Film: Clingy Ma, Brainy Paw

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They’re joined at the hip, those two. Paloma, 35 and single, applies sunblock to her 15-year-old’s back. That would be Héctor, doe-eyed, shy and still holding on to some baby fat that’s bound to disappear in the next couple of years. He, of course, returns the favor. Then they wait for their skin to absorb the lotion before going out to sunbathe by the pool.

The opening scene in Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke’s Club Sandwich sets the tone for the wise, tender coming-of-age comedy that follows: spare, unassuming, gently observant. Its minimalism is of the playful, come-hang-out-with-us variety, and it won over this critic, who tends to grow wary and skeptical every time the lineup for the Miami International Film Festival is announced. (Let’s just say I’ve been burned in the past, in different ways.)

It’s that time of the year again, fellow movie buffs and local culture patrons. Time to mosey over to the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami, Regal Cinemas South Beach, Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Wynwood or, for what I believe is the first time, the spiffy Paragon Grove. Time to take in the usual – and sometimes unusual – assortment of social issue-driven documentaries, prestige European dramas and edgy fare from independent U.S. filmmakers. Will the next Blackfish, Fruitvale Station or Great Beauty be among the 93 feature films showing at the 31st MIFF? Let me get back to you in two weeks.

But where are my manners? I left Paloma and Héctor hanging. Mother and son, you see, are taking advantage of a special promotion to vacation at a resort during the off season, which is fitting, considering how fond Eimbcke and cinematographer María Secco are of long shots in which the main characters occupy empty spaces, be it lounging by an empty pool or having lunch surrounded by a sea of empty dining hall chairs. It’s them against the world, the caring, free-spirited Paloma (María Renée Prudencio) fussing over, bickering with and, well, being a mother to his resentful-on-the-surface-but-deep-down-grateful offspring (Lucio Giménez Cacho).

Enter Jazmín (Danae Reynaud), perky, flirtatious and most definitely keen on getting to know Héctor. So how does the increasingly smitten 15-year-old react to his newfound holiday companion? He rubs one out. He whacks off standing up by the hotel room window while Mamá is fast asleep. He spanks the monkey in bed while Mami’s away … while wearing her red bikini top. Those raging hormones are eating him alive, and he just c-c-c-an’t h-h-h-help himself. So what happens when Jazmín, who’s 16 – and trust me, that 1-year gap makes all the difference – makes the first move? Let’s just say things don’t go very smoothly.

Their tentative, disarmingly awkward courtship does not go unnoticed by Paloma, who appears to be cool about the whole development but begins exhibiting territorial behavior in all kinds of unexpected and hilarious ways. That eyebrow ring she’s wearing might suggest a bohemian past, but put a girl between Mommie Dearest and sweet, slightly pudgy Héctor, and watch her turn into a traditional Latin mom. The elephant in the room, which the movie briefly addresses in one scene, is the absence of a father figure in Héctor’s life, which harkens back to Eimbcke’s debut feature, the latchkey-kids-whiling-away-an-afternoon charmer Duck Season (2004).

This valentine to single moms and the teen sons who love them (when they don’t wish they’d go away so they can get down to business) captures the moment a boy realizes he’s embarking on that pothole-filled road to adulthood, and it does so with warmth, sensitivity and an appreciation for life’s simple pleasures, such as the titular room service menu item. It also allows Secco’s meticulous framing to do a lot of the heavy lifting, reducing most of the dialogue to small talk, both pointed and mundane. At 82 minutes, Club Sandwich is a tasty morsel, small in scale but immense in empathy for all characters involved. It’s an oasis for festivalgoers weary of the hard-sell approach of so many comedies, indie and studio-produced alike. Here’s hoping it’s a good omen for the rest of MIFF’s 2014 lineup. Fingers crossed.

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Single parenting seems to be a recurring theme this week. Multiplex audiences young and old will probably flock to catch DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the latest feature from Rob Minkoff, who co-directed a tiny film called The Lion King back in 1994. I was hoping for a return to form for the Stuart Little helmer following his unwatchable indie bank-robbery comedy Flypaper (2011), which wasted Ashley Judd and Patrick Dempsey in an insufferably cutesy/twisty caper. His target this time around: bringing the cult characters in Rocky & Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward’s Peabody’s Improbable Histories segments to the 21st Century.

The new film, a 3D adventure, features the voices of Ty Burrell and Max Charles as the time-traveling genius pooch and his adopted human son, respectively. At first glance, it seemed like a good idea to place Peabody, a devoted but emotionally detached father sporting Cecil Beaton eyewear, in the middle of a custody battle against a disapproving, humans-should-be-raised-by-humans social worker (Allison Janney). In the film’s most accomplished sequence, Minkoff depicts in regressive flashback how Sherman came to adopt the bright orphan who’s finally heading to school after years of home schooling/time-trotting history lessons. The flashback sequence is clever and touching, qualities that are in short supply elsewhere in the film, most disappointingly of all in the actual time-travel portions.

Working from a screenplay by TV vet Craig Wright, Minkoff retains the source material’s penchant for having historical figures like Marie Antoinette and King Tut speaking in slang-heavy contemporary jargon, but with the exception of the estimable Patrick Warburton’s take on Trojan Horse mastermind Agamemnon as the original frat brother, the characters are shrill stereotypes and their dialogue is astonishingly lame. The film’s most fascinating character is Penny (Burrell’s Modern Family costar Ariel Winter), who makes life for Sherman a living hell on his first day at school. The idea that girl bullies can be just as vicious as their male counterparts is hardly groundbreaking, but Minkoff depicts the display of emotional violence with unvarnished potency. Many kids are this irredeemably cruel … which makes Penny’s eventual softening all the more dismaying.

The same bland squishiness pervades throughout Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which shows a once gifted storyteller phoning it in. I’d tell this whimpering father/son tale to play dead, but this one’s poised to bark all the way to the bank.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman bow wows March 7 in wide release. Club Sandwich screens March 10 at Regal Cinemas South Beach and March 12 at the Paragon Grove 13.

About Ruben Rosario

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