Monkey Kingdom


Monkey see, monkey do.

Monkey see, monkey do.

(2015) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Tina Fey (narrator). Directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill

What could be more fun than a barrel full of monkeys? Try an ancient Sri Lankan temple full of monkeys.

The latest nature documentary from Disney’s nature documentary arm once again enraptures us with incredible images of animals in their natural habitats just being themselves. In this case, we’re following a tribe of Macaque monkeys in an abandoned ancient temple that has largely been reclaimed by the jungle. We get to see monkey culture as very much a mirror of our own, with those at the top getting the best of everything and those at the bottom struggling to survive.

The heroine here is Maya, one of the bottom dwellers. She exists on whatever scraps of food she can find on the floor of the jungle. The tops of the fruit-laden fig trees are reserved for Raja, the alpha male and the Sisters, a trio of red-faced dowagers who serve as Raja’s support group. In monkey society, the sisters are essentially born into privilege whereas Raja earns his position by fighting his way to the top.

The social hierarchy is very strict and attempts to rise above one’s place is met with severe punishment. Maya’s outlook changes when she meets Kumar, a male who has been driven from his own tribe by their alpha male looking for a new tribe to join. Kumar is taken by Harold…I mean, Maya…and her cute-as-a-bug bowl haircut that resembles Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber. Eventually Maya ends up pregnant while Raja drives off Kumar when Kumar is a little too flippant with his status. Typical man, running away when responsibility calls, right?

Now Maya is a single mum and she’s not just trying to survive on her own but must eat enough so that her milk flows for her baby. To get the nutrition she needs she has to take a few chances and brave monitor lizards, human settlements and the wrath of the sisters in order to keep her child fed. The whole tribe however faces incredible adversity when another tribe invades their home and pushes them out. With many of the males injured and the tribe displaced, it is surprisingly Maya who leads the tribe to steal food from the humans and lick their wounds until they are sufficiently recovered to make an attempt to take back their home.

Like most DisneyNature films, the animals are anthropomorphized so that kids can identify with them, which to Disney executives is crucial I suppose although I think the executives would be surprised by how kids would identify with the animals without having to resort to making them characters. That’s just me talking though.

What DisneyNature does right in a big way is the footage itself. Did you know monkeys can swim underwater? I didn’t until now, and watching them hunt for lily pad seed pods under water is literally breathtaking. We get vistas of the Sri Lankan jungle, beautiful sunsets, winged termites rising by the thousands becoming a flying feast for the monkeys and so much more. The footage is absolutely transfixing.

The monkey battles are handled tastefully, including the death of one of the monkeys. However, the vision of angry monkeys screeching and galloping into battle like golden brown cruise missiles might upset children of a sensitive nature. You know your child well enough to know whether or not they can handle it. In general I think most children can; as I said, it’s handled with sensitivity but be aware in any case.

Despite my complaint about turning the animals into Disney characters, I still look forward to the DisneyNature films every year. Not only are they incredible to watch but Disney makes a real effort to call attention to issues within the biodiversity of this wondrous planet of ours. They also contribute financially to organizations who help preserve habitats and save entire species, so one has to give respect for that, although I’d love to see them do a film on black rhinos who are nearly extinct. Maybe in 2017. In any case, if naturalist Jane Goodall puts her stamp of approval on a film about monkeys – and she has on this one – you really can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage of monkeys and their environs. Teaches us a bit about our own culture.
REASONS TO STAY: The usual bugaboo about humanizing animals. May be a bit too violent for sensitive children.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming was done in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: True Story

Unfriended


Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig's Facebook page.

Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig’s Facebook page.

(2015) Horror (Universal) Moses Jacob Storm, Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman, Mickey River, Cal Barnes, Christa Hartsock, Darell M. Davis. Directed by Levan Gabriadze

The world has changed. Now more than ever our lives are wrapped up in social media and the internet. Friday nights for the average teen aren’t hanging out in malls anymore; they’re hanging out in chat rooms, Skyping with your friends, checking out videos on YouTube, listening to tunes on Spotify and often all at the same time.

There is also an ugly side to being a teen, one that has been around forever. It’s the cruelty of youth, the instinct to tear down those things – and people – that don’t fit in with the norm, that don’t march in lockstep to the beat of whatever your clique is marching to. Whether it is slut shaming, outing the gay kid or posting videos of the carnage that is a drunken teen party, kids do things without thinking of what the consequences of their actions can be, not just for those they’re being cruel to but to themselves as well.

And it’s a typical Friday night for Blaire Lily. She’s chatting up her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) and on a Skype conference call with her friends Mitch, Jesse Felton (Olstead), Adam Sewell (Peltz) and Ken Smith (Wysocki). Pretty typical stuff, except what they have forgotten is that it’s the anniversary of the suicide of their friend Laura Barns (Sossaman). She’d taken her own life after a video of her drunken antics at a party had been posted to YouTube, complete with her passing out and soiling herself. The anonymous posting had devastated her world; trolls urged her to take her own life and eventually she did.

Now there’s a mystery caller who has hacked into their call, someone who knows all about their secrets but wants someone to fess up – who posted the video to the net of Laura Barns that led to her death? And the mystery caller has ways of making them talk, like a deadly game of Never Have I Ever that exposes some of their indiscretions to one another as the terrified teens begin to turn on each other. Who is this mysterious caller and what do they want? Blaire is beginning to suspect it’s Laura Barns herself.

Gabriadze has come up with a clever concept that the film is scene entirely through Blaire’s keyboard; we see her cursor moving, typing in responses to the chat, and the video on YouTube and Skype that she’s seeing. In a sense, this is a kind of found footage film to the ultimate degree. The downside is that this is going to get dated awfully fast but for 2015, it will fit in perfectly for the teens of the era.

The other side is that for all the gimmickry – and it is gimmickry, make no mistake – that no horror movie can rise above and become a classic without characters in it that will be memorable, that you want to root for and become genuinely concerned for as they are picked off, one by one. That doesn’t happen here. Perhaps I’m old and jaded but none of these kids stood out at all; all of them were spoiled, shallow and had a mean streak deep down. How can I relate to someone who would post a video of their “best friend” passed out drunk in their own poop on the internet where it will remain forever? Does that sound like someone you want to spend any time with?

And like most horror movies lately, there’s not an adult to be seen. Anywhere. It’s like teen paradise where parents are always absent and they can pretty much do what they want. That’s how you sell movies like that to teens; they’re the heroes, there are no adults telling them what to do and when there are adults around they’re generally assholes or incompetent. No wonder they think we’re all morons. Of course, so often we are from their point of view. Or from anyone’s.

Anyway, this is the kind of horror movie that’s a little short on scares; mostly you’re watching Blaire’s laptop screen. That may sound boring but there is a kind of interactive element to it; the result is that you feel like you’re the one doing the typing and it does bring you closer to the story which is more or less a Ten Little Indians revenge rehash. If only we could have cared about the characters being knocked off the movie might have been more than a passing fancy that in five years will be dismissed as being “so 2015.”

REASONS TO GO: Nice concept.
REASONS TO STAY: More concept than execution. Characters all bland and undistinguished.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity and violence, some sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use as well as a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Facebook accounts see in the film actually exist and can be accessed by anyone.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Monkey Kingdom

Danny Collins


Pacino describes the size of his paycheck as a bemused Bening and Benoist look on.

Pacino describes the size of his paycheck as a bemused Bening and Benoist look on.

(2014) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Nick Offerman, Aarti Mann, Katarina Cas, Giselle Eisenberg, Anne McDaniels, Eric Lange, Brian Smith, Michael Patrick McGill, Cassandra Starr, Scott Lawrence, Meghan Aruffo, Eric Schneider, Linda Wang. Directed by Dan Fogelman

Fame is something we wear on our heads like a sombrero; it might appear to some to be like a halo but at the end of the day it’s just straw.

Danny Collins (Pacino) has been living with fame for most of his adult life. Once a promising folk singer, a cross between Bob Dylan and John Lennon, he has settled into a groove as a soft rock pop star, feeding off the energy of his massive hit “Hey Baby Doll” and others of that ilk, not a one of them written by Danny Collins and none of them as heartfelt or insightful as those he wrote himself in his youth. But thirty years have passed under that bridge and there’s an awful lot of water that went with it.

After another rote concert filled with screaming old ladies whose days of beauty were decades gone and who retained just enough of their bloom to be utterly ridiculous, he’s ready to give it all up. Those feelings are sealed when his best friend and manager Frank (Plummer) gives him a letter written to him by John Lennon back in his youth. You see, Danny had done an interview with a now-defunct rock magazine with a smarmy interviewer (Offerman); the interview catches the attention of none other than John Lennon who wrote him a letter care of the smarmy interviewer who promptly sold the thing. Frank had only found it a few months earlier.

For Danny, the effect is galvanizing. He tells Frank to cancel his upcoming world tour and points his private jet towards Jersey – not before breaking up with Sophie (Cas), his much younger fiance. Why Jersey? That’s because that’s where his estranged son Tom (Cannavale) lives. Tom is a working class guy, the sort that takes whatever construction job comes his way in order to feed his family; his very pregnant wife Samantha (Garner) and his severely ADHD afflicted daughter Hope (Eisenberg). Danny was pretty absent in Tom’s life and Tom didn’t take kindly to it and hasn’t really been able to get past it.

But given Danny’s sex drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, that might not have been a bad thing.  Danny has made a lot of mistakes in his life and in many ways his chickens have come home to roost. He has occupied a room in a suburban Hilton, arranged for a grand piano to be brought in and sets out to woo the attractive manager Mary (Bening) and charm his family, but both are uphill battles for a man who has become used to taking the path of least resistance.

Fogelman, who’s made a tidy career writing Disney animated films (including Cars) and unimpressive comedies (including Last Vegas) makes his directorial debut here. In all truth it’s pretty solid if unspectacular; Fogelman hits all of the right notes and while he doesn’t take a whole lot in the way of chances, he delivers a product that is more than palatable.

That’s mainly because of the presence of Pacino who delivers one of his more enjoyable performances of recent years. Danny is a charming Irish rogue at his best and while that sort of role hasn’t exactly been one Pacino has been noted for in his career, he does a great job of making Danny the kind of guy that you’d love to hang out with but that you wouldn’t want dating your sister.

He’s got a solid supporting cast behind him, with the ever-lovable Bening as the love interest, the just-as-charming Plummer as the best friend and Cannavale (more on him in a moment). Only Garner seems a bit wasted in her role as the daughter-in-law as she mostly seems confused and bewildered, although she shows a bit of backbone when Danny offers to get Hope in to a prestigious school that they could never afford to get her into on their own.

I honestly think Cannavale has it in him to be an A-list leading man. He has mostly been cast in thug roles but I don’t think they suit him very well; he seems to do better with more sympathetic parts. Here he’s gruff and a bit stubborn but at his core he’s a good-hearted man who just wants to do right by his family.

The soundtrack is definitely worthwhile with plenty of John Lennon songs, although they are used a bit of a ham-handed manner; I mean, we don’t need to hear “Working Class Hero” to know that Tom is just that or “Instant Karma” after a failed attempt at reconciliation with Tom. The Danny Collins songs – the Leonard Cohen-like one he’s writing in the hotel, and the insipid pop “Hey, Baby Doll” are less memorable.

The story is a bit rote and the plot twists are pretty old school if you ask me. Then again, this isn’t a movie about redemption; it’s about understanding who you are and growing when need be. What I like about this movie is that Danny doesn’t end up being the perfect grandfather/father and write insightful songs that re-energize his career. The changes in his life are coming piecemeal as best as he can. In that sense, Danny Collins is a real character because real people don’t make wholesale changes but gradual ones. Nothing happens overnight except maybe a Beyonce album.

REASONS TO GO: Pacino is a hoot. Cannavale continues to be a cinematic presence.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really inspire audience commitment. Predictable ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was inspired by the real life story of English folk performer Steve Tilston who learned of a similar letter sent to him by John Lennon 40 years after the fact.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Somewhere
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unfriended

New Releases for the Week of April 24, 2015


Ex-MachinaEX-MACHINA

(A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Corey Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani. Directed by Alex Garland

A programmer at an internet search company wins a competition to spend a week with the reclusive CEO in his secluded mountain estate. Once there, he discovers that this isn’t a paid vacation; he’s been selected as the human component in a Turing test of a new artificial intelligence, testing the capabilities and essentially the self-awareness of Ava, who turns out to be much more than the sum of her parts and much more than either man could have predicted.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence)

The Age of Adaline

(Lionsgate) Blake Lively, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker. A freak automobile accident in 1935 leaves young Adaline ageless and deathless. However, immortality proves to be more of a curse than a gift and she spends 80 years hiding her secret and running away from life until she finds the possibility of love. A weekend with his parents though threatens to expose her secret, leaving her to make a momentous decision.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and preview video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for a suggestive comment)

Brotherly Love

(Freestyle Releasing) Keke Palmer, Cory Hardict, Faizon Love, Macy Gray. Philadelphia’s Overbrook High has been one of the most prestigious basketball powerhouses in the country ever since Wilt Chamberlain played there. Now, a young student there has been named the number one prospect in the country. Dealing with high school alone is no easy task but to have that kind of pressure on top of it is nearly impossible.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: R (for violence and language)

Desert Dancer

(Relativity) Nazanin Boniadi, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Marama Corlett. Afshin Ghaffarian wanted nothing more than to express himself through dance. Unfortunately, he lived in Iran where the imams had forbidden dance and any attempt for him to learn how to was met with terrible punishments. After co-founding an underground dance group there, he runs afoul of Iranian authorities and is forced to flee his home, but he comes to Paris more determined than ever to achieve his dream.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama/Dance
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some drug material and violence)

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

(Amplify) Rinko Kikuchi, Noboyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, Nathan Zellner. A Japanese office drone discovers a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers classic film Fargo. Fed up with her mundane existence and possessed of an imagination that can’t be held in by the confines of her dreary job and her tiny apartment, she seizes on the idea that the buried treasure in the film is real and that the cash is waiting for her to find in the rugged prairies of North Dakota.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

Little Boy

(Open Road) Kevin James, David Henrie, Michael Rappaport, Emily Watson. A 7-year-old boy is devastated when his father is called off to fight World War II. However, chats with the family pastor lead him to believe that his faith can move mountains. And it seems that it may be literally true. However, will it be enough to bring his dad home safely from war?

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Family Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence)

The Salt of the Earth

(Sony Classics) Sebastiao Salgado, Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Lelia Warnick Salgado. The life and career of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, whose pictures have shown stark beauty and the depths of human cruelty. His photographs have drawn attention to suffering and privation in the four corners of the earth. Noted German director Wim Wenders was so moved by Salgado’s work that he made a documentary about him, something Wenders isn’t particularly known for.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving disturbing images of violence and human suffering, and for nudity)

See You in Valhalla

(ARC Entertainment) Sarah Hyland, Steve Howey, Odeya Rush, Jake McDorman. A young woman returns home following the untimely death of her brother, finding her family as dysfunctional as ever. Old jealousies, feuds and disagreements resurface and the family seems to sink further into dysfunction until a brilliant idea to send off the brother in style is suggested.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: R (for language, sexual references and drug use)

The Water Diviner

(Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan. An Australian farmer is devastated by the news that both of his sons were declared missing presumed dead in the epic battle of Gallipoli during the First World War. Four years after the battle, he journeys to Gallipoli to find out once and for all the fate of his sons and get some closure but with the help of a compassionate Turkish officer and the woman whose hotel he is staying in, he discovers hope amidst the carnage.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for war violence including some disturbing images)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann)


Working on the railroad all the live-long day.

Working on the railroad all the live-long day.

(2013) Comedy (Music Box) Robert Gustafsson, Iwar Wiklander, David Wiberg, Mia Skaringer, Jens Hulten, Bianca Cruzeiro, Alan Ford, Sven Lonn, David Shackleton, Georg Nikoloff, Simon Sappenen, Manuel Dubra, Cory Peterson, Kerry Shale, Philip Rosch, Keith Chanter, Patrik Karlson, Johan Rheborg, David Hogberg, Alfred Svensson, Eiffel Mattsson. Directed by Felix Herngren

Florida Film Festival 2015

Our lives have a certain texture and richness that we don’t really detect while we’re living it. Some of us labor in obscurity, affecting only those we’re close to and loved by. Others are destined not necessarily for greatness, but for greater effect.

Alan Karlsson (Gustafsson) is one such man. From the time he was a boy, he loved to blow things up, a gift from his father who was a bit of a revolutionary and died espousing contraceptives as the means to a better society. Alan’s penchant for explosives would eventually get him put into a mental hospital and later in life, into a retirement home.

It is in the latter place that one day – on his 100th birthday as a matter of fact – he just decides to step out of his window and leave. Nobody sees him go, and Alan manages to make it to the bus station and has just enough money on him to purchase a ticket to the middle of nowhere. While he’s waiting for the bus to come, a pushy biker sort (Sappenen) insists that Alan watch his suitcase while he’s in the bathroom. When Alan’s bus arrives, he absent-mindedly takes the suitcase with him. What Alan doesn’t know is that there is 50 million kroner inside the suitcase.

The bus lets him off in a one-horse Swedish town where the train no longer runs. Julius (Wiklander) watches over the train station and graciously takes Alan in for lunch and drinks, the latter of which Alan is more enthusiastic about. Their little party is broken up by the arrival of the pushy biker who wants his suitcase back in the worst way but the two old men manage to subdue him and lock him in a freezer.

Taking to the road, Julius and Alan meet up with Benny (Wiberg), a perpetual college student who has no degree yet despite having taken 920 credits in classes over 18 years but can’t make up his mind what he wants to do with his life, and later on with Gunilla (Skaringer), a lovely young Bohemian who is keeping a purloined elephant in her barn. Chasing them is Gaddan (Hulten), the leader of the biker gang whose pushy member had unwittingly given the suitcase to Alan, and Pim (Ford), the English drug lord whose cash it is.

In the meantime, Alan reminisces about his remarkable life which took him to the Spanish Civil War (where he saved General Francisco Franco’s life), the Manhattan Project (where his suggestion helped J. Robert Oppenheimer solve a critical problem with the atomic bomb and led to him having a tequila drinking session with then-Vice President Harry Truman), the Soviet Union (where he would eventually be imprisoned with Albert Einstein’s slow-witted brother) and the C.I.A. (where he would be a double agent passing useless information between both sides).

In that sense, this is a bit of a Forrest Gump-like film in which Alan drifts through history, and the parallels are a bit striking. While not quite as slow as Gump, Alan is certainly not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and kind of allows life to take him where it will, avoiding disaster often by the slimmest of margins.

This is based on a massively popular novel that is available here in the States. The movie version was a huge hit in Sweden where it recently became the biggest box office success of any Swedish-made movie in history. The distributor is the same group that brought the Millennium trilogy to American shores and is hoping for a similar type of success. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep those unfamiliar with the book guessing as to where the plot is going.

Certainly that sort of success would be merited here. I found it funny in a less over-the-top way than American comedies are these days. Comedies coming from America seem to be hell-bent on pushing the envelope of good taste and excess (which isn’t of itself a bad thing); this is more content to use absurd situations and serendipity to get its humor across. This is definitely more old school and those who prefer the comedies fast-paced and frenetic will likely find this slow and frustrating.

Gustafsson is one of Sweden’s most popular comic actors and we get a good sense why; his comic timing is impeccable and his mannerisms as the 100-year-old Alan are pitch-perfect. He gets able support from Wiberg who plays perhaps the most indecisive man ever, Hulten as the crazed biker and Ford as the apoplectic drug lord (Ford played a similar role in Guy Richie’s Snatch). Throughout Herngren hits the right notes and allows the comedy to happen organically rather than force things.

There are a few quibbles – the narration is a bit intrusive and there are some factual errors (for example, President Roosevelt actually died three months before the Trinity atomic test, not after) but for the most part the movie is pleasant and funny, though not life-changing. It’s the perfect tonic for a bad day and if you need further praise than that, you just must not have many bad days.

REASONS TO GO: Oddball sense of humor. Forrest Gump in Europe. Absurdly funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Narration is a bit intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor, a little violence and some bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gustafsson estimated that if all the time he spent in the make-up chair was tallied, he would have been there three uninterrupted weeks 24/7 in the chair when all was said and done.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Danny Collins

Gabriel (2014)


Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

(2014) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rory Culkin, Emily Meade, Lynn Cohen, David Call, Alexia Rasmussen, Louisa Krause, Deirdre O’Connell, Frank De Julio, Julia K. Murney, Desmin Borges, Biago Simon, Sean Cullen, Jee Young Han, Chase Anderson, Samantha Sherman, And Palladino, Shana Kaplan, Chelsea Linder, Adriana Barnett. Directed by Lou Howe

Florida Film Festival 2015

We know so little about the human mind. What makes it tick, how it processes information, what causes it to malfunction, we really only have an inkling of the mysteries of the brain. We try to help those who have issues with their mental faculties, but really it’s all just stabs in the dark.

Gabriel (Culkin) is taking a bus. He seems friendly enough, although there’s something a little off about him; a little jittery perhaps, or a sense that he’s trying too hard to fit in. In any case, when he arrives at a small college in Connecticut looking for his girlfriend, we think that he’s just trying to visit his girl until we realize that the address he has for her is years out of date. When he finally finds her home address, his frustration that she doesn’t answer the door leads to a brief outbreak of violent behavior leads to our sense of unease about the kid.

Then we find that he wasn’t supposed to be there; he was supposed to be heading home to his family – brother Matthew (Call), a straight-arrow sort who is doing his best for his baby brother and is ready to introduce his fiance Kelly (Rasmussen) to him, and his mother Meredith (O’Connell) who is frenetically protective of her son, checking up on whether he has taken his medication as if he were a seven-year-old.

It is no wonder that Gabriel chafes in this environment, so at his first opportunity he runs off, still in search of his girlfriend Alice (Meade) whom he think will solve all his problems and make his life the perfect thing he always imagined it would be. There are obstacles in his way however, most of them of his own making. For one thing, the only one in his family he trusts as all is Nonny (Cohen), his grandmother and she is in the City (New York, for those wondering). For another, he’s not exactly sure where Alice is spending the winter break. One thing is certain; he doesn’t want to go back to the institution where he had just been released from. He very much wants his freedom.

There is a small coterie in Orlando who are in the know about something called the Uncomfortable Brunch. It takes place at a bar called Will’s Pub on a Sunday morning once a month and during the brunch they show a movie, generally one that is difficult to watch or raises feelings of unease. Those familiar with that event will understand when I say that this is the perfect movie for it.

First-time director Howe pulls no punches, basing the movie on his own experiences with a college roommate who was a diagnosed schizophrenic. This isn’t a movie that is so much a journey as it is a descent, for as Gabriel refuses to take his meds and becomes more and more in the grip of his own obsession, we see him become less and less likable and more and more dangerous to himself and others.

Culkin delivers the performance of his career to date and marks himself as a serious actor to be reckoned with. The intensity of his gaze from under the wool cap that his character wears constantly (an inkling of which you get from the photo above) grows more and more focused even as he himself does not. We get the sense that there’s something not quite right about Gabriel and it isn’t just the various tics and mannerisms. It’s the unpleasantness (I wrote in my notes as I watched this that there was nothing wrong with him a good punch in the face wouldn’t cure, although of course that’s far from true and not one of my shiniest moments) of the character, the sense that he is capable of anything and his overall unpredictability that make him feel like a ticking time bomb. One feels watching Gabriel that this movie isn’t going to end well for somebody, and it may be someone besides Gabriel who is the victim.

The movie is bleak looking as well; there aren’t a lot of warm colors in the cinematographer’s palate here; a lot of blues and grays and whites. That it is set during winter is not an accident; that contributes to the overall bleak feel of the movie. There are also a few nagging questions I had about just what was going on; where, for example, did Gabriel get the money for the bus tickets he buys?

This isn’t easy to watch in many ways but to its credit the movie will get a reaction from you, even if it is an unpleasant one. The world needs movies like this one, if only to remind us that the world isn’t the same for everybody and some folks who may not be the most pleasant to be around are grappling with demons that the rest of us can never understand or relate to. Only their families will have some sense of the hells they live through and sometimes, they’re so busy going through their own hells in dealing with theirs that they lose sight of that.

I can’t say that I’d recommend this movie for everyone – not everyone wants or needs a downer of a film when they’re looking for a movie to watch. However, despite my somewhat lukewarm review, this is a movie that has a lot going for it and for those looking for something a little different and a little more challenging, this is definitely one you should consider.

REASONS TO GO: Culkin is scintillating. No punches pulled view of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: An hour and a half spent with someone you’d probably rather not spend an hour and a half with. A bit too bleak for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in the Hamptons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider (2002)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

Welcome to Leith


Nothing supreme about these whites.

Nothing supreme about these whites.

(2015) Documentary (No Weather) Ryan Schock, Craig Cobb, Thomas Kelsch, Laura Collins, Lee Cook, Kynan Dutton, Deborah Henderson, Todd Schwartz, Steve Bay, Greg Bruce, Kenneth Zimmerman. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker

Florida Film Festival 2015

Leith, North Dakota, on the surface seems to be an unremarkable small town in the Great Plains. A rural hamlet of 24 hard working people, it’s indistinguishable from dozens, hundreds of towns just like it. That wasn’t always the case though.

In 2012 a man named Craig Cobb bought a home in Leith. Not a remarkable thing in and of itself, although people moving into Leith is a big event in Leith. Some of the residents went to greet the new neighbor, but for the most part he resisted any attempts to socialize. People figured he just wanted to keep to himself and gave him space. In North Dakota, people mind their own business.

That’s not true elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center had been keeping tabs on the main players in the White Supremacy movement, and it turns out that Cobb was one of the major players among the neo-Nazis. They also discovered that he was out to take over this town by quietly buying up plots of land for a song, then turning around and selling them to other white supremacists. Once they had a voting majority, they would take over the city government and create a paradise on the plains for racists.

That didn’t sit well with the townsfolk of Leith, who wanted nothing more than to live out their lives in their small slice o’ heaven without bother or fuss, but to have armed racists terrorizing the town carrying loaded rifles around town, getting into confrontations with citizens of Leith and of course sending all sorts of worry into the town’s lone African-American and his family, something had to be done to stop Cobb. But what could they do?

Filmmakers Nichols and Walker offer a surprisingly balanced and dispassionate chronicle of the events in Leith with interviews with Cobb and his follower Dutton as well as Schock – the town’s mayor – as well as other townspeople and other interested parties. Both sides are allowed to present their point of view.

And in fact, in some ways, the racists have some salient points. They’re doing nothing illegal. They’re simply taking advantage of the town’s by-laws and of laws that are common throughout North Dakota and the U.S. in general. Until they start stalking the streets with shotguns, they seem to be well on their way to accomplishing their goal. Of course, once they start talking their world view shows itself to be completely repugnant, but the filmmakers wisely let them dig that hole themselves rather than pointing self-righteous fingers. The former method is far more effective than the latter.

They also paint a beautiful picture of a small town in what would at first glance seem to be a stark and barren land. They are relatively close to the booming oilfields that have been attracting workers to the area (and are the subject of another acclaimed  documentary, The Overnighters but that is another review for another day), but the way the filmmakers shoot the landscape it is almost mystical. You can easily see why the people love this place and want to defend it so vigorously. There is a beauty that is quiet and unassuming but unforgettable nonetheless.

One of the few quibbles I have with the movie is Credo 64. You see “Credo 64″ emblazoned throughout the film on signs around town left by the supremacists, but it is never explained in the movie. For the record, it refers to the “White Man’s Bible” which is the holy book of the Creator sect, a Christian-like religion that has rewritten the Bible to reflect White Supremacist doctrine. Credo 64 essentially permits Creators to act as terrorists and vigilantes when their government oppresses them and is in this instance a veiled threat to the town, one which probably should have been explained better in the movie.

There is also a fairly large usage of racial epithets including the N word throughout; if that makes you as a viewer uncomfortable, you may want to give that some consideration. I found myself numbed to it pretty quickly, but I did feel uncomfortable initially. Depending on your sensitivity to that sort of thing your reaction may differ.

This is an essential documentary. It is easy to forget that people like the Craig Cobbs of the world took over an entire country and swayed them to their morally bankrupt principles and turned that country into a military threat that destabilized the entire world until an alliance of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other nations put down that threat for good. But it could still happen here; it almost happened in Leith but for the will of the people who lived there. It could happen elsewhere, maybe where you live and when it does, it will be insidious, someone who spreads fear, mistrust and hatred until the entire community rallies around a demagogue who will lead them to victory over the object of that fear, mistrust and hatred. Don’t think it can happen here? Look at how many people are supporting laws that oppress the LBGT community. Look at how easily the voting rights, so dearly won in 1964, have been swept aside. It can happen here. And it will happen here if we aren’t careful. Welcome to Leith reminds us that we need to stand up together and say “No” when an entire community is threatened and that’s how you ensure that it doesn’t happen here.

REASONS TO GO: Chilling to the bone. Beautiful cinematography. Captures the conflict fairly.
REASONS TO STAY: Leaves a few terms unexplained.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Rolling Stone named it one of the ten best films of the festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gabriel