Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge


War is a dirty business.

War is a dirty business.

(2016) True War Drama (Summit) Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh, Jacob Warner, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Dennis Kreusler, Nathaniel Buzolic, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Luke Bracey, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole. Directed by Mel Gibson

 

It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but at the same time there really isn’t a whole lot of room for religion in war either. When one is called upon to kill for king and country (or queen and country as the case may be) one must set aside some of the basic commandments of most religions, as well as the moral compass of society. We generally frown upon killing but wartime gives those who take human life a bit of a pass, although not without consequence. It can take a great deal of courage to set aside one’s morals for the sake of one’s country but it can take a great deal more not to.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is just an ordinary country boy from the hill country of Virginia back in 1944. He has a deep faith and participates at his Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His father Thomas (Weaving) came back from the Great War traumatized and sometimes violent with his family, particularly with his mother Bertha (Griffiths) whom he loves with a fierce devotion. He rough houses with his brother Hal (Buzolic) – sometimes a little too rough – and pines after the sweet nurse Dorothy Schutte (Palmer) whom he knew from the moment he saw her that he was going to marry her. Well, maybe one day soon.

But there’s a war going on and Desmond doesn’t feel right staying at home while others fight and die for his freedom. He knows he needs to go out there and defend his country, but there’s one problem – his religious beliefs prevent him from killing anyone. In fact, Desmond refuses to even touch a gun. He takes this quite seriously; in fact, he has become a vegetarian (a rarity in that era) because of his beliefs. He therefore decides to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Medic.

The trouble is that somewhere along the line the lines got crossed between Desmond and the military. He is sent for combat training, and combined with his slight frame and his refusal to even defend himself with violence puzzles Sgt. Howell (Vaughn) who is training him, as well as Captain Glover (Worthington), his commanding officer. It also infuriates his fellow soldiers who see it as cowardice and beat him up something fierce.

At last he is given a direct order to shoot a gun, a command he refuses. He is summarily put in the stockade, on his wedding day to make matters worse. He will go up for court martial, which carries with it prison time at Leavenworth. All the boy wants to do is serve his country, and eventually with the help from an unexpected source, he is allowed to do that and for his efforts is shipped off to Okinawa where he will finally get a chance to do exactly what he intended to; to save lives. In the process he will win the highest award our country bestows upon its citizens; the Medal of Honor.

Gibson is not a director who shirks at showing the uglier side of humanity. We see limbs blown off of soldiers, rats gnawing on fresh meat on the battlefield, innards sliding out of horrendous wounds, blood soaking everywhere, bodies blown to bits and the most brutal and savage hand-to-hand combat you’re likely to see. This isn’t for the faint of heart.

Yet at the center of the film is a heart filled with grace. Say what you want about Desmond Doss; he is a man of his word and watching what he did in real life (from most of the sources I’ve read Gibson has stuck pretty close to what Doss really did – even leaving out some feats because he felt that nobody would believe it really happened) is truly inspiring. Heroes wear uniforms, it’s true, but they don’t always beat up the bad guys.

Garfield, who took a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films, has been receiving some end-of-the-year awards attention. His portrayal of Doss is simple and to-the-point. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here and Gibson sometimes goes a little bit over-the-top as when he shows Doss being lowered off the cliff face of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa as almost an ascension to heaven. Garfield didn’t need that kind of cinematic excess to make the point for Gibson.

Although Vaughn is the only American in the cast (nearly everyone here is Australian with Garfield and a couple of others who are Brits) the film captures the tones and rhythms of American speech from the era nicely. Gibson also makes the pastoral setting of Lynchburg extremely appealing, as anyone who has visited the town can tell you (yes, we’ve made our pilgrimage to the Jack Daniels distillery – deal with it).

In fact, that setting and pace of life actually slows the film down a bit at the beginning. It really isn’t until the movie gets to Okinawa that things really start to shine here and Gibson shows why he is a very talented man behind the camera. The war scenes are quite simply the best I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. It certainly will stay in your memory for quite a while.

Mel Gibson has had a checkered career to say the least. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he showed every indication that he was going to be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Legal issues and some fairly unsavory comments on his part derailed both his acting and directing plans; in fact, this is his first stab at directing in a decade. That Summit has kept quiet his participation, not mentioning by name Gibson’s involvement is a testament to how much of a pariah he became in the industry. One wonders if there isn’t a bit of cinematic self-flagellation going on here. Armchair psychology aside, this is Gibson’s return to form and hopefully he’ll get some opportunities to continue to direct some films that showcase his talents. He certainly has plenty of it to showcase.

REASONS TO GO: A criminally little-known and inspiring story. It might be the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. This is a return to form for Gibson.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit slow in the first third. Some of the images here might be too much for the overly-sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Prolonged sequences of graphic war brutality including grisly images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doss was the second registered conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor – the first was Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. However, while York carried a weapon into war, Doss did not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flags of Our Fathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Best and Most Beautiful Things

Pick of the Litter – December 2016


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

(Disney) Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed. The first Star Wars movie not to be part of a trilogy but to be a stand-alone adventure makes its debut this Christmastime. It is set in the world of the first film. The Rebel Alliance has discovered that the Empire is building a monstrous new weapon, one that could turn the tide of the rebellion and even end it completely. They hatch a desperate plan to steal the blueprints to this weapon, a weapon known as the Death Star. December 16

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Best and Most Beautiful Things

Best and Most Beautiful Things

(First Run) Michelle Smith. This Florida Film Festival jury award winner from this past April’s event is finally getting a theatrical release. The documentary focuses on Michelle Smith, a blind and autistic young woman who has decided that the obstacles stacked against her are not going to keep her from living her life to its fullest. Already a bit of an outcast, she finds a home in the fetish community and develops a BDSM romance that might just rescue her and allow her to live life the way she chooses to. The film has been submitted to the Academy for consideration for a Best Documentary award at the 2017 Oscars. December 2

 

Burn Country

Burn Country

(Orion) Dominic Rains, Melissa Leo, James Franco, Rachel Brosnahan. A former Afghan war journalist is exiled from his own country. Looking for a place as far removed from his former home as possible, he settles on a small Northern California town and gets a job on their local newspaper. Never could he imagine that the town had its own secrets, its own war and its own danger. December 9

The Brand New Testament

The Brand New Testament

(Music Box) Pili Groyne, Benoit Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve, Franҫois Damiens. Would it surprise you to know that God exists? Maybe not, but I’m sure it would blow your mind to know that He lives in Brussels with His wife and daughter. Furthermore, it might or might not catch you off-guard to know that he’s a bit of a dick, which annoys his daughter endlessly. So to get back at her daddy, she texts everyone on Earth the date of their death which throws the whole world – and His plan – into chaos.  December 9

Ghostland: View of the Ju'Hoansi

Ghostland: View of the Ju’Hoansi

(Autlook) Simon Stadler. The Ju’Hoansi are the oldest culture on Earth but their traditions that go back literally to before Homo Sapiens walked upright are coming under fire. Conditions in Namibia have led to them being banned from hunting. Forced by circumstance to join the civilized world, members of the tribe are brought through the Kalahari desert and into Europe to experience the modern mechanized world. We are treated to a fascinated look as to how outsiders view our modern culture and their insights just might surprise you. December 14

Neruda

Neruda

(The Orchard) Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro, Mercedes Morán. From Oscar-nominated director Pablo Larrain comes this delightful and maybe even true story of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda who became a fugitive in his native Chile when he joined the Communist party shortly after World War II. Assigned to arrest the corpulent poet, Inspector Oscar Peluchonneau is led on a bizarre game of cat and mouse throughout the country with Neruda trying to humiliate the government and Peluchonneau trying to represent its competence. December 16

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

(Sundance Selects) Dave Johns, Hayley Squire, Sharon Percy, Briana Shann. Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Loach looks at the British safety net as a carpenter, injured and unable to work, falls through the cracks of the disability process in the UK. He also meets a single mother trying to make ends meet with government assistance also wading through an often confusing bureaucracy. While this is set in Britain, there are certainly a lot of things here that those in America who have had to get government assistance will nod grimly at – in an era when those kinds of assistance programs may end up being slashed to the bone.. December 23

New Releases for the Week of December 2, 2016


IncarnateINCARNATE

(High Top) Carice van Houten, Aaron Eckhart, David Mazouz, Emjay Anthony, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Keir O’Donnell, Tomas Arana. Directed by Brad Peyton

An exorcist with the ability to enter the subconscious of his patients is assigned a tormented young boy with a particularly nasty demon inside. Fighting off the powers of this demon is no easy task, but the exorcist will also have to fight the demons of his past if he is to save the boy – and himself.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements)

Believe

(Freestyle Releasing) Ryan O’Quinn, Shawnee Smith, Danielle Nicolet, Kevin Sizemore. A businessman in a small town finds himself fighting the weak economy as Christmas approaches. Normally a sponsor of the town Christmas pageant, he finds himself forced to cancel the event. The friendship of a young boy whose faith is nearly boundless convinces him that he made the wrong decision and he turns to trying to save the pageant against all odds.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Lee Vista, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, UA Seminole Towne Center

Rating: PG (for some violence, thematic elements and brief mild language)

Christine

(The Orchard) Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia. Christine Chubbuck is a local newscaster in the Sarasota area in the 1970s. She’s smart, beautiful and ambitious, but suffers from depression in the face of personal and professional frustrations. What she does is shocking and makes broadcast news history.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace

Rating: R (for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references)

Man Down

(Lionsgate) Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney, Gary Oldman, Kate Mara. A U.S. Marine returns home from Afghanistan and finds it to be a far different place than where he left it. His estranged wife and son have disappeared and as he searches a landscape little different than the one he left, he is accompanied by a battle-hardened comrade who is more likely to shoot first than to ask questions later.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some disturbing violence and language throughout)

The Monster

(A24) Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas. A divorced mother and her headstrong daughter are driving late at night on a lonely road in the woods to take the girl to see her father. They get into an accident when a wolf runs out in front of them. They manage to call 911 and get a tow truck out but it soon becomes clear that they are being hunted  by something malevolent and strong.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: R (for language and some violence/terror)

Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack


"Yeah, I voted for Trump. What of it?"

“Yeah, I voted for Trump. What of it?”

(2016) Western (Cinedigm) Trace Adkins, Judd Nelson, Kim Coates, Michelle Harrison, Helena Marie, Claude Duhamel, John Emmet Tracy, Garry Chalk, Ethan Harrison, Adam Lolacher, Philip Granger, Artine Brown. Directed by Terry Miles

 

When you do bad things, those deeds tend to cling to you like leeches. You may try to rid yourself of your past but it has a habit of catching up to you, and almost never in the way you would expect.

Nathaniel Reed (Adkins) has made a living robbing stagecoaches. However, he yearns for a life on the straight and narrow with his new wife Laura Lee (Harrison) and gives up his outlaw ways. It is not easy; his small farm is about to be foreclosed on by a sympathetic bank manager (Tracy). Still, Reed is determined to make it work.

That all changes when Frank Bell (Duhamel) who used to ride in his old gang shows up. Hot on his trail is U.S. Marshal Calhoun (Coates), whose eye had been shot out by Reed during a stagecoach robbery back in the bad old days. Bullets fly, and Reed is forced to flee his home. Anguished after Bell tells him he saw Laura Lee shot dead, Reed decides to go back to his old outlaw ways. Not wanting Laura Lee’s memory to be tainted, he adopts a new nickname – Texas Jack, after the state they are pulling their jobs in and after Apple Jack whiskey, their adult beverage of choice.

It takes awhile but Calhoun and his sadistic partner Bonnie Mudd (Marie) figure out who Texas Jack is but once they do the chase is on. Calhoun is relentless in his pursuit of vengeance, not caring if he is following the letter of the law or not. There is going to be a reckoning of Biblical proportions and not everybody who rides with Texas Jack can be considered trustworthy – who’d have thought an outlaw wouldn’t be loyal?!?

This Canadian film feels almost like a direct-to-cable affair. Production values are minimal and while this looks in no way, shape or form like Texas the scenery is nonetheless pretty. Unfortunately, the film lacks that epic feel that make good westerns memorable and the energy is somewhat diminished as well.

Adkins with his gravelly baritone and long hair looks the part of a Western hero, but he is more of an anti-hero here, more like Waylon Jennings than John Wayne. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He looks a little worn and tired here, which might be a by-product of the character’s stress but still with the right material he could have a lucrative side career in the cinematic saddle.

The acting in general is pretty solid; Coates has played bad guys before and he does so with gusto here. Nelson as another of Nathaniel’s old gang seems to be having the most fun; the film could have used more Sid for the energy component. Marie, who is best known from the Supernatural series, turns Western conventions on their ear as a sadistic, brutal gunslinger who is as trigger-happy as any man.

It’s a nice idea, combining the anti-hero elements of spaghetti westerns with traditional western values of John Ford (whose classic Stagecoach is name-checked here, a rather bold move) and even the “deserve has nothing to do with it” speech from Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven is referenced, again a rather bold move. Note to filmmakers – if you’re going to reference classic movies in your film, you’d better make damn sure it measures up.

Not that this isn’t without its own charm but it really is more of a time-killer than something to seek out. Some of Adkins country music fans might be moved to give this a try as eager genre fans whose appetite for Westerns is all-too-rarely given even a marginal meal. There is  some meat on its bones here but not a ton and it is likely that Western fans will be left hungry after watching this.

REASONS TO GO: Elements of spaghetti westerns and traditional westerns are combined. Adkins makes for a natural Western hero. Coates is especially gleeful as the villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The energy and epic quality of a good western is missing here. Really a bit by-the-numbers as Westerns go. Quotes elements of much better films which is never a good idea.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence here and some occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Nathaniel Reed is based on an actual person who robbed stagecoaches in the late 19th century and lived until 1950, publishing an autobiography in 1936.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hacksaw Ridge

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Raise Your Kids on Seltzer


Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

(2015) Drama (Public Shores) Penny Werner, Jeff Kao, Nancy Kimball, Barry Newman, Kris Caltagirone, Deniz Demirer, William Cully Allen, Alanna Blair, Mark Zucker, Daniel Kremer, Rob Nilsson, Josh Peterson, Pamela Ambler, Leoni Figueredo, Dana Lorena Leon, Natalie Echols, Solomon Zucker, Aaron Hollander, Maryelle Turner. Directed by Daniel Kremer

 

Sometimes we put things behind us for a reason. Maybe the events of the past are just too painful, but other times we’ve simply moved on. Either way, we never completely escape our past.

Terry (Kao) and Tessa (Werner) Wasserman-Wang are a middle-aged couple living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They make their living as corporate videographers which isn’t the most exciting gig in history. Nowhere near as exciting as what they used to do for a living – cult deprogrammers.

They get a letter out of the blue from a former client that tells them that the daughter they rescued from a cult has recently committed suicide, naming the Wasserman-Wangs as the reason for her drastic action in her suicide note. Terry won’t let Tessa read the entire letter, which upsets her even further. Terry seems to be unaffected, busy working on the book he is writing about their years together working in the lucrative but not quite legal trade of what they prefer to call “exit counseling.”

Tessa’s twin sister Willa (also Werner) is getting her son’s bar mitzvah planned and abruptly informs Tessa that Terry is “uninvited.” Tessa is understandably hurt but Terry’s reaction (or lack thereof) further bothers Tessa. She also objects to Terry’s increasing tendency to make decisions for her.

Terry is feeling increasingly constricted by their corporate videography work and the book is stalled by the overbearing daughter (Blair) of Terry’s co-author (Allen). When he is contacted by a friend who has a potential client willing to pay $50,000 to get young Chloe (Kimball) out of a cult, Terry is willing to jump at the chance, particularly since finances are tight. Tessa, on the other hand, is horrified – she thought they’d agreed to leave that life behind and the letter has further strengthened her resolve. The cracks in the facade of their marriage may be deepening into canyons that may not be able to be resolved.

This isn’t Kremer’s first rodeo and there is some self-assurance to the direction. The relationship between Terry and Tessa is strained and feels it, sometimes almost too well; one feels that awkward moment at a party when a couple snipe just a little too personally at one another. While that may make the viewer feel a little bit put off, that’s as it should be; if you’re going to make a movie about a relationship that is strained, the viewer should feel that strain as well.

Werner is mainly at the front and center as the emotional focus of the film. While Kao plays things close to the vest, Werner is outgoing and an open book in many ways. Her Tessa is the kind of Jewish woman that makes the world a better place; she’s funny, pretty and pragmatic. She knows how to have fun but she knows what’s right for her family too. I found myself relating more to Tessa than to Terry, who is very emotionally closed-off.

The script has a tendency to meander a bit and not always in a good way. There are periodic insertions of interviews with the lawyer (Newman) for a cult leader that do nothing for the story and just serve to pad the running time. There are also little bits, like an obsession with a Siamese pickle and the whole bar mitzvah subplot that really distract from what is the most compelling story in the film – the relationship between Terry and Tessa. That distraction really hurts the overall experience and is the one factor I think that damages the film the most.

I like the cult deprogramming angle and how it affects those who do the deprogramming but Kremer doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it surprisingly. Then again, that might be a different movie than the one Kremer wanted to make although I think that would be a fascinating movie as well. Still, one can look at the relationship between Tessa and Terry and find a lot that is fascinating, and a lot that is insightful about long-term relationships. I just wish there had been less distracting the audience from finding those insights.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is intriguing. The dialogue between Terry and Tessa is completely authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-written. The performances can be stiff at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Tessa is watching on TV is A Cool Sound from Hell by director Sidney J. Furie, whom Kremer has written a biography on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Nocturnal Animals