The Intern

"I'll see your Raging Bull weight gain and raise you a Les Mis shaved head."

“I’ll see your Raging Bull weight gain and raise you a Les Mis shaved head.”

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Christina Scherer, Nat Wolff, Linda Lavin, Celia Weston, Steve Vinovich, C.J. Wilson, Mary Kay Place, Erin Mackey, Christina Brucato, Wallis Currie-Wood, Molly Bernard, Paulina Singer. Directed by Nancy Meyers

Our culture is going from youth-oriented to youth-obsessed. We tend to marginalize the elderly, joke about their inability to decipher technology. As much as we dismiss the elderly, at the same time we don’t want to die young either. We want to live long, full lives. We also tend to ignore that in order to do that, we have to age.

Ben Whittaker (De Niro) has done that. He’s aged. He turns around and finds himself to be 70 and alone, his beloved wife passed on, retired from a successful 40-year career printing phone books. Even the industry he devoted so much of his life to has gone the way of the horse and buggy.

He tries to fill his days with tai chi sessions, Mandarin lessons and lattes. He also finds himself spending an unsettling amount of time at the funerals of his friends. He is busy but curiously unfulfilled. Even some flirtations with a lady his age (Lavin) – most of the flirtation coming from her end – leave him empty and even more cognizant that his life lacks something.

Ben has the wisdom to figure out that what he’s missing is purpose. Getting up early and going around and doing nothing productive just isn’t in his genetic code. When he sees an ad one day for senior interns at an e-commerce women’s fashion company, he decides to go for it.

Jules Ostin (Hathaway) is the CEO and founder of About the Fit, an online store that guarantees its clients that the close they buy will fit them precisely. How she does that is a miracle of epic proportions but hey, this is Hollywood so just go with it. Anyway, she doesn’t particularly need nor want an intern of any age but especially one who’s older and reminds her that her mother (Place) is judgmental and hyper-critical of her success. Jules is a bit of a workaholic whose company in 18 months has become a real player in e-commerce and has grown to more than 200 employees. The investors are beginning to get nervous; not despite the success but because of it. They don’t know if Jules has the experience and drive to grow the company into the next level so they are pushing to get an experienced CEO who can take them there.

Jules doesn’t necessarily want that to happen but on the other hand she is tired of being absent in her own home. Her husband Matt (Holm) is a paragon of support, giving up his own promising career to let her soar with eagles. Their cute as a button daughter Paige (Kushner) misses her mommy but seems cheerfully resigned to the fact that she doesn’t get to see her much.

Jules is a bit of a control freak and is looking for reasons that the easygoing Ben should not be her intern; he’s too observant, she complains to her right hand man (Rannells) as she orders a transfer but she soon comes to realize that Ben has become indispensable, giving her the confidence to be a better boss, a better wife and a better mom but will she learn the lessons Ben has to teach her in time to save her business…and her family?

Richard Roeper describes director Nancy Meyers as “reliable” and he’s right on that score. She doesn’t get the credit she deserves but yet she turns out consistently entertaining films albeit on the lightweight side but that may also be the secret of her success; even her movies with somewhat weighty topics (as this one which looks at women in the workplace) tend to be low-key and rarely rock the boat with strident opinions.

Here she is given the opportunity to take on how working women tackling entrepreneurial success are treated and the answer is pretty much not well, but she doesn’t hit her audience in the face with that revelation (which isn’t a revelation at all, really) but rather allows you to come to that conclusion organically. The point here is that there is a balance between career and family that can be achieved and when it is, both thrive but when out of balance, both suffer. It’s not really a subversive point at all and yet she sneaks it in out of left field with few people noticing at all that she’s actually communicating with her audience. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman?

De Niro has had some forgettable performances in the last decade but it’s forgiven because, hey, he’s De Niro. That’s not the case her as he utilizes his expressive face to go beyond the script with a well-timed roll of the eyes, shrug of the shoulder or grimace, he creates a character that’s living. That’s a good thing because Ben as written is a little too perfect to be believed; he always knows the right thing to say, do or be. He’s the magical Grandpa.

He also has great chemistry with Hathaway who also is a very emotional actress. The two have a great moment when discussing their marriages in a hotel room while on a business trip to San Francisco to interview a potential CEO (don’t ask why an intern would be on such a trip or how he got into her hotel room while both are in pajamas and robes), but Hathaway reminds us in those moments why she is such a powerhouse actress and along with Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams is the cream of the crop of talented young actresses that has come to the forefront of Hollywood the last five years or so.

There is a lot of contrivance in the plot which I suppose is to be expected because the story is so thoroughly a fairy tale but if that kind of thing doesn’t bother you and you don’t mind feeling the warm fuzzies as you exit the theater (or, if you are reading this a year from when this was published, as you turn off your TV or computer), this might just be what the doctor ordered. Da Queen found it to be much more than she expected from the trailer and I understand what she means; while Meyers can’t help the old fart jokes that pepper the film, there’s also a healthy respect for the difference between experience and wisdom that Hollywood sometimes mistakes for one another.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming without getting too treacly. Good chemistry between De Niro and Hathaway.
REASONS TO STAY: Ben is a little too perfect. Kind of fairy tale-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexually suggestive content and brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead roles were at one time held by Jack Nicholson and Reese Witherspoon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
NEXT: Meet the Patels

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
NEXT: The Intern

Finders Keepers (2015)

An unusual confrontation.

An unusual confrontation.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood, Lisa Whisnant. Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, they’d be absolutely right. I can’t imagine anyone no matter how imaginative they are could make this story up.

Shannon Whisnant, a North Carolina junk dealer, had just purchased the contents of an auctioned storage unit. In that storage unit was a barbecue smoker, which was the prize item he had seen in the unit when he bought it. He put all his new items into his truck and drove it home, wheeled the smoker into his front yard and opened it – and just about had a heart attack.

In the smoker was the mummified remains of a human leg. Whisnant of course did the right thing – he notified the police who confiscated the leg as evidence and having nowhere to store it, left it with the local funeral home. Eventually they tracked down the owner of the storage unit who had defaulted on his monthly rental fee; John Wood.

Once the scion of a well-to-do family in Maiden, North Carolina, he’d fallen on hard times. But not hard enough to make him a killer – no, the leg was his. He’d lost it in a plane crash in which his father had lost his life. He’d asked for the leg back from the hospital once it had been amputated, intending to create a memorial to his father using the skeletal remains of his own leg but couldn’t find anyone to remove the flesh from the limb. He’d thrown it in the smoker and forgotten about it.

He wanted the leg back, however, still intending to eventually create that monument. However, Shannon wasn’t willing to give it back. After all, he’d bought and paid for the contents of the storage unit, including the smoker – and including the leg that was in the smoker. You wouldn’t ask for the grill back from the smoker after all; he’d paid for it fair and square.

So why would Whisnant want a human leg? Fame, pure and simple. He saw it as an opportunity to put his name on the map. At first he saw it as kind of a tourist attraction and being a fair man, he discussed going in with Wood on the deal Wood balked and the two geared up for a fight in the courtroom.

Some of you may remember the story when it hit all the tabloids a few years ago, but maybe you didn’t hear the whole story; how Wood had become addicted to painkillers while recuperating from his amputation, how he graduated to harder drugs, how he had been thrown out by his mother Peg recognizing that she was enabling his decline towards an overdose; how he had become homeless and alone.

Nor may you have heard how Whisnant had grown up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, how he had tried to gain his dad’s approval and never gotten it. How he was always a decent sort whose only aim was to make people happy around him.

This peculiar “only in the South” might induce giggles from some. They may look at these two men as ignorant hillbilly sorts that confirm the stereotype of Southern rednecks. And yeah, there are a few things here that head down that trail a bit, but as the movie unspools, you begin to see beyond the ridiculous and into the human story that is at the heart of the matter.

Both Wood and Whisnant are wounded human beings, and maybe they’re not likely to be employed by NASA anytime soon, but they are no less worthy of respect and empathy. These are both men who have gone through hard times; Wood, who was in attendance at the opening night screening at the Enzian, described Whisnant as “the yin to my yang.” They aren’t friends, not by any stretch of the imagination; Whisnant, who always saw Wood as uppity, described him as being “born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth.” They are inevitably linked by Wood’s leg and likely always will be. Maybe there is some comfort to be had in that.

One thing that is admirable is that as the movie goes on, we see Wood’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. An appearance on the Judge Mathis show (which resulted in Wood keeping the leg but having to pay Whisnant $5,000 for it) led to Wood receiving treatment at one of the nation’s premiere rehab centers. Since them, Wood has been sober and drug-free for nearly eight years and has also since gotten married. As important, Wood has gained wisdom; he has reconciled with his family and is slowly working to building back their trust after years of breaking their hearts. He recognizes that it is a slow and ongoing process but worth his effort. He understands what is important now and has put much of the sickness that led to his drug addiction behind him.

That’s a big deal; not all of us have the will to make that kind of turn-around and you have to respect the story of someone who has. Still, you will probably giggle fairly regularly, as Wood jokes about his leg, or Whisnant consistently mistakes “perspire” for “transpire.” But this is, as Peg Wood puts it in the movie, a funny story with its roots in tragedy. Fortunately, it’s a tragedy that looks like it will have a happy ending.

REASONS TO GO: Takes an unexpected turn. Oddball enough to keep your interest.
REASONS TO STAY: The pictures of the leg may be too stomach-turning for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some gruesome images, drug references and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whisnant once appeared on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
NEXT: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Shout Gladi Gladi

Shouting Gladi Gladi.

Shouting Gladi Gladi.

(2015) Documentary (International Film Circuit) Meryl Streep (narrator), Melinda Gates, Ann Gloag, Wole Soyinka, Dr. Jeff Wilkinson, Philippa Richards, Dr. Stephen Kaliti, Hawa Hawatouri, Vanesia Laiti, Juliette Bright, Isatu Kamara, Dr. Tagie Gbawuru-Mansaray, Lucy Mwangi, Omar Scott, Lois Boyle, Florence Banda, Margaret Moyo, Sydneylyn Faniyan, Jude Holden, Mary Yafet. Directed by Adam Friedman and Iain Kennedy

The mortality rate for both infants and mothers giving birth in Africa is staggering. A large part of the reason for that is a lack of adequate medical care, particularly for pregnant women. Here in the West, we are used to women going to obstetricians on a regular basis, being monitored to make sure all is well with the baby and the mom. With any sort of medical facility often requiring a drive of hundreds of miles and without access to transportation to get there, women give birth in unsanitary conditions. Babies often die before they reach the age of five.

A fistula is essentially a tear in the vaginal wall between the bowel or bladder. It causes leakage and incontinence, which leads to the women thus affected to be shunned by family and their village. They are not formed due to disease or genetic defects; they are the results of prolonged labor which here in the West can be avoided by a simple Caesarian section; in the bush, that isn’t an option. They can also be caused by sexual violence; they are not uncommon when children are raped.

They can be repaired surgically but it takes time and patience. Traditionally, women in rural African nations have been reluctant to go to Doctors and there were few facilities that they could go to, even if they wanted to and could afford to. Ann Gloag, a Scottish transportation mogul who began her career as a nurse, saw this issue and knew she needed to do something to stop the carnage. She began the Freedom From Fistula Foundation and helped open clinics and facilities throughout Africa. Two of them, the Aberdeen Women’s Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the Fistula Care Center at the Bwaila Maternity Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi are profiled here.

We get to hear from the doctors and nurses who staff these facilities but more importantly, from the women themselves. Sierra Leone, recovering from a devastating civil war, in particular is heartbreaking as we see the rampant poverty of the slums, and hear horror stories of women abducted and used as sexual slaves. Even in Malawi, we hear about women turned out of their homes and essentially left to die before being brought to the Fistula Care Center.

Both facilities have outreach programs, attempting to educate women on pre-natal care as well as arrange for those already afflicted to leave their homes and go to the clinics to be healed. The women are often sent home with a device called a BBoxx, a miniature solar generator which can be used to charge cell phones which in villages with little or no electricity can be a paying job. It also provides electric power for small spaces, allowing women to live with light and comfort.

Streep narrates the film in a compassion-filled voice that reminds us that she is Hollywood royalty, able to convey even the most terrible words with something approaching comfort. Some of it must have been hard for her to say, but she does so without flinching.

The real stars however are the women themselves; wherever they go there is music. They are constantly clapping and singing, and despite being terribly sick they have a spirit that cannot be denied or stopped. You cannot help but admire these women, often outcasts whose husbands have deserted them but remain upbeat. When the women are cured, there is a ceremony slash party called Gladi Gladi which celebrates their return home. It is filled with dancing and music and laughter. They capture a few of them here and the joy is infectious.

The movie’s one flaw is that there are too many stories here. The film works best when they concentrate on a particular subject, such as Vanesia Laiti, the 70 year old woman who has lived with her fistula for 40 years and Mary Yafet, whose pregnancy at too young an age resulted in a fistula. They would have done better to select two or three patients at each clinic and allowed us to follow their progress. There are so many different people portrayed here that it’s hard to really get involved with any of their stories since we’re only hearing snippets. We also hear from philanthropist Melinda Gates whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major supporter of Freedom from Fistula, and Nobel Laureate playwright and activist Wole Soyinka, who lends gravitas.

This is a major problem that has a simple solution. Clinics like these provide them, giving free medical care to women who desperately need them but more than that, give them an opportunity to live productive lives once they are cured. It’s an inspiring documentary that takes a subject that might be painful or uncomfortable for some and turns it into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit.

REASONS TO GO: Important material seldom discussed. The women are amazing. Great music.
REASONS TO STAY: The squeamish may have problems with a couple of scenes. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity involving nursing and birthing. Adult themes and some horrifying descriptions of rape and torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was commissioned by the Freedom From Fistula Foundation, whose activities are the subject here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
NEXT: Finders Keepers


Kimberly Crossman sure can axe.

Kimberly Crossman sure can axe.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Dark Sky) Milo Cawthorne, Kimberly Crossman, James Blake, Sam Berkley, Daniel Cresswell, Delaney Tabron, Stephen Ure, Colin Moy, Jodie Rimmer, Nick Hoskins-Smith, Erroll Shand, Kate Elliott, Aaron McGregor, Andrew Laing, Tim Foley, Cameron Rhodes. Directed by Jason Lei Howden

There are some things that just shouldn’t be messed with. Horror movies have taught us that. The unknown can be pretty terrifying. Of course, teenage boys were born to mess with things that shouldn’t be messed with. Horror movies have also taught us that.

Brodie (Cawthorne) is a lonely outcast. His mom, a drug addict, is in rehab and he’s currently living in a small New Zealand town with his Uncle Albert (Moy) and cousin David (Hoskins-Smith) who likes nothing better than to bully Brodie. Brodie gets his solace through heavy metal, which makes him feel better because he believes that it’s proof that someone else feels his rage and pain. To the Christian household that Albert and his wife Mary (Rimmer) runs, this isn’t welcome news.

Brodie latches on to the two people in school who are even more pathetic than he – Giles (Cresswell) and Dion (Berkley) who are Dungeons and Dragons addicts. Brodie pines for the beautiful Medina (Crossman) but she seems to be taken – by David, so even breathing the same air as her will get him beat up. Even more lonely than ever, Brodie wanders into the only record store in town where he meets Zakk (Blake), the only other metalhead in town and who doubles as the town delinquent.

The only thing to do is to form a band, so together with Giles and Dion the metal band DEATHGASM is born (in exactly that punctuation because as Zakk puts it, “lower case is for pussies”). The two are delighted to discover that Rikki Daggers (Ure), frontman for the legendary Haxansword – a cult metal band they both worship – lives in that very town.

Zakk being Zakk, decides to see what he can steal from Rikki’s house. It turns out that Rikki is home and is holding on to a lost Haxansword album and inside the album is some sheet music. When a Satanist thug breaks into the house to steal the same thing, Rikki gives the album to the kids and tells them to guard it with their lives.

Of course, they ignore the satanic symbols all over the music and decide to play it and when they do, they unleash a horror as a demon called The Blind One is conjured and most of the town is clawing out their eyes to escape the dreadful visions and vomiting up blood. It will be up to the metalheads to save the world but how can they when Zakk and Brodie are flipping out because they both want the same girl, Medina, who has become a metalhead herself after Brodie introduced her to the music. Rock on.

New Zealand, which in the 80s gave us some pretty nifty horror flicks (some from the great Peter Jackson) is rapidly becoming the center for horror movies with a funny edge. What We Do in the Shadows and Housebound have been a couple of Kiwi scarefests that have impressed fans and critics alike in the last few years.

Add this one to the list. From WETA wizard and first-time director Howden comes this irreverent look at the symbiosis between metal and horror and it works. It helps that Cawthorne is a handsome, appealing lad who has a surprising screen presence that hints at a promising future. Yeah, Brodie can be a bit of a schlub now and again but as the movie wears on he becomes a pretty competent horror film hero. Not all of the cast is as successful as he is however; a few of the actors here are a bit wooden.

The music is for the most part not too bad; it’s not super-hardcore so non-metal fans won’t be put off although hardcore fans might find it a bit tame. The humor here is edgy and fun, and there’s enough gore to keep any horror freak happy as a pig in…well, you know.

In many ways, this is a throwback to the horror films of the 80s which is a good thing; it’s not afraid to be bloody, the humor and gore can be over-the-top (perhaps too much so for some) and you’re not required to think overly much. This is the kind of mindless fun that is typical for New Zealand horror; it doesn’t take itself too seriously but at the same time it takes itself seriously enough, if you get my drift. This isn’t breaking any new ground but to be honest, there’s no law requiring it to. It’s the kind of thing you can watch either in your local movie theater (check the website for locations) or on VOD on a cool autumn night and bliss out to the Halloween horror film goodness.

REASONS TO GO: Cheeky sense of humor. Metalhead gore fan nirvana.  Cawthorne an appealing lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a been there done that feel. Some of the performances not quite up to snuff. May be too over-the-top for some.
FAMILY VALUES: A pretty sizable amount of gore, plenty of foul language, some sexuality and drug use, some disturbing images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s theme song was performed by the New Zealand band Bulletbelt. Howden sang backing vocals on the track.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes
NEXT: Shout Gladi Gladi

The Key (2015)

Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

(2012) Romance (Self-Released) David Arquette, Bai Ling, Nathan Keyes, Nathalie Love, Brian Wasiak. Directed by Jefery Levy

What happens within a marriage can be a delicate thing. We assume that the private life is a mirror of the lives they project to the public, but behind the bedroom doors of any couple can be any one of a million things – joy, kinkiness, exquisite sorrow, tragedy and yes, even love but love expressed in ways that you and I can’t even begin to fathom.

The Nobel laureate Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki brought that onto the printed page with his 1955 novel The Key in which the husband deliberately leaves the key to the desk drawer where he keeps his diary within sight, almost daring his wife to turn the key and read the contents of his diary, which he has decided to make all about the sex life of the couple which has become rote and to him, insufferable. The couple has essentially ceased communicating with each other and this is the only way the husband knows to get his wife’s attention.

The husband, Jack, here is played by David Arquette, the wife Ida by Bai Ling and their home transplanted from Japan to Southern California. The structure of the film is that the two main characters read the contents of their journals while onscreen a series of images – some germane to the dialogue, some not – flash on the screen, generally oversaturated and scratched in order to approximate old movies which as it eventually turns out, they are somewhat like. One of the things I like about the movie is upon retrospect you realize that you are unstuck in time as you’re watching this; all of the events have already happened and you’re merely watching them unfold as in an old movie. I could be overthinking this, of course.

This is not a movie that is safe viewing. For one thing, sex is really a major part of the movie, or rather the obsession of sex. Ida is naked a lot of the time and she and Jack are often engaged in sex, not all of it consensual strictly speaking. Also in the cast is Kim (Keyes) whom Jack is trying to push into an affair with his wife, and Mia (Love), the couple’s adult daughter.

I’m all for movies that push the edge, but this one does so in a way that seems almost juvenile to my sensibilities. The readings of the journals is done in the breathless manner of 13-year-olds reading their father’s Letters to Penthouse out loud. In that sense, I suppose Levy might be doing that deliberately to give us a sense that the marriage between Jack and Ida has lost all its passion, but it goes on and on. The. Whole. Freaking. Movie.

A note about Bai Ling. She’s an actress who has always shown flashes of amazing potential but has never gotten a role that really allows her to achieve it. I keep hoping that each movie she’s in will be the one that really showcases her talents but she always seems destined to get roles that allow her to show that genius but never let it fly free. Here she is quite often touching in her various facets – Ida’s venality, her repressed sexuality, her regret – but the moments of genuine connection are abruptly severed by some absurd business that turns the movie into an hour and nineteen minutes of non-stop non-sequiturs.

Arquette is operating way outside the usual parameters that he is cast in and for that I tip my hat. He’s come a long way since the Scream franchise. This is definitely a more mature work for him, although again there’s that feeling that we should be titillated but instead we are tittering.

I haven’t read the book in 30 years so I’m a little bit rusty on the prose but to my ears it sounds like very little of it is Tanizaki. Perhaps the filmmakers are working off a different translation than the one I read, but this doesn’t sound like the way human beings write in their diaries about their sex lives. Perhaps I need to be reading more private journals but the prose is flowery here, and sometimes seems to use words for their own sake rather than to contribute to the viewers understanding of the story. There are some passages though that are dazzling, which is what I remember the book’s language to be, more simple but elegant.

The images are almost headache inducing, not unlike what you’d see projected on the walls of a nightclub circa 1995 and no, that’s not a good thing. After a short time it becomes almost annoying and I found myself looking down at my phone and reading e-mail while listening to the narration. That was something of a defense mechanism because my head was beginning to pound. Yes, some of the images here are beautiful and some out there but most of it is the visual equivalent of white noise, to be filtered out and ignored and is that really what you want in a visual medium?

Experimental cinema can be exhilarating, provocative or both. It can also be frustrating, pretentious or both. This is I suppose what passes for avant garde but either this is not the effect the filmmakers are going for or it’s way too avant for my garde.

Incidentally, the movie is on the festival circuit currently. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for it there. No word on a streaming release just yet but it’s likely to turn up in that format as well.

REASONS TO GO: Mind-blowing ending. Some fascinating images.
REASONS TO STAY: Holy pretentiousness Batman! Intrusive score. Takes too long to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of nudity and sex. Adult themes as well as some smoking and a fair amount of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Levy received a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
NEXT: Deathgasm

Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

(2015) Coming of Age Drama (Self-Released) Christine Ryndak, Mira Furlan, Fredric Lehne, Vincent Piazza, Leah Yananton, Dennis Hill, Joshua Zirger, Kevin Murray, Mikayla Park, Patrick Welsh, Rusty Clauss, Marycarmen Wila, Joanna Becker, Stefan Stratton, Matt Cannon, Ellana Barksdale, Marjo-Riikka Makela. Directed by Leah Yananton

Finding ourselves is no easy task. At 20 years old, we are expected to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives and who we want to be. The truth of the matter is this; at 20 we don’t have the experience to really know ourselves, and how can you figure out who you want to be if you don’t know who you are to begin with?

Sophie Hofkind (Ryndak) is entering her junior year in college. She is a poet of some talent, having been taken under the wing of her English lit teacher Professor Slateman (Lehne). Her free-spirited BFF Keira (Yananton) seems to have a moral compass that points directly at her own crotch; she pretty much bangs anything that moves and has quite a sexual attraction to Sophie, even if Sophie chooses to ignore it – most of the time. Once in awhile, Sophie isn’t above leading Keira on.

Sophie also has Jimmy (Piazza), who wants very much to be her boyfriend. Each gave their virginity away to the other; while Jimmy is hopelessly in love with Sophie, Sophie keeps a bit of a distance with Jimmy. Oh sure, she has sex with him, but it wouldn’t exactly be called making love, at least not for her.

Sophie is in a good spot. She has mostly paid for her tuition through private funds, refusing to utilize her mom as help – the two have been estranged essentially since Sophie left for school. However, the thing about life is it rarely stays in the same place for long. Sophie develops more than a crush for Professor Slateman and the professor’s enigmatic wife Jacqueline (Furlan), which begins to take its toll on all of Sophie’s relationships. Also, she has begun to run out of money for her schooling, which means she’ll have to work and given that she has an 18 credit workload means that she’s going to have little time for socializing and sleep.

Still, Sophie is making a go of it, but she runs smack into some life-altering decisions that will change her life forever but also the lives of everyone around her. These are the kinds of things that give us a road map to “finding ourselves.”

If you ever wondered what being a young co-ed in the 21st century is like, the movie gives the old college try at showing you. Not being a young 21st century co-ed I can’t really vouch for the accuracy here, but I have to admit that the dialogue doesn’t always ring true here. While college students of both sexes have a tendency to mistake literary quotes and highfalutin’ language as depth, most discussions that take place between college students has little to do with the meaning of poetry. Rather, like most young people, college students spend more time discussing social activities than they do literature and philosophy.

Fortunately, the two leading ladies – Ryndak and Yananton – are both charming, smart, pretty and sexy. While Ryndak’s character isn’t always likable in that she is capable of great self-absorption, she has a light about her that makes the audience want her to do the right thing and end up happy. Yananton, who has to portray a girl whom the judgmental among us might call a slut – although I have issues with labeling a woman who happens to enjoy sex – makes the character the sort of girl you want to hang around with, even if you have zero chance of sleeping with her.

The supporting cast is pretty good as well, with the exception of Mira Furlan. Most remember her from Babylon 5 and J.J. Abrams’ Lost but she is a superb actress who has never really connected with American audiences to the degree I thought she would. She doesn’t have a huge role here but it is a memorable one and Furlan fills it with personality and emotion. Her scenes with Ryndak in the cabin late in the film are really superb.

The problems that Sophie encounters are for the most part very realistic. Young women enter an environment where their sexuality is both encouraged and discouraged at once; it can be very confusing to navigate the treacherous waters of human relationships at any age, let alone so young. Sophie makes some poor choices here but she also makes a few good ones. Whether or not she has truly learned from them is an enigma; how often do we truly learn from our mistakes? Not always. Some less often than others, but all things considered I have high hopes for Sophie.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. It occasionally falls into pretentiousness but of the kind that might come with characters who have more intelligence than experience. Particularly near the end of the film, Yananton sets up some beautiful shots and utilizes some artwork throughout that’s very feminine to the point of being yonic (the “9” in the opening titles looks decidedly ovarian). In fact, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to label this a bit of a woman’s film, although that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude men from enjoying it, but it certainly is aimed at young women with a young woman’s point of view. Using the structure of Dante’s Inferno to structure the movie is fairly interesting for the most part, but some of the segments feel like the subject matter was shoehorned in a little bit. An ambitious idea but one that I think ended up inhibiting the filmmaker somewhat.

Summing up, not all of this works but that’s okay – enough of it does that I can give it a reasonably solid thumbs up. The film is just beginning to hit the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for it at your local film fest. Don’t be surprised if it turns up at one near you.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting artwork with a decidedly feminine bent. Mira Furlan is a criminally underrated actress. Some really nicely set up shots.
REASONS TO STAY: The lead character’s behavior can be frustrating. Occasionally pretentious. Some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like 20-year-old girls talking.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sex and some nudity, adult and sexual content, some foul language and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere last weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
NEXT: The Key