Life, Animated


The world is Owen Suskind's oyster.

The world is Owen Suskind’s oyster.

(2016) Documentary (The Orchard) Owen Suskind, Ross Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walt Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman, Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, Emily, Michelle Garcia Winner. Directed by Roger Ross Williams

 

Autism can be a frightening thing to both parents and the children afflicted with it, and of course to the siblings not afflicted who only know their brother or sister is “different.” The thing is that there’s no one way to treat it and no right thing to do; it’s trial and error and sometimes, just error.

Writer Ross Suskind of the Wall Street Journal got to learn this first-hand when his son Owen was diagnosed at three with autism. He had been a normal toddler up to then, but all of a sudden he became withdrawn. Instead of communicating normally, he spoke in a kind of gibberish. His motor skills deteriorated. His mother Cornelia was frantic; his older brother Walt wasn’t sure what was going on with his brother. When the doctor made his diagnosis, the family was devastated. Nobody knew what to expect next.

It was years of silence; Owen was unable to communicate with his family normally and no matter what they did Owen seemingly couldn’t understand what they were trying to get across. It was a frustrating time for the entire family but they hung in there. There came a few years later an unusual breakthrough; Owen repeated dialogue from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. At first Ron and Carnelia were ecstatic but their doctor warned them that this was likely just echolalia, vocal parroting and somewhat common among autism sufferers.

But Ron figured out differently; he used a puppet of Iago from Aladdin to actually have a conversation with his son. Eventually the family and therapists used the Disney animations as a means to help find a way into Owen’s world. Owen, for his part, used the animations to help make sense of the world. They were timeless and unchanging in a world that was changing rapidly.

Most of the film, we see Owen at 23, getting ready to graduate to independent living in an apartment complex that his girlfriend Emily – also autistic – lives in. Owen seems on the surface like an attractive, normal guy until you hear him muttering gibberish to himself. He runs a club for like-minded autistics who connect to the world through Disney – there are a lot more of them than you’d think.

The heart of the movie is the connection between Owen and his family; clearly the love and patience that they have for each other are extraordinary and it does this jaded critic’s heart good to see it. Older brother Walt expresses concern about Owen’s future; when Ron and Cornelia pass away, who will take care of Owen? Walt knows it will be him and frankly, is more than willing but certainly not looking forward to the prospect.

The movie uses animation effectively; it is kind of stream-of-consciousness and generally depicts what Owen’s world looks like inside his head. There is an almost impressionist look to the animation which I found truly effective; in them Owen is always depicted as a little boy, and I found that somewhat apropos. I’ve always felt the use of animation to enhance documentaries was a brilliant idea, although it has been somewhat overused of late. In this instance, it truly does enhance the experience in that it gives us insight into Owen and how he views the world.

There are plenty of Disney clips used in the film, and Disneyphiles are going to love this; in a lot of ways, it confirms the healing power of movies, although in a kind of unquestioning manner. The book that Ron wrote that this is based upon also mentions that the Disney therapy is just one of many things that Owen responded to over his years of learning how to function despite the noise going on in his head. The movie gives the impression that Disney saved Owen and quite frankly that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I have to wonder what Owen made of the cameras. Clearly some of the scenes are staged, as when Owen watches Disney films in his room. While his actions of delight are genuine, it seems a bit too contrived for my comfort. The movie works best when it is simply capturing what happens in Owen’s daily life, including a lovely moment when Aladdin voice actors Gottfried and Freeman attend one of the meetings of Owen’s Disney club.

This shouldn’t be taken as a primer on how to deal with autistic family members – there is, as has been mentioned, no one right way. This also isn’t a movie about how Disney can be used to save autistic children; there’s no real telling what things autistic kids will focus in on, be it trains, baseball, playing cards or grocery stores.

What it is in reality is an account of how one kid made it through and how his family loved and nurtured him despite everything. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of movie that is well worth watching and the best part of what I get to do for a living.

REASONS TO GO: This is an unexpected, life-affirming treasure. Disneyphiles will dig this hard.
REASONS TO STAY: Leads one to wonder how much the presence of the cameras affected what we saw on the screen.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animations are supplied by the French animation firm Mac Guff.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Hollywood Beauty Salon

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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

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour

The ABCs of Death


You really don't want to know what F stands for.

You really don’t want to know what F stands for.

(2012) Horror Anthology (Magnet) Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (voice), Erik Aude, Kyra Zagorsky, Ivan Gonzalez, Dallas Malloy, Sarah Bonrepaux, Lee Hardcastle, Fraser Corbett, Peter Pedrero, Darenzia, Arisa Nakamura, Hiroko Yashiki, Lucy Clements, Match, Yuri Murata, Je$$ica, Harold Torres, Mattias Oviedo, Alejandra Urdlain, Takashi Nishina, Chems Dahmani, Vanja Lazin. Directed by a bunch of people.  

Horror movies are undergoing a quiet renaissance with an underground that is active and imaginative. While many of these movies aren’t getting theatrical releases, with the advent of YouTube, VOD and other means of putting movies out there, we’re seeing some really good stuff not just here in America but from all over the world.

Tim League, founder of Fantastic Fest, America’s premier genre film festival, wants these talents to see the light of day. Along with co-producer Ant Timpson (a Kiwi whose Incredibly Strange Film Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious) he came up with a concept – assign 26 of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming horror film directors a letter of the alphabet and have them make a short film relating a word starting with that letter to death and then with all 26 shown as a single film.

Like all anthologies, the quality varies and with this many shorts (most of which last less than 5 minutes) there is a wide variety of styles and content. Some are more comic than horrific, some taking on a combination of the two. Many are attempts to push the boundaries, not only of gore but of good taste. Some are intriguing, some are innovative, some are repulsive and some are mediocre. Most people will find at least one of the shorts to be outstanding.

There were some that were just plain horrific in an old-fashioned sense –  A is for Apocalypse is, for example, from Nacho Vigolando (of Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial) in which a savage murder is turned into an act of mercy. One of my favorites was T is for Toilet in which an overly skittish young man who has an irrational fear of toilets (a fear which turned out to be justified) done in Claymation – the director, Lee Hardcastle, actually won the 26th spot on the roster in a contest.

Xavier Gens, the French director who helmed The Divide has one of the more straightforward shorts in the bunch.  In X is for XXL, a tormented overweight French woman decides to take matters into her own hands and reinvent herself to be more in line with the aesthetic of beauty that French models ascribe to. Take from that what you will.

There is also much humor. J is for Jidai-Geki (Samurai Film) from Japanese director Yudai Yamaguchi has a samurai about to deliver the coup de grace for a samurai committing hara-kiri unable to keep a straight face because of the faces his charge is making. Q is for Quack has Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die) and Simon Barrett commiserating over the disrespect afforded them by being assigned the letter Q and at their billing  in the credits. They concoct a brilliant way to make their segment stand out – then screw it up about as badly as it can be.

There are some surreal segments such as O is for Orgasm and W is for WTF. There is the animated K is for Klutz and the Russ Meyers tribute S is for Speed. I could go on and on but I don’t think it necessary to go over all 26 entries. You get the drift.

There’s enough good stuff to outweigh the bad by a pretty decent margin, so I can recommend this for most horror fans and even those mainstream moviegoers who don’t mind having their boundaries pushed a bit. This isn’t for the faint of heart, the squeamish or the easily offended. Who it is for are those who are looking for something a bit out of the norm and have an open mind about movies. I recommend bringing along someone with a big booming belly laugh. There was a guy like that at my screening of the film and it helps immensely.

REASONS TO GO: Some big laughs and some big scares. Pushes some boundaries and offers examples of what’s going on in the horror underground around the world.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven – some of the segments are less successful than others. Too much toilet humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Crude humor, graphic nudity and gore, foul language, violence, disturbing images and themes, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ant Timpson and Tim Teague, producers of the film, are best known for running the Incredibly Strange Film Festival and Fantastic Fest respectively; Teague is also CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; critics really didn’t get on board for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: V/H/S

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: I Declare War

The Pink Panther 2


The Pink Panther 2

Looks like Peter Sellers' memory is getting hosed again.

(2009) Comedy (MGM) Steve Martin, Jean Reno, John Cleese, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Emily Mortimer, Lily Tomlin, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Yuki Matsuzaki, Jeremy Irons, Johnnie Hallyday. Directed by Harald Zwart

Some movies shouldn’t have been remade, and once remade, they should never have generated sequels. However, upon rare occasion, the sequel turns out better than the original remake. Not so much the original original. Oh, my brain hurts!

Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Martin) has been relegated to traffic duty by his nemesis, the stiff-necked Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Cleese, taking over from Kevin Kline who played the role in the reboot – Herbert Lom made the role famous in the sequels to the original that were made more than a decade than the original, but almost 30 years before the reboot…did I mention my brain hurts?). As with most things, he makes a hash of it, delivering chaos without really intending to. However, that’s all about to change. A skilled thief who calls himself “the Tornado” has stolen such artifacts as the Shroud of Turin, the Magna Carta and the sword of the Japanese Emperor. Notice he didn’t go after anything American of value ; our national symbol perhaps, one that sums up our identity more than any other. I’m speaking of course of the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the winner of the Super Bowl each year. Then again, if someone were to steal that, they’d have a hundred million angry football fans clamoring to kick their ass.

Um, moving along, the French prime minister fears that the Pink Panther, the national symbol of France (but was originally the symbol of the fictional country of Lugash in the original and its sequels and I think the reboot too but I can’t remember very well anymore because my brain is really beginning to hurt now), will be next. He wants Jacques Clouseau on the case, joining a dream team of international detectives that have been assigned to apprehending the thief. They are Vincenzo Doncorleone (Garcia), an Italian lothario; Kenji (Matsuzaki), a Japanese computer whiz; Pepperidge (Molina), a Sherlock Holmes-like analyzer of clues and Sonia (Rai Bachchan), the world’s foremost authority on the Tornado and damned gorgeous to boot.

Along for the ride is Nicole (Mortimer), Clouseau’s long-suffering and clearly smitten with him secretary, and Ponton (Reno), Clouseau’s long-suffering and able assistant inspector. They’ll question a retired jewel thief (Irons) and visit the Pope when the Tornado steals the papal signet ring from his finger while he’s asleep. Along the way there’ll be pratfalls, mistaken identities, property damage and romantic interludes. A restaurant will burn down – twice, and Nicole, tired of waiting for Clouseau to make a move, allows herself to be romanced by Vincenzo, especially after Clouseau disgraces himself by dressing up like the pope, appearing on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square and then proceeding to fall out of the balcony, giving billions of Catholics angina. But you know how things go in this kind of movie; no matter how big a buffoon he is, only Clouseau can save the day – even if he gets his ass handed to him by a couple of karate kids, an angry old lady and Lily Tomlin, who may have been angry but isn’t the old lady I was thinking about. Oh, my brain is exploding!

The original Pink Panther series had Peter Sellars as Clouseau and rightly or wrongly, that role is associated with him as much as James Bond is with Sean Connery and Harry Potter with Daniel Radcliffe. Some roles just leave indelible marks on the careers of an actor.

Remaking movies with other actors in those roles may bring people out for curiosity’s sake, particularly when the originator of the role is long dead, but it rarely ends up well. Most film lovers spend the entire movie comparing the performances (and usually the new guy doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt) and the studios, for their part, rarely see fit to spend much money or time on a project which is, to them, an attempt to milk a cash cow one last time.

Strangely, though, as bad as the first reboot of the series was, this one is slightly better. Martin has settled in a bit more to the Clouseau role, and while he can do the physical comedy required of the role, he seems better suited to the verbal buffoonery that comes from Clouseau’s impenetrable accent.

There are some charming moments, however; a re-teaming of All of Me co-stars Martin and Tomlin, the latter as a very politically correct instructor on…um, political correctness, something which the bumbling Clouseau can’t begin to comprehend, using racial and sexual slurs at nearly every turnpoint but with a guileless charm that makes it more like a child saying it. In the hands of a less gifted comedian, you might wind up despising Clouseau.

Unfortunately, this is a comedy and you kind of expect a few laughs. There are a few, but only a few; much of the movie seems very ill-timed and rushed, and you get the feeling that there was more of a sense of getting everything in the can so that the all-star cast could move on to more worthy pursuits. There’s nothing here that’s edgy or outrageous; for the most part, the comedy is as inoffensive as that of Father of the Bride, a like-minded Martin comedy that is also much better than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty much non-offensive comedy that while not laugh-out-loud funny isn’t uncomfortably unfunny either. Rai is very pleasant to look at and some of the physical comedy bits were well-staged.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t very bad but it isn’t very good either. The movie degenerates into downright silliness often enough to be irritating.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some innuendo and a little bit of mild violence but otherwise this is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in the franchise, either with Peter Sellers or without, that has had a number in the title.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not a lot; there is a gag reel that might well be funnier than the movie, and a feature deconstructing some of the more physical comedy gags which was kind of interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $76M on an unreported production budget; I doubt the budget was even $30M so I’d think this was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Signal