Bring Me an Avocado


Cookies do make a fine movie snack at home but where are the avocados?

(2019) Dramedy (Self-ReleasedBernardo Peña, Molly Ratermann, Candace Roberts, California Poppy Sanchez, Michaela Robles, Sarah Burkhalter, Anthony Harris, David Silva, Adham Aljahmi, Aaron Sarazan, Alicia Villanueva, Natalie Conneely, Santiago Rosas, Jose Lucero, Mikayal Babar, Harold Ny, Mariah Leyba, Gloria Martinez, Chelsea Christer, Daniela Sirkin. Directed by Maria Mealla

The holes that appear in our lives when someone is abruptly taken out of them often take us by surprise, even though we may suspect at the length and breadth of the hole. We might think we can handle it, we might even feel that we have to but sooner or later the toll is taken.

Robin (Burkhalter), her husband George (Peña) who is an aspiring but thus far unsuccessful writer and their two effervescent kids teen Isabel (Sanchez) and youngster Matilda (Robles) have a close-knit, loving family. Sure, money is tight but they manage to get by. Then, when a shocking event takes place at a surprise birthday party for Robin, George is left to pick up the pieces for his kids.

At first, he tries to make things as normal as possible for his kids. Robin’s bestie Jada (Roberts) and her sister Grizelda – known to one and all as Aunt Greece (Ratermann) – help out as best they can but as time goes by George begins to fray around the edges. Relationships grow complicated and Robin’s absence threatens to tear the family apart.

First off, this is a film that has a lot of women behind the camera which is a good thing. Hopefully someday soon that won’t be an occasion for comment by reviewers. For now, the film comes with a truly feminine quality to it even though ostensibly the main character is George (although in many ways Robin is although she’s largely out of the picture for most of the picture).

Burkhalter doesn’t get a ton of screen time but she takes advantage of the time she’s allotted. Roberts and Ratermann also deliver solid performances. The juvenile actors do try but like a lot of kid actors, they try a little too hard and it becomes apparent that they are acting rather than playing a role. Not to knock the kids but it is noticeable.

]The first half of the movie is rather remarkable. What we get is what Gene Siskel used to call a “slice of life” – a movie that simply shows a family going about its business in a realistic and natural way. Had the filmmakers been able to maintain that tone this would have been a terrific film. Unfortunately, the second half of the movie begins to unravel and edges into soap opera territory. The plot points begin to feel contrived and dramatic conflicts seem to be manufactured. As honest as the first half is, the second half is the opposite.

Still there is plenty to like here. Some fine performances, a spotlight on a Hispanic-American family that isn’t the standard Hollywood version of a Latin family and a sense that the day to day life of that family is a good one, even given some of the issues that Robin discusses with Jada early in the movie. Life isn’t perfect but it is beautiful until it isn’t. Getting through the “isn’t” is what the film is all about.

REASONS TO SEE: The film doesn’t seem contrived at first.
REASONS TO AVOID: As the film progresses it becomes a bit soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a couple of scenes of brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace is Gone
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
To Dust

Weed the People


A father teaches his son to “grow your own”.

(2018) Documentary (Mangurama) Mara Gordon, Bonni Goldstein, Tracey Ryan, AJ Kephart, Amanda Reiman, Sunil Agarwal, Shirley Kephart, Josh Ryan, Sharon Lane, Angela Peterson, Yohai Gulan Gild, Jeffrey Rabe, Donald Abrams, Adrian Peterson, Chris Kephart, Angela Smith, Ethan Nadelmann, Stewart Smith, Angela Harris, Alice O’Leary-Randall. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

Marijuana has been demonized for decades in this country. The FDA has placed marijuana on an equal footing with heroin in terms of enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the country wants it legalized, particularly for its medicinal benefits but our government refuses to even consider it, largely because Big Pharma wants it to remain criminalized.

This film argues the case for legalization rather effectively, following five families with children who are afflicted with cancer. Desperate for relief from pain and suffering both from the disease and the chemo treatments, the parents turn from traditional medicine to alternative cures. California, where medical marijuana has been legalized for years, is the setting here and a family from Chicago, which sets up residency in California in order to get the cannabis oil that might be keeping their son alive, is also followed here.

Physician and advocate Bonni Goldstein counsels family through the sometimes confusing process of qualifying for the medical marijuana program is profiled as well as Mara Gordon, a former process engineer who has become a cannabis oil cooker, helping patients determine the dosage needed for their children. “We are lab rats,” she states grimly and indeed it’s true; there has been very little research done into the use of cannabis to treat cancer and much of what Gordon does is through trial and error. Sometimes the results are spectacular, bordering on the miraculous as tumors shrink and cancers flees. In one case here, the usage of the cannabis cannot stop the child’s death from his disease.

There are a lot of talking heads and a lot of scientists and doctors giving mainly anecdotal evidence – as I said there is little in the way of formal studies – about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating cancer, improving appetite and reducing pain. The science and logic are well supported even though some of the science (particularly when they talk about cannibinoids and chemistry) went sailing over my sadly non-scientific head but the filmmakers do make a very good case.

However, one can’t help but feel manipulated. Any good will that the movie generates for its cause disappears in light that the filmmakers use children exclusively to make their point. Adults need cannabis oil just as desperately as children do but sick kids make more of an emotional impact. It reeks of dirty pool and while I suppose that the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window when a family member is in a life or death fight, it still rubbed me the wrong way and felt a little exploitative to boot.

I also felt that the filmmakers were presenting cannabis as a cure that can’t fail, like penicillin was once. The fact is that cannabis is ineffective for some people (one of the children, as I stated, didn’t survive) and that may well be due to the lack of clinical studies – and I totally agree that such studies should be undertaken forthwith. Still, it seems a bit cruel to build up the hope for parents of sick kids or families of sick adults. Even Gordon, who approaches the subject with level-headed perspective born of an engineering background, cautions “I can’t promise anything,” as she sits down with those who are desperate for anything. The treatment is prohibitively expensive and isn’t covered by most insurance policies.

One physician early on cautions “The plural of anecdote is not ‘evidence’,” and the filmmakers seems to lose sight of that here. The stories are indeed compelling, the subject is indeed worth exploring, the advocates interviewed are indeed passionate and the children quietly courageous. All that is to the good. If Epstein had handled the subject with a little bit more of an even hand, I think her documentary would have been far more persuasive. I support the conclusions more in spite of the film than because of it – not what I’m sure any filmmaker wants to hear about their documentary

REASONS TO GO: It’s an important topic that needs to be addressed. The advocates are engaging and truly passionate. The children with cancer are resilient, courageous and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads and the science sometimes goes over mine. The filmmakers are a little too biased.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references although mostly in medical terms.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, it has only been illegal in this country for about 75 years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super High Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bodied

Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

decanted. a winemaker’s journey


The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

(2016) Documentary (Digital Cave) Steve Reynolds, Mike Martin, Julien Fayard, Anthony Bell, Heidi Barrett, Phillippe Melka, Arturo Irucuto, Aaron Pott, Michael Scholz, Andy Wilcox, Alex Mossman, Fred Schwartz. Directed by Nick Kovacic

First off, for the sake of complete honesty, I lived a good portion of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent many lovely days in the Napa Valley. A good friend of mine had a bed and breakfast there (the beautiful Country Garden Inn which she is sadly no longer connected with) and like many of those who live in the Valley, knew everyone (Napa is notorious for having a community in which everyone is at least on an acquaintance basis). I got to know several of the vineyards and even a few of the vintners (ah, V. Sattui, home of the amazing Gamay Rouge).

Wine has always been part of the civilized world. Something about a good glass of wine relaxes the soul and allows for contemplation. No other beverage on Earth is so analyzed, so beloved. Wine is the subject of rapturous prose and prosaic discussion. We can endlessly contemplate the difference between wines from one region with another, one varietal with another and never say all that there is to be said. Wine is a bit of madness mixed in with the civility.

When you think of American wine, you largely are thinking of California’s Napa Valley. Although it only produces about 3% of American wine, the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic soil produce some of the best wines on Earth. A whopping 95% of the wineries are family owned – only recently have beer brewers joined that party with the advent of craft beers. Napa/Sonoma has always been on the forefront of that.

But what makes a wine great? Now there’s a subject for discussion – everyone has different ideas about that. How a wine gets from grape to glass is another. This is ostensibly a look at that process as we watch the seasons change in Napa from harvest to harvest. While this film mainly centers on a start-up, Italics Winery started by Texan Mike Martin and managed by Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Family Winery, we also get commentary from Napa legend Helen Barrett who is an expert on blending wines that lead to bottles that retail for $1500 apiece to French immigrants Julien Fayard and Phillippe Melka as well as vintner Anthony Bell.

However the emphasis is on the charismatic Reynolds as he works to get Italics underway from the ground up. It’s not an easy venture and there are many parts and pieces that have to be in place; storage of the barrels has to be climate controlled and cool and there has to be enough of it to fit plenty of barrels but as they are digging a cave for barrel storage, the work is slow and not done by the time the grapes are harvested and pressed into what will eventually become wine.

We get a sense that the people portrayed here love what they do – there’s no doubting that. We also get a sense that the work is hard and unending. Sometimes we get a picture in our heads that Napa winemakers spend their days sipping chardonnays, eating amazing friends and having parties but the fact is that more time is spent in the fields, checking on the grapes to make sure that they are growing properly and not being affected by insects or disease, checking on the barrels to make sure the wine is fermenting properly and working in the labs to make sure that the blends are just right.

In fact, winemakers judging from the documentary spend a surprising amount of time in the laboratory and utilize a surprising amount of technology, examining their soil with infrared sensors, and utilizing various programs that help them determine which soil is best for which grape. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense; Napa Valley is close to another kind of valley – Silicon Valley. You would figure that some of the tech geniuses in that valley would turn their attention to Napa.

But much of the work is done by hand by humans and utilizing methods that go back hundreds of years, even thousands. There’s a continuity to winemaking that you don’t get in almost any other profession; even the blending is largely done by hand with a human being tasting various combinations until the right one is found. It is arduous work but at the end of the day, soul satisfying and you get that these winemakers get that satisfaction.

The big problem with the movie is that we only get a sense of things – the filmmakers tend to skip over a lot of detail (which I imagine they thought would be somewhat boring to the viewer) and we get mainly highlights. There are some truly beautiful images here – Matthew Riggieri and Nate Pesce are to be commended – but there is also a tendency to overuse fast-motion photography to denote the passage of time. Once or twice is fine but especially towards the end of the movie it becomes a bit tedious. In any case, I would rather the filmmakers given us a little more “nuts and bolts.” They certainly had plenty of time – the run time is only 82 minutes so there was certainly room to pad things a bit with more information. They had an opportunity to demystify and educate and chose not to take it. That’s a shame.

But the cinematography brought back many pleasant memories of lazy days hopping from winery to winery and I’ll admit that colors my perception here just a tad. There is a beauty in winemaking that for wine lovers – and I’ll admit I’m not so much a connoisseur so much as an admirer – is part of the overall enjoyment. I will say that wine is a highly social beverage; some of my best memories are friends and family, sipping glasses of wine around a table or a tasting room.

This likely won’t heighten your understanding of wine any, but it will give you more a sense of the pride and the joy of the people who make it. As such it fills a niche in wine documentaries that perhaps could use further exploration, but I was quite happy to enjoy what was delivered here. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a glass of Merlot with my name on it.

REASONS TO GO: The beautiful surroundings and the hard work involved are both well-captured. You get a sense that these people truly love what they do.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: SOMM
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Kill It

Poltergeist (1982)


You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

(1982) Supernatural Horror (MGM) Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Dirk Blocker, Allan Graf, Lou Perry, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Joseph R. Walsh, Noel Conlon, Helen Baron. Directed by Tobe Hooper

sixdays2016-6

Our home is our castle; it is our safe place, somewhere we escape to from the cares and troubles of the world. We are protected by our walls, our windows, our doors. Those we love the most are there with us. Our home is our security.

Steven Freeling (Nelson) has a suburban castle, brand spanking new in the center of a spiffy new development. He sells property in the neighborhood and is responsible for most of his neighbors having the lovely new homes they all have. His family includes wife Diane (Williams), son Robbie (Robins), daughter Carol Anne (O’Rourke) and teen Dana (Dunne) from his first marriage. Life is sunny and perfect.

Then odd things start to happen. Chairs are found stacked by themselves. Carol Anne hears strange voices coming from the TV set. Toys begin to move from themselves. They see strange lights and hear strange noises. Unable to account for any of these phenomena, they consult Dr. Lesh (Straight), a renowned parapsychologist and she concludes that their home may be haunted by a poltergeist. When tests confirm a malevolent presence (to put it mildly), things begin to go from bad to worse – and even worse still, Carol Anne disappears.

Desperate, they bring in Tangina Barrons (Rubenstein), a powerful psychic and medium, to help them get their daughter back. She detects a horrifying presence, something malevolent and deceitful who is using Carol Anne to control all the other spirits locally. Getting Carol Anne back however won’t be the end of the affair.

This was a collaboration between Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Steven Spielberg and two more diverse styles I don’t think you could find. There has been a great deal of controversy over the years regarding Spielberg’s role in the movie. He is listed as a co-writer and producer but many have said that he did many things a director might do and that he was on set all but three days of the shooting schedule. Certainly there are many of Spielberg’s touches here; the quiet suburban setting, the family in crisis pulling together, the escalating supernatural crisis. However, even today it remains unclear just how much creative contribution Spielberg made to the film. Keep in mind he was filming E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as filming was wrapping on Poltergeist. Some of the scenes though are very definitely NOT Spielberg-like.

Nelson used his performance here as a springboard to a pretty satisfying career that has shown a great deal of range, from his sitcom work in Parenthood to dramatic roles in movies like The Company Men. His solid performance as the dad here – a dad who is not the perfect sitcom dad but for all his faults and blemishes still cares deeply about his family and would put himself in harm’s way for them – changed the way dads were portrayed in the movies. Nelson also gets to utter one of my all-time favorite lines in the movies: “He won’t take go to hell for an answer (so) I’m gonna give him directions.”

Rubenstein also made a memorable appearance and while her career was cut short by her untimely death six years ago, she will always be remembered for her absolutely mesmerizing performance here. There’s no doubt who steals the show here and even while O’Rourke was incredibly cute, she didn’t stand a chance against the hurricane force of Rubenstein’s personality.

The movie set horror tropes on their ears. Rather than the haunted house being a spooky old mansion, it was a suburban split level of the type that many people who flocked to see the film back in 1982 lived in. That brought the horror home for many; they could see spider demons in front of their master bedroom; skeletons emerging from their swimming pool and their dining room chairs stacked on their dining room table. It could happen to anyone and that’s what makes it truly terrifying.

The effects here are not groundbreaking and most of the time practical effects were used, sometimes in some quite clever ways. There really aren’t a ton of special effects here in any case; it is the unknown that scares us most and Hooper/Spielberg wisely left the best scares to our imaginations.

There’s nothing scarier than death and this is all about what happens to us after we die. Sure, atheists probably think all this is nonsense but no more so than a bratty teenage boy on some backwater desert planet being the savior of the universe. It’s all a matter of how you look at things. Hardly anybody wants to die, but nobody wants their afterlife to be worse than their life. Poltergeist taps into that fear, the fear of death and brings it right into our living rooms. What could be scarier than that?

WHY RENT THIS: It’s one of the scariest movies ever made. Relocating a haunted house flick to a suburban environment had never been done before. Nelson and Rubenstein give career-making performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people have issues with kids in peril.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images and scenes of terror. There’s also a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zelda Rubenstein was a medium and a psychic in real life before becoming an actress.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 25th anniversary DVD edition has a 2-part documentary on poltergeists. The Blu-Ray includes that and a digibook that includes essays, trivia, production notes, photos and cast and crew bios.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $121.7M on a $10.7M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Dressmaker

Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

Swiss Army Man


Just another day at the beach.

Just another day at the beach.

(2016) Fantasy (A24) Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Caruth. Directed by Daniels

 

Look, some movies simply aren’t meant for everybody. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in an era where Hollywood is constantly trying to create franchise films that are all things to all people, it’s refreshing once in awhile to happen upon a movie that is meant to appeal only to a narrow few and if you’re one of that narrow few, it’s like getting a private message from someone who shares your own particular interests.

On a deserted tropical island, a bearded and bedraggled Hank (Dano) is standing on a cooler with a noose around his neck, ready to step off and have an end to everything. How he got to this island is unimportant; the salient fact is that he’s totally alone – and sharp-eyed viewers will recognize that as a metaphor that drives the film.

However, his loneliness ends with the site of a man washed ashore on the beach. Forgetting his precarious position, Hank steps off…and fortunately for him, the rope snaps, allowing him to rescue the man…who is sadly, quite dead. The corpse, whom Hank names Manny (Radcliffe), is full of the gasses of decomposition and farts constantly. If you are the sort who is offended by flatulence, read no further and skip this movie altogether. You will not find a movie anywhere ever that revels in the act of breaking wind as this one does.

It turns out that Manny’s gasses can be used in a variety of ways, including as a propulsion system turning Manny into a kind of stinky Jet Ski that transports Hank from the desert island to a location of forest and ocean. The prospects are much better for survival here, and Hank builds…well, a recreation of his life for Manny because Manny is able to talk to Hank. Hank gives Manny tips on how to pick up girls and other assorted facts of life. As he does, we begin to learn that Hank is a deeply wounded and possibly deeply disturbed young man and that not everything he says can be trusted.

Which, once again, is a metaphor for this film. Not everything that the filmmakers show you can be trusted and as the story unfolds, our point of view is changed somewhat – more than somewhat, in fact. It is a bit of a carnie trick, a game of Three Card Monty that the filmmakers – a pair of young auteurs who got their start in the music video game and who are known collectively as Daniels – play on their audience. Some are going to feel a bit cheated and others will be delighted, as is usually the case in cinematic con games.

The movie is largely Radcliffe and Dano, with Winstead showing up mainly in the last reel as the object of obsession for both of the main characters, the living one and the farting corpse. There are other characters here as well but again, they show up late and have little impact on the story except to help bring it to an unexpected although not unsurprising conclusion given on what we witnessed in the rest of the movie. Dano has become known for parts like this and he performs it with gusto; this well may become one of his signature roles. Radcliffe continues to take chances while distancing himself from a certain boy wizard, and we are rewarded by a character who is sweet and funny and charming. I don’t know that Radcliffe will necessarily want to be remembered for being a flatulent cadaver but he seems to have promoted the role with a good sense of humor and a ton of enthusiasm.

There are some scenes that are heart-achingly beautiful here, as well as others that are downright crude. It is a literal mix of the profane and the sublime. I will say that this may well be the most imaginative movie of the year; certainly you won’t be seeing anything like it in the multiplex or at your local film festival. You may find yourself smirking at fart jokes, that lowest common denominator of all humor, but you will also find yourself thinking about the human condition. If the movie has a flaw, it is that the filmmakers seem to be completely aware that they have a high cinematic IQ and at times the movie feels a little condescending, a little hipper-than-thou.

Mostly though, this is an artistic endeavor that tickles the funny bone as well as the brain stem. I can’t say that every reader is going to fall for this the way I did. For that reason, I’ve given the movie a lower rating than it deserves; I can’t in good conscience say “everybody should go see this.” Everybody should not go see this. If your tastes run towards the adventurous, if you’re not easily offended by the scatological and if you are willing to allow yourself be taken in by the wonder, this is the movie for you.

REASONS TO GO: An imaginative exercise different than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s genuinely funny at times. This is truly movie magic on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: This is most definitely an acquired taste. It may be a little bit too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the songs in the movie are sung a cappella, mainly by Andy Hull of the Manchester Orchestra (who also cameos as a cameraman near the end of the movie) and Robert Powell.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Fundamentals of Caring