This Teacher


Sign of the times.

 (2019) Thriller (Breaking GlassHafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Kevin Kane, Lucy Walters, Gabe Fazio, Lev Gorn, Lawrence Novak, Rebekah Del Rio. Directed by Mark Jackson

 

We don’t always get to choose how we are defined. We may see ourselves one way,  but the world insists on putting its labels and prejudices on us. A beautiful French Muslim girl, therefore, is looked at as a hijab-wearing potential terrorist despite the fact wshe doesn’t wear a hijab nor does she seem interested in detonating bombs.

Hafsia (Herzi) has taken up her friend Zarah’s (Kazemy) offer to visit her in New York, paying for Hafsia’s plane ticket. Zarah is now an actress, living with Heath, a much older rich white man (Fazio) and essentially turning her back on her past, drinking, wearing revealing dresses and Westernizing her name to Sarah. Hafsia, for her part, has remained provincial, a cashier in a bakery who, as Zarah tells her partner late one night, smells bad, like the world Zarah fled. Zarah is unaware that Hafsia can hear her.

With the reunion between the two childhood friends going catastrophically, Hafsia arranges to rent a cabin in upstate New York, taking Zarah’s identity as well, professing to be a nurse (the profession Zarah was in before she came to America) and living the rustic life in the woods, with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. Her mental state, always fragile, begins to unravel. She meets a couple – teacher Rose (Walters) and cop Darren (Kane) – in an adjacent property and is cajoled into drinking with them. Thus she begins an education into what being a Muslim in America in the third decade of the 21st century entails.

Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself. Other times, she is shrieking in fury. Never do her actions feel forced, but there are times, particularly during the third act when she is let down by a script that is too strident by half.

Jackson clearly has a bone to pick with the attitudes of Americans at this time in history (not that I blame him), so when Hafsia attends a party that Zarah and Heath throw, she encounters the kind of subtle, condescending racism that is most often displayed by people who probably don’t think of themselves as racist at all. It’s what you might call “white liberal rednecks” in action.

There’s some lovely cinematography and the score is pretty decent; the problem here is that third act when the movie loses the good will it’s built up and instead of making points that resonate, turns into essentially a diatribe against white Christian privilege and while I don’t have an issue with that – there’s an awful lot of that going around lately – I found it literally to be oppressive in a different way. There is a point when if someone screams at you long enough, you just stop listening and it all becomes background noise. I fear that this film has reached that point.

REASONS TO SEE: A gripping performance by Herzi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half hour is just off the rails.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations and frank sexual discussions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Executive producer Reed Morano, best known for his work producing A Handmaid’s Tale, was Director of Photography on Jackson’s last film War Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sharkwater Extinction

The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

Forev


This road trip is no picnic.

This road trip is no picnic.

(2013) Comedy (Gravitas) Noel Wells, Matt Mider, Amanda Bauer, Timmy L’Hereux, Chuck McCarthy, Dominic DeVore, Gina Gallego, Timothy Charlton, Gary G. “Thang” Johnson, Barb Mackerer, Hunter Hill, Pedro Lopez, Logan Strobel, Naaman Esquivel, Connor Morris, Marian McGinnis, Jon Katz, Chris Merchant, Kate Johnson. Directed by Molly Green and James Leffler

Florida Film Festival 2014

When you’re young, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be impulsive. If you think about things too much, you lose the moment and miss out on some fairly amazing experiences. Of course, if you think about things, you might actually save yourself from some pretty sorry situations.

Pete (Mider) is minding his own business, eating pizza in his apartment after a hard day’s work when who barges in but his neighbor Sophie (Wells), an actress. However, she doesn’t realize she’s barged in – she’s too busy making out passionately with her hookup du jour and thinks she’s in her own apartment. After Pete clears his throat, HDJ heads into the bathroom and Sophie hears him tell his friends he’ll be joining them in about 15 minutes after he’s done. Sophie decides that’s an offer that she can pretty much pass up without a problem.

After an audition for a hot dog commercial doesn’t go as well as she might have hoped, she decides to hang out with Pete whom she knows only marginally. His carpet is quite comfortable as it turns out and she is loathe to leave it. Pete says offhandedly “Since you’re going to be here anyway, we might as well get married.” I know, lame, right? Still from such small acorns mighty oaks may grow.

Sadly for Sophie, Pete has to run an errand and Sophie decides to tag along. The errand turns out to be a six hour drive from L.A. to Phoenix to pick up Pete’s sister Jess (Bauer) from college. On the way there, to a killer indie rock soundtrack, Pete and Sophie decide Pete’s marriage proposal wasn’t a bad idea at all. Voila, they’re engaged!

Jess is rightfully incredulous at her brother’s newfound relationship status and incredulity grows into downright hostility when she discovers how long the happy couple have been together. Jess, who was been in a relationship with a promising baseball player whom Pete worshipped for awhile, also has a relationship status change of her own – she’s gone from “involved” to “it’s complicated” to “single.” It’s times like these when you really need Facebook to let everyone know what’s going on.

A previous mishap involving an armadillo leads to the proverbial car breakdown in the desert, stranding them in a town so small that even the one horse has grown bored and hitchhiked to L.A. Sophie gets the surprising news that she got the part in the commercial after all and has to be in L.A. in two days to shoot it. When Pete gets into a fight with a local hitting on his fiancée (after said fiancée eggs him on) , Pete and Sophie head back to the hotel for some awkward cuddling while Jess finds herself a bearded guy to hang out with. When she doesn’t come back to the hotel room, Pete and Sophie go on a desperate search, the clock ticking on Sophie’s job all the while.

If you see enough independent films, you are going to find this not only familiar but downright “been there done that.” It has enough indie clichés to fill a hipster film festival; the cute couple acting zany and childish, the indie rock soundtrack that substitutes for a Greek chorus, the young people at least one of whom is an artist marching to their own drummer and so on. Throw in the clichés of modern romantic comedies and you have a case of cliché overload.

The young cast is actually quite good and have some decent chemistry – Mider and Wells both attended the University of Texas with the co-directors, so they have known each other awhile. That serves them well in terms of their banter and interaction. The script relies heavily on charm and has its share of funny moments.

The biggest problem here is that after awhile you start feeling the distinct need to stand up in your seat, shake your fist at the screen and scream at the top of your lungs “REAL PEOPLE DON’T ACT THIS WAY!!!” And they don’t. Personally, I think the film would have been far more effective if they’d chosen instead to make the whole marriage thing a running joke between Sophie and Pete which gradually becomes something real. Instead, you get the sense that these are two dim bulbs who think that marriage and relationships leading to marriage are something so easy you can just snap your fingers and it happens. Jess gets it but you get the sense that she’s a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Thus.

I do think Green and Leffler have some decent instincts but they need to find their own voice. The movie relies too much on established indie moves, so much so that the few moves of its own that it shows are kind of lost in the shuffle. A movie like this one hits the target more readily if you can recognize the characters in it. Instead, we get the hoary old indie song and dance about 20-something hipsters trying to impress somebody with how spontaneous they are. I get that I sound like a “Get off My Lawn, you young punks” critic but I don’t have a problem with spontaneity or young people – I have a problem with those elements in a movie are not given enough thought or depth to make the movie resonate better.

Incidentally, the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. A VOD and home video release has been scheduled. You can pre-order the movie on DVD/Blu-Ray beginning on May 1 by clicking on the photo which will take you to the movie’s website.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent laughs. Attractive leads with lots of potential.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many indie-cute clichés. Characters not acting like real people. Predictable

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wells joined the cast of Saturday Night Live this season as a featured player.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Doomsdays

Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

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!

Breaking Upwards


Breaking up is hard to do.

Breaking up is hard to do.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones, Andrea Martin, Olivia Thirlby, Ebon Moss-Bacharach, Julie White, Peter Friedman, LaChanze, Pablo Schreiber, Heather Burns, Tate Ellington, Francis Benhamou, David Call, Sam Rosen, Max Jenkins, Audrey Allison. Directed by Daryl Wein

It is said that it isn’t always easy to pin down when a relationship begins but it is almost always obvious when a relationship ends. Hollywood tends to spend much more time in the former situation and much less in the latter and usually when a relationship ends in a Hollywood movie it’s always sudden, event-based and rarely the way things work in real life.

Daryl (Wein) and Zoe (Lister-Jones) have been going together for four years. He’s a writer and filmmaker, she’s an off-Broadway actress. Sex between them has become almost routine and just something that Zoe wants to get over with as quickly as possible.

Obviously the bloom is off of the rose of their relationship and the two of them, being good New York hipsters, decide that they’re going to spend some time apart but not the way most normal couples do. Instead, they’re going to pick several days during the week when they are forbidden from seeing each other. Hopefully this enforced time off will help them gain some perspective.

Instead, it gives them opportunities for them to see other people – Alan (Schreiber) in her case, Erika (Thirlby) in his. It also gives the relationship an opportunity to die slowly. Daryl moves in with his mom (White) while Zoe’s mom (Martin), a sort of hippie feminist sculptor with a big dash of Jewish mom thrown in for  good measure, attempts to help Zoe get through a situation that mom doesn’t quite understand.

Wein and Lister-Jones co-wrote the script (along with Peter Duchan) and reportedly based it on their own experiences as a couple when they were going through a rough patch (they are no longer together). Wein, who would go on to direct Lola Versus, shows some nice touches in depicting a relationship in a realistic manner but then turns it into an indie hipster fest with characters hanging out in coffee houses, listening to indie rock and talking like they based their dialogue on episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Wein and Lister-Jones make an engaging couple as you might expect having had a real life romance but it is after they separate that things kinda lose their steam. That’s a bit opposite of what I would have hoped for; in a chronicle of a relationship’s demise, I would hope that there would be more intensity as things spiral towards their inevitable conclusion.

The supporting cast, most of whom worked for scale if they took money at all is pretty impressive, with SCTV alum Martin showing the most depth but veterans White and Friedman also get some pretty nice scenes and Moss-Bacharach and Thirlby contributing some key scenes as well.

I take it that Wein and Lister-Jones are New Yorkers and of course they’re going to write about what they know. No problems there, although I think that at some point there are going to be enough movies about New York/Brooklyn hipsters and perhaps we’ll see people that don’t live in lofts that they can’t possibly afford, aren’t artists or artistic and don’t eat out and go out drinking more often than Paris Hilton does. If you’re going to make a movie about real relationships, the least you can do is make the environment real as well – at least, not a cliché typical indie flick New York environment which has been done to death.

I liked the premise a lot but the execution left a lot to be desired, mostly on the writing end. I can take a script in which the leads do senseless things – when it comes to love and relationships, often the things we do in real life don’t make sense either. What I can’t take is a movie that’s serious in tone getting unexpectedly precious which takes me right out of the experience. There are some things here that work, enough for me to give it an average rating but I hope that Wein continues to grow as a filmmaker and tries a few other environments other than the one discussed. I think he needs to be taken out of his comfort zone a bit in order to be a better filmmaker, although in all fairness this was a local production made on a microscopic budget that probably wouldn’t cover office supplies on a major studio release. I can commend the movie for not looking or feeling that it was made on the cheap but I just wish it took a less consciously hip tone.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare realistic look at a relationship’s end. Some good performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Once again, awfully New York-centric. Some cutesy-pie moments derail the movie’s overall tone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The New York Times did an article on the film’s production, praising it as an example of “sweat equity” or the use of alternative methods to acquire cast, crew and production funding.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A photo tutorial.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77,389 on a $15,000 production budget; the movie was quite profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Uncertainty

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Deadline

Waiting for Forever


Sometimes, fashion ISN'T in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes, fashion ISN’T in the eye of the beholder.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Freestyle Releasing) Rachel Bilson, Tom Sturridge, Blythe Danner, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Davis, Scott Mechlowicz, Jaimie King, Nikki Blonsky, Nelson Franklin, Richard Gant, Roz Ryan, Michelle Sebek. Directed by James Keach

True love sometimes requires patience. It doesn’t always occur in a manner that is convenient or timely. Sometimes we have to wait for the other person to catch up. They don’t always do that.

Will Donner (Sturridge) is a quirky young man who takes to wearing a bowler hat, a vest and pajamas. He juggles and entertains with other sorts of street performances in order to make enough money to get by. He hitchhike from place to place but not at random, as he tells a carful of captive audience – no, he is following somebody; the actress Emma Twist (Bilson).

Emma is a childhood friend of Will’s who helped him get over the grief of losing his parents in a train accident when he was nine. She promised him soon after she left Dodge (or whatever small Pennsylvania town they’re both from) that she’d always be there to take care of them. That was the last time they spoke, nearly17 years ago. Since then, he’s followed her from town to town on the off chance he might get a glimpse of her. Oddly, his captive audience thinks this is cute and romantic and not creepy and stalker-ish.

Emma is in not a very good place. She has returned to her hometown to be with her father (Jenkins) who is dying. Her mom (Danner) is doing her best to care for her husband but she needs help. Emma’s show has been canceled so she has time on her hands and she has just broken up with her boyfriend Aaron (Davis) who is more than a little possessive about his girl. Or ex-girl.

Will’s brother Jim (Mechlowicz) upbraids his brother for being shiftless, jobless and maybe possessed of some sort of mental illness (and it’s hard to argue with him). Will is staying with his good friend Joe (Franklin) and working up the courage to approach Emma. When he does, things go pretty well at first until Emma’s boyfriend shows up, ready to forgive her and take her back. That’s when things get ludicrous.

This is one of those indie romantic comedies that you wonder deep down if the writer led a sheltered life. I’ve learned one thing about movies in my years of watching them and reviewing them and that is you can’t force charm but Keach tries to do just that. By dressing up Will in such an odd way it screams either of two things – indie charming or mentally ill. Will kind of fits both descriptions.

That’s a shame because Sturridge has some moments when he’s genuinely likable; then his character does or says something that can be misconstrued as genuinely creepy. This is the stuff that restraining orders are made of, but at least he’s not violent, just kind of sentimental and sappy unlike Emma’s boyfriend  who we later find out killed a guy she was flirting with. Yup, Emma’s a whacko magnet.

Bilson, mostly known for her TV work on “The O.C.” (and lately, “Hart of Dixie”) is a burst of sunshine in every scene she’s in. Her character is a bit neurotic at times but Bilson injects a note of real sweetness into the role that simply makes you smile whenever she’s onscreen. She has plenty of big screen charisma to make the transition from TV to movies very doable with the right role.

The ending of the movie, with its murder plot takes a left turn into Unbelievableland. One gets the sense that Keach wants to make a modern romantic comedy but without all the conventions of a Hollywood rom-com but gets turned around and winds up making something that not only doesn’t ring true but actually the only ringing you really here is the alarm bells that are going off in your head. This was a misfire that hopefully will allow cast and crew to move on to better things.

WHY RENT THIS: Bilson is fresh and breezy while Sturridge has moments of genuine charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mistakes creepiness for sweet romance. Lacks any real comedic force.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a smidgeon of violence, a surprisingly small amount of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hometown scenes were filmed in Ogden, Utah.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25,517 on a $5M production budget; it was a box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notting Hill

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Les Miserables (2012)

Somewhere in Time


Somewhere in Time

A better looking pair of people we may never ever see again.

(1980) Romantic Fantasy (Universal) Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, Teresa Wright, Bill Erwin, George Voskovec, Susan French, John Alvin, Eddra Gale, Audrey Bennett, W.H. Macy. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Sometimes being with the one you love isn’t an easy task at all. Distance and circumstance can get in the way, as can the disapproval of others. But what if the one you want to be with lived 60 years earlier?

Richard Collier (Reeve) is a budding playwright who is having a play produced at a community college. The future looks bright for this young man – Broadway producers are sniffing around for his work and he’s got his whole life ahead of him. However, at the cast party, something odd happens; an elderly woman (French) walks in, presses an antique pocket watch into his hand and says “Return to me,” then walks out without another word, a strange little half-smile on her face.

Flash forward eight years. Collier’s now a successful playwright living in Chicago but his life is lacking something. He has no girlfriend, no love life and he is having a hard time writing his next play. He decides to take a breather and goes out on a weekend trip – he has no idea where he’s going, he just gets in his car and drives. He eventually winds up on Mackinac Island – a beautiful island in Michigan (note to purists: while cars aren’t allowed on the island, the production team got special permission to use them just this once). He espies the gorgeous, Victorian-era Grand Hotel and something about it calls to him. He pulls into the hotel and checks in.

He is escorted to his room by Arthur (Erwin), a bellman who has been at the hotel since he was five, back in the 1910s. The view is magnificent from his room and the ambience is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Collier goes down to the hotel dining room only to discover they won’t be open for another 45 minutes. He decides to wander around the lobby and discovers the Hall of History, dedicated to preserving artifacts from the hotels storied past. That kind of thing is of interest to Collier so he browses, but he feels something behind him, beckoning. It turns out to be a photograph of a beautiful woman, the nameplate for which has fallen off.

It turns out her name is Elise MacKinnon (Seymour), a renowned turn-of-the-century actress who once appeared in a play in the hotel’s theater. She became something of a recluse in her later years. Collier becomes obsessed with her. He checks out everything in the library that’s ever been written about her, which isn’t much. However, he discovers that she had a local woman as a caretaker, so he decides to visit her. That’s where he discovers that MacKinnon was actually the elderly woman who visited him with the pocket watch, on what would turn out to be the night she died.

He notices a book on time travel in her collection that an old college professor of his wrote. It turns out that if you hypnotize yourself properly, you can actually send yourself back in time where you will stay – so long as you don’t break the “spell” by seeing something anachronistic. So, he buys himself a turn of the century suit, fills his pockets with coin of the era and starts talking to himself. However, it works – he finds himself back in 1912.

He does manage to meet the lustrous MacKinnon who asks him “Are…you…the one?” to which he replies, “Why, yes…yes I am” which is the right answer, even if you aren’t the one. It’s love at first sight which is big trouble to MacKinnon’s Svengali-like manager W.F. Robinson (Plummer). However, despite all Robinson’s best efforts it appears obvious that MacKinnon is destined to be with Richard forever. However, fate has a cruel twist in store.

There are many who consider this one of the best romantic fantasies of all time, if not the best. French director Szwarc directed this from a nifty screenplay by Richard Matheson who adapted it from his own book “Bid Time Return” (Matheson is best known for his “Twilight Zone” scripts, although he is also an accomplished writer who has had several of his books adapted into movies, including Psycho, The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am Legend). As I mentioned, this is very well-written with a nice twist at the end.

Reeve was then fresh off his Superman: The Movie success and was one of the most sought-after actors in the world, but he did the movie for a considerable discount on what he could have commanded (his agent apparently refused to let him read the script because the producers couldn’t afford to pay him the salary the agent wanted) because he loved the script, which the producers slipped into his hotel room. He comes off a little bit too earnest here, a bit more like Clark Kent than Superman.

Still, his chemistry with Seymour is undeniable. Seymour is absolutely at her best here. She was very much the virginal romantic lead that seemed to be her stock-in-trade back then. She would later go on to “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” which remains her best-known role but at this time, she was still one of Hollywood’s hottest ingénues.

Almost as a third character is the gorgeous Grand Hotel itself. It was then and remains now one of America’s most beautiful hotels, and the movie has only cemented that magic – even today fans of the film flock to the Grand to stay in the place where the movie was made. It is largely unchanged since then, which makes it even more desirable for fans of the movie which are legion.

Which is a bit funny, considering the movie flopped when it was released. Part of that is due to the fact that there was a Screen Actors Guild strike on at the time, preventing the stars from doing any publicity for the film. It also got butchered by reviewers, who called it “overly sweet” and “too serious about itself.” I can see the criticisms, but this is certainly in many ways a Harlequin Romance novel onscreen and while that may have negative connotations to it, is meant to be complimentary here. The movie is not supposed to be anything but the portrayal of an epic romance and of the lengths a man in love will go to in order to be with the object of his affections.

Now if you want to talk about schmaltzy, let’s talk about the score. The late John Barry is perhaps the greatest film score composer ever (some might argue for Max Steiner but I prefer Barry, particularly for epics) but this score missed the mark. He pulls out Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini nearly every time the lovers are within earshot of one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific music but it should have been used more sparingly to preserve its impact.

Nattering aside, the movie remains one of my favorites. I do have a sentimental attachment to it; my late father loved this movie. He was a romantic man, far more than his son – I certainly wish that I had more of that in my personality. Still, I can appreciate a good romantic fantasy – heck, I love a good romance movie too, when it’s done right. For all its faults, it’s a pretty good story and that it reminds me of my dad is icing on the cake.

WHY RENT THIS: A glorious premise and Reeve and Seymour make a magnificent couple. Beautiful Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is a star. Well-written, with a very clever ending.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A surprisingly schmaltzy score by John Barry, and a bit too serious about its epic love affair for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations but otherwise pretty mild, even for its day.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In scenes with both Plummer and Reeve, Szwarc referred to the former as Mr. Plummer and the latter as Bigfoot because of the confusion of their identical first name. This was also William H. Macy’s first movie (he is credited under the name of W.H. Macy).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD has a featurette on the film’s very rabid fan club, as well as an excellent hour-long documentary on the making of the movie (I know, there’s one of those on every DVD but this one is a little less of a commercial than most).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie reportedly flopped.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Day 3 of Cinema365: From the Heart

Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!