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One Film This Holiday Season That Pulls On Both The Heart and Social Concerns Is “Instant Family"


Instant Family

Director: Sean Anders

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Tig Notaro, Octavia Spencer

Okay, so it’s heart-warming and brings us to tears. And yes, director Sean Anders’ “Instant Family” has three insufferably cute kids, a fluffy dog and enough irate friends and neighbors to make this the right seasonal comedy. As it turns out, it should be. Mark Wahlberg’s latest star vehicle is much more than a dopey gross-out comedy or balls-out action thriller (with guns blazing and big biceps bulging…) and thank goodness for it. 

This isn’t a simple, joyful holiday laugh fest or celebration — it grapples with a deadly serious, life-challenging issue — kids in foster care, those orphaned children who are treated like real Garbage Pail Kids. Sadly, many more children are being orphaned globally through war, family disruption and environmental catastrophes. Although the United States has a fairly robust system for coping with these lost children, it’s far from perfect and is riddled with flaws state by state. “Instant Family” addresses this without being preachy or somber but through humor, an honesty, and candor, it truly can raise society’s awareness of this matter. 

Based in part on Anders' own experiences adopting three children with wife Brenda, this movie marks his third collaboration with Wahlberg, following “Daddy's Home” and its 2017 sequel.  It’s also the second film the actor made with Isabela Moner after “Transformers: The Last Knight.”

In this tale, a drug-addicted mother (currently in jail having set their home on fire because she left out a lit crack pipe) lurks in the background.  Meanwhile her 15-year-old daughter Lizzy (Moner) and two younger siblings — Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz) — struggle to cope in foster care.

Enter Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) Wagner who decide to fill the void in their lives by having children. For unclear reasons, they turn to adoption (rather than natural birth) and visit a foster care center where two social workers, Karen and Sharon (Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer) guide the prospective parents into becoming adoptive ones. Of course, the couple falls for the younger kids but realizes they should take the less desirable teen into their home as well. 

From there, the laughs and tears ensue, as this incredibly naive couple cope with a very difficult process made even more complicated by tripling the situation. Every possible trauma comes to the fore from eating issues to a pervy adult preying on their new teen daughter. These challenges include sessions with other adoptive parents, school acclimation, grandparent rivalries and everything else one can imagine that conventional parents deal with — all compressed into a six-month trial period before qualifying to be adoptive parents.

“Instant Family” is comedy first and issue-driven drama second, but it effectively strikes such a balance that it rises to significance of the issues it addresses. It creates a significant awareness of such concerns as PTSD, feelings of abandonment and identity challenges.

Though the movie ends up being a feel-good experience, we should all feel bad that the problem of parentless children persists and that some of us prefer to remain unaware of it.  As the film expands its circulation, hopefully its audiences will confront the issues it raises -- reaching out to support such organizations as Hopeland ( and Adoption-Share  ( for more information.

November '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Some Like It Hot 


Still one of the funniest movies ever made, Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic might now run afoul of those who find it sexist and condescending, but it remains a breathless comic romp, with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown giving best-ever performances in a drag comedy that has one of the all-time great final lines of dialogue.




The brand-new hi-def restoration looks magnificent; extras are a 1989 commentary by film scholar Howard Suber; new featurette on Orry-Kelly's costumes; three making-of documentaries; 1982 Dick Cavett Show appearance by Wilder; 2001 Curtis conversations; and a 1988 French TV interview with Lemmon.


Bel Canto 

(Screen Media)

For this strangely inert drama about an American soprano in a deadly hostage situation at the South American mansion where she is performing, Julianne Moore seems out of her element, giving a technically accomplished but chilly performance (even her lip-syncing to Renee Fleming’s glorious singing seems off).




Director Paul Weitz also appears out of his comfort zone, with many dramatic moments missing their targets; he’s resigned to melodramatic clichés in the relationships that develop during the stand-off. Too bad that excellent German actor, Sebastian Koch, is also wasted. The film looks quite good on Blu; extras are short featurettes.


Crackdown Big City Blues 

(The Film Detective)

It perilously skirts Ed Wood territory at times, but it’s also what’s actually watchable about this 1991 time-capsule docudrama about a local community battling drug dealers on their own turf.




Director/writer Paul DeSilva and producer/writer Frazier Prince’s cautionary tale has perfectly wooden acting throughout, but set during the NYC crack epidemic it manages to make its case persuasively. The film looks decent enough on Blu-ray; extras are a vintage featurette and interviews with Prince and sound man Jim Markovic.




Argentine writer-director Gonzalo Calzada’s crazy idea is surreal, bloody and legitimately creepy: mix together a novice nun, evil spirits, pregnancy and sex and you have a bizarrely compelling watch that culminates with what may be the first successful sexorcism sequence in movie history.




And kudos to actress Sofía Del Tuffo for giving it her all—especially physically—as the young woman who fights back against the devil by having sex with him on the altar in a scene that must be seen to be believed. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer.






The Satanic Rites of Dracula 

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure 

(Warner Archive)

In 1973’s Satanic Rites of Dracula, Christopher Lee’s undead Count and Peter Cushing’s stake-wielding Van Helsing meet again in contemporary London for another ho-hum showdown courtesy of director Alan Gibson.




1959’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is anything but: this lazy programmer pits Gordon Scott’s brawny but brainy Tarzan against villains Anthony Quayle and a young Sean Connery. John Guillermin’s direction is slickly competent, but the climactic cliff fight is sheer hokum. Both films have excellent hi-def transfers with fully-realized grain and color.

Broadway Play Review—Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” Returns

Torch Song

Written by Harvey Fierstein; directed by Moises Kaufman

Performances through February 24, 2019


Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie in Torch Song (photo: Joan Marcus)


It’s rare to see a Broadway show as bighearted, sentimental, funny and heartbreaking as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. At its 1982 premiere, it was a four-hour behemoth titled Torch Song Trilogy, earning raves and two Tony awards for its author/lead actor, who played Arnold Beckoff, the lovably cranky drag performer at its center. Now shortened by an hour and losing a word from its title, it might be even more affecting with some meat trimmed off its bones. 


The probing Torch Song, which dramatizes Arnold’s successful onstage work as Virginia Hamm and his unsuccessful offstage life comprising fraught relationships with his bisexual ex, adopted teenage son and homophobic but protective mom, is set in the pre-AIDS era. Arnold’s lover Alan has been killed in a hate crime, beaten to death outside their apartment, a subtle reminder of the horrors gay men faced while trying to live their lives. Fierstein’s trimmed version and Moises Kaufman’s staging keep Arnold’s disparate relationships—with his mother; with Ed, who left him to marry a woman, but who returns when she throws him out; and with his adopted (and gay) son David—front and center. 


Arnold, who is presented with naked honesty, is annoying without becoming wearying, a difficult tightrope walk which Michael Urie accomplishes with exceptional skill, his deadpan looks after spitting out a lethal line or campy reactions after a deadpan reading allowing him to make Arnold sympathetic by showing him in his entirety: as performer and lover, father and son, joker and mourner.


The same goes for Mercedes Ruehl in the (admittedly) scene-stealing part of Arnold’s mother. Although Ruehl is an old hand at the killer pause, double take or exasperated retort, her Jewish mother who can’t understand why her son is gay is anything but clichéd. This delectable mother-son rapport has genuine—if occasionally uncomfortable—feeling.


The rest of the cast—Michael Hsu Rosen (Alan), Jack DiFalco (David), Ward Horton (Ed) and Roxanna Hope Radja (Lauren, Ed’s wife)—remains a step behind only because Urie and Ruehl are on such a rarefied plane. But everybody does justice to a humane work of art that has only deepened with age.


Torch Song

Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Juan Diego Flórez Sings Opera Greats at Carnegie Hall

Juan Diego Flórez photo by Chris Lee

A thus far superb season at Carnegie Hall continued splendidly on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18th with a recital of 19th-century European music sung by the superb, tremendously appealing tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, excellently accompanied by pianist Vincenzo Scalera.
The program was notable for showcasing some less familiar repertory, with the first half devoted to works by Italian composers, opening with two by Gioachino Rossini: “Addio ai viennesi”, a concert song from early in his career, and “Mi lagnerò tacendo”, one of several of his settings of a text by the famous 18th-century librettist, Pietro Metastasio. Selections by Gaetano Donizetti followed, beginning with the charming Waltz for Piano in C Major played by Scalera alone. Flórez then performed the exquisite “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir  d’amore, in which production the singer has triumphed to deserved acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera. After this he sang the recitative “Tombe degli avi miei” and the aria “Fra poco a me ricovero” from the celebratedLucia di Lamermoor.The first portion of the afternoon concluded with music by Giuseppe Verdi: “Ô toi que j’ai chérie” from the 1863 Paris revival of Les vêpres siciliennes, now most famous for its marvelous overture, and the cavatina-cabaletta from the seldom staged I Lombardi alla prima crociata,“La mia letizia infondere” and the second, faster version of “Come poteva un angelo.”
The other half of the program mostly comprised by French music, starting with several works by Jules Massenet: the art song “Ouvre tes yeux bleus” from Poème d’amour, succeeded by two arias from Manon, which was adapted from the classic novel by Abbé Prevost, “En fermant les yeux” and “Ah! fuyez, douce image.” Scalera then played the lovely “Méditation” from Thaïs, less saccharine scored for solo piano than in the original version.
There then ensued two selections from operas adapted from books by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” from Charles Gounod’s Faust and “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Massenet’s Werther.The concert concluded with the beautiful “Che gelida manina” from Giacomo Puccini’s enormously popular La Bohème.
Enthusiastic applause elicited an astonishing seven encores, beginning with three songs in Flórez’s native Spanish which he performed with his guitar: “Bésame mucho”, “La flor de la canela” by Chabuca Granda of Peru, the singer’s homeland, and “La Paloma”. Scalera then returned to the stage to accompany "Pour mon âme, quel destin!" from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, the aria that propelled Flórez to superstardom at the Metropolitan Opera. He then delivered Agustín Lara’s “Granada” and, finally, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. It was a stunning end to a wonderful afternoon.

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