Opus of an Angel


The blind leading the bland.

(2017) Drama (Random) William McNamara, Cindy Pickett, Kaylynn Kubeldis, Sofya Skya, Destiny Austin, Lee Kholafai, Leila Ciancaglini, Nadja Hussein Camper, Will C, Marjo-Rikka Makela, Cristian Fagins, Don DiPaolo, Marisa Lopez, Ellison Julia, Jamison Newlander, Jon Peacy, Micah Fitzgerald, Joan Benedict Steiger, Mikul Robins, Said William Legue, Christine Kent, Sara Terho. Directed by Ali Zamani

 

What is an angel? Most of us don’t really believe in angels to begin with – whether you are religious or not. It goes without saying that nobody has ever seen one, or will willingly admit to it since if you DID admit to having seen one, chances are people are going to be quietly backing away from you. Angels are the servants of God, right? Or are they ageless creatures sent to watch over us in our hour of need? Or are they merely observers of the human condition? Wings and halos notwithstanding, we may want to believe in angels deep down even if we think they don’t exist.

When it comes to faith, Dr. Stephen Murphy (McNamara) gave at the office. He was once a successful cardiac surgeon, a happy father and husband, celebrating his little girl’s tenth birthday with a picnic at her favorite park, when his cell phone rings – an emergency surgery is necessary, life or death. And the patient is a kid just about his daughter’s age.

We catch up to Stephen a year later on his daughter’s eleventh birthday. His home is tidy, but empty; the only thing that looks out of place is the noose hanging in the kitchen. Stephen has decided that he can’t take the pain of life anymore and is going to finish himself off just as soon as he runs a final few errands. However, before he has been gone from the house very long, he sees a blind little girl (Kubeldis) knocked over by a car driven by a group of hoodlums. She’s okay, but has been separated from her classmates who are out and about on a field trip. Unable to contact her mother, he allows her to tag along on his last day. Might as well have some company, right? Besides, his paternal instincts kick in – you can’t exactly leave a blind girl alone in the city to fend for herself.

The two actually end up bonding. Stephen, initially morose and almost robotic, begins to respond to the girl’s – her name is Maria, by the way – infectious attitude. One of the most touching scenes in the film involves Stephen taking her to a movie theater playing a classic Buster Keaton silent comedy, with Stephen describing what’s happening on the screen to the blind girl. Stephen is plagued by memories, though, that soon explain what happened to his family and to Stephen, and why he is no longer interested in living. Is Maria just a blind little girl who happened to cross paths with Stephen, or is there something more going on here?

The script plays it coy, but I think its obvious by the end of the film that there is an otherworldly aspect to the movie. This is not exactly a faith-based drama – although there are elements of that, but the filmmakers choose not to hit you in the face with the faith aspects of the film. Militant atheists, however, may find some offense to be taken.

For cinema buffs, this is a movie with tons of heart but lacking in execution. Much of the movie is shot on handheld camera, and often the camera sways like the operator is having an attack of vertigo, or wants the viewer to. The performances here are stiff and the dialogue contrived.

I felt bad for Kubeldis; she’s given a difficult role to work with and her inexperience shows through, most notably in her line reading which sounds forced and not at all natural. It’s the kind of part that would be difficult for a trained professional; for a tyro making her first film appearance, it’s nearly impossible and at the very least, a hell of a lot to ask of a novice. Kubeldis has some moments where her naturally sunny disposition are infectious, but she can’t really maintain it enough to elevate the movie, which sorely needed it. She shows plenty of potential though so I hope she doesn’t get discouraged after making this film.

There are enough moments in the movie that are worthwhile that I can barely recommend it, but just barely. There are an awful lot of rookie mistakes both behind the camera and in front of it too. You can’t deny, though, that the intentions of the filmmakers were at least honorable and this is the kind of movie that we do need more of; I just would have appreciated a little more attention to detail though.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that shine.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kubeldis, who plays the blind Maria, is blind herself in real life and makes her onscreen acting debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Touched By an Angel
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Summerland

Wild


Reese Witherspoon thinks she's found a place without paparazzi but she's keeping an eye out anyway.

Reese Witherspoon thinks she’s found a place without paparazzi but she’s keeping an eye out anyway.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian van Holt, Cliff De Young, Mo McRae, Will Cuddy, Leigh Parker, Nick Eversman, Ray Mist, Randy Schulman, Cathryn de Prume, Kurt Conroyd, Ted De Chatelet, Jeffee Newman, Art Alexakis, Beth Hall. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Sometimes life throws things at us that we just can’t bear. We make bad choices because of it, go down paths we were never meant to explore and find ourselves lost. Few people can find their way back from these deviations from course.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is a young 26-year-old woman starting an 1,100-mile hike on the rugged but beautiful Pacific Crest Trail which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian. She only plans on going from the southern terminus into Ashland, Oregon but it’s still a daunting prospect, considering she has virtually no experience whatsoever with long distance hiking.

Cheryl has had some tough times of late. Her mom (Dern) passed away suddenly of cancer. She descended into heroin addiction and unprotected sex with multiple partners. Her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) has ended in divorce. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She felt that she needed to clear all the toxins out of her system by “walking it out” as her mother would have put it. So she decided that, having seen a book on the trail in her local bookstore in Minnesota that this would be her best way to get herself out of the world for a little while, get herself right and move on with her life.

The way isn’t without challenges. Her first day only nets her five miles in a harsh desert climate – at that rate it would take her 220 days to finish her hike – or about 130 more than she thought. She has difficulty setting up her tent – it takes her hours. Then she figures out that she has purchased the wrong fuel for her cookstove, meaning that she’ll have to eat her dehydrated meals as a cold mush. Not particularly appealing. She’s also managed to get boots that are too tight and are causing some major issues.

There are other pitfalls as well, many of them human – men who want to get into her pants, by flattery or by force. She feels incredibly lonely and there is little to do but think about what got her there in the first place. With a bulldog-like persistence and a toughness that would surprise anyone who thought this petite blonde had any in her, she adapts and overcomes, winning over admirers on the trail – but the question is will this be enough to change her life?

Vallee, whose last film (Dallas Buyers Club) won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, might just repeat that feat here. Witherspoon with already one statuette to her credit for Walk the Line is absolutely wonderful here, eschewing Hollywood glamour for the realism of trail life and the tawdry existence that preceded it. She is in nearly every scene, often alone, This is her film to carry and carry it she does, imbuing Cheryl with vulnerability which eventually becomes an inner toughness.

Dern also turns in an award-worthy performance as the optimistic mom who has enough inner strength to raise two children alone after leaving an abusive alcoholic husband. She is reinventing herself when her life takes a tragic turn but for the most part she remains a breath of fresh air throughout, trying to soldier on despite having almost no money. She is representative of a million single moms out there, although I would have to say that I don’t think many would have the sort of life philosophy that Bobbi (Cheryl’s mom) had.

Vallee tells the story mainly through a sequence of flashbacks which take many different forms. Some are mere flashes, only lasting a second or two while others are fully formed scenes that play in Cheryl’s mind. Others are things her mind is on concurrent to the events of her hike, happening silently. Cheryl narrates from her journal and leaves messages at way stations, quoting diverse authors and poets. She becomes something of a celebrity on the trail, being one of the few women hiking alone and certainly the only one hiking alone on as much of it as she is.

The cinematography by Yves Belanger is breathtaking, but then again he has quite the canvas to work with. The music is simple and non-treacly, often using popular songs by artists like Paul Simon and the Hollies to pull the story along. Nick Hornsby’s script is smart and well-reasoned for the most part but one of the main objections I have to the movie is the lack of connection from A to B to C. We know that Cheryl sinks into a morass of alcohol, heroin and unprotected sex after her mom passes away but we don’t see how that happens; one moment she’s caring for her mom, the next she’s finding out she passed away, the next she’s sitting in a bar trolling for men and the next she’s shooting up. We see the descent in bits and pieces, like a book with pages missing. The ascent is much more drawn out.

While this isn’t the best film to come out in 2014, it has some of the best performances in it. Witherspoon alone is reason enough to catch this movie in theaters while it’s still out there – the scenery is also best seen on a big screen. Definitely one that should be on your must-see list this season.

REASONS TO GO: A searing performance by Witherspoon, nearly certain to get an Oscar nomination if not the win and Dern may well join her. Gorgeous cinematography. Incredible story.
REASONS TO STAY: Never really get a sense of why Cheryl moves from one mindset to another.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content, a fair amount of nudity, some drug use and a good deal of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Cheryl Strayed appears in the film as the woman driving the truck who drops off Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of the film. Also, the daughter of Cheryl Strayed plays Cheryl as a little girl in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tracks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies