually versatile, non-glam Indian female star—if only to remember 2014’s Margarita with a Straw, one of the least-formulaic screen depictions of disability ever, in which she was extraordinary as a stubbornly free-thinking woman with cerebral palsy. Goldfish is not in the same league. But it is a pleasing seriocomedy with some seasoned insights into lives permanently suspended between one culture and another.