Jack of the Red Hearts


Famke Janssen prays for strength.

Famke Janssen prays for strength.

(2015) Drama (ARC Entertainment) AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, John D’Leo, Sophia Anne Caruso, Drena De Niro, Chris Jarell, Tonye Patano, Maria Rivera, Preston Fritz Smith, Ana Maria Jomoica, Stephen Hill, Nan Lynn Nelson, Harry Sutton Jr., Drena De Niro, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jenny Jaffe, Brianna Mann, Christine Toy Johnson. Directed by Janet Grillo

Autism is something that is often written about and occasionally depicted on the movie screen but rarely does it show what it means day to day to a family with an autistic child, particularly a low-functioning one. As the mom here snaps at an insensitive remark about her autistic daughter, “She’s not Rain Man.” Sadly, the movies give an image of autism as a kind of cute disease turning the folks that have it into happy idiots. That’s as far from the truth as can be.

Jack (Robb) is a street-smart, street-tough kid who has just turned 18. She and her sister Coke (Caruso) have been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention for years. Jack’s probation officer (Patano) is pretty much fed up with her and is ready to send her to adult jail this time, now that she’s old enough. Jack wants nothing more than to get Coke out of the system so the two can live together and take care of each other.

But Jack’s going to need money to get an apartment for them if that’s going to happen and something more stable – a real job that pays well, but Jack has no employment experience. With the help of a friend she connives her way as a caregiver into the household of Kay (Janssen), Mark (Cohen), Robert (Broussard) and autistic Glory (Richardson).

The bills have been piling up and they can no longer afford Kay staying home and caring for Glory, but the child needs full-time supervision and the family needs two incomes and quite frankly, Kay needs the break, worn down from caring for a child who is no easy task. Jack, a born hustler, convinces the actual applicant (Jaffe) to leave her resume and references with her and then Jack assumes the identity of Donna, a well-qualified caregiver. Of course, Jack knows nothing about caring for an autistic 11-year-old but she figures how hard can it be?

Well, any actual parent of an autistic child will tell you that it can be terrifyingly hard. Autistic kids, depending on the type of autism, can lash out, go into trance-like states, be stubborn as mules, obsess with odd items, require rigid conformity and/or act out in very violent and public ways, often when it is least convenient. The thing the movie gets right is that caring for a child who has difficulty functioning can break a parent down; this is their child whom they love and they can’t hold a conversation with them, or at least only a rudimentary one. It requires extreme patience and an amazing amount of love.

What it doesn’t require is a stock character from an Afterschool Special who is about as badass as Taylor Swift saving the day. The script is riddled with clichés and as predictable as the Cubs missing the playoffs. Robb is a talented actress but she is reduced to face-scrunching, high-level mugging and when called upon to smoke (which she does because, you know, street kid) she’s the most unconvincing smoker ever, clearly not inhaling. I’d much rather that Jack be a non-smoker than be an approximation of one.

I’ve met several autistic kids in my life, some more high functioning than others but Richardson is completely unconvincing in the role. Her smile is like she’s posing for a head shot and when she’s screaming and acting out, I don’t see in her performance how incredibly intense this acting out can be. The best way to think about it is that she’s pretending to smile rather than actually smiling. Now, I’m fully aware that every autistic kid is different and some may well smile like they’re in a toy commercial, but it comes off as non-genuine here and it is distracting overall to the movie. Richardson has a history of playing Annie onstage, so you know she’s got talent, but this was a definite misfire and I blame the director, who should know better.

I liked Janssen’s performance as the long-suffering mom. Janssen clearly gets how stressed out Kay is and how bone-weary she is. When Janssen gets the chance to act with silence, she is marvelous – conveying far more of the parental experience with her eyes and her facial expression than the script is doing. Sadly there is so much that the script does that stops the movie dead in its tracks, like a family sing-along that feels completely in-authentic and the denouement in which is exactly what you think it will be. Even the plot twists aren’t twists so much as lane changes.

I really give the filmmakers credit for wanting to make a film about how autism affects the entire family, and there is a great movie to be made on the subject, but this really isn’t it. Too many predictable plot points, unconvincing acting from the two actors who needed to be at their best and just pedestrian filmmaking torpedo what should have been a compelling film. Janssen’s performance is worth checking out but that only takes the movie so far; a very mild and disappointing recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Janssen is compelling as the mom. An inside look at the life of a family with an autistic child.
REASONS TO STAY: With a predictable movie-of-the-week plot, loses some of its credibility. Robb and Richardson give subpar performances.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of teen misbehavior, adult subject matter, teen smoking and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grillo in real life is the mother of an autism spectrum child.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Legendary

The Way


The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes

John Carpenter’s The Ward


Amber Heard prays that someone will take her seriously.

(2010) Horror (ARC Entertainment) Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lindsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Sydney Sweeney, Mika Boorem, D.A. Anderson, Susanna Burney, Sean Cook, Milos Milicevic, Jillian Kramer, Sali Sayler. Directed by John Carpenter

When looking back at the annals of horror movies, some directors stand out; James Whale, Todd Browning and in later years George Romero and David Cronenberg. Into that company, one has to add John Carpenter. The auteur of horror and science fiction classics such as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live! (1988), it has been ten years since he has directed a feature film. Is this the movie to launch the comeback of one of horror’s masters?

A young woman sets a somewhat isolated farmhouse on fire. She is caught there by the police, who bring the struggling, screaming woman to the North Bend Mental Institution. We discover her name is Kristen (Heard) and she has no memory of how she got to the farmhouse or why she burned it down.

She is assigned to Dr. Stringer (Harris), the urbane Brit who seems to be the only doctor in the Asylum. There’s not much staff there either – Roy (Anderson), a somewhat menacing orderly, Nurse Lundt (Burney) who likely took her education at the Nurse Ratched school of Nursing (note the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reference), and Jimmy (Cook), a kindlier orderly.

Then again, there aren’t many patients. There’s Sara (Panabaker), a somewhat self-centered and looks-oriented young woman who never met a mirror she didn’t like. Zoey (Laura-Leigh) has some pretty serious emotional traumas and deals with them by reverting to childhood. Iris (Fonseca), the friendly bespectacled one who has a sketchbook and draws the things that disturbs her. Finally there’s Emily (Gummer), the strong sort who appears to be the leader of this merry band.

There’s also Alice Hudson (Boorem). Who’s she? Well, apparently she’s a former resident of North Bend who took her leave of this mortal coil in a sudden and not very nice manner. Now her ghost (Kramer) is roaming the halls of North Bend, bumping off the remaining girls in also sudden and not very nice manners. Kristen must figure out a way to escape before she winds up on the grisly list of victims. But who is she really? Why can’t she remember any of her past? And why did she burn down that farmhouse. That is the key to the supernatural goings on at North Bend and a secret she must unlock if she is to survive.

Carpenter has mostly been working in television the past decade and in some ways that absence show. This is a very old school kind of movie in the way the shots are set up; it looks in many ways like an 80s horror film which is unsurprising given Carpenter’s pedigree. This is his first movie with a nearly all-female cast.

He gets some good performances, the most outstanding of which is by Gummer as the erstwhile leader of the group Emily. Gummer looks very much like a young Meryl Streep which makes some sense because she’s her daughter. She has as much as any of the female characters has to work with but in the end she does more with it.

Panabaker and Fonseca also acquit themselves well, Panabaker as the resident flirt, Fonseca as the sensitive girl. They’re essentially disposable cannon fodder for the monster who stalks them. Both of them are attractive women, which helps and both of them are solid professional actresses, which helps them even more. While you could have plugged in the cast of Jersey Shore to these sorts of roles, Fonseca and Panabaker give it the old college try.

Heard is usually a very capable actress but here she seems a little forced. There isn’t a lot of real emotion coming from her, mostly taking us from point A to point B with little examination into the process of getting there. She’s at her best in the opening shots, frightened and not really knowing what she’s doing or why she’s doing it, merely following her instincts. That scene piqued my interest.

Too bad what followed was awfully derivative, even of movies that were filmed concurrently (say hello, Sucker Punch) but for sure of asylum horror movies like Gothika and The House on Haunted Hill. A creature stalks the actors, lurks in shadows, shows signs of being a decrepit corpse and winds up being part of a twist.

That’s what this movie is and to be honest, it doesn’t disgrace itself. It just isn’t the comeback you’d hope for a master of the genre. Romero managed to re-invent himself without losing sight of what got him to the dance – Carpenter hasn’t quite mastered that trick yet. This is very much like the movies he would have made back in 1981. The unfortunate thing is that it’s 2011 and we expected something better.

REASONS TO GO: Well directed by a master craftsman. Some good performances, particularly by Fonseca, Panabaker and Gummer.

REASONS TO STAY: We’ve seen this all before, and better. Heard picks a bad time to give a sub-par performance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images as well as some violence and the very important obligatory extraneous nude shower scene (although much more nudity is implied than scene).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Carpenter not to have been shot in Panavision since his first one, Dark Star.

HOME OR THEATER: Essentially a haunted house horror movie which takes nearly entirely within a mental institution, this will be fine as a home video offering.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Easy A