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Review: Uncle Samuel Needs You

October 10, 2018

A movie you and your family need to know about:

You thought you were casually reading a film review and here I am giving you an assignment. Take 12 dollars (or the price of movies in your area) per family member and run to see The Samuel Project. It was released in New York and Washington September 28, and will reach 40 cities by October 12. If your local theater allows you to pre-purchase tickets on the web, please do that as soon as they become available.

Or not.

You can be a lazy apathetic couch potato, it’s a free country. There are infinite ways to spend your time and money: do your own thing! But don’t come crying to me afterwards about how you can’t find a movie for your kids.

You claim to be concerned about the direction [hint: arrow pointing netherward] of our culture, so you keep your wallet in your pocket and stay home. But your boycott, such as it is, while it does take cash out of the till of the film industry, is not an identifiable protest. If you are making a statement, it is mostly echoing in your own head or in your living room over the shelled peanuts. The only way to revolt against the revolting is to show up when a genuine storyteller tells a genuine story in film — without the emotive Viagra of blood and gut, crud and smut.

If you support good wholesome film — with drama, romance, suspense and comedy in healthy packages — there will be more of it made. True, Michael Medved argued in his 1992 best-seller Hollywood vs. America, that Hollywood would rather make waves than make money. He showed that family films by Disney and other studios make more money than sleazy ones, yet the red-light district of Hollywood Boulevard gets green-lighted more easily. Still, there is a limit to his argument. If the silent majority shows up to embrace the decent, even the most strident push-the-envelope types will recognize the bulge in their pay envelope.

Furthermore, we don’t need Hollywood as much anymore. The opportunity to make high-quality independent films is growing apace. And if clean indies can clean up, there will be a Cultural Revolution of sorts, or was that a poor choice of phrase? In fact, I have recently incorporated Different Drama Productions in Hollywood, Florida (“The Other Hollywood”) for just this purpose. But, oops, we are not talking about me…

Hal Linden stars in The Samuel Project, alongside the excellent young actor, Ryan Ochoa. Linden will always be Barney Miller to people like me who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, but he is a revelation here as Samuel, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor running a dry cleaners shop in San Diego. Ochoa plays grandson Eli, who has no reason to dislike Gramps, but no reason to like him either. The generation gap is so total that their relationship is neither affectionate nor affrictive, merely indifferent. They are planets with orbits that seem never to overlap.

The intervenor, to borrow a legal term, is dad Robert, played by Michael B. Silver, whose grandfather wrote Mister Smith Goes to Washington. His wife left him when the boy was young and he has bravely soldiered on. He missed his chance to get a professional education, and he is stuck trying to get by as a real-estate broker in the Southern California real estate market, a high-commission area but dominated by women. Eli hopes to do better than community college after high school, aiming for admission into a prestigious art school. Robert is not opposed but not optimistic.

Events bring the grandfather and grandson into collaboration on an art project about Samuel’s experiences during the Holocaust. Additionally, Eli’s class partner in the effort is the son of an Armenian butcher, who pays Samuel to do his laundry, and throws in some nice cuts of beef as a perk.

As I watched the film, I found myself transported into the studio office where writer-director Marc Fusco, a former Steven Spielberg sidekick, was undoubtedly being screamed at by movie mavens to have the characters at each other’s throats. The grandfather should call the son a loser and the son should call the grandson an ingrate. The grandfather should have a second wife who despises his children and grandchildren, so he has to sneak out to meet the kid. And on and on and on.

But Fusco took the heat and preserved his story without fireworks. Hal Linden in an interview told me he supported that approach: “Tell the story.” It works and I want you to send me a letter afterward telling me how much you enjoyed it, along with all the generations in your own family.

In the Bible, the generation gap was bridged by the elderly Eli tutoring the youthful Samuel. The Talmud says their initial meeting almost ended in disaster, but Samuel’s mother Hannah helped work things out. This time it is Samuel tutoring Eli; the result will warm your heart and give you hope for our future.

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