The People Garden


Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

(2016) Drama (FilmBuff) Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Franҫois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West, Liane Balaban, Denis Akiyama, Geneviéve Brouillette, Donno Mitoma, Elina Miyake, Jaymee Weir. Directed by Nadia Litz

 

The forest is, in our psyche, a primal and frightening place. In the forests of our imagination, ghosts lurk and monsters dwell waiting to shred our flesh. While there are some who think they have the woods tamed, there are places that we cannot go without emerging from it completely changed for the rest of our lives.

Such is the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The Japanese consider it an unfriendly place; people have been going there to commit suicide for a very long time but only now has it become better known to Westerners largely due to the fact that three separate movies have been released this year with it as the setting; this is the third of them.

The somewhat bizarrely named Sweetpea (Hemingway) is traveling to Japan. When she arrives in customs, she’s asked the reason for her visit and she bluntly responds “To break up with my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend is Jamie (Arnaud), a rock star who has inexplicably chosen the Aokigahara as the setting for his latest music video.

Sweetpea is picked up by Mak (West), a young Japanese forestry worker who is told to “keep an eye on her” and then inexplicably leaves her at the edge of the forest with a crudely drawn map and police tape to help her find her way if she gets lost. Only with the help of a young schoolgirl who doesn’t speak a word of English – isn’t it convenient when a young schoolgirl wanders through when you’re lost in a forest – does she make it to the set.

When she arrives there, the director (Le Gros) and the producer (Brouillette) inform her that Jamie has disappeared, but nobody seems overly concerned. Sweetpea, who doesn’t yet know the nature of the forest (which everyone has apparently agreed not to inform her about) does some searching boyfriend but doesn’t find him.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has a relationship with Signe (Anderson), the aging 90s sex symbol who is co-starring in the video with him. It also becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot than a rock star taking some personal time in the woods. Will Sweetpea find Jamie in time to break up with him?

I was of two minds of this movie. The story structure is a little bit vague; Sweetpea is an enigma, none of her backstory revealed. We have no idea why she wants to break up with Jamie, only that she does. Her past is shown in two segments in which she white-person dances with Jamie while they exchange soulful looks and private smiles. Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Papa, doesn’t have the screen presence yet to give the audience a reason to care with so little information offered.

Litz makes good use of the bucolic setting and thus we have a very pretty film to watch. She also keeps the atmosphere reasonably tense without letting the tension become the entire focus. There is an air of surreality here that adds to the overall feel that something isn’t quite right. Unlike the most well-known Aokigahara-set film, there is nothing supernatural here, at least not overtly so.

While the movie is only 80 minutes long, the pacing is slow enough that it feels almost stifling. The fact that Sweetpea is so dissolute and whose main expression is the 1,000 yard stare adds to the feeling of lethargy that sometimes takes over the film. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the movie that it feels like there’s any energy whatsoever and the movie could have sorely used more.

REASONS TO GO: The forest itself is intensely beautiful even in the creepiest moments. The subject is quite fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit dissolute in places and slow-paced throughout.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds here and there’s a bit of smoking as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  None of the forest scenes were filmed in Japan; instead, the forests of British Columbia subbed for this Canadian production.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hell or High Water

Tuck Everlasting


Tuck Everlasting

Into the fire from out of the fryer go the Tucks.

(2002) Family Fantasy (Disney) Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kingsley, Amy Irving, Victor Garber, Kosha Engler, Richard Pilcher, Sean Pratt, Julia Hart, Elisabeth Shue (voice). Directed by Jay Russell

Many people yearn for eternal life, free from the terror of the unknown that is death. However, eternal life would be a mixed blessing at best, a curse at worst. How does one cope with remaining the same age forever; would eternal life mean the cessation of growth?

Winnie Foster (Bledel) lives a stultifying life in small town Tree Gap in 1914 New England. The daughter of a successful man (Garber) and a mother (Irving) who disapproves of anything that does not fit into her narrow world view, Winnie is rebellious and lively, aching to see the world and fearful that the societal conventions of Tree Gap will never let her venture far beyond her own parlor.

Being the anti-authoritarian sort, she ventures into the woods that border her home, property owned by the Fosters. There she sees a handsome young boy drinking from a spring that bubbles up from the roots of an ancient oak. The young boy is Jesse Tuck (Jackson). She questions him about what he’s doing there; he warns her not to drink from the spring.

Before she can do anything, she is swooped up by a man on horseback – Jesse’s brother Miles (Bairstow). He carries her to a cabin deep in the woods where they are met by the boys’ parents, Angus (Hurt) and Mae (Spacek). No, they’re not members of a survivalist organization; they’re just simple folk. Mae welcomes Jesse into her home, chiding Miles for being rude and frightening the young girl.

The Tucks are a family that doesn’t wish to be found but what they’re hiding from becomes clear when a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Kingsley) comes around looking for the Tucks. When Winnie’s disappearance becomes public knowledge, he offers aid, providing a perspective nobody else can.

You see, the Tucks have a secret, one that has kept them isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time; about 90 years to be exact. Remember that spring that Jesse was drinking from? It grants eternal life to all those who drink from it, freezing them eternally at the age they were when they first drank. That’s a secret that people would kill for…people like the Man in the Yellow Suit, who has a connection to the Tucks that speaks to their dark past.

This is based on a popular 1976 children’s book by Natalie Babbitt. One would think that the dark themes of the book would be watered down and Disneyfied by the Mouse House but amazingly, they are not. This is not pablum that has been dumbed down for the lowest common denominator; this is meant to provoke conversation and thought.

Hurt and Spacek make a good couple, with Hurt playing a wise old man quite well. Bairstow and Jackson play hot-headed youths whose penchant to act first and think later begins the whole mess but also rescues their parents on at least one occasion. The dynamic between all four actors is marvelous is a highlight of the movie.

Bledel is an actress I’ve never particularly warmed to; she’s always seemed rather shrill to me, but she is more than solid here. She is literally the audience surrogate in the movie and it is through her eyes that we see events. Bledel shows a very deft touch here, something she doesn’t always show in other movies she’s done. I hope she has more performances like this one in her; she would rapidly move to be one of my favorites if that were the case.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of creating the pre-World War I rural America, from the settings to the atmosphere; Irving plays the uptight upper class mother who wants her daughter molded into the very model of a proper well-bred lady, and it’s not a role Irving has taken on in the past but she makes it work here. Garber is in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors ever; his work on “Alias” and “Eli Stone” on television is as strong as anything that’s out there, film or TV.

Now, I do have one bone to pick with the movie – there is a theme tune that is used over and over again in the movie – you hear it constantly and I believe it is there to signify the mystery of eternal life. They could have done without ramming it down our throats.

The point of the movie is not necessarily that eternal life is either good or bad (although the general consensus is that it is bad) but rather the unfulfilled life is the worst of all choices. Winnie’s outlook of being doomed to a life that has no resonance with her, that leaves her gifts unutilized, her potential unrealized – that is the true tragedy. The Tucks may have longevity but they are hiding from life (although the boys have seen much of the world, they are now living with their parents…even when they’re 107 they always come back to mom and dad). Winnie, who has a short lifespan compared to theirs, embraces life and all it has to offer both good and bad. Truly, there is more value to quality of life than quantity.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written, well-acted and the world of the Tucks is set up nicely, as is the world of turn of the century rural America.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Theme music is used ad infinitum until a pleasant tune actually becomes tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and some images and situations that might be scary for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Bledel’s feature film debut after establishing her name in “The Gilmore Girls;” the part of Jesse was originally offered to her Gilmore co-star Jared Padalecki but he declined in order to work with different co-stars.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with author Natalie Babbitt, and an interesting “Lessons of the Tucks” feature which examines themes and issues brought in the movie which is used in a similar manner as a standard trivia track.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was unsuccessful.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Fountain