Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

Monsters University


Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

Mike Wazowski gets an eyeful.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Nathan Fillion, Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, Bill Hader, John Ratzenberger, Frank Oz, Lori Alan. Directed by Dan Scanlon

College is a nifty place. While we’re there, we’re kind of in a neither-nor phase of life – our responsibilities are few but we get to hang out, goof off and drink beer at fairly unreasonable rates. Of course, we’re supposedly learning things as well but college often teaches us more about life than about the vocation we’re about to embark on.

Mike Wazowski (Crystal) has dreamed of being a scarer ever since he was a little eyeball. Now he’s a teenage eyeball with one eye on his future and one eye on his dreams which can be complicated when you only have one eye. Oh, in case you didn’t see Monsters Inc. which is the movie this is a prequel to, scarers are monsters who enter dimensional doorways into the rooms of children in the human world. Said monsters scare the little vermin into screaming and those screams are used to power the monster world. I say little vermin for a reason; to monsters, human children are toxic and to be avoided at all costs.

His roommate is James P. Sullivan (Goodman), an eight-feet tall furry blue Bigfoot who comes from a long line of scarers and as a legacy at Monsters University expects to sail through – he shows up at class without book, pen or paper. He is immediately snatched by the high and mighty ROR fraternity whose preppy devil of a leader, Johnny Worthington (Fillion) sees a kindred spirit in Sully.

Overseeing all of this is Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren), a kind of cross between a dragon, a centipede, a scorpion and the demon of Bald Mountain with a patrician British accent. She herself is an ex-record breaking scarer and started a Greek games kind of competition to discover the best scarer on campus.

Mike and Sully take to each other like Mariah Carey and Nikki Minaj, only more civilized. A rivalry forms between Mike, who is brilliant and hardworking but has no natural scariness, and Sully who has all the tools he needs but none of the drive or the work ethic. When their shenanigans get them expelled from the Scarer Program at MU, they realize that the only way back into the program is to win the Scare Games and in order to do that, they’ll have to join a frat. The only one that will have them are the misfits of Oozma Kappa, led by Squishy (Sohn) mainly because the frat house is his mom’s house; new student Don (Murray), an old school car salesman who after being laid off returns to college to get a better education and better life prospects, Art (Day) who looks a little bit like an I-Beam with legs and finally Terry (Foley) and Terri (Hayes), a two headed monster one of whom is a dance major and the other one isn’t. Leading these misfits to the title is going to involve making a team out of them but how can they when both Mike and Sully are way too involved in their own selves to create a team out of individuals?

First, this isn’t as good as Monsters Inc. although it really doesn’t need to be – in my opinion that is one of the best movies to come out of Pixar ever and it really never got the respect it deserves. This isn’t on that level but the good news is that it doesn’t need to be. This is a solidly entertaining effort with plenty of great visual gags and as is usually the case with Pixar movies, enough detail that the movie can be watched a whole lot of times without getting tired – while discovering something new each time you watch it.

Part of the secret to the first film’s success (and this one’s as well) is the chemistry between Crystal and Goodman. They make an excellent yin and yang and banter like they’ve been doing it forever which they kind of have. Both are naturally funny guys with Crystal the manic Borscht belt guy and Goodman the easygoing jock who throws off an occasional killer one-liner when you least expect it.

I have to say I’m not sure it was a good idea to do a prequel; I think that seeing the monster world after the events of Monsters Inc. would have made a far more interesting movie than this one was; the hoary old cliché of best friends starting off as worst enemies (and vice versa in the case of Randall Boggs, the chameleon-like creature voiced by Buscemi) – is there anyone in your life that you started out hating but then wound up as best buddies? Do you know anybody who has a friendship like that?

As their impressive weekend box office figures showed, a lot of families were just waiting on this film to come out and it’s likely to have a pretty strong two week run before Despicable Me opens up over the Independence Day holiday weekend. There has been a dearth of family films this year and it’s about time there was something moms and dads could go see with their kids to get out of the summer heat. Do be aware however that some of the littler kids in the screening at Downtown Disney that we attended had some problems with a couple of the scarier aspects of the monsters (Sully’s roar for example) and while most of the monsters are of the cute ‘n’ cuddly variety, if your child is extremely sensitive you might want to take that into account before going. After all, you can always get the Blu-Ray and let your progeny see the movie after they’re a little older. In any case, I think this is pretty much ideal summertime family entertainment so get your little rug rats dressed up and load up the station wag…err, minivan…and head out to the multiplex if you haven’t already. And maybe again if you already have.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Pixar – even their worst films are better than most animated features.

REASONS TO STAY: May disappoint those looking for something as good as Monsters Inc.

FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pizza Planet truck can be found parked outside the ROR frat house during the party (it has appeared in every Pixar film since Toy Story). Also, the Professor Knights’ scarer 101 course takes place in room A113, a reference to the room at CalArts where animation is taught and another item that appears in every Pixar film

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews, the critics definitely liked it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Accepted

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Sixth Sense

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2