Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

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Stray


Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

(2015) Psychological Thriller (East Meade Street Gang) Gabrielle Stone, Andrew Sensenig, Sean Patrick Foster, Dan McGlaughlin, Alexandra Landau, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Arita Trahan, Ben Lyle Lotka, Paul McNair, Scarlett Robison, Ana-Maria Arkan, Joe Koch. Directed by Nena Eskridge

 

It is said that no matter how far or how fast we run, the past always catches up with us. I think that’s pretty much true; after all, who can run from what we carry with us everywhere we go?

Jennifer (Stone) arrives in the idyllic small town of Chestnut Hill as a stranger, but she quickly finds a job at a local bar and a house thanks to the trust of lonely Marvin (Sensenig). When Jennifer announces that she’s pregnant, she wastes no time pointing the finger of fatherhood at bar owner Greg (McGlaughlin). As you can imagine, Greg’s fiancée Sarah (Walsh) doesn’t take this news all that well.

As it turns out, Jennifer has something of a checkered past and it’s about to roar into quiet Chestnut Hill like a tornado, with Jennifer at the center. Jennifer’s actions are violent and vicious but she’s had to be that way given what she’s been through. Can she leave that past behind or will she finally be able to create the family she’s yearned for all her life?

This is a micro-budgeted indie (i.e. under $100K budget) and the feature debut of Eskridge, who is an industry veteran in the Northeast. She’s very quick to point out that this isn’t a horror film although there are some horrific elements here so those who are sensitive to such things should be aware of it. No, it’s not a gorefest by any stretch of the imagination; she calls it a psycho-drama and that’s a fairly apt description, but we do have to look in some pretty dark places before the film is over.

With films of this nature, there is a need to keep in mind the circumstances behind it; you can’t hold it to the same criteria that, say, a Martin Scorsese film would be held to. There is a learning curve to filmmaking and it is rare that a first feature microbudget thriller is going to be mistake-free and this one isn’t but all the same this is a very good looking film. Kudos have to go to cinematographer David Landau who puts in some impressive images, using light and shadow effectively. His montage of pastoral scenes at the beginning of the film that is broken up by a scene of sudden violence is masterfully edited.

The film falls down a bit more in the more human elements. The writing is spotty; some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like things that people actually say to each other, and the plot is reasonably predictable and upon occasion, contrived. I don’t mind the occasional contrivance but the filmmaker shouldn’t make a habit of it. I felt that some of the plot points didn’t feel organic.

I don’t like to bash actors and this might well be Eskridge’s inexperience showing through but the acting is stiff. There are scenes when couples are supposed to display affection for one another or when characters are supposed to show attraction to another character, but the body language doesn’t convey it. One can forgive that in a high school drama production but it’s hard to ignore when you can see the stiffness in the way actors hold each other or cuddle. It takes you right out of the film as you realize that these are actors acting, rather than characters being captured on film. The difference is important.

One point is that Jennifer’s violent tendencies are given away too early in the film. I think it would have added to the suspense of the movie had her violent streak been revealed half way through and THEN the back story start to come into play. In a thriller, or psychodrama if you will, it is more effective to keep audiences off-balance when it comes to the lead character’s motivations.

That isn’t to say this is a horrible film; it isn’t. It’s certainly flawed but there are some moments where things click and you can see that Eskridge has some talent and some of the actors do as well, particularly Stone. It also should be said that it does improve as it goes on and the ending is pretty nifty. As I said, there is a bit of a learning curve and this is more of a film at the beginning end of it. The good news that this might be a movie you go back to watching after some of the cast and crew have gone on to bigger and better things and take a gander of what they were up to at the beginnings of their careers.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is stilted. There are a few plot contrivances that take any sort of organic feel the movie had generated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Gabrielle Stone is the daughter of famed actress Dee Wallace Stone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rebound
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Living in the Age of Airplanes

Whiplash


J.K. Simmons (right) prepares to march to a different drummer.

J.K. Simmons (right) prepares to march to a different drummer.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Max Kasch, Suanne Spoke, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair, Kofi Siriboe, Kavita Patil, C.J. Vana, Tarik Lowe, Tyler Kimball, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Adrian Burks, Calvin C. Winbush, Joseph Bruno, April Grace. Directed by Damien Chazelle

Genius, by itself, is useless. Genius needs to be trained. Genius needs to be focused. Greatness is something that is earned, not given. Genius isn’t enough. Hard work, preparation and practice is what turns genius into greatness.

Andrew Neyland (Teller) aspires to greatness. He longs to be the next Buddy Rich. He is a gifted drummer and those gifts have gotten him accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, one of the best in the country located (of course) in New York City. There are a variety of different student bands in the Conservative but the one everyone wants to be in is the Studio Band led by Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), himself a professional jazz pianist. It is the band that the Conservatory sends out to win competitions. Most of those in the band are juniors and seniors.

Andrew is a Freshman and stuck in the Nassau band as an alternate drummer to Ryan (Stowell). as gregarious and likable as Andrew is arrogant and unlikable. While Andrew is practicing alone one day, he is observed by Fletcher who is critical of the boy. Andrew figures that he has a ways to go before he can impress the man he most wants to impress.

However a few days later Fletcher shows up at rehearsal for Nassau and demands to hear the drummers do double time swing beats. He listens to Ryan and Andrew as well, and then selects Andrew to come aboard the Studio band to be the alternate. Andrew is over the moon about this but soon sees the pressure the kids in Studio are under. The lead drummer, Tanner (Lang), is a miserable bundle of nerves hostile to what he perceives as competition.

He has good reason to be hostile. When Tanner asks Andrew to hold onto his sheet music before a competition, Andrew loses it. Since Tanner doesn’t know the beats by heart and Andrew does, he gets the core chair and Tanner gets to sit in the alternate’s chair. Andrew’s performance meets the standards of Fletcher and the Studio Band wins the competition.

 

Fletcher is a tyrannical teacher, one who teaches through humiliation and intimidation. All of the students are terrified at being the subject of his wrath but it moves Andrew to try harder. Andrew’s obsession with becoming legendary has begun to affect his relationship with his girlfriend Nicole (Benoist) as well as with his father (Reiser) and family.

But the all-out pursuit of perfection is taking its toll on Andrew and he’s completely lost perspective which only causes Fletcher to drive him harder, further. Will Andrew achieve the greatness that he so desires? Or will Fletcher break him entirely?

Chazelle originally had troubles getting financing for the script he wrote, so he condensed it down to a short which he took to Sundance in 2013. The response was so positive that he was able to secure financing and make a feature film which he brought back to Sundance this year. It earned raves and the Audience Award. I can say that those raves and awards are well-earned.

The movie is as intense an experience as you’re likely to have at theaters this year. The battle of wills between Fletcher and Andrew is incendiary; you can almost see the sparks flying. Some critics have complained that a teacher like Fletcher would quickly and quietly be let go once allegations of abuse reached administrative ears. All I can say is that may be true in today’s lawsuit-happy world but that Chazelle based his script on his own experiences in music school so that must be taken into account.

The performances here are riveting. Teller is never better as the ambitious and obsessed Andrew. This Tampa-area native has great things ahead of him if performances like this are any indication. That Andrew is so basically unlikable – his arrogance and lack of perspective coupled with an occasional condescending tone to his conversation make him a hard guy to like – but we end up rooting for him anyway is a testament to Teller’s skills.

For me though, Simmons is the main attraction. Long a capable character actor with TV roles that include  the neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger in Oz, a recurring role on Law and Order and the Farmer’s Insurance commercials, he has had few leads in movies as he does in The Music Never Stopped, he does exemplary work. Here he gets to cut loose as the autocratic and sadistic Fletcher. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize him as a villain but in essence that’s what he is and Simmons gives the character depth – an ability to charm one moment and be terrifying the next. I’m not saying that an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor is a sure bet but it should be.

The soundtrack mainly of jazz standards is an extra added attraction. Those unfamiliar with orchestral jazz can get a pretty decent primer on some of the best examples of that musical form, including Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,”  Stan Getz’ “Intoit” and Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” are mostly not performed by their original musicians but they are competently done here by my limited expertise.

The cost of greatness is staggering, taking a toll on family and friends alike in addition to the pursuer of greatness themselves. It can be an often-lonely undertaken and as many times as not few people other than the person in question believe in their ability to achieve that greatness. That pursuit and its costs are at the center of the movie. You have to end up asking whether it is better to be famous and alone or to be happy and unknown. Andrew seems to think it is.

The ending of the film is left subject to the interpretation of the viewer. Is it redemption, submission or madness? Who won, if anyone? These are points to ponder on your own but be warned there are no easy answers. I consider myself a fairly decent student of story but I’m still mulling it over what really happened at the end of the movie. I’ll probably be thinking about it for awhile. And that, my friends, is the true mark of cinematic greatness.

REASONS TO GO: As intense a movie as you’ll see this year. Extraordinary performances from Simmons and Teller. Great soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Neither Andrew nor Fletcher are particularly nice characters. Some may find Fletcher’s tactics unrealistic in an age of lawsuits.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language including a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller has actually played the drums since he was 15 years old. Even so, he took additional lessons to learn jazz drumming techniques which are less conventional than rock drumming. He developed some intense blisters during filming and some of the blood on the sticks and on the drumset is Teller’s real blood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Broken City

Bellflower


A little backseat canoodling.

A little backseat canoodling.

(2011) Action (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes, Vincent Grashaw, Zach Kraus, Keghan Hurst, Alexandra Boylan, Bradshaw Pruitt, Brian Thomas Evans, Britta Jacobellis, Caesar Flores, Chris Snyder, Dan Dulle, Jon Huck, Jet Kauffman, Josh Kelling, Ken Bailey, Mark Nihem, Joel Hodge. Directed by Evan Glodell

When all you have to look forward to is the end of the world, you’ve got problems. That’s the situation that Woodrow (Glodell) and Aidan (Dawson) find themselves in, however. Woodrow, an introspective quiet sort, and Aidan, a more outgoing sort, are best friends who moved to Los Angeles from Wisconsin. In fact, they live in one of the more squalid areas of Bellflower, a mostly-poor suburb of the city and spend their days drinking and creating weapons for an apocalypse that they are certain is coming soon.

During a cricket-eating contest at a bar, Woodrow is bested by Millie (Wiseman) and the two hit it off. While Aidan is flirting with Millie’s best friend Courtney (Brandes), Woodrow is arranging to take Millie out on a date to the worst place he’s ever eaten which will involve a trip to Texas. As it turns out, Woodrow really knows his bad eating establishments.

When Woodrow gets back, Aidan gets to work on the Medusa, a tricked out Pontiac Skylark that he is outfitting with all sorts of goodies including flamethrowers and smoke screens. From this vehicle, he very reasonably deduces, the two of them can rule the post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, Aidan is annoyed that Woodrow is spending more time with Millie than with him, and Courtney is feeling the same about Millie.

But things are not rosy in Bellflower. Woodrow is getting to be controlling and paranoid – and with good reason as it turns out as he surprises Millie having sex with her roommate Mike (Grashaw) in his own bed. He and Mike scuffle and Woodrow eventually flees from the scene on his motorcycle only to be hit by a car. He suffers brain damage in the incident.

Afterwards things get strange. Woodrow returns home, depressed and mostly staying in bed while Aidan gamely works on Medusa without him. Another confrontation with Mike leads to a situation which may turn out to be Woodrow’s own personal apocalypse, or indeed may be a product of his damaged mind. Things can get weird when you don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined.

This is a first feature on a microscopic budget which has an awful lot going for it. First and foremost, this is a great looking film. Glodell custom built his own cameras that give the film a distinctive look that is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Had this been released by a major studio, it would have won an Oscar for cinematography. Of that I’m certain. Nonetheless it is as unique looking a movie as you’re likely to ever see.

 

The problem I have is that the characters are so bloody awful that you don’t really want to spend any more time with them than you have to and that can be a problem. Aidan is the closest one to being a decent human being and he can be a complete jerk at times. The violence in the movie escalates and gets pretty disturbing with a consensual but rough sexual scene, a suicide and a severe beating. That this may be a product of Woodrow’s injuries is beside the point; we are left having to wallow in the squalor and we don’t smell pleasant when it’s over. The story just kind of peters out at the end with a coda that is meant to raise doubts as to what’s real but by that point you don’t really care.

The Medusa, also custom built by the filmmakers, is a cool car and for those of a certain age it might inspire some ideas of their own. I’m not sure that it’s street legal but in a perfect world it would be making the rounds at car shows across the country and attracting big crowds.

I can’t say that this is a great movie because at the end of the day it doesn’t have all the elements needed to be great. It is, however a very promising first film with a lot going for it. I would say check it out but keep your expectations kind of low; it’s worth seeing for the look of the film but not for spending time with any of the fairly lowlife characters.

WHY RENT THIS: Very cool car. Shot and edited beautifully.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The characters are mainly unlikable and the story doesn’t really go anywhere.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence, much of it disturbing as well as a good deal of sexuality and nudity. The language is colorful throughout and there’s some drug use just to top it all off.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the functions of the car displayed during the film are real; the car was custom built by the filmmakers and friends, and has two working flamethrowers, smoke screen, a bleach drift-kit, adjustable rear suspension and three surveillance cameras, all controlled from the dashboard.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an outtakes real and a featurette involving a dashboard cam on the car that shows it being put through its paces.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $168,226 on a $17,000 production budget.

SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD/Streaming, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Expendables 3

Albert Nobbs


Glenn Close shows off her dapper side.

Glenn Close shows off her dapper side.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, James Greene, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Phyllida Law, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Bronagh Gallagher, Rhys Burke, Laura Kinsella, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark Williams, Kenneth Collard, Judy Donovan. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

Woman Power

It is never easy being a woman (or so I surmise) but it was much harder in the 19th century than it is now. Opportunities for women back then were essentially limited to the husbands they could catch; if you happened to live in Ireland those opportunities were fewer still.

Albert Nobbs (Close) works as a waiter at a Dublin hotel just before the turn of the 20th century. Quietly efficient, he is appreciated for his efficiency, his unobtrusive service and of course his discretion. Even the hotel’s hypocritical owner, Mrs. Baker (Collins) feels kindly disposed towards him.

Albert hides a secret; beneath the starched high collar no Adam’s apple can be found; beneath the starched white shirt are a pair of womanly breasts rightly bound; beneath his perfectly pressed trousers no male member resides. He is a woman masquerading as a man, and successfully. Albert lives in quiet solitude in his small mean room in the employee quarters of the hotel. Beneath a board he hoards all the tips he’s received over a 15 year career. He is very close to his goal of 600 pounds; enough to buy a tobacconist’s shop where he’ll find the true independence he’s been longing for and when he makes enough money, selling the business and retiring to a seaside community.

His life is well-ordered and impeccably run; he knows what each guest needs before his guest knows it is needed. Albert rarely smiles because that would be out of place. That’s not to say that he has no friends although acquaintances would be the better word; the boisterous Dr. Holloran (Gleeson) and the tart-y chambermaid Helen (Wasikowska) socialize with him but don’t really know him. Nobody really does and Albert prefers it that way. Easier to keep his secret.

The hotel is a bit of faded glory and needs some sprucing up. The penurious Mrs. Baker realizes that in order to keep her customers she’ll need to do some maintenance and she hires Mr. Hubert Page (McTeer) to paint the hotel. It will be a fairly long job and so Mr. Page is made to bunk with Mr. Nobbs which doesn’t make Albert very happy. To his shock however, he discovers that he and Mr. Page have something in common – their gender.

Hubert has even gone so far as to marry Catherine (Gallagher), a truly winsome woman who not only knows Hubert’s secret but approves. Catherine is a dressmaker who keeps the two of them afloat when Hubert’s work dries up (in a manner of speaking). They make a fine team.

After Hubert’s job is completed, a new handyman is hired, Joe Mackin (Johnson). There’s not much good to say about Joe; he’s a drunk who can get violent when in his cups, he’s abusive particularly towards women and while devilishly handsome he isn’t particularly a go-getter. Of course Helen falls for him immediately.

Shortly after that a typhoid epidemic sweeps through Dublin, drying up business for the hotel and necessitating some changes. Hubert’s situation has convinced Albert that a good woman will be needed to help run his shop and he decides Helen would be perfect for that position. Not knowing that she is with someone, Albert tries courting her in a stiff and fumbling way. Joe finds out about it and encourages Helen to lead him on so that he might supply her with expensive gifts that he can sell and book passage for them both to America. The naive Albert doesn’t realize what’s going on. In such conditions, can he find his dream and even if he does, is that a sure way to happiness?

The undercurrents here are of sexual politics. The story began life as a novella by Irish author George Moore called The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs which may be found in his collection Celibate Lives if you’re interested in reading it. I get the sense that Nobbs makes a better man than most men which could well be a droll commentary on the state of manhood by Moore although I couldn’t swear to that explanation. I find it kind of comforting to think so however.

Close, who has championed this film for more than a decade, is one of the few actresses who can pull off the role without making a burlesque of it. She has the lower register vocally to make the illusion seem real and so complete is it that during a scene when she and McTeer dress up as women for a stroll along the beach, you almost could believe that they are a couple of men in drag, so awkward are they in the clothing of their own gender.

McTeer, who like Close was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 (making it the first time in Oscar history that two women pretending to be men were nominated for the same film), also makes the illusion seem real and while less time is spent on Hubert than on Albert, McTeer makes the role memorable and the relationships between Hubert and Catherine as well as Hubert and Albert believable.

There has been grumbling from some quarters that the film is a snide rip on the sexual politics of lesbians but I can only conclude that those making such claims haven’t seen the film. Neither Hubert nor Albert (whose real name we never discover) are sexually attracted to women and despite Albert’s pursuit Helen for matrimony, it’s more of a business arrangement for him. In fact, the whole masquerading as men thing is much more of an economic necessity for both of them rather than a conscious lifestyle choice. They’re just doing what they need to in order to survive.

While the pacing is a bit slow and the stiff dialogue and demeanor of the period may be excruciating for the impatient Generation Right Freaking Now, it’s still a movie well worth seeking out.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-worthy performance by Close. Wasikowska is lustrous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit stilted and slow.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, brief nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Close originated the role in a stage play based on the Moore novella. She won an Obie for her stage portrayal and lobbied for more than a decade to make a film out of it, which she eventually co-produced, co-wrote and received an Oscar nomination for her starring role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While commentary tracks are generally de rigueur on most major home video releases, the one here by Close and Garcia is extraordinary, with Close going into enough detail into the source material and how it differs from the film, casting and character backgrounds and into great detail in the making of the film. It’s one of the best I’ve heard yet.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $7.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Served the King of England

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Million Dollar Arm

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Short Term 12


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(2013) Drama (Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran’dee Allen, Danny Roper, Elyssa Gutierrez, Garryson Zamora, Michael Marto, Patricia Barrett, Tanya Maria A. Bitanga. Directed by Destin Cretton

We call them “at-risk” kids but for the most part, we haven’t a clue what they’re really at risk from. Sure, we have a general idea that they’re runaways and come from less-than-perfect homes but the horrors that these kids live through doesn’t really hit home unless we’ve lived it, or know someone who did.

Grace (Larson) is the floor supervisor at Short Term 12, a residence facility for troubled teens. Most of them come from homes of abuse both physical and emotional and some of these kids can barely function in a normal society. She is compassionate and actually listens to the kids which makes her atypical for most humans. Her boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) also works at the home, along with newbie Nate (Malek) who’s just started.

Some of the kids are pretty messed up. Sammy (Calloway) periodically runs out of the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; he has a collection of toys that he clings to and has a somewhat creative imagination. Marcus (Stanfield) is about to turn 18 at which time he’ll be forced to leave this temporary facility and he’s intimidated at having to make it in the real world, so his normal quiet demeanor has turned angry and he is acting out more than usual, particularly when it comes to Luis (Hernandez) who likes to pick on him.

Into this volatile environment comes Jayden (Dever), a young girl with a whole lot of attitude. She’s a cutter – inflicts wounds on herself in order to relieve her psychological pain – and has a hair-trigger temper that explodes at the least provocation. She’s a problem child but Grace is patient and soon begins to notice that the two of them are not quite so different as it would first appear.

Grace however turns out to have some issues of her own – she rarely takes the advice she hands out her own kids and talk out her problems with Mason. However, Mason isn’t willing to give up on her and with the patience of a saint, waits for whatever it takes for her to open up and commit and as Grace faces an imminent life changing event, everything she’s built threatens to crumble down around her.

Cretton apparently worked in a facility such as the one depicted here and the first observation that comes to mind is “authentic.” The kids here aren’t monsters but they aren’t saints either; they’re just trying to cope despite having a deck particularly stacked against them. Grace, likewise is neither monster nor saint – she tries to help out the best she can but there is little authority that she can exercise (while the kids can be forcibly be brought back inside if they try to run away, once they actually leave the property they can’t be touched although staff member will follow them to whatever destination they have in mind and try to talk them back). As she tells Nate “We’re not therapists. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” That’s a task not unlikely trying to juggle chainsaws and live hand grenades.

The relationship between Grace and Mason is genuine as well. They’re both twenty-somethings who spend nearly the entire day together but Grace has intimacy issues – not necessarily having to do with sex. Letting Mason in is nearly impossible for her and as it turns out with good reason. He is moon-crazy about her and she knows it and it tears her apart that she can’t give him what he needs. This is romance in the real world although men as patient as Mason are pretty hard to come by. Most guys would have said “hasta la vista” to Grace awhile ago.

This is extremely well-acted. Gallagher, who has turned a few heads for his work on the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom shows big screen promise here. While at times Mason’s a bit too good to be true, he’s basically the kind of guy that most young women search their entire lives for. Not all of them find one.

Dever, who plays the youngest daughter on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is also a revelation. This is a very different role for her, much more of a stretch than Gallagher had to make. I was impressed at the depth of emotion Dever went to and basically this is her clarion call to one and all that here is a very fine young actress who is going to be competing for some top acting awards in the future. Meryl Streep, watch your back.

However the movie truly belongs to Brie Larson and this is also a big step forward from The United States of Tara. If this movie had been distributed by a major studio, Larson would doubtlessly be on the short list for Best Oscar actress buzz this year. Maybe she still will be – certainly if critics voted for them she would be. This is a layered, deep portrayal of a young woman helping kids with some pretty serious issues while her own just-as-serious issues remain unresolved. She’s keeping it together with smoke and mirrors and as her façade begins to crumble, we see at last her rage and sorrow not just at Jayden’s predicament but at her own.

This isn’t all hankies and angst. There are some pretty humorous moments, like the opening scene in which Mason tells a self-deprecating story which very cleverly sets up the rules for the facility and sets the tone for the film. It is a masterful piece of writing (and acting) that labels Cretton as a talent to keep an eye on. While there are a few scenes that are somewhat predictable if you’ve watched any of ABC’s Afternoon Specials, by and large this is a rare take at a major societal problem from a point of view we rarely get to see – those young people who are actually responsible for the day-to-day care for troubled kids at facilities like this.

Many critics and film buffs have labeled this one of the best movies of the year and I have to agree. It’s still out there on a few screens but your best bet to catch it is on home video where it will be arriving soon. Keep an eye out for it – this is the kind of movie that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-breaking and heart-warming. Larson, Dever and Gallagher are amazing. Exceedingly authentic and well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: A couple of scenes carry the faint smell of Afterschool Specialness.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly salty language and a bit of sexuality, not to mention some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cretton previously directed a short film with the same title and setting but with a completely different cast of characters and plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warrendale

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Escape Plan