Milton’s Secret


The young and the old share a moment.

The young and the old share a moment.

(2015) Drama (Momentum) Michelle Rodriguez, Mia Kirshner, Donald Sutherland, William Anscough, David Sutcliffe, Ella Ballentine, Percy Hynes White, Stephen Huszar, Hays Wellford, Jessica Greco, Jaeden Noel, Auden Larratt, Milo Larratt, Nidal Kabboul. Directed by Barnet Bain

 

As adults, we spend too much time worrying. Worrying about what the future holds; the unknown terrifies us. That can lead us to dwelling in the past, when things were simpler, brighter, better. The sunlit, dappled memories of yesterday make an easier place to live than the harsh, dark and frightening future. So few of us live in the here and now.

At least that’s what Canadian/German life coach, philosopher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle opines. He’s written bestselling books like The Power of Now and A New Earth but has also gone after the hearts and minds of children with the illustrated kids book Milton’s Secret, adapted here into a movie by Bain.

Milton Adams (Anscough) is eleven with his 12th birthday looming and the poor guy is a bundle of nerves. The economic downturn has affected both his parents; his mom (Kirshner), a real estate agent, has trouble finding qualified buyers when she can find buyers at all while his dad (Sutcliffe), a stockbroker, tries to reassure her that things are going to be okay when the market continues to provide losses month after month.

On top of it all, he’s getting bullied by Carter (White), a neighbor who himself is being bullied by his dad (Huszar) a former football player who is taking out his own frustrations on his kid. Milton’s best friend Tim (Wellford) is too scared of Carter to do anything to help and sometimes it seems that only his teacher Ms. Ferguson (Rodriguez) has any inkling of helping, but even she is locked in to a Parent’s Night presentation when all the kids will be reading speeches based on a subject of their choosing and yeah, that’s got Milton stressed as well. Plus, you know, he’s named Milton.

Into the chaos comes Grandpa Howard (Sutherland), a combat veteran who has found a kind of Zen inner peace. He’s the prototypical wacky grandpa, drinking a seaweed herbal tea that tastes like “serenity,” working on restoring the garden the Adams family has neglected, and dating his Zoomba instructor for which his daughter chides him. Grandpa has ideas about living in the present, while Milton is resorting to alchemy to try and turn base materials into gold to relieve the financial pressure. Can Grandpa help Milton escape Planet Fear?

One gets the sense that Tolle lives in a bit of a bubble. How many kids of eleven have any kind of inkling about alchemy, not to mention who are attempting to practice it? Tolle, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t seem to have a sense that he hangs out with a lot of kids. Milton, Tim and Milton’s crush Anna (Ballentine) are far too precocious; we only get one scene in which Milton is playing videogames and none of the kids in the movie seem to be engaged in any sort of play. I agree that kids are far more aware of the environment around them than Hollywood (and consequently adults) gives them credit for, but kids are also all about impulse gratification. Milton is far too serious and far too un-self-centered to really be relatable as an 11-year-old circa 2016.

Sutherland is marvelous as always; he’s a welcome presence with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile that brightens up the screen, but he’s given ponderous platitudes to offer rather than genuine wisdom. I get that every movie has something it wants to get across and Tolle’s philosophy of putting oneself completely in the now is not a bad message to send, but it seems that we’re getting battered over the head with it somewhat. A little more subtlety would have been welcome.

Still, I liked the movie overall. You get a sense of the realities of financial pressures and how they affect every member of the family; the tensions between Milton’s mom and dad are handled realistically with their attempts to mute their arguments failing while their precocious son tries to hear what his parents are fighting about. You also get that sense of small town life where there isn’t a whole lot to do, which is why kids (and their parents) seem to be glued to their smart phones.

There’s a whole lot of Donovan on the soundtrack and fans of the 60s folk-rocker will be appreciative of that. For my money, his music is used effectively without being too overwhelming. Some purists may grouse that there isn’t very much contemporary music on the soundtrack, but that’s a refreshing change as I see it – or hear it, in this instance.

Certainly the movie isn’t perfect but it’s solid. It is based on a children’s book, but I’m not sure that I would call this a children’s movie although there is that Afterschool Special feel of an issue being addressed and solutions found. In some ways, the movie is a little bit too pat in that department. People under financial strain aren’t going to be happy unless that financial strain is removed and I don’t care what kinds of self-help techniques are employed. Yet I found myself liking the movie despite the flaws or maybe because of some of them. Anscough at least knows how to look and act stressed out which adds to the authenticity of the film. Maybe some of the issues depicted here may be a little too close to home for those still feeling the pressure of trying to make ends meet in a world where that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. On the other hand, life is far too short to spend it worrying about what might happen.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of small town life. There are some lessons to be had here about living in the moment.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is infected with precocious child disease with a side order of sitcom problem solving syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief foul language and some thematic issues involving bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fonda was originally cast as Grandpa Howard but was replaced by Donald Sutherland.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Morgan

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Meet the Patels


Now that you've met the Patels...

Now that you’ve met the Patels…

(2015) Documentary (Alchemy) Ravi Patel, Geeta Patel, Champa V. Patel, Vasant K. Patel, Meredith Philpott, Audrey Allison Wauchope. Directed by Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel

Finding one’s soul mate is hard enough in this modern world. Add to that the pressure of one’s family to get married and have kids and it falls under the category of “how is this even possible?”

Ravi Patel is an actor and filmmaker who was born in the United States to Indian parents. He characterizes them as the happiest couple that he knows and they certainly seem to be very loving and very happy together. But they are concerned; their son is approaching his 30th birthday and isn’t married which in Indian culture is, as his sister Geeta puts it, Red Alert.

Ravi’s two year relationship with pretty red head (and completely Caucasian) Audrey Wauchope has just ended; he was so hung up on his parents approval that he never told them that he was dating an American girl, fearing that they wouldn’t accept her. Now single, he realizes he wants that extended family that he sees all around him; the family gatherings, the kids, the home, everything. So, figuring that since an arranged marriage worked for his parents, he would allow them to play matchmaking since the American method of dating wasn’t working for him.

He is set up on Biodata, a matchmaking website aimed at Indians. His parents are eager to set him up with a Patel – no, this isn’t an incest thing but more of a cultural thing, indicating that their hometowns are near the village where his parents grew up. This would make the odds better that they shared Ravi’s values as passed down by his parents.

Many of the candidates live all over the country and Ravi, being a struggling actor, doesn’t exactly have an endless bank account. However his father is very well off and offers to purchase air fare for a cross-country dating tour. His sister Geeta tags along to record everything, as she has from the beginning.

When the dates prove to be unsuccessful (we are never told whether Ravi or the women he is meeting are the ones who are not interested in second dates), he goes to a wedding at his parents behest where they try to hook him up. He goes to a Patel convention (apparently that’s a thing) and does a speed-dating thing there. Nothing seems to work. To complicate matters, things are heating up again with Audrey whom Ravi never really got over and when his parents find out, the curry is going to really hit the fan.

This is as much a family home movie as it is a documentary and a romantic comedy as much as it is a home movie. The screening I attended at the South Asian Film Festival in Orlando was largely attended by Indian families who laughed loudly at some of the cultural things (like parents calling multiple times during a date) that American audiences might not get. However, having parents that exasperate their children (and vice versa) is pretty much universal and the love and affection in this family is clearly universal. This is a family everyone is going to be charmed by.

While the movie drags a bit in the middle as we watch Ravi get more and more frustrated with his lack of success, the end of the movie in which Ravi and his family reach an understanding is actually very touching. This isn’t one of those documentaries that’s going to change the world or our understanding of it, although the insights into Indian culture are fascinating. However, it is the kind of movie that will put a smile on your face and remind you that there is nothing better in this life than your family, however you chose to define it.

REASONS TO GO: Clever combination of documentary and rom-com. Heartwarming look at Indian family dynamics.
REASONS TO STAY: Gets a little bit monotonous in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly dirty words and thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gujarat, the Indian state that Vasant and Champa Patel were from, also was the home state of Gandhi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Faster Horse

Welcome to Me


Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

(2014) Comedy (Alchemy) Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Thomas Mann, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Kulap Vilaysack, Mitch Silpa, Anelia Dyoulgerova, Joe Roland, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace, Rose Abdoo, Hannah Chodos, Sabra Williams, Charlotte Rabbe, Shanna Strong. Directed by Shira Piven

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all like to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery. Buy a new house, a new car, a new boat; pay off all our debts, take a fabulous vacation, maybe give some back to the community or to charity. I’m fairly sure most of us would not have buying ourselves our own talk show on the radar.

Alice Klieg (Wiig) ha s just won the California lottery. Up until now she’s led a kind of a drab existence although that’s largely drug-induced. Not the fun kind even – the prescription kind. She has a borderline personality disorder and needs meds to stabilize her moods which have a tendency to get savage without warning. She mostly keeps to herself and watches VHS videotapes of Oprah shows, which she has largely memorized.

So she says goodbye to her pills, much to the objections of her therapist (Robbins), puts herself on a diet low on glucose, high on protein and low on carbohydrates which she pronounces “carbohydrants.” With not a lot to do in Palm Desert (her home), she moves into a hotel room at the local Native American casino and finds herself fascinated by a product that she sees on a local shopping network that seems to fit into her dietary needs. She and her best friend Gina (Cardellini) get tickets to a studio audience for an infomercial huckstering the product and feeling empowered by her recent success, manages to get some camera face time. Flush with the success of that, she informs the station owner Rich (Marsden) that she has an idea for a talk show that she’s willing to pay for, starring herself with the subject of…herself.

While the acerbic director Dawn (Cusack) thinks that this is a monumentally bad idea, Rich is desperate for money to save the station, much to his brother Gabe’s (Bentley) chagrin. He was the face of the product that attracted Alice’s attention and now is attracting Alice’s attention for a whole other reason.

Alice, who has never had any sort of filter and blurts out whatever comes into her head (and reads prepared statements when she wants to get something across) has begun sleeping around with whoever catches her fancy. On the show she makes her grand entrance in a swan boat-like vehicle (she has a thing for swans, which decorate her house) and mostly talks about her diet, and re-enacts incidents from her life that bother her to this day, like someone stealing from her make-up bag on a ski trip, or a former friend who told others in high school that Alice had some mental issues. When provoked, Alice throws things or goes into screaming rages.

As the show continues to run and gets a kind of viral success, Alice begins to spin out of control. She is able to afford to buy what she wants which continues to feed into her disease. Her self-absorption becomes almost maniacal and even the loyal Gina is horrified and can’t cope with the new Alice. She is re-inventing herself, but is it into a person she truly wants to be?

Wiig’s post-SNL career has been largely of characters like this, although Alice is a bit of an extreme. She excels at characters who are just a bit off-beat, who march to their own drummer and who aren’t just ordinary folks. She has also been choosing of late indie films that allow her to really display her best work, roles that are really in her wheelhouse. In many ways, this is her best performance on the big screen, even more so than her work in the blockbuster hit Bridesmaids which essentially set her up as a star leading actress. Even as Alice becomes more unlikable, she remains sympathetic for the most part as we know she doesn’t really control her own actions.

This is one of two films I’ve seen at this year’s Florida Film Festival that has at their center a person with emotional/mental issues that make the conscious decision to stop taking their medication. It is played to much more comedic effect here and less to the chilling effect it is in Gabriel which might make those who are advocates for those who have issues to take pause; however, it should be said I didn’t get a sense that either Wiig or the filmmakers were making fun of Alice but showing the side of her that might provoke an audience to laugh. Certainly I went in thinking that I was going to be cringing more than laughing and ended up doing more of the latter than the former.

The movie starts out strong and kinda peters out near the end. A strong supporting cast, particularly Cusack who has become for my money one of the strongest character actresses working today, helps keep the movie interesting throughout, although some of the characters are a bit cliche. At times it feels like the writers had stretched out the movie to make it feature length.

Still in all, this is solidly entertaining. There’s some subtle – okay, not so subtle – commentary on our obsession with fame and of our consumerist, self-involved society which is quite welcome but for the most part shooting fish in a barrel. What it isn’t is an issue movie on mental health. Wiig remains an acquired taste for some, mainly because the roles she tends to go for are pretty quirky (and none more than this one) but when she’s on as she is here, she’s as good as any comic actress out there. For those who want to avoid the crowds at the big summer movies, this makes for a nice alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Wiig gives a stellar performance. Much funnier than I expected. Great supporting performances, particularly from Cusack.
REASONS TO STAY: Falls apart near the end. A couple of cliche characters in the mix. Some of the material feels a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, some graphic nudity, a fair amount of foul language and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shira Piven is actor Jeremy Piven’s older sister; the actress who plays Alice’s mother in the film is actually Shira and Jeremy Piven’s mom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Me Three Times