Review: ‘From the Vine,’ starring Joe Pantoliano, Paula Brancati, Marco Leonardi and Wendy Crewson

November 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joe Pantoliano in “From the Vine” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“From the Vine

Directed by Sean Cisterna

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and Canada, the comedy/drama film “From the Vine” features a predominantly white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Feeling guilt and sentiment about the death of his grandfather (who passed away in the 1960s), a lawyer/auto executive who’s close to retirement age upends his comfortable life in Canada to re-open a vineyard in Italy that was owned by his grandfather.

Culture Audience: “From the Vine” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind seeing predictable movies that are filled with broad stereotypes of Italian machismo and men who go through a midlife crisis.

Wendy Crewson, Tony Nappo, Paula Brancati, Tony Nardi and Franco Lo Presti in “From the Vine” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

At times, there seems to be a misguided school of thought that the older someone gets, the ruder and more selfish that person is allowed to become, and people are just supposed to excuse obnoxiousness from a senior citizen. The reality is that there should be no age limit on politeness. But don’t tell that to the filmmakers of “From the Vine,” who try to make all the unpleasant old and middle-aged men in the movie look like charming eccentrics. It’s a weak premise for a movie that has a very anemic plot. Unlike the vintage wine that’s supposed to be in the movie, the film’s moldy humor does not get better with age.

Directed by Sean Cisterna, “From the Vine” was written by Willem Wennekers as an adaptation of Kenneth Canio Cancellara’s 2010 novel “Finding Marco.” The story in the movie is essentially about a man going through an “approaching retirement” crisis who decides to turn his life upside down, travel to Italy to rediscover his Italian roots, and re-open a vineyard that used to be owned and operated by his late grandfather. The man at the center of the story is Marco “Mark” Gentile (played by Joe Pantoliano), who gives a brief summary of his life in the first few minutes of the movie.

Mark, who is in his early 60s when this story takes place around 2010, was born in Acerenza, Italy, and moved to the United States with his widowed mother in the mid-1960s, when he was an adolescent. Mark’s father died before he was born. Mark got a law degree and married a Canadian graphic artist named Marina, who convinced him to permanently move to Canada. “Big fucking mistake,” Mark says bitterly in the movie. Mark and Marina have one child together named Laura.

Even though Mark has a law degree, he’s been working for the past seven years as a management executive at a corporation called Santius Automotive, which was owned by a somewhat bombastic mogul named Gordon Welsh (played by Frank Moore), who is dead but is seen in one of Mark’s many flashbacks in the movie. Mark calls Gordon a “friend and mentor.” It was Gordon’s decision to promote Mark to president/CEO of Santius Automotive.

Before Gordon died, Mark made a promise to him to make Santius automobiles more environmentally responsible, even if it would cost the company more money to do it. At a presentation meeting with investors to make the company’s annual projection plans for the coming year, Mark has prepared a presentation that would have these environmentally responsible goals and budgets. However, a sour-faced lower-ranking executive named Barbara Cavendish (played by Sonia Dhillon Tully) informs Mark shortly before the presentation that his plan is unacceptable because his proposed changes are too expensive.

Barbara gives Mark another presentation that was prepared for him, without his approval and without the environmental changes. Mark is heartsick over presenting this plan that he did not approve, because he knows it would break his promise to Gordon. The movie shows Mark at the podium going through the dilemma in his head over which plan he wants to present.

And then, the next scene is of Mark at his home in the kitchen making a romantic meal for his wife. What happened at the presentation meeting? Although it’s not shown in the movie, Mark couldn’t go through with the plan that was prepared for him, and he quit on the spot. His wife Marina (played by Wendy Crewson) is wondering why Mark is home so early, and when he tells her that he quit his job, she’s understandably upset.

Mark tries to smooth things over with Marina by presenting her with a gift: a first-class, open-ended plane ticket to southern Italy, where Mark’s side of the family is. Mark tells Marina that he’s been thinking a lot of about his late grandfather Canio Gentile, who lived in Italy. Mark lost touch with Canio when Mark was a law student. Sadly, Canio died before Mark could reconnect with him. And so, now that Mark has a lot of free time on his hands, he wants to go to Italy to rediscover his Italian roots.

Things are already rocky in Mark and Marina’s marriage. The passion has gone from their relationship (they sleep in separate bedrooms), and Mark doesn’t respect Marina enough to discuss making big decisions, based on the impulsive way that he quit his job and decided to gallivant off to Italy for an undetermined period of time. Marina is dead-set against the idea. She refuses to go on the trip with Mark and tells him that he shouldn’t go and should instead look for another job. (It’s a big change from the novel, where Mark’s wife gave her blessing for him to go to Italy by himself.)

Mark ends up going to Italy by himself, and it’s revealed later in the story that he just callously up and left Marina without telling her when he was going. She came home to find him gone, with no note or communication over where he would be staying. The only reason why Marina didn’t report him missing was because she knew that Mark had plans to go to Italy. Regardless of the problems in their marriage, it’s an incredibly selfish thing to pull that kind of disappearing act on a spouse. But that isn’t the last self-centered thing that Mark will do in his marriage to Marina.

Meanwhile, Mark’s relationship is also strained with his daughter Laura (played by Paula Brancati, who’s one of the producers of “From the Vine”), who’s in her late 20s or early 30s. Mark has made it clear to Laura that she has disappointed him, ever since she dropped out of his alma mater McGill University in Montreal, and she didn’t tell her parents for about a year. Mark has never really forgiven Laura for that deception, because while she had secretly dropped out of college, he kept sending her money that he thought was going toward her college education.

A flashback to a bitter argument between Laura and Mark shows that, to this day, Laura has never told her parents what she did with her life in the year that she secretly dropped out of college. But now, the tables have turned, and Laura and Marina are the ones angry at Mark for his irresponsible and deceptive actions. Mark eventually contacts Marina and Laura to tell them where he is in Italy, and he asks his wife and daughter to join him there. Marina and Laura adamantly refuse because they don’t want to drop everything to be at Mark’s beck and call for his aimless life in Italy.

In his first few days in Italy, Mark reconnects with a few people he knew in his childhood: Luca (played Marco Leonardi) is a very goofy police officer. Amelia (played by Rita del Piano) works as a manager of a local restaurant. Mark eventually makes his way to Canio’s vineyard, where he had many happy childhood memories.

At the vineyard, Mark meets the groundskeeper for the first time: Marcello (played by Tony Nardi), a gruff-natured man who slowly warms up to Mark over the course of the story. Marcello tells Mark that Canio was like an uncle to him. The vineyard has a middle-aged, unemployed, disheveled squatter named Enzo (played by Tony Nappo), whose only purpose in the movie is to be as annoying as possible. Marcello has unsuccessfully tried to evict Enzo, who reveals later in the story that he’s homeless because he lost his job at a wine barrel factory and his wife dumped him.

Mark visits a church, where he goes to confession and opens up about his hopes and fears about his future. The priest tells Mark to “get over himself” and advises him to do something that’s in service of something other than himself. And faster than you can say “corny plot development,” Mark announces at Amelia’s restaurant that he’s re-opening the vineyard.

The area where Canio used to live is now economically depressed and unemployment is high. And so, even though he has no experience running a vineyard, Mark decides to re-open the vineyard, so that he can help the locals and hopefully make some money if the vineyard is successful. The word gets out around town, and the next time Mark is at the vineyard, several local people (about 25) are waiting outside to ask for a job.

Mark’s way of starting the business is to hire as many local people as he can, even though none of them has experience working at a vineyard either. When Marcello protests and says it’s a bad idea, Mark just dismisses Marcello’s concerns and announces his plan to learn how to operate a vineyard: “We’ll Google it!”

The vineyard has been shut down because the property is 20 years behind on taxes. So what does Mark do to bring the vineyard out of this financial hole? He withdraws all the money from his and Marina’s retirement account and closes the account without telling Marina about it. She only finds out when a bank official contacts her to tell her what happened.

This is the last straw for Marina and Laura, who arrive unannounced in Italy to try to talk some sense into Mark. While Laura has a realistic reaction to her father going off a selfish deep end, Marina’s reaction is ultimately troubling because she lets Mark off too easily. In fact, most of this movie’s problem is that Mark is acting very unstable, but it’s laughed off by most people as Mark just being quirky.

The movie gets worse. Ever since Mark arrives in Italy, he starts hallucinating. He sees his grandfather Canio (played by Dino Becagli), who’s nicknamed Nonno, in the vineyard, as Mark starts having flashbacks to his childhood in Italy. (Michele Stefanile portrays the young Marco.) Mark also starts imagining that inanimate objects are talking to him. For example, the leaves in the grape crops taunt Mark and question his competency.

It’s all supposed to make Mark look sympathetic. It actually makes him look pathetic. People watching this movie will have a hard time getting past the fact that, despite Mark’s hallucinations, he was lucid enough to blow all of his and his wife’s retirement money on this run-down vineyard without even discussing it with her. This self-centered act of deception is essentially glossed over in the movie, which makes constant excuses for the men who behave badly in the film.

Meanwhile, the women in the movie try to act sensibly, but they end up just reacting to whatever the men do. It should come as no surprise that Marcello has a hunky nephew named Gio (played by Franco Lo Presti), who makes eyes at Laura as soon as they meet. You know exactly where this is going to go, since Mark is realistically too old to be operating the vineyard for the next 20 years.

Pantoliano has been playing the kind of “no filter” character who says and does pretty much whatever he pleases, so this role isn’t that much of a stretch for him. He seems to be going through the motions in this role, with no real emotional investment. Because Mark treats his wife like a doormat and not as an equal partner to be respected, a lot of people watching “From the Vine” won’t find a lot to like about Mark, who’s not as good-natured and smart as he likes to think he is.

Brancati is the only one in the cast who brings some realism and depth to her character. Everyone else in the movie is a vaguely written caricature with a lot of cringeworthy dialogue. And the issue of Mark’s mental illness is played for laughs as a cheap gimmick with tacky visual effects. The “jokes” in this movie aren’t very funny, and the movie’s pacing often drags. Even the most die-hard fans of Pantoliano would agree that “From the Vine” is a forgettable blip in his long career as an impressive character actor. The only thing that comes out looking good in the movie is Italy’s gorgeous landscape.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “From the Vine” on digital and VOD on October 9, 2020.

Review: ‘Bad Boys for Life,’ starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys for Life"
Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life”

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Culture Representation: Set in Miami and Mexico City, this male-centric action-adventure movie has a racially diverse cast of African American, Latino, white and Asian actors.

Culture Clash: “Bad Boys for Life” is a story of law enforcement versus ruthless criminals.

Culture Audience: “Bad Boys for Life” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Bad Boys” franchise and Will Smith admirers, but the movie’s superior quality to the previous two “Bad Boys” films could attract many new fans to the franchise.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in “Bad Boys for Life” (Photo by Ben Rothstein)

“Bad Boys for Life,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, has accomplished something most franchise movies haven’t been able to do—make the third film in the series the best one so far. Michael Bay, who directed the first two “Bad Boys” movies—1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II”—is no longer at the helm at the franchise, although he does make a cameo as a wedding emcee in “Bad Boys for Life.” And because Bay is no longer the director in charge of the “Bad Boys” franchise, the homophobic and racist jokes are gone, as well as the voyeuristic camera-angle shots that objectify the private parts of scantily clad women.

The directors of “Bad Boys for Life” are Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who previously directed indie films and episodes of FX’s crime-drama series “Snowfall,” before making their major-studio film debut with “Bad Boys for Life.” Smith, Jerry Bruckheimer and the other producers of “Bad Boy for Life” made the wise choice of hiring directors who’ve injected some new blood into this intermittent movie series. With “Bad Boys for Life,” there’s also a new team of screenwriters to the franchise: Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, who flip the script with some surprising twists. And here’s another refreshing aspect of “Bad Boys for Life”: The best parts of the movie aren’t in the trailers. In fact, the trailers make the movie look very predictable when the film really isn’t.

Make no mistake: The gun fights, car chases and machismo that people love about the “Bad Boys” franchise are all still there. So too is the crackling energy between Miami cop partners Mike Lowery (played by Smith) and Marcus Burnett (played by Lawrence), who are bickering opposites as much as they are loyal best friends. And the characters still reference Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” reggae song, which was also made famous as the theme song to the reality show “Cops.” Another familiar “Bad Boys” movie trope that’s still part of the franchise is the 360-degree slow-motion shot of Mike and Marcus standing up after a moment of despair. But even with all of these repeat characteristics, “Bad Boys II” was such an inferior, bloated mess that the only way for to go was up for any subsequent “Bad Boys” movie.

The first two “Bad Boys” films followed the cliché formula of cops versus drug dealers. They also had a token female supporting character as “a damsel in distress” type who wanted to be perceived as a strong woman, but was really someone being protected by Mike and Marcus. (In “Bad Boys,” the token female sidekick was Téa Leoni, who played a witness to a murder. In “Bad Boys II,” Gabrielle Union played Marcus’ younger sister, who was an undercover cop that Marcus and Mike still had to rescue.)

Instead of a “war against drugs” storyline, “Bad Boys for Life” veers in another direction, by having a young sharpshooter assassin named Armando Aretas (played by Jacob Scipio) on a revenge mission. Armando takes orders from his domineering and evil mother, Isabel Aretas (played by Kate Del Castillo), who’s in Mexico City while Armando is in Miami killing off law-enforcement people. Isabel’s husband was a drug lord, and she blames his death on people who are on the hit list. Viewers see in the beginning of the film that Mike is on the Aretas’ hit list, and Isabel (a femme fatale who’s into the occult) wants his execution to be saved for last.

Meanwhile, much of this sequel acknowledges how many years have passed between the second and third “Bad Boys” films, because there are constant references to how aging has affected Mike and Marcus. In the film’s opening scene, Marcus becomes a grandfather, when his daughter, Megan (played by Bianca Bethune), has given birth to a son, whom she names after Marcus.

Mike is still a smooth-talking bachelor playboy who’s slept with at least a few of the women who show up in the “Bad Boys” movies. He’s an heir to a fortune, and he indulges in his taste for high-priced cars and clothes. (The first two movies make reference to Mike having a deceased rich father, but Mike’s other family members aren’t seen or mentioned.) Mike isn’t the marrying type because he’s a workaholic whose entire identity is wrapped up in being at the top of his game as a police officer.

By contrast, Marcus is a married father who comes from a working-class background, and he’s always threatening to quit the police force. Marcus and his long-suffering wife, Theresa (played by Theresa Randle), had two sons and a daughter in the first “Bad Boys” movies, but only their daughter is seen in “Bad Boys for Life.” However, Joe Pantoliano has returned as Captain Howard, the immediate supervisor of Mike and Marcus, who still spends a great deal of time yelling at them for causing expensive chaos every time that Mike and Marcus chase criminals.

Even though Mike and Marcus have gotten older, they still have the same quirks. Mike is still a materialistic neat freak who loses his temper if any of his prized possessions gets dirty. Marcus is still the queasier and more sensitive of the two cops (his inclination to gag and possibly vomit at a crime scene is a running joke in all of the movies), and he’s the more spiritually minded partner who uses therapy and religion to deal with his stress. Marcus’ religious beliefs play a key role in a plot twist that keeps Mike and Marcus apart for about one-third of the movie.

“Bad Boys for Life” also shows more women in positions of power at the Miami Police Department than in the previous “Bad Boys” movies. One of them is Rita (played by Paola Núñez), the no-nonsense leader of a newly formed elite Miami PD intelligence team called Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO), which uses a lot of highly advanced technology in their surveillance. Rita is a former flame of Mike’s, and she resents having to work closely with him again. Mike and Rita’s strained interactions with each other make it clear that their romantic relationship ended badly—and they’re not completely over each other.

Also on the AMMO team are weapons specialist Kelly (played by Vanessa Hudgens), who idolizes Mike; laid-back computer whiz Dorn (played by Alexander Ludwig), who’s got brawn to match his brains; and smart-ass former DEA agent Rafe (played by Charles Melton), who often clashes with Mike. All of these extremely good-looking people on the AMMO team look more like models than real police officers, but who said a movie like this had to be 100% realistic?

“Bad Boys for Life” still has some cliché moments, such as the ultra-violent scenes where people seem to have superhero stunt powers, the obligatory Miami nightclub scene filled with beautiful people, and the inevitable fire/explosion scenes where the heroes don’t get burned. And the movie has plenty of comedic moments, some better than others.

However, “Bad Boys for Life” adds emotional gravitas that wasn’t seen in the previous “Bad Boys” films. The very real and tragic consequences of murder are acknowledged in more depth. Mike and Marcus also come to grips with being middle-aged, since they don’t feel as invincible as they did in their youth. (Although Mike is much more reluctant to admit it than Marcus is.)

As for the double-whammy Aretas villains, they’re the most dangerous out of all the “Bad Boys” villains so far, since their crime spree is motivated by hatred and revenge rather than by trying to protect a drug-dealing business. All of the actors do a competent job with what they’ve been given for their characters in this action film. Smith, in particular, adeptly handles the surprising change that Mike goes through toward the end of the film, which leaves no doubt that another “Bad Boys” sequel is in the works.

Columbia Pictures released “Bad Boys for Life” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.