All the Light in the Sky


As any good surfer will tell you, the surf's up even when you're down.

As any good surfer will tell you, the surf’s up even when you’re down.

(2012) Drama (Swanberry) Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Lawrence Michael Levine, Ti West, Susan Traylor, Lindsay Burge, Simon Barrett, Allison Baar. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 Florida Film Festival 2013

I’ve heard mumblecore defined as “a bunch of dialogue in search of a plot.” That’s not entirely accurate but it isn’t without some merit. The mumblecore movement, whose adherents include directors like the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalsky and Lynn Shelton,  have had a champion in Joe Swanberg as well.

Swanberg, based in the Chicago area (he attended film school at Southern Illinois University) has been as prolific a director as anyone in the business. He’s not quantity over quality either – some of his films have included Hannah Takes the Stairs, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic and Kissing on the Mouth, all very fine films. Actress Jane Adams, who also starred in Autoerotic and made a name for herself in Todd Solondz’ film Happiness, co-wrote this new film with Swanberg which would seem to have at least some autobiographical elements.

Marie (Adams) is a respected film actress who at 45 is hitting the brick wall that actresses get as roles for middle aged women dry up. She lives in a beach house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific into which she paddleboards every morning. She lives a healthy lifestyle, making herself smoothies for nearly every occasion, and has no romantic entanglements.

Her niece Faye (Takal), who intends to follow in her footsteps as an actress but has been working mostly on the East Coast, comes for a visit. This delights Marie, who one suspects is a little bit lonely but also adores her niece to begin with. Marie shows her around town and gives her some advice on navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Marie knows those waters well. After losing a desirable role to Kristen Wiig, she accepts a part in a micro-budgeted indie as a solar scientist and does extensive research with one to prepare for the role. She also begins a relationship with Dan (Swanberg regular Osborne) who does a lot of pot and is handy around the house, but as Marie looks past the sex doesn’t really see a lot more there- and that may well be just fine by her.

Faye for her part has a boyfriend (Levine) at home with whom she Skypes almost nightly with. Some innocent flirtations trouble her; she seems tempted at times with some of the boys she hangs out with at parties and such but quickly learns that their interest in her mainly ends when her clothes stay on. That’s not uncommon in L.A. or anywhere else for that matter.

Marie’s friend Rusty (Fessenden) paddleboards with her every morning. He’s a bit of a player although he prefers partners who are younger. They have a fairly comfortable relationship but after having a few drinks with dinner, things get a bit awkward.

The story really revolves around Faye’s visit and a few days on each side of it. This isn’t a movie in which things happen, which some viewers might find infuriating. Rather, things get discussed – everything from women’s breasts to the need for solar energy to the advantages of marriage and the price for independence. Some of these conversations are interesting indeed.

For my part, I have this issue with movies that are essentially people talking about life – it’s a very passive endeavor. I need a little more interaction. When I see an interesting conversation onscreen, I want very much to be part of it and it can be quite frustrating to be a mute onlooker. Sure, you can carry on some of the conversations afterward (and Da Queen and I did) but it isn’t the same – you’re never as brilliant afterwards are you are in the moment and the value of your insights can get lost.

I like Swanberg as a filmmaker and Adams as an actress. They both respect their audiences and don’t talk down to them. Simply put, I just didn’t connect with this movie the way I would have liked to. Perhaps I wasn’t in the frame of mind to enjoy it properly and needed a bit more space on either side of the film than you can typically get in a busy film festival schedule. That said, do take my final rating with a grain of salt – it isn’t meant to judge the quality of the movie, which is significant, only my recommendation on seeing it. It’s a very acquired taste, but those willing to put some effort and focus into it should find ample rewards. Unfortunately, I honestly didn’t but the fault may well have been mine rather than the filmmakers.

REASONS TO GO: Smart and topical. The dialogue sounds like real people talking. Very slice of life, L.A.-style.

REASONS TO STAY: Very talky. Lacks action and a traditional story.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rough language, adult situations and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swanberg directed six films that were filmed in 2010 (and co-directed a seventh), one of the busiest years for a single director since the silent era.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baghead

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: SOMM and further coverage of the films of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

A.K.A. Doc Pomus


This is how it's done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

This is how it’s done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

 

(2012) Music Documentary (PBS International) Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Jerry Lieber, Raoul Felder, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Kenny Hirsch, Dion DiMucci, Shawn Colvin, Willi Burke, Alex Halberstadt, Ken Emerson, Marshall Chapman, Mike Stoller, Dave Marsh, Robin Lerner, Hal Willner, Josh Alan Friedman, Jimmy Scott, Gerry Goffin, Penny Arcade. Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The name Doc Pomus is probably not one you’re all that familiar with unless you’re one of those music fans who reads incessantly about classic rock and pop. Even if you’re one of those people, you still might not know the name and if you do, chances are you don’t know much more than that.

Pomus started his career as a blues singer, and those who have heard his early recordings were startled to find out that he wasn’t an old black man from the Delta but a white Jew from the Bronx. He was perhaps the most unlikely blues singer ever but he certainly understood the blues. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc was on crutches or a wheelchair most of his life. Not the best looking of men, he was still attractive to women largely with the force of his teddy bear personality but also with his sensitivity and genius for expressing love simply and elegantly.

Pomus has written or co-written (with frequent partner Mort Shuman) some of the most beloved songs in the history of music, including “Save the Last Dance,” “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” “Young Blood” and “Viva Las Vegas” to name just a few. He started out as one of the Brill Building writers who brought hit after hit in the late 50s and early 60s. As writing their own songs became more en vogue for artists as the 60s grew more turbulent, Pomus became more of a gun for hire, continuing to write for artists as diverse as B.B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.

Pomus was also a tireless crusader for fellow writers and performers, making sure those who had been overlooked got breaks when he could arrange them. His efforts made him a beloved figure in the music industry and garnered him a lot of respect from those who knew about his behind the scenes work.

Pomus passed away in 1991 from lung cancer and was elected to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame the following year, honors richly deserved.  This documentary is a testimony to his lasting influence on music both as a songwriter but also as a champion for its preservation and as a mentor to literally dozens of writers who came after him, including such current hitmakers as Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin.

This is a pretty standard music documentary with performance footage, interviews both archival and modern and a few graphic goodies. It is a fairly informative documentary but I’m not sure if that’s because Pomus is so criminally not well-known or because the filmmakers meant this to be that way (it is after all slated to air on PBS). Still, one must applaud the filmmakers for bringing back into the spotlight someone who deserved to be there from the beginning so it gets extra kudos and points for that alone.

Making music documentaries is not a matter of just slapping some clips and interviews together and this is certainly not that; some care and thought went into this and certainly that’s appreciated. However, this isn’t an innovative entry into the genre so if you’re looking for something that ventures beyond the Behind the Music formula, this doesn’t stray too far from that path. However if you’re looking to learn more about a giant of the industry whose story isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve come to the right place.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific music, some of the most iconic in rock and pop history. Tells the story of someone who doesn’t get the recognition he should have.

REASONS TO STAY: Slow in places. Loses steam near the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use but mainly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pomus’ real name was Jerome Solon Felder.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie will be making festival appearances before an eventual airing on PBS.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sing Your Song

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: All the Light in the Sky and more coverage from the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

2013 Florida Film Festival


Florida Film Festival 2013Although there are a few more films yet to be screened as I write this, at last for me the Florida Film Festival has come to an end for another year and in all honesty I have to admit that this one from my standpoint was the most successful one yet. Although I have enjoyed every one I’ve been to thus far, at this one I had more fun, met more new friends and saw more great movies than ever. There were several that took me by surprise (i.e. I Declare War, Magical Universe both of which have reviews pending) as well as a few that were as good as any films we’ve seen at the festival (Forgotten Kingdom, This is Where We Live).

We got to meet Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and who is appearing in Free Samples and at 83 years old she’s as beautiful and alluring as women half her age, as well as Cary Elwes, star of The Princess Bride who was as gracious and as charming as any star I’ve met. I also got to hobnob with indie filmmakers ranging from Oscar winner Bill Plympton to newcomers Marc Menchaca, Jeremy Workman and Joe York. All of them have terrific careers ahead of them.

So it is with some bittersweet feelings that I write this closing piece on the Festival. Work will begin shortly on the 23rd FFF for 2014. Still, as the army of volunteers heads home and the staffers at the Enzian take down the decorations, the tents, the tables and the posters, those of us who attended can applaud the hard work of all those who put the Festival together and kept it running smoothly. Special thanks to Enzian press relations queen Jennifer Guhl, box office manager Adam Kelley, program director Matthew Curtis, Enzian president Henry Maldonado, projectionist and general tech guy Joshua Martin, and the box officers, servers, bartenders, ticket takers and line managers that kept a smile on their face and a can-do attitude despite near universal exhaustion on all their parts. I’d like to particularly single out Adam Smith, Danielle Best, Will Reddy, Mark Yancey, Christina Lucero and Anna Wallace for making my experience even better through their unfailing good humor, willingness to assist an occasionally grumpy press guy and to do that hoodoo that they do so well.

I honestly hope you made it to this year’s festival. If not, do make plans to go next year. I know it’s a bit of a gamble going to movies you know nothing about, but the producers of the Festival take a lot of the worry out of it – the movies they pick for the festival are really, really good and there were so many of them that I couldn’t fit them all in during the run of the festival so for the next few weeks you’ll be seeing more festival film reviews even though the actual festival is over – and those I didn’t see will still proudly bear the Festival logo when I do get around to seeing and reviewing them.

So once again a very heartfelt thanks go to everyone involved with the 2013 Florida film festival, and congratulations are due all of them for an extraordinary job well done. Believe me, every sleepless night, every tired and aching muscle, every minor panic attack was worth it for all the joy you brought to the festival goers and the exceptional reflection you all were on Central Florida. I’ll be seeing you at the next one.

Renoir


Renoir's model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

Renoir’s model Dedee has hopes and dreams as well as a beautiful body.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Michel Bouquet, Vincent Rottiers, Christa Theret, Thomas Doret, Michele Gleizer, Romane Bohringer, Carlo Brandt, Helene Babu, Stuart Seide, Paul Spera, Solene Rigot, Cecile Rittweger. Directed by Gilles Bourdos   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Great art transcends it’s medium. Whether a painting, a sculpture or a film, the greatest art inspires, excites, arouses and/or induces regardless of how it was created. One might say it is the art and not the artist – something that many artists forget.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bouquet), arguably the greatest of the Impressionist painters, knows that all too well. It is 1915 and the Great War rages not far from his estate, Les Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur on the Mediterranean coast in southeastern France. His wife Aline has recently passed away and he himself is in profound pain due to rheumatoid arthritis (he would pass away himself four years later) which is why he has relocated to this bucolic town far from Paris.

Two of his three sons have been wounded in the war – the third, Coco (Doret) is too young to enlist and dwells on the farm, angry at the world. The great painter is surrounded by female servants, most of whom are former models of his. It is a saucy environment indeed, one which most men his age would have envied entirely.

Into this mix comes Andree Heuschling (Theret), a voluptuously beautiful model recommended to the great master by Henri Matisse. Brash, forthright and a bit self-centered, Andree (who is better known as the actress Catherine Hessling later in life but here is called Dedee) creates quite a stir. Renoir enters a fresh period of creativity and ends up quite taken with her.

So is another Renoir – son Jean (Rottiers) who has come to the family farm to recuperate from his wounds. Jean is a bit of a lost soul whose relationship with his father has a bit of distance to it – after all, it is hard to be the son of a living legend. While his father paints some compelling paintings of Dedee (both clothed and nude), Jean begins to fall for the lively girl. In him she awakens a love of a new art form – cinema. But as Jean’s wounds heal, the call to arms is still strong. Will the call of love be stronger yet?

Much of this was filmed on Renoir’s farm Les Collettes and it is easy to see through the beautiful images of Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee just how idyllic the property is and how much Philippe-Auguste Renoir must have loved it. The wind blows through the old trees, creating a soundtrack all its own. The elder Renoir loved beauty, particularly in the female form (“Flesh!” he exclaims at one point, “That’s all that matters!”). He was fascinated by the textures of the skin of young women and few artists captured it as well as he.

The venerable Bouquet does a marvelous job of capturing the spirit and the look of Renoir, from the long raggedy beard to the gnarled hands and painful movement of the old man. When he looks at Dedee and murmurs “Too soon! Too late” with genuine melancholy, one realizes in four words how much he is attracted to her – and how realistic he is about a relationship actually developing.

I like the Renoirs was quite taken with Dedee and we have Christa Theret to thank for that. Only a teen when she made the film (admittedly the real Dedee was five years younger than Theret), she conveys both the force of nature of the model’s personality as well as her uninhibited nature as she spends much of the film naked. I doubt many American actresses would have been able to pull that latter quality off.

The pace here is as languid as a summer day and that may put off some American audiences. One gets lulled by the ambience of the film and the passion of the performances. I have rarely been transported to a time and place as effectively as I was for Renoir. While this isn’t strictly speaking not 100% biographical (for example, he’s depicted having his brush tied to his hands by his assistants; in reality they merely placed the brush in his hand for him), it is nonetheless a welcome insight into the mind and life of one of the most influential painters of his time – one who continues to be a touchstone in the world of art.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously photographed. Interesting insights into the life of one of the greatest artists in history.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be sleep-inducing in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Although there is quite a bit of nudity, it is all done in an artistic manner and while there is some bad language, there is only a few brief instances.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bourdos used convicted art forger Guy Ribes to re-create the Renoir paintings onscreen during the painting sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100; pretty decent reviews for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pollack

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: AKA Doc Pomus

Year of the Living Dead


The secret to creating an iconic horror film is not found in a cartoon.

The secret to creating an iconic horror film is not found in a cartoon.

(2012) Documentary (Self-Released) George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Gale Anne Hurd, Elvis Mitchell, Sam Pollard, Mark Harris, Jason Zinoman, Chris Schultz. Directed by Rob Kuhns   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

There is no doubt that circa 2012, zombies are the new cool. The success of the comic turned basic cable TV hit The Walking Dead has contributed mightily to that but there is nobody with any sort of historical perspective at all who won’t admit that without Night at the Living Dead, zombies would be relegated to a kind of horror film B-movie ghetto.

Romero was a young college dropout in Pittsburgh back in 1968 when he decided to make a movie on his own. He, like many other Pittsburgh-based filmmakers, worked on the children’s television program Mister Rogers Neighborhood (one of Romero’s vignettes, Mr. Roger Gets a Tonsillectomy is shown and I kid you not, it is one of the most terrifying things you will ever see) as well as local advertisements.

The movie was largely shot on a wing and a prayer with investors and local TV personalities appearing as actors, zombies and occasionally as technicians. It was shot on the fly and with an almost non-existent budget. It got little or no positive press mainly because it broke so many taboos – an African-American hero whose race is never commented upon in the film, children murdering and eating their parents, zombies chowing down on living, screaming victims.

Largely over time, the movie has grown from cult status into a cultural touchstone. Within the context of its time when race riots were running rampant, the counterculture was protesting the war in Vietnam with increasingly violent repression from the government in reprisal and a general distrust of the American dream of their parents by an entire generation of young people, Night of the Living Dead was almost inevitable – if Romero hadn’t made it, someone else might well have made something like it. It’s unlikely however that anyone else would have blown off Hollywood movie conventions as easily as Romero did; while he essentially claims he didn’t know any better, I honestly believe that his innovations were done deliberately.

This documentary examines the film and it’s time, largely through interviews of critics, writers, academics and filmmakers (including Hurd, producer of The Walking Dead). There are also some nifty illustrated/animated sequences drawn by Gary Pullin that give the audience an insight into the production itself.

Because of the focus on a single film, Kuhns is able to drill down and really examine the movie’s historical, political and cinematic influence and the implications it has had on modern society and movies, not to mention it’s continuing influence on American culture. Romero is a delightful interview whose engaging personality is such that you wouldn’t mind watching two hours of talking head interviews with the man. Between the Romero interview and the illustrations as well as extensive footage from the movie itself and some archival footage of events of the day, the documentary is anything but dry. While those who don’t like the original movie might find this dull, if they are into history and social studies at all they will still find this fascinating. While the focus is definitely on Night of the Living Dead, you don’t have to be an obsessive fanboy to appreciate Year of the Living Dead. If you are, however, you may just want to demand your local art house get a copy of the movie so that you can spend your nights wrapped up in this well-made and thoughtful analysis of one of the great movies of all time.

REASONS TO GO: Romero is an engaging storyteller. Filmmakers really drill down and don’t just get backstage anecdotes but place the movie within the context of its time.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t fans of Night of the Living Dead will find this dull.

FAMILY VALUES:  A few disturbing horror images and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interviews for the film were conducted between 2006-2011.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has made a few appearances on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Room 237

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: First Comes Love and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Pride & Joy


 

Nothing says Southern cooking better than barbecue and few do barbecue better than Helen Sanders.

Nothing says Southern cooking better than barbecue and few do barbecue better than Helen Sanders.

(2012) Documentary (Southern Foodways Alliance) Will Harris, Dori Sanders, Rodney Scott, Lee Ross, Kendall Schoelles, Thomas Stewart, Julian van Winkle, Ben Lanier, Allan Benton, Bill Best, Geno Lee, Rhoda Adams, Leah Chase, Martha Hawkins, Ida Mamusu, Earl Cruze, Helen Turner, Bernard Colleton, Red Coleman, Sam Jones, Bruce Jones, Gerald Lemoine, Ronnie Durand. Directed by Joe York 

Florida Film Festival 2013

Southern cuisine is much more than pork rinds, barbecue and deep fried. The South has always gotten a bit of a bad rap when it comes to food until the last decade or two when chefs have begun to discover that there is an abundance of fresh ingredients, delicious cooking that takes its cues from all over the world. Celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Art Smith, Norm van Aiken and of course Paula Deen have been enthusiastic ambassadors for Southern cooking over the past decade and some of the best restaurants in the world come from the South.

But Southern cooking isn’t all about celebrity chefs. There are literally thousands of food producers who take great pride in bringing to market the finest of ingredients, the most delicious of finished products. Some are the latest in generations of people who have done the same thing, some preserving the timeless traditions of taking the time to do things right.

The Southern Foodways Alliance has been dedicated to preserving Southern food traditions and publicizing the best of the best – those who produce beautiful Georgia peaches, grass-fed beef, gulf oysters, sweet Tupelo honey, flavorful smoked Virginia hams, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, potent Kentucky bourbon and of course the best barbecue there is. Some of these are sold directly to the public while others are available only through suppliers.

York, acting on behalf of the SFA and the University of Mississippi Documentary program has been traveling throughout the South from New Orleans to Memphis, from Georgia to Virginia and all points in between – not just sampling the ample variety of food but documenting it on a series of shorts that celebrate the passions of these producers – from oyster shuckers to caviar farmers to orchard owners to bourbon distillers to beekeepers to barbecue pit masters – who not only cook the food but those who produce the ingredients.

He’s gathered some of these shorts as well as several new ones in a feature length documentary that not only celebrates the food but those behind it as well. We get to see people who love the land and its bounty, some of them quirky (grass-fed beef producer Will Harris likes to end his day with a “700ml glass of wine”), some of them completely passionate (like Tupelo honey producer Ben Lanier who waxes rhapsodic over the superiority of his brand of honey) and some of them who are philosophical (peach grower Dori Sanders on how food “speaks to you” and tells you something about who you are). Not a one of these shorts are boring and every one of them will not only give you a different outlook on food and eating but will make you downright hungry in the process.

You get a sense of the modern South here, from rural South Carolina to metropolitan New Orleans. The beauty of the green pastures where cattle graze in the late afternoon sun – far from the steroid-injected factory farm cattle who live in stalls fed on corn and chemicals meant to create a greater meat yield – gives you a sense of why these people love the land they tend and love what they do. These are people I wouldn’t mind spending an hour or two just chatting about their products and about their lives, sitting on the porch with a cold frosty beverage or perhaps enjoying the fruits of their labors. Sadly, we only get five minutes or so with each one – I could certainly have enjoyed longer chats with each and every one of these people. That’s the mark of a great documentary.

Incidentally, you can see the shorts at the Southern Foodways alliance website here and to find out where you can get the products shown in the film go to the movie’s website by clicking on the picture above.

REASONS TO GO: Each segment is fascinating and there isn’t one I didn’t wish had lasted longer.

REASONS TO STAY: You’ll be real hungry by the time this is over.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some animal carcasses that might upset the very impressionable young or militant vegetarians.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the transportation was done through a Ford Taurus station wagon, affectionately nicknamed the “Schwagon” which York drove to the various locations throughout the South. The Schwagon was retired with honors shortly before the film was completed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film is mostly on the festival circuit and at one-off screenings throughout the Southeast; PBS will be airing it sometime in the fall.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Food Finds

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Year of the Living Dead and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

This is Where We Live


Just a couple of good ol' boys hanging out in the Texas Hill Country.

Just a couple of good ol’ boys hanging out in the Texas Hill Country.

(2013) Drama (Bluff City) Tobias Segal, Marc Menchaca, Barry Corbin, Frankie Shaw, C.K. McFarland, Ron Hayden, Katherine Willis, Marco Perella, Brent Smiga, Brian Orr, Christine Bruno, Carolyn Gilroy. Directed by Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Real life isn’t anything like the movies; you don’t need me to tell you that. Sure, sometimes there’s a resemblance but most of the time we just kind of trudge our way through. There’s nothing really heroic about it from our own perspectives. Others however might disagree.

Some might see Diane Sutton (McFarland) as a heroine although I doubt she’d agree. The Suttons of Llano, Texas (up in the Hill Country for those looking to visit) have had it rough. If bad breaks were an art form, Diane would be Picasso. Her adult son August (Segal) has Cerebral Palsy in one of its most severe forms. Her husband Bob (Hayden) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s-like dementia. Her daughter Lainey (Shaw) has an attitude the size of Texas and seems bitter at the lot life has given her. On top of it Diane’s blood pressure is high and her doctor (Perella) advises her to slow down, eat better and stop lifting heavy objects.

Yeah, right. Not on this planet. Nobody else possesses the strength and the cognition to move August from his wheelchair to bed (or to the shower or to the toilet). Even getting him out of the house is a chore of brute strength as Diane has to carefully maneuver him down the stairs. And she is the breadwinner, stocking shelves at a local grocery store. To say she’s tuckered out is an understatement.

At last she hires a handyman to build a wheelchair ramp for their home. Noah (Menchaca) is a hard drinking good ol’ boy who bears an eerie resemblance to Walker, Texas Ranger-era Chuck Norris (a fact which amuses Bob no end). He also has some demons of his own but he has a kind heart and August and he get along famously. Diane observes this and with the kind of hope that can only come from a woman used to being disappointed by life, she asks him if he can help out watching August.

To her surprise, he says yes. Noah becomes a caretaker for August who seems pretty amped to have a friend. Lainey regards Noah with suspicion and not a little hostility for her part. Noah gradually learns what is required to care for an adult whose mind is perfectly fine but is trapped in a body that prevents him from doing even the most basic things. As Noah gets to know August better, a deep friendship forms between the two.

However, Noah is prone to messing up and when you are caring for another human being, you can’t have too many of those. Noah’s presence has triggered something in each member of the family, as his interaction with them has triggered something in himself. Will their journeys unite them or will this family – in as fragile a state as any family can be in – be torn apart?

This could easily have been a Lifetime Movie about a heroic mom who holds a family beset by illness and tragedy together with the force of her will but Menchaca – who wrote and co-directed this – wisely chose to pass on the treacle and write from the heart with an eye (and ear) for the everyday struggles of working families who more or less have to go it alone in difficult times. The Suttons aren’t saints, nor are they sinners – they’re just folks like you and I, in a nearly intolerable situation and coping the best they can which isn’t always pretty. Sometimes they take out their frustrations out on each other. Sometimes they are unexpectedly tender. At no time are they anything other than authentic.

This is also as Texas a movie as you’re ever going to get. I’m not talking Dallas Cowboys Texas – I’m talking about small town Texas where skipping rocks is about all the entertainment you’re going to get on a dusty afternoon. Rather than turning the townspeople into chainsaw-wielding maniacs, it draws them closer together. They look out for each other and while sometimes they look away when someone makes a fool of themselves, you get a sense that this is a community that is fully aware that all they really have is each other. Cinematographer Ryan Booth captures the lonely desolation that has its own beauty and grandeur from the small town diners to the dusty prairie to the calm before a violent thunderstorm. This is a beautiful film that even those who don’t love Texas will see why many do.

Segal has the most physically demanding role and he handles it about as well as can be expected. His frustration at being unable to communicate is palpable – imagine if you couldn’t speak, had limited movement of your limbs and had to rely on caretakers for everything – even letting them know what your basic needs are can be a challenge, particularly for someone who doesn’t know you well enough to understand that your fingers brought to your mouth means you need to go to the bathroom, not that you’re hungry. It is pivotal that Segal convey that to the audience and he does so nicely

Menchaca also gives a superior performance as Noah. Noah’s a good ol’ boy sure but he’s also damaged, his relationship with his own family shredded and strained if it exists at all. His ghosts are influencing his interactions with the Suttons for better and occasionally for worse. Noah can be violent, particularly when he drinks (which is often) but he can be kind as well. He has empathy for Diane and even for Lainey who treats him shabbily.

McFarland does a magnificent job as well. Diane starts out heroic but as the movie progresses so too does our perception of her. She’s not the saint we first thought she was; there is a selfishness to her as well; she resents Noah’s relationship with August and as she becomes less of his total focus she doesn’t know exactly what to do so she lashes out – at Lainey, at Bob, at Noah and even occasionally at August himself.

The most impressive thing here is that for virtually the entire cast and crew (although veteran actor Barry Corbin is aboard) this is their first feature-length film. This is as mature and as accomplished a film as you’d be likely to find from veteran Hollywood crews as there are – that it comes from a tyro independent team is to say the least encouraging.

This will be playing the festival circuit for awhile. Hopefully a savvy distributor will get hold of it and give it some sort of theatrical release (if not a home video release). This is one of those hidden gems that you’ll want to view more than once, as welcome as a summer storm on a dry dusty molten hot August day in the Texas highlands. For any serious film buff, this is one to seek out. Check their Facebook page regularly (click on the photo above) to see when it’s playing near you and if it is, do what you have to and see it. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Real people facing a real issue realistically. Each character undertakes a fascinating journey. Beautifully photographed and acted.

REASONS TO STAY: Some moments may be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a few bad words here and there, some scenes of child peril, some sexuality and some smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Sutton house was actually the home of Menchaca’s football coach who had recently passed away; much of the furniture and fixtures within were original to the house.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just now hitting the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Pride and Joy and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Putzel


So long and thanks for all the fish.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Stouthearted) Jack Carpenter, Melanie Lynskey, John Pankow, Susie Essman, Jarlath Conroy, Armando Riesco, Allegra Cohen, Steve Park, Adrian Martinez, Fred Berman, Fran Kranz, Ashley Austin Morris, Sondra James, Robert Klein (voice), Elizabeth Masucci. Directed by Jason Chaet

 Florida Film Festival 2013

There are those who believe that the most Jewish place on Earth is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Israel notwithstanding. There is some credence to that. It certainly remains the center of what most Americans think of as American Jewish culture and it is my understanding that most American Jews regard it with some fondness, even if they have never lived there.

Walter (Carpenter) lives there. Actually, very few people call him Walter – everyone calls him Putzel – little putz – and have done since he was a young kid. Walter has ambitions. Walter has dreams. He works at Himmelstein’s and everyone knows that for smoked fish, Himmelstein’s. His Uncle Sid (Pankow) is running the place but Sid has no kids and Walter wants to inherit the store so bad he can taste it and let’s face it, it tastes like lox.

Walter’s wife Willa (Cohen) has left him. She’s been cheating on him with the amiable Hector (Martinez) who doesn’t see the problem. Walter also has a phobia – he’s incapable of leaving the Upper West Side. When he gets to the boundary, he freezes up. It’s like an invisible force field that prevents his egress into the murky waters beyond. Here there be dragons.

Still, Walter is pretty sure things will eventually go his way. Sid is talking about retiring with his wife Gilda (Essman) to Arizona, and the good-hearted Gilda has always treated Walter like the son she never had, particularly as Walter’s parents both passed away when he was very young. Walter is determined to show he deserves to inherit the store – in fact, who else is there? Song (Park), the Korean blade man who cuts the fish and loves what he does but he isn’t family. Neither is Tunch (Berman) who loves the fish a little too much.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Walter’s plans with the arrival of Sally (Lynskey), a sweet and fragile barmaid who dreams of being a dancer. Sid promptly falls head over heels for her and suddenly his plans to retire with Gilda to Arizona are thrown into chaos. Walter realizes that if he is to inherit the store and achieve all his dreams, he’ll have to sabotage Sid and Sally’s relationship but the more he tries to get them to do the right thing, the more he realizes that he’s in love with Sally.

This is sweet-tempered and slightly neurotic. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this is some lost Woody Allen movie from the 70s that was strangely transplanted into the 21st century. While not in the same league as Allen’s best work of the era, it is at least comparable and those who love Manhattan and Annie Hall will do back flips when they see this – at least those who aren’t using walkers these days.

The cast is solid and charming to a man (and woman). Lynskey, who has become a highly in-demand actress on the indie circuit, seems destined to break into mainstream success. She’s pretty, has terrific comic timing, and is able to convey strength and vulnerability with equal ease. She reminds me very much of Zooey Deschanel at a similar place in her career.

I’m not sure if Carpenter is Jewish or not but he certainly captures the idiosyncrasies of a nice Jewish kid from the Upper West Side nicely – the sense of humor, the romantic awkwardness – the sex scene with Walter and Sally may be the un-sexiest sex scene ever filmed and yet the most authentic –  and the inner decency. If he’s a bit neurotic, well, it kind of goes with the territory.

I was also impressed with the work of veteran actress Susie Essman who plays the kind Gilda – maybe the most level-headed character in the movie. She seems to be the soul of the family here and Essman, who has always been an actress who conveys warmth and caring, is tailor-made for the role.

Even if you don’t have lox running through your veins or a soul of gefilte fish you can still find plenty of reasons to love this charming, quirky movie whether it is for the moments of unexpected inappropriateness or the sweet charm that never gets cloying, like too much Manischewitz wine. Given the solid performances and the overall environment created, this can appeal to the Jewishness in all of us.

REASONS TO GO: Charming and gives a good sense of the Upper West Side. Funny and offbeat in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally inappropriate for younger audiences. May confound goyim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language and some sexuality, some of it with fish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lox is a fillet of brined salmon (although commonly confused with smoked salmon which is a different dish entirely) and the name is derived from the Yiddish word for salmon, laks.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Apprenticeship of Dudley Kravitz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is Where We Live and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

The Painting (Le tableau)


Art is a leap of faith.

Art is a leap of faith.

(2011) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Jean Barney, Chloe Berthier, Julien Bouanich, Serge Fafli, Thierry Jahn, Jean-Francois Laguionie, Adrien Larmande, Jessica Monceau, Jeremy Prevost, Jacques Roehrich, Celine Ronte, Magali Rosenzweig, Thomas Sagols, Michel Vigne. Directed by Jean-Francois Laguionie

 Florida Film Festival 2013

In this French-Belgian co-production, the figures in a painting lead their own lives behind the canvas walls that we see. In one particular painting, there is a rigid social strata; in the luxurious castle live the Alldunns, the completed figures who are at the top of the food chain and are altogether pleased with themselves as the painter meant to complete them. Below them but worlds apart are the Halfies, figures not quite finished with occasionally the matter of only a few brush strokes separating them from the top of the rung – but it is in the garden they must live. Finally there are the Sketchies, little more than pencil drawings who hide in plain sight and are the low carvings on the totem pole, the objects of derision and hatred from both the other groups, exiled into the forest.

Of course everything begins with a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between Alldunn Ramo (Larmande) and Halfie Claire (Berthier). This is deeply frowned upon by the Great Candlestick, the Doge-like leader of the Alldunns. The Halfies are just as resentful of Claire and so she runs away. Separated from his love, Ramo goes into the woods to find Claire, accompanied by her friend Lola (Monceau) and Plume (Jahn), a bitter Sketchie who watched his friend Gom (Bouanich) horribly beaten and thrown from the castle balcony to the ground below.

The three go on a journey to reunite the lovers and to find the painter, who can bring harmony to the world of the painting by completing his work. They will discover new worlds inside other paintings and find out that the things that seem important on the outside pale in significance to what’s inside.

The paintings here bring to mind the works of Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Chagall although they are representations of different styles of art more than of a specific piece. The world of The Painting is imaginative and clever, although the animation, while colorful, is a bit choppy in places, looking almost like a Cartoon Network version of an art history course.

Still, this is solid family entertainment with a lovely little twist at the end and a distinctly European point of view, especially in regards to class differentiations and in changing your environment. It took four years to realize and I suspect that the things I found deficient in the animation itself may well have been done deliberately to make a point which I can appreciate but still in all with a little bit more care this could have been the work of art that it was trying to portray.

REASONS TO GO: Very colorful. Imaginative and innovative.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is spotty in places. Very simplistic story.

FAMILY VALUES:  One of the paintings in the movie is of a topless woman, but in an artistic way and certainly non-sexualized. There is a bit of violence including one rather disturbing scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The distributor name, GKIDS, stands for Guerilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate, and began life as the organizers of the Oscar-qualifying New York Children’s International Film Festival which they continue to do today.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Putzel and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Nancy, Please


Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

(2012) Drama (Small Coup) Will Rogers, Eleonore Hendricks, Rebecca Lawrence, Santino Fontana, Novella Nelson, Wally Dunn, Timothy Chastain, Ellis Cahill, Steph Holmbo, Claire Molloy, Elizabeth Ansell, Peter Coleman, Alice Kemelberg, Alex Robles, Alexis Rose, Hilary Shar, Matthew Taylor. Directed by Andrew Semans   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

It doesn’t take much to annoy most of us. Petty little cruelties can prey on our minds. Most of the time we just brush it off and simply classify the perpetrator as a jerk and move on. Once in awhile however something just captures our brains and we get obsessed by the injustice, determined to exact our measure of triumph out of a situation in which we feel wronged.

Paul (Rogers) is a doctoral candidate at Yale, working on a thesis that follows the description of the English political process described by Charles Dickens in his classic novel Little Dorrit. To that end he has his own hardcover in which he has written notes covering the subject.

Life is actually pretty good for Paul. He’s just moved in with his beautiful girlfriend Jen (Lawrence) who is supporting him while he works on his thesis, which he is finally ready to start writing. However as he’s unpacking, he discovers to his chagrin that the crucial copy of the book has been left behind at his old apartment. Therefore he calls his old roommate Nancy (Hendricks) to see if he can drop by and pick up the book.

Days go by and he hears nothing. He is beginning to get frantic. His best friend Charlie (Fontana), a fellow doctoral candidate, urges him to simply drive over to his apartment and knock on the door. s they do, Paul is certain he glimpses Nancy inside but she doesn’t answer the door. The door turns out to be unlocked but Paul feels awkward about going in so he continues to wait.

The cat and mouse game between Paul and Nancy continues, escalating. Nancy does return his call a couple of times but always when Paul is unavailable. Paul is becoming obsessed, certain that Nancy has some sort of vendetta against him. Jen is becoming irritated because Paul is neglecting to do things around their house that he’d promised to do, forcing Jen who is supporting them to have to take care of things that Paul has more time to deal with.

However Paul is too busy dealing with Nancy to really focus on anything else. His faculty advisor, Dr. Bannister (Nelson) is growing impatient; it has been two years since Paul began his doctoral work and he has shown little or no movement in getting his thesis done. She is threatening to have him removed from the program. Paul’s stress is turning to desperation; he needs that book. So finally after a good deal of prodding from both Charlie and Jen, he decides to go in using a spare key Jen had when she used to come by the apartment to visit him and just get the book himself. This plan turns out to be disastrous.

Humiliated and physically injured, Paul’s paranoia about Nancy is reaching the boiling point. Jen, seeing that things have gone far out of control, finally takes matters into her own hands and in her mind (and in any other reasonable person’s mind) resolves the situation. But in Paul’s mind things are far from over…

This isn’t an easy film to sit through. I think that this is best described as a horror film that is going on only in the lead character’s mind. The innovative thing here is that it’s not actually a horror movie to anyone but Paul. Paul sees Nancy as some sort of cruel monster and she’s a vindictive bitch to be sure but Paul is about as passive a character as you’re likely to meet. He is so aggravating that Da Queen, not normally given to such hyperbole, proclaimed him the biggest pussy in the history of movies. She may have a point.

But so many male indie film leads could be described using that pejorative and you wouldn’t be far wrong and I think that part of the filmmaker’s intent is to satirize the somewhat cliché indie  saw of a passive male lead whose life is resolved either by a strong female presence or through some sort of external motivation. As someone who has seen his life transformed by the love of a good woman, I can’t argue that a man can’t find self-confidence and an improved sense of self-worth through that process. I can say though that it is used far too often in indie films of late.

The focus of the movie is on the antagonists Nancy and Paul and somewhat refreshingly it is more vital for those two to have chemistry than for Paul and Jen to have it and in fact that is the case. Hendricks gives a strong performance in a role that is pretty thankless; Nancy really doesn’t have any reason not to give Paul the book other than to inflict punishment for some sort of transgression – I assume it’s because he had the gall to move out on her. Given her actions it’s not surprising that he’d want to.

Even more thankless is the role of Paul. He’s the nominal “hero” of the piece but he’s far from heroic. In fact, the danger here is that Rogers might be too good in the role – he certainly makes Paul an unlikable lead, to the point where Da Queen really didn’t like this movie once. While my wife and I have nearly identical taste in movies, this is one instance where we disagreed somewhat significantly. I liked the movie precisely for the reason that she didn’t – because the filmmakers have the courage to present a lot of unlikable people in a situation that could easily be resolved but isn’t. Real life is often that way.

Maybe I can see a little bit of myself in Paul. I certainly am the sort who avoids conflicts whenever possible and I tend to let life walk all over me. My ambitions tend to be overridden by my shyness and I tend to need a bit of nagging to get moving on things I know have to get done. However I’m nowhere near as bad as Paul is in that regard – I can self-motivate and even if I do procrastinate on some things they do get done in a timely manner, just not in an instantaneous manner most of the time.

Personal identification aside, I can heartily recommend this movie because it is different and the filmmakers are showing how a simple situation can get complicated in a hurry. I admit that the movie has grown more on me than it did make an immediate positive impression and that may well be the case for you, but if you want to try something outside of the usual kind of movie this is a good place to start.

REASONS TO GO: Love the juxtaposition between the paranoid fantasy going on in Paul’s mind and the mundane reality.

REASONS TO STAY: Possibly one of the most frustratingly passive lead characters ever.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some brief violence, adult situations, a bit of sexuality and a modicum of expletives.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in New Haven, it was mostly filmed in Brooklyn and other New York City locations.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Be Good and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage