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 He had been a normal toddler up to then, but all of a sudden he became withdrawn.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

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

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story


There's nothing funny about The Graduate.

There’s nothing funny about The Graduate.

(2015) Documentary (Adama) Harold Michelson, Lillian Michelson, Danny DeVito, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Bill Krohn, Rick Carter, Jim Bissell, Gene Allen, Gabriel Hardman, Richard Sylbert, Tom Walsh, Stuart Cornfeld, Norm Newberry, Tish Hicks (voice), Will Vought (voice), Anahid Nazarian, Marc Wanamaker, Patrick Mate. Directed by Daniel Raim

Harold Michelson was a storyboard artist who kind of fell into the work after serving his country in World War II. He had met and fallen in love with Lillian, a penniless but beautiful orphan from Miami who was originally friends with his sister. Although they didn’t know each other well, Harold was smitten and brought her out to California where they eventually got married and started a family.

She had gone to school to become a librarian but ended up founding a research library which would become one of the most valuable in Hollywood. Wanted to know what undergarments Jewish girls wore in Russia in the last decade of the 19th century? The makers of Fiddler on the Roof did and Lillian found out for them. Want to know what a drug lord’s mansion would look like? The makers of Scarface did and Lillian found out for them.

They were never a power couple but as their close friend Danny DeVito put it, they were the beating heart of Hollywood. Respected and beloved, both Harold and Lillian were well known for mentoring young people who were hoping to do what they did someday. Both of them worked on some of the most iconic films in the history of movies, from West Side Story to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the most fascinating sequences in the movie looks at Harold’s storyboarding work on The Graduate. Harold wasn’t just someone who sketched drawings; he understood camera angles and creativity and often his ideas helped make films better, making him much sought after and after The Graduate even more so. Shots like Benjamin Braddock being framed by the crooked leg of Mrs. Robinson were Harold’s idea and many of the shots that we still remember today from that film came out of Harold’s mind.

In some ways, this is four movies for the price of one. We get the story of Harold and Lillian’s courtship, with lots of drawings (presumably by Harold) that depict them during this period. We also meet their family, including an autistic son who has since become a computer programmer. Second, we find out about Harold’s work, the films he worked on and how important his contributions were to some of the most classic films of the era. Third, we see Lillian’s development into the top research librarian in Hollywood and what her own contributions meant.

But it was the fourth part that’s magic. We get more of a sense of the relationship between the two and the love that exists between them, with all their own insecurities (and they both had plenty). The last is set to the strains of Claire de lune by Claude Debussy and a more perfect soundtrack they could not have asked for. The music means something to me personally (I used it to court my own wife) so in the interest of fairness I have to say that the emotional resonance for me was far more than perhaps it might have been for others.

But as informative as the middle two segments are, it is the last one that will stay with me. The couple stayed together for sixty years until Harold sadly passed away in 2006 – Lillian is still alive and living in the Motion Picture Retirement Home and is in her 80s, possibly 90s by now and still beautiful and vivacious and even though her husband has been gone nearly a decade, her love for him is still very much apparent.

The secret to their successful marriage is not just that they were a great team, although of course they were, but simply because they didn’t let anything get in the way of their love. Sure, they fought and sure, they had disagreements but they resolved things between themselves. I won’t say that they draw a roadmap to a successful relationship because every relationship is different, but there’s no doubt that their formula can be useful to anyone who wants to make their relationship last. One can only wish for a marriage and a love like theirs – it’s what most of us aspire to.

This is a beautiful film that is also an informative film and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many films I’ve seen that are both, and I’ve seen thousands of films, maybe tens  of thousands. This movie is going to stay with me for a very long time. It’s premiering at the NYDOCS festival tonight and then playing again tomorrow. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit this Winter and next Spring (which I think would be the perfect time to see it). Hopefully after that, a savvy distributor will give it a theatrical release or at least make it available for streaming or VOD. This is a movie that very much deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about the Hollywood process. Some wonderful anecdotes. The love story is beautiful and presented in a touching, heart-warming manner. Great use of music.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit of talking head syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The King and Queen in Shrek 2 are based on Harold and Lillian and even bear their names.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Home movies of people you adore
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Phoenix

Too Hip for the Room


Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

Making it in Hollywood can be a slimy business.

(2015) Drama (The Dreaming Tree) Kelly Monteith, Anthony Russell, Robert Dubac, Caroline Alexander, Jake Krickhan, Kip Addota, Franklyn Ajaye, Jay Brothers, Devin Dugan, Seamus O’Brien, Sam Kwasman, Isaiah Ervin, Donny Conn, Waylynn Pitts, Eugene Lebowitz, Nathan Hurd, Gregg Binkley, Evelyn Wu, Bridget McCarty, Briana Feehan. Directed by Oktay Oktabasi and Kelly Monteith

We make our beds in life through the choices we make. We choose a career that takes us away from our family and tell ourselves that we’re doing it for the family, only to discover that we’ve been away  so much we no longer have a family. Or we chase a dream so hard that it becomes an obsession, causing us to burn through family and friends along the way.

Jake Dietz (Monteith)  is a stand-up comedian who is on the downslide of his career; once a young Turk in the standup circuit and being considered for network sitcoms, he is reduced to taking rubber chicken corporate gigs in places like Moline, Illinois. He is struggling to make ends meet even though he drives a Mercedes, a remnant of better times.

Jake is divorced from Trish (Alexander) and together they have a son Patrick (Krickhan) who is autistic with the potential to be high-functioning except that his social skills are lacking. Patrick has a thing for fellow student Briana (Feehan) but doesn’t know how to approach her, which frustrates him. Jake wants to help but he’s also not exactly sure.

The school’s president, Dr. Hertzog (Brothers) is offering up a special program which seems perfectly suited for Jake, but the price is very high – fifteen grand to be exact. Wanting to give the best to his son, Jake starts looking in less desirable places for gigs, starting with his friend and a former standup himself, Stuart (Dubac) who has become an agent. In fact, Stuart got mutual friend Buzz (Dugan) a network sitcom that at one time Jake had been considered for until he turned it down because he thought it would be demeaning. Instead, it turned out to be a hit for Buzz and angry, Jake left Stuart’s agency and brought his best friend Art (Russell) with him.

But there is some hope. Stuart got Jake a small role on a TV show and another ex-comic friend, Danny (Conn) may have a slot on a corporate gig that would pay Jake the money he needs for the program. But despite another rage-fueled encounter with Stuart which may have derailed some of Jake’s hopes, something more promising lands in his lap after a really good gig that Jake does after a cancellation forces a local club owner to turn to Jake for help. However, taking that hope which might lead to Jake’s dreams finally being fulfilled would mean giving up the sure thing that would pay for his son’s treatment. What will Jake choose?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Monteith’s since he was a young Turk on the standup circuit. In the intervening years he’s had a good deal of success, mostly in Britain (and yes, I’ve seen some of his BBC work in various outlets on the Internet and cable) but never quite made it to household name which I always thought was criminal; this is a very funny man and even though some might consider his style “old school” (which he comments upon in the movie) some of his standup sets here show that he hasn’t lost his touch.

There are also some of his fellow stand-ups of the late 80s and 90s like Addota and Ajaye who make brief appearances here which just reminds me that even funny young stand-ups become funny old stand-ups. Aging catches up with us all, even those who make us laugh. It’s still nice to see some comics I haven’t seen in more than a decade doing what they do best. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a comedy nostalgia tour. Hey if New Wave bands can do it, why not stand-up comics?

Nostalgia aside, this feels a lot like it’s close to Monteith’s heart. The film doesn’t really focus on Patrick’s autism other than as an expense for Jake that he can’t afford, although the bond between Jake and his son is shown to be difficult but nonetheless strong. From my experience of families with autistic children, the relationship looks authentic and the movie gets points for that.

I liked the portrayal of the comedian’s life here; you watch them commiserating together, see the professional jealousies and regrets plainly and see them as people who have more of their career behind them than in front of them; Monteith as Jake puts it best when he says “I remember when too hip for the room wasn’t ironic” when describing his status among new hip comedians.

Monteith makes a compelling lead. He has a soft spot for family and friends but at times sacrifices either or both in pursuit of his dream of sitcom stardom. It isn’t always pretty and there are times when Jake is really not very likable, but at the end of the day he has a good heart that sometimes gets subverted by his baser instincts. Even when Jake isn’t likable, you still end up rooting for him and that’s crucial for a film like this to work.

I do have to say that there are times when the humor seems a little bit forced and some of the situations seem a little bit contrived. It feels like a few shortcuts were taken in the writing and it does detract a little bit from the genuineness you get from the rest of the film and does lower the rating of the film a little bit because it is somewhat noticeable; for example, the sequence in which a distraught Patrick runs away and is later found beaten up is unnecessary to the plot other than to artificially insert tension; the point that it seems to make – the urgency of getting Patrick enrolled in that socialization program – had already been made well enough.

Also the directors other than the opening sequence in which they employ handhelds to put yourself in Jake’s shoes tend to have fairly static camera placement. I actually find that somewhat refreshing, although most movie buffs I know are likely to be fussy about such things. Then again, this isn’t necessarily a movie for movie buffs per se.

The ending is a little bit predictable in that most experienced moviegoers will see it coming, but like the rest of the movie it packs a ton of heart. While this isn’t the most technically perfect movie you’ll see ever, this is a movie that clearly means a lot to the people in it and behind the cameras for it. Sometimes that’s enough for a movie to get by on, and in this case it’s very true. I actually think I enjoy the movie more now that I’ve had a chance to think about it than I did when I was first watching it and that is actually a pretty good feeling.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting look at the life of a comedian. Feels like a passion project. Monteith is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points seem a little contrived. Ending is a little bit predictable. Staging may be too “old school” for hipper cinephiles.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some drug use and a brief scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monteith’s son Kyle and daughter Tierney cameo as passengers on the plane from Moline to Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny People
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Room

A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation

Mission to Lars


Mission to Lars

What a long strange trip it’s been.

(2012) Documentary (Spicer and Moore) Tom Spicer, Kate Spicer, Will Spicer, Lars Ulrich, Dr. Randi Hagerman, Jasmin St. Clair, Kerry King, James Hetfield, Janet (caregiver), Mum, Dad and Stepmum, Steve and Brian. Directed by James Moore and William Spicer

We all have dreams, no matter who we are. Even those of us who may suffer from intellectual disabilities have them. They can be great or small and some may even seem to be on the surface unattainable. There are occasions however when with the help of those who love us and care for us the most, anything can be possible – even achieving the unattainable.

Tom Spicer suffers from Fragile X Syndrome which is also known as Martin-Bell Syndrome. It’s not a form of autism, but autism can go hand in hand with it and often some of the symptoms of the disorder may well appear to be autism; in fact, Tom’s sister describes Fragile X during the film as “autism with bells on.” Tom lives in a care facility in England; he’s 40 years old and works at converting old newspapers into bedding for dogs which is a bit more complicated than you’d imagine. His mom and dad still have contact with him, but he seems to respond to his stepmom more than anyone.

His older sister Kate, a journalist and younger brother Will, a filmmaker have essentially ignored him most of their adult lives; they still see him from time to time but Tom can be difficult. One of the by-products of Fragile-X is enhanced anxiety which can cause him to shut down. He has a hard time dealing with things outside the norm and sometimes it can require a great deal of patience to spend any time with him.

Tom’s dream is to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. He shares that dream with plenty of people, but for Tom, music is something of a refuge; he turns to it when his anxiety becomes intolerable. Kate and Will decide that they should make this happen but they will have to journey to America in order to do it as Metallica was on tour of the United States at the time this was made. Kate has some contacts that might be of use and as a journalist she has no problem picking up a phone and talking to people who are used to saying “no.” Will and his production partner Moore document the journey.

First off, getting Tom on the plane is no easy matter. This is far, far, far out of his comfort zone and his first instinct is to go to the paper shed where he feels useful and can shut out the anxiety. The trip is almost over before it starts.

However, it is not much of a spoiler to say that eventually they get Tom on that plane and take him to Los Angeles where they rent an RV (or caravan for those in Britain who may be reading this) and off they go to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim, following the tour.

Tom’s anxieties continue to be a factor; loud noises are difficult for him, much more so than the rest of us when loud volumes which may be relatively comfortable for us can seem to a Fragile X sufferer to be ten to a hundred times louder than how the rest of us experience it; when noise is truly uncomfortable it can be excruciating to someone with Fragile X.

Moore and Will Spicer capture some beautiful images of the English countryside as well as of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park where the Spicers make a brief stop on their way to Sacramento. There are times where you can’t help but admire the images on the screen.

What sets this film apart is the human element. Kate is a bit of a worrier and throughout the movie she tends to hide behind some fairly unattractive hats. She is the one who makes the connections with Metallica’s management who turn out to be extremely accommodating. Will is less of a presence here; he’s mostly behind the camera but he seems to have quite the can-do attitude.

We do hear from an expert on Fragile X who explains the disorder somewhat but quite frankly we really only get the basics. Those who are interested should Google it as there is plenty of information about it on the web. In another note of grace, the filmmakers are donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity for children’s mental health in Britain.

The subject matter may be the journey to find Lars but that’s not really what this film is about. This is about how Tom deals with his genetic disorder and how it affects his life every day. It’s also about the love of a sister and a brother who want to make a memory for the brother whose life has been in many ways more difficult than theirs that he will always treasure. It is also about the kindness of strangers. It is an unexpectedly warm and compassionate documentary and if you’re looking for something to make you feel good, you can do no worse.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking. Some beautiful cinematography. Admirable cause.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes gets repetitive. Kate’s hats.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes (effective September 25)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabrielle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stonewall

Radio


Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Revolution) Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Riley Smith, Brent Sexton, Sarah Drew, Chris Mulkey, Patrick Breen, Bill Roberson, Kenneth H. Callender, Michael Harding, Charles Garren, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Michael Tollin

A good cry can be as exhilarating as a good laugh. Any movie that can move viewers to tears, then leave them marveling at the triumph of the human spirit, is the aces.

Harold Jones (Harris) is a successful high school football coach in Anderson, South Carolina. As he enters the 1976 season, his mostly untested young team has a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to character. When the star running back (Smith) and some of his cohorts lock a young man (Gooding) of diminished mental capabilities in a shed after tying him up and terrorizing him, Coach Jones and his assistant, Honeycutt (Sexton) step in and punish the boys.

Gradually, the taciturn Coach befriends the young man, who at first is unresponsive, unable even to tell the coach his name. Because of the quiet man’s attachment to transistor radios, Coach Jones dubs his new friend Radio (his real name turns out to be James Robert Kennedy) and begins an amazing, unusual relationship. Jones takes Radio under his wing, despite the suspicions of his mother (Merkerson) and the misgivings of the school’s principal (Woodard).

Radio blossoms, finally having people in his life who accept him instead of humiliate him. He goes from barely able to mutter more than a word or two at a time to an enthusiastic, talkative person, a regular at athletic practices and at the school itself, where he becomes an unofficial hall monitor and broadcaster. Gradually, he becomes an important part of the community.

But all is not perfect. The football team is not performing to expectations, and some believe that the distractions that Radio brings are to blame, particularly the town’s banker (Mulkey) whose son is the star running back who caused the initial trouble with Radio. His son plays an even crueler joke on Radio which causes the school board in the person of Tucker (Breen) to cast a suspicious eye on the situation. Radio overcomes the adversity, but nobody is prepared for the greatest obstacle of all.

The cast is outstanding, particularly Gooding. At times his expression is so truly vacant it seems that nobody really is home. And he skillfully makes the transition to an open personality, capturing the effusive personality of the real Radio to a “T”. After capturing an Oscar in Jerry Maguire, Gooding had undermined himself with a series of terrible choices (Snow Dogs, Boat Trip et al.), but Radio puts him back on the right track, at least temporarily – he still continues to be plagued with movies that are unworthy of his talents..

Harris is one of the most distinguished actors of our time. He is rarely seen in a role that he doesn’t elevate and I can’t remember him ever giving a bad performance. Here, he is low-key, a Southern gentleman desperately wanting to do the right thing, but reluctant to explain why his relationship with Radio is so important to him. It puts a strain on his relationship with his wife (Winger) and daughter (Drew), but Harris underlies the flawed goodness within the man that makes him believable and real.

Enough can’t be said about Winger. She make movies very infrequently, and that’s a shame. She has a tremendous presence, and here shows particular restraint in a thankless role that isn’t developed terribly well (she is seen reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique early on, but her character is hardly a feminist here), but Winger carries it off well. I hope she can find the time to return to the big screen more regularly but it really hasn’t happened up to now.

Director Michael Tollin captures the importance of high school football in a small Southern town, and sums it up neatly in a speech Harris gives hear the end of the film: “There’s nothing better than looking for a win on a Friday night, and waking up on Saturday morning after you found one.” He wisely concentrates on the relationship between Jones and Radio, how it develops and why. He cast Gooding and Harris well; the two work well off each other, and in one of the most gripping scenes of the movie — when a distraught Radio is kneeling in the center of his room, inconsolable, the taciturn football coach, never a demonstrative man, opens up and comforts him. The charm of Radio is that he treats everyone he meets with joy and love, as Coach Jones explains, “He treats all of us the way we wish we could treat half of us.”

Be warned; this is the kind of movie that doesn’t just elicit a sniffle; it’s a full-on, tears-streaming-down-the-face weepy that leaves viewers feeling awesome when the lights come back up. The real Radio continues to be a presence at T.L. Hanna High, where he can be found regularly during the football season leading the Yellow Jackets onto the field and joining the cheerleaders when the spirit moves him. He’s as important to Anderson as the air they breathe, and one can only feel good that the rest of us get to share him. Feel-good movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but as manipulative as this one sometimes get, it certainly worked its magic on this cynic. Don’t forget your hankies.

WHY RENT THIS: Utterly cathartic. Terrific performances from Gooding, Harris and Winger. Captures the mentality of a Southern high school football town.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit too tear-inducing if there is such a thing.  Sometimes a bit formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few bad words scattered here and there. Some of the thematic elements might be a bit too much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was primarily filmed in neighboring Walterboro because the town looked more like the era depicted here. The real Radio and Coach Jones are seen at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The making-of featurette contains input from some of the real people depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.3M on a $35M production budget; the movie just about broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Happy Feet Two

Molly


Molly

Take me out to the ball game…

(1999) Drama (MGM) Elisabeth Shue, Aaron Eckhart, Thomas Jane, Lucy Liu, Jill Hennessy, D.W. Moffett, Elizabeth Mitchell, Robert Harper, Elaine Hendrix, Michael Paul Chan, Jon Pennell, Sarah Wynter, Lauren Richter, Tanner Lee Prairie, Musetta Vander. Directed by John Dulgan

 

When we look at the disabled, often all we truly see is their disability. The hardest thing for us so-called normal folk is to look beyond and see the person within. This is often true of those who love the disabled, as well.

Buck McKay (Eckhart) has a good job, a great loft in trendy Venice (California, not Italy) and a busy social calendar. He’s restoring a vintage sailboat. He is leading a quietly fulfilling, productive life. Then, he gets a letter from the state of California.

The care facility at Bellevue is being shut down due to funding constraints. What does this have to do with McKay? That’s where his sister, Molly (Shue) has been staying for a number of years, ever since both their parents died in a car crash. She’s autistic, with the emotional and mental state of a three-year-old.

Immediately, Buck’s life is thrown into chaos. He loses his job when Molly prances into an important meeting naked because she’s too warm although if Elisabeth Shue pranced into one of my meetings naked, I’d probably give her brother a promotion. Maybe that’s just me, though. In any case, the constant attention that his sister requires has emptied his social calendar. Yes, it’s true: The Buck stopped there.

A lifeline is thrown when Sam (Jane), a learning-disabled orderly who had developed a rapport with Molly at Bellevue, gets a new job at a new clinic. Doctors at this clinic are looking to perform experimental surgery that would activate the portion of her brain that isn’t functioning. Molly is an exceptional candidate for the surgery. The result would be the mental and emotional flowering of a young woman her self-absorbed brother has never taken the trouble to get to know. But what science giveth, capricious fate often taketh away.

If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for it. The plot is very similar to Daniel Keyes’ classic novella Flowers for Algernon, which later was made into the gripping Cliff Robertson movie Charly. Both of those versions are far superior to this distaff version, but Molly is not without its charm.

Shue, once an Oscar nominee for Leaving Las Vegas, had by this point without much fanfare become an impressive acting talent. In this film she plays a woman buffeted by a world she scarcely understands. Alternately full-of-life joyous and angry and frightened, she displays her emotions vividly and without reservation. The supporting cast was mostly unknown at the time, although many of them have gone on to good careers. Here, most of them are pretty solid.

The problem with the movie is predictability. The story is just too close to Charly for my own personal comfort. While it does raise the important issue of considering the person behind the disability, Molly often flails and wallows in maudlin sentiment, like a pig in a mud hole. During those periods, the movie drags, big time.

Molly didn’t really get a lot of theatrical play in its day and is probably difficult to find although I understand Netflix carries it, but is worth checking out if you either run into it or seek it out, if for no other reason to enjoy Shue’s performance, which is definitely superior.

WHY RENT THIS: An excellent performance by Elizabeth Shue.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of by-the-numbers. Solid but unspectacular performances after Shue.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bit of sexuality and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was unusual in that it premiered on airplane flights before its theatrical release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,650 on a $21M production budget; the film was a huge flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charly

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Last Mistress

Dear John


Dear John

Sharing a kiss in a southern summer rain.

(2010) Romantic Drama (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Keith Robinson, Scott Porter, Braeden Reed, D.J. Cotrona, Cullen Moss, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Nicholas Sparks is a novelist, many of whose works have been turned into movies (all based in his native South Carolina at least to some degree) including The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and The Last Song. There are many who adore his novels and although I haven’t read them, I’m sure he’s a decent enough writer. In all honesty while I liked the adaptation of The Notebook, I have not been felt the magic in his other adaptations.

So when noted director Lasse Halstrom (Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News) was attached to it, I had some hopes that this movie might actually be the second Nicholas Sparks movie to move me.

No such luck. John Tyree (Tatum) is a soldier on leave who must return to Germany in a few days in the summer of 2001. When young Savannah Curtis (Seyfried) accidentally knocks her purse into the water off of a pier, John dives in to its rescue, forever earning her gratitude. Yes, it’s yet another case of a sodden accessory leading to romance. Happens all the time.

There before our eyes young love blossoms. We know it does because there are montages of late summer South Carolina and soulful music. But then he has to return to his post in Germany. But they’ll write….he’ll send her all his love every day in a letter….sealed with a kiss. Hey, they had to say goodbye for the summer after all.

Of course, September arrives and we all know what happened in September 2001. His enlistment nearly over, John winds up with a choice – either love or duty. This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, he chooses duty. Savannah understands but she winds up falling in love with someone else while he’s gone; hence the double entendre title. Clever, this Nicholas Sparks fellow.

I neglected to mention the autism factor here. Sparks’ son suffers from a mild form of autism and so that becomes a major theme here. Savannah has a neighbor (Thomas) whose son (Reed) is autistic. John’s dad (Jenkins) is mildly autistic, or at least so Savannah thinks – this leads to a fairly major argument between John and Savannah.

Halstrom is a gifted director who has a habit of choosing material that is overly maudlin. Sparks is pretty much the poster boy for maudlin, 21st century style. That’s why the pairing of the two makes much more sense than it at first appears. Like with most Sparks works, there is a palpable sense of melancholy that suffuses the mellow golds and oranges of the half-light of a South Carolina sunset. It lends a certain nostalgic air, particularly with the scene, pictured above, in which the lovers kiss in an idyllic summer shower. Yes, it’s very cliché but it’s also very effective.

Seyfried is a very charming actress but sadly in my opinion, she has a much smaller role than you would think. It is Tatum who must carry the load, and quite frankly it’s a little beyond him at this point. He is not one of the most emotionally open of actors, which in a situation where the audience needs to strongly identify with the lead, can be a deal-killer. Tatum is good looking and when given roles in his emotional wheelhouse can bat them out of the park, but this one is not one of those.

A quick word about Richard Jenkins. Ever since winning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor Jenkins has performed in a series of roles that have played to his strengths. This is actually a little bit different than we usually see from him; he is pushed in the role of the coin-collecting dad who cooks lasagna every Sunday (my kind of dad) and has a bit of the obsessive-compulsive to him. Jenkins lends the role dignity and compassion and makes it the most interesting and human of all the characters here.

Dear John isn’t going to boost me on to the Nicholas Sparks bandwagon; for me, he is an acquired taste that I have failed to acquire. I realize that there are some who think he is the bee’s knees, and that’s fine – there is nothing wrong with a good bittersweet romance. I would just like to see a little variation in the storyline and until then, his first movie that I had contact with – The Notebook – remains the one that I will hold up as the bar to judge all his adaptations against and unfortunately, Dear John falls short of that bar.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried. Jenkins as always puts in a memorable performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Nicholas Sparks formula holds true. Seyfried’s character disappears for a good chunk of the movie and when she reappears near the end, the movie loses a lot of its steam.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and a little bit of sensuality but not so much as to alienate family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the movie that dethroned Avatar from the #1 spot in the box office which it had held since its debut in December 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a moving featurette on Braeden Reed, the actor who has autism in real life and plays the autistic Alan here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115M on a $25M budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: When in Rome

Mozart and the Whale


Mozart and the Whale

Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell are taken for a ride.

(Millennium) Josh Hartnett, Radha Mitchell, Gary Cole, John Carroll Lynch, Rusty Schwimmer, Erica Leerhsen, Nate Mooney, Sheila Kelly, Robert Wisdom. Directed by Petter Naess

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism in which the patients are high-functioning, with a difficulty in socializing but an amazing ability to lock in on something that fascinates them, whether it is mathematics, trivia or molecular structure. They are often misunderstood as social misfits when in reality they just don’t have the mechanism to cope with social situations that the rest of us take for granted.

Jerry (Hartnett) is a New York cab driver who is afflicted with Asperger’s. He can add numbers in his head like a human calculator, but he has trouble carrying on a conversation without turning it into a non-stop soliloquy filled with random facts. He loves birds to the extent that many fly free in his terminally cluttered apartment, and he often takes one with him to work driving his cab (which begs the question; wouldn’t it fly out the door whenever someone got in or out?) much to the discomfort of his passengers.

Like many Asperger’s patients, he needs routine and structure and when things break out of the routine, he has difficulty coping. When he accidentally runs into a parked car, he gathers his things and walks away, leaving a group of angry people.

He belongs to a group of fellow Asperger’s patients, and he takes comfort in the presence of people he can relate to, even though some of them like Gregory (Lynch) can be a bit on the curmudgeonly side.

Into this group comes Isabelle (Mitchell) who has been referred to it by her therapist. She is the diametric opposite of Donald; where he is introverted and shy, she is straightforward and without fear. She is direct where he is not. She comes into his life much like a cannonball would come into a group of Civil War-era infantrymen and she has much the same effect. She invites him to a Halloween party and dresses up like Mozart; he puts on a rather disheveled whale costume and almost doesn’t show up because he is so obsessive about time.

Despite all the obstacles, the two form a romantic partnership that brings a brand new dimension into their lives. When Isabelle cleans up Donald’s apartment, he freaks out but eventually he begins to learn how to accept her presence into his life. When he realizes that they can’t afford the house she wants and the lifestyle they both want, he takes a job at a university in statistics where he excels. When he invites his boss over for dinner, it turns into a disaster largely in part to Isabelle’s inability to cope with the situation.

There is obviously a deep emotional connection between the two, but it becomes just as clear that their Asperger’s is getting in the way of their relationship. Will they be able to overcome something so deeply ingrained in them?

This is based loosely on real life couple Jerry and Mary Newport. Norwegian director Naess, whose resume includes the Oscar-nominated Elling, does a magnificent job in portraying the disease, so much so that the movie is often screened at legitimate autism conferences as an illustration of the social consequences of the disease.

Hartnett, who was reportedly unhappy with the final version of the film and consequently did little or no promotion of the movie, does some of the best work of his career here. He gives Donald depth that one wouldn’t expect, making him seem real and authentic. Much of this is due to Ronald Bass’ script but Hartnett pulls out some nuances that I didn’t think he had in him based on previous performances. This is the kind of movie that could get him more challenging roles if he wants to pursue that kind of work.

Mitchell, who has become a steady leading actress since first attracting notice in Pitch Black, also does a great job, making Isabelle entirely non-stereotypical and giving her the kind of spunk and fullness of life that make her in many ways the most memorable aspect of the movie. While Hartnett’s performance is more subtle, Mitchell gets to go over the top here and she does it nicely without descending into parody. Her and Hartnett make an attractive couple and while the chemistry is non-traditional, it works all the same.

The supporting cast of veteran character actors does well in their roles, particularly Lynch and Schwimmer. At no time do you get the feeling that anyone is looking down on their characters; these are all real people with real problems and while they may have different challenges than we do, that makes them no less fascinating.

This is director Naess’ first American film, and he does pretty well although the pacing gets a little choppy. Then again, that may be due to the nature of the characters that can lose interest in something and simply stop. That makes it occasionally difficult on the viewer who feels like the movie is veering off unexpectedly. It’s a kind of cinematic vertigo. While he never descends into movie of the week treacle, there are a few moments that are overly sentimental to me but thankfully they are few and far between.

While most look at Rain Man as their view into autism, in many ways this is a much more authentic look (although some groups have criticized the movie for playing into the perception that all autism patients have savant-like skills, which is actually much more rare than Hollywood would lead you to believe) at the disease. As a society, we tend to marginalize these people or worse, ignore them altogether. Hopefully, a viewing of Mozart and the Whale will give you a fresh perspective on a disease that affects real people and is in nearly every community in one form or another.

WHY RENT THIS: A very authentic-feeling look at the lives of those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hartnett and Mitchell have some quirky chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s pacing can be a bit abrupt. There are moments that are a bit mawkish.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some allusions to sexual subjects and a little bit of foul language but otherwise nothing too disturbing. However, the subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The screenplay was written by Ronald Bass who also wrote Rain Man, another movie about autism. He was inspired in this case by a 1995 article on Jerry and Mary Newport.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tony Manero