Small Town Murder Songs


Peter Stormare considers a rare non-villain role.

Peter Stormare considers a rare non-villain role.

(2011) Crime Thriller (Monterey Media) Peter Stormare, Jill Hennessy, Amy Rutherford, Martha Plimpton, Eric McIntyre, Vladamir Bondarenko, Aaron Poole, Ari Cohen, Trent McMullen, Erin Brandenburg, Kat Germain, Jessica Clement, Andrew Penner, Alan Penner, John Penner, Herm Dick, Alexandria Benoit, Mark Snowdon, Timm Zemanek, Jackie Burroughs. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly

Who we are now is as much a product of who we used to be as it is the events that shape us. Growth is a linear progression although it might not always seem that way to the casual observer. There’s always a point B and there’s always a point A.

Walter (Stormare) is a sheriff’s deputy in a small Ontario town in Mennonite country. He is not well-liked in the community. Not long ago, he had a violent encounter with Steve (McIntyre) who his ex-girlfriend Rita (Hennessy) was now canoodling with. That was years ago though but nobody in town has forgotten or forgiven, although Sam (Plimpton) seems okay with it, in as much as she’s his girlfriend and everything.

It’s a pretty quiet town anyway, until a body is discovered, that of a stripper from the city. Steve becomes the prime suspect and Rita, who it is discovered placed the original emergency call, is hiding something. This is a case that is very, very personal for Walter and nobody trusts him one way or the other. Whatever happens, he’s pretty much screwed.

This Canadian movie might have been a gem – there’s a very Gothic feel to the action and the puzzle of the mystery has some real oomph to it. Walter is an engaging lead which is a big change of pace for Stormare who is best known for playing the bad guys, the heavier the better. Stormare gives Walter a patina of sadness, as if he had lived his life in a perpetual state of disappointment. It’s a fine performance and makes me wonder why he doesn’t get more leading roles like this but of course the answer is he’s so damn good at playing villains.

The cast behind him has some fairly capable performers in it but Plimpton stands out. Many will remember her from 80s movies like The Mosquito Coast and The Goonies but few will remember that she was an exceptional actress for her age and her portrayal of the bubbly, loquacious Sam is a reminder of how charming she can be.

Gass-Donnelly has a good pedigree but he shows a little bit of immaturity with his somewhat distracting overuse of slow motion. It seems that regularly someone is doing the slow walk through the lovely scenery of the bucolic small towns in Ontario where the movie was filmed. It happens often enough to be annoying the further you go through the movie. Also, some of the character motivations seem to defy rationality. We get that Walter has a short fuse but why he snaps into violence with him – particularly as they’ve established him as a good, decent soul – doesn’t really jive with the character.

Faith also plays a big role in the movie. Walter after his issues with Steve and Rita finds Christianity and gets baptized (which happens on-camera). Sam is a pretty religious sort and of course they are in a Mennonite community so their faith is definitely part of the overall background of the film. Those who are uncomfortable with such things should be warned.

This has some very nice Gothic overtones and while some of the movie’s deficiencies are a little too much to overlook, Gass-Donnelly is definitely a talent to keep an eye on as one of a group of strong Canadian directors with an interesting point of view. I look forward to seeing where he goes from here well, actually he went to The Last Exorcist 2 but that’s beside the point.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine Gothic feel. Compelling story. Stormare does some fine work in a rare good-guy turn.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to be missing some pieces. Overuse of slow-mo.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence present, as well as some graphic images, sexuality and nudity, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film for the veteran actress Jackie Burroughs.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD when inserted into your computer will allow you to download one of the songs from the soundtrack.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31,133 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witness
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Big Hero 6

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What If (2014)


Indie cute OD.

Indie cute OD.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Lucius Hoyos, Jemima Rooper, Tommie-Amber Pirie, Meghan Heffern, Jonathan Cherry, Rebecca Northan, Jordan Hayes, Oona Chaplin, Adam Fergus, Sam Moses, Ennis Esmer, Mike Wilmot, George Tchortov, Tamara Duarte, Vanessa Matsui. Directed by Michael Dowse

Finding The One is a matter not only of chemistry but of timing. Both of you have to be in the right place to be able to accept someone into that kind of intimacy. Both of you have to be available. It would help a lot if you’re both as attractive, cool and hip as Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Wallace (Radcliffe) is a medical school dropout who has had his heart broken one too many times. He lives in his sister’s (Rooper) attic as a kind of live-in babysitter to her son (Hoyos) and spends a lot of time sitting on the roof of his sister’s house gazing soulfully at the Toronto skyline.

His cynical friend Allan (Driver) gets him to go to a party where he meets Chantry (Kazan). The two hit it off right away and spend much of the evening talking. To Wallace’s surprise (and perhaps disgust) Allan has hooked up with Nicole (Davis) and those two are going at it like sailors on a 24 hour pass in a brothel. Not much chance of that happening with Wallace and Chantry though – she has a boyfriend named Ben (Spall) who is a pretty decent fellow who works for the U.N. Kind of a rough challenge for an unemployed medical school dropout to take on, y’know.

 

Nonetheless Wallace and Chantry become the best of friends and when Ben’s work takes him to Dublin for six months, the opportunity is there although Wallace – something of a wimp – shies away from it even though it is clear to everyone who knows him that he’s hopelessly smitten by the comely young Chantry. And for her part, Chantry’s friends suspect she likes Wallace a lot more than she’s letting on, although she lets her somewhat slutty sister Dalia (Park) take a crack at Wallace which ends up pretty disastrously. However as Chantry begins to question her relationship with Ben and a major opportunity knocks for her which might send her halfway around the world. Wallace has the choice of doing the right thing, or…but what is the right thing in this situation, anyway?

This Canadian-made rom com based on a stage play has the advantage of having some attractive leads but the disadvantage of fairly bland personalities for the both of them. Sure, Chantry is an animator whose scribblings occasionally come to life but this contributes to a cuter-than-thou vibe that over-sweetens this concoction like someone dumping a whole jar of refined sugar into a glass of tea. The animations really add nothing to the movie other than to be a distraction reflecting Chantry’s occasional melancholy. Sure Wallace comes off as cooler than the average bear but with a sweet sensitive side that is apt to get all the indie gals in their vintage dresses and fuchsia hair misty-eyed.

Radcliffe, now a grown-up after we watched him grow up in the Harry Potter movies, is an engaging romantic lead, not conventionally handsome like a Hugh Grant but having the same tripping-over-his-own-feet awkwardness that Grant made into a trademark in the 90s. His character here has little in the way of backbone and tries so hard to do the right thing that he ends up making everybody around him miserable. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing.

Like a few other critics, I found the relationship between Allan and Nicole far more interesting and would have appreciated much more insight into their relationship, even though they do pull a few dick moves during the movie. Their characters seemed more realistic and more alive than the sometimes walking cliches that are Wallace and Chantry.

That’s not to say that the relationship between the two leads doesn’t have its moments. There’s the slapstick sequence that sends Ben out of a window during a disastrous dinner party but sadly there isn’t enough of that. When late in the movie the two of them “break up” as friends due to an issue that could have been resolved simply with a phone call and seems blown way out of proportion in order to manufacture conflict, I could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head. This is one of the most egregious of rom-com cliches of the 21st century.

This is basically a movie that has a lot of potential but tries too hard to be charming in a Bohemian way, sort of like Toronto doing the East Village and realizing far too late that they’re far too polite and less pretentious to make that work effectively. I liked Radcliffe and Driver, with a hint of Davis and Spall but after that there is much less to love.

REASONS TO GO: Daniel Radcliffe is awfully engaging.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too cute. A surfeit of indie rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sexual references including some brief partial nudity and not an inconsequential amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Casey Affleck and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were originally cast as the leads but the producers decided they wanted to go with younger actors instead which is ironic since Zoe Kazan is in fact older than Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Harry Met Sally

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Bellflower

Gabrielle


The essence of joie de vivre.

The essence of joie de vivre.

(2013) Romance (eOne) Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Vincent-Guillaume Otis, Benoit Gouin, Sebastien Ricard, Marie Gignac, Isabelle Vincent, Robert Charlebois, Veronique Beaudet, Bruce Dinsmore, Gregory Charles, Maxime Allard, Marc Primeau. Directed by Louise Archambault

Woman Power

Florida Film Festival 2014

Navigating through entering adulthood and independence isn’t easy, particularly when you have a number of complicated relationships. If you’re developmentally challenged, it is so much more challenging.

Gabrielle (Marion-Rivard) has Williams syndrome, a rare condition that creates learning difficulties but also an unusually cheerful demeanor and strong social and language skills (Marion-Rivard has the condition in real life). She lives in a group home in Montreal, supported by her sister Sophie (Desormeaux-Poulin) who takes her out shopping and for the occasional mani-pedi. Her mother (Vincent) has a very distant relationship with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle, as is not unusual for someone with her condition, smiles all the time but she has two particular reasons to smile. The first is her participation in the Muses, a chorale of developmentally challenged adults that has actually become good enough to appear in concert with the legendary French-Canadian pop star Robert Charlebois (playing himself). She is a talented singer in her own right and is often tasked with performing solo parts for the chorale. The second, and most important reason for her smile is Martin (Landry), her boyfriend who lives in the same group home and also sings with the chorus.

Gabrielle and Martin have begun to get sexually curious and when they are found half-clothed in Martin’s room, Martin’s over-protective mother (Gignac) yanks him from the home and forbids any contact with Gabrielle. Despite her Williams-derived cheerfulness, Gabrielle is devastated. She isn’t aware that she did anything wrong and all she knows is there’s an ache in her heart that only Martin can fill. She becomes a little testier than usual, insisting that she can be independent and live on her own in an apartment. When she tries to take the bus to go see Martin, she gets lost and confused, further frustrating her. To make matters worse, Sophie is getting ready to move overseas to be with her own boyfriend in Africa where she’ll teach, a dream of hers.

Archambault, to her credit, doesn’t sugarcoat the issues in the movie. On the surface, the issues here facing Gabrielle are pretty much the same as have appeared in dozens of movies but given the circumstances, things are a little more tricky. We get to see the challenges people like Gabrielle and those of other developmental disabilities face every day. We get to see them as human beings.

Marion-Rivard is so personable and likable it’s hard not to get behind Gabrielle. It’s also hard to tell where the actress leaves off and the character begins, given the Williams syndrome. Her elfin features (another byproduct of Williams) are adorable and her smile is genuine, coming straight from the heart directly to the lips. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a girl like that?

A lot of time is spent in the rehearsals and performances of the chorale (with Charlebois contributing his distinctive voice in the final third of the film). It illustrates the true healing power of music; no matter how down Gabrielle is about her situation, singing and participating in making music always brings her back up which is true for a lot of us. Incidentally, while the pop music of Charlebois is less well known in the States, I defy anyone to walk away from this movie without the final song performed at the concert, “Lindberg” with its distinctive chorus of airlines being ticked off followed by hand claps, stuck firmly in their heads.

While there are some professional actors in the production, a lot of the roles are filled with actors with developmental challenges and non-actors alike. That gives the movie a raw, unrefined feeling that is a refreshing contrast to the usual Hollywood gloss – when you think about it, life is raw and unrefined too. It’s those like Gabrielle – who carry a surfeit of innocence and cheer – that counterbalance the harshness and drama that most of the rest of us contribute to global karma.

REASONS TO GO: Doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. Marion-Rivard very personable.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally steers towards the sentimental.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality portrayed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Canada’s official submission to the Academy for the 2013 Foreign Language Film Oscar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Short Term 12

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Woman Power continues!

Copenhagen (2014)


Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

(2014) Drama (Scorched Films) Gethin Anthony, Frederikke Dahl Hansen, Sebastian Armesto, Julie Christiansen, Olivia Grant, Mille Dinesen, Martin Hestbaek, Silja Eriksen Jensen, Gordon Kennedy, Helene Kuhn, Tamzin Merchant, Baard Owe, Asbjorn Krogh Nissen, Preven Ravn, Zaki Nobel Mehabil, Sebastian Bull Sarning, Miriam Yeager. Directed by Mark Raso

Florida Film Festival 2014

Travel allows us to see new places and gain new perspectives. It also allows us to completely be ourselves – or completely reinvent ourselves. Then again, what we do depends on what we’re travelling for.

William (Anthony) is a thoroughly unpleasant sort. 28 years old, he is only interested in getting laid, getting drunk and doing what he wants when he wants. He respects nobody and likes nobody except for maybe his friend Jeremy (Armesto) whom he’s travelling with, along with Jeremy’s girlfriend Jennifer (Grant) whom William thoroughly dislikes and quite frankly, doesn’t want her around on this trip that was just supposed to be him and Jeremy.

They’re in Copenhagen and it’s not by accident nor is it for the tourist attractions. William needs to find his grandfather to give him a letter that his late father wrote and asked William to give to him if he ever made it out there. Finding granddad will be a problem, especially when Jennifer, tired of the abuse, finally bails and takes Jeremy with her, much to William’s disgust.

Fortunately, an employee at the hotel – Effy (Hansen) – is willing to help and even though William is rude to her initially, he realizes that he needs her to translate (he doesn’t speak a word of Danish) and help him navigate the city to find his grandfather.

But all work makes William a dull boy and Effy takes him out on a number of adventures in Denmark. William is beginning to fall for the free-spirited girl and Effy clearly feels a strong attraction towards him. The brakes are put on though when William discovers that she’s just 14 years old. A mature 14 but 14 nonetheless. That’s a no-no even in Europe.

This is Canadian-born Mark Raso’s first feature and he shows a good deal of promise. This was one of those rare films that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. That’s a by-product of really good writing (also Raso) as well as confident directing. Yeah, there are parts of this that are really dark but there are some really funny moments as well.

Raso filmed this in Copenhagen with a mostly Danish crew and he does a great job of really giving us a sense of the city, not just of the tourist areas although there’s a really lovely scene filmed late at night at the iconic Little Mermaid statue in the harbor. We get a sense of the daily life of the people who live there and a sense of their values, their lifestyles and their sense of humor. I’m not sure if Raso spent much time in Copenhagen but clearly what time he did spend there he used wisely; he’s clearly a keen observer. His cinematographer, Alan Poon, clearly is as well – we get some really gorgeous and unique views of the city and environs.

Hansen is a real find. Although playing a 14-year-old, she was 19 years old at the time of filming and she captures the mindset of a 14-year-old girl nicely, albeit one wise and mature beyond her years. As the film goes on, we discover that Effy has some issues as well and we get to see the layers of her personality gradually revealed. While some of that is clever direction on Raso’s part, it is mostly just Hansen doing a bang-up job.

Anthony has a more thankless role with William, a guy that you’ll be convinced after ten minutes that this is a guy who must get punched in the face regularly. Even though he’s pretty good looking, it’s impossible to imagine that he could get laid regularly, as portrayed here. I can’t imagine that a woman would want to spend long enough with him to get her clothes off, but that’s just my take. Women do make some strange choices in bed partners sometimes and William can be charming when he needs to be, but that charm rarely lasts long. It’s to Anthony’s credit that he never tries to make William sympathetic; even when he’s starting to soften up and let Effy in, William is still a massive prick.

What makes this movie even more memorable is the dynamic between Effy and William. Quite frankly, some are going to be uncomfortable with it and even I have to admit to a couple of moments of squirming in my seat but all in all it is handled quite well and with a great deal of sensitivity. That doesn’t mean we don’t soon realize that these are two people who are really good for each other. Both of them have dysfunctional families bordering on the psychotic in places, although William does take home the prize in that department.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Raso views the city with a great deal of affection and we do at the same time get an insider’s perspective as well as an outsider’s. That’s unique and invaluable and I wound up leaving the film feeling I knew the city of Copenhagen just a little bit better, but this is no travelogue. The real reason for seeing this movie is for the compelling relationship between Effy and William and the dynamic performances of the actors who play them.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps the viewer guessing. Fine performance by Hansen who has some serious star quality.

REASONS TO STAY: Relationship between Effy and William may make some uncomfortable. William can be a truly unpleasant jerk to spend time with.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult situations, some sensuality, drinking and smoking, plenty of foul language and a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anthony is best-known for his role as Renly Baratheon in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Midnight in Paris

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Woman Power commences!

Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’

The Final Member


It's grand to be a man!

It’s grand to be a man!

(2014) Documentary (Drafthouse) Sigurour Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell, Pall Arason, Peter Halldoresson, Reynir Hjartarson, Petur Petursson, Hannes Blondal, Terry Gunnel, Ari Karlsson, Marci Bowers, Douglas Mason, Siri Hastings, Shahar Tsabari, Lilja Siguroardottir, Jona Siguroardottir, Hjotur Sigurosson, Thorgerdur Siguroardottir. Directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math

Florida Film Festival-2014

Sometimes the subject of a documentary can lend itself to a certain type of humor, which as a reviewer you want to resist. The documentarian after all deserves a sober and dignified review of his or her hard work. Then again, it can be hard not to be cocksure and by extension, possessed of a stiff adherence to a set of hard and fast rules entered into by the reviewer without understanding what they’re getting into.

But this film with the Icelandic Phallological Museum at its center is like that. The Museum is essentially a collection of penises from every species of mammal save one – homo sapiens. Sigurour Hjartarson, better known as “Siggi,”  is the curator.

This unusual collection began as a joke when a friend gave Siggi a bull penis because as a boy, Siggi had owned a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis. Other members followed from different mammals which he stored in his office at the college where he taught history and Spanish. After he retired and moved the collection home, he began to add more and more specimens to his collection. Eventually his wife Jona encouraged him to house the collection in a museum. At first the museum was a bit of a curiosity, located in Reykjavik, but when Siggi couldn’t afford the rent he moved it to a former restaurant in the tiny Northern Icelandic town of Husavik. The villagers initially viewed the new attraction with some suspicion but once they realized that the museum contained nothing pornographic they accepted it.

From there it went from oddity to genuine tourist attraction. Thousands of people flocked to the quirky museum from all over the world, 60% of them women. Still, the museum lacked the crowning specimen from the top of the mammalian food chain. Siggi was in despair; no longer a young man, he had very real concerns about the future of the museum without him. He had his cousin Petur, a doctor, start to quiz patients to see if they would be willing to donate the organ when they were dead.

The trouble was that Iceland is essentially a very small island in terms of population and not everybody wanted to have their most private part on public display for eternity, even after they were dead. However, two people heard about Siggi’s plight and decided to help.

The first was Pall Arason, who already was famous around Iceland. A nonagenarian, in his youth he had been an adventurer and explorer of the highlands of Iceland. He was also a notorious womanizer and decided that such a well-used member should get its due.

The other applicant was a different case entirely. His name is Tom Mitchell and he marches to his own drummer as well. A divorcee living in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, Tom refers to his penis as “Elmo” (so-named as a young man by one of his girlfriends) and is determined that it become the most famous penis in the world. He has tattooed his penis with the stars and stripes so that museum visitors will know that they are looking at an all-American penis and let’s face it; what could be more American than a schlong?

As Tom got more into the idea, he e-mailed Siggi regularly with ideas and suggestions as to how his penis should be displayed. He also sent dick pics of his penis dressed up in costume (I couldn’t make this stuff up). He also decided that in order to be first, he would have it removed while he was still alive.

For a first feature (which this is) this is an amazing documentary. I was not aware that there was a museum of this sort anywhere in the world and when I first found out about the movie, I was sure that I could have gone the rest of my life without having that knowledge.

I was wrong. The filmmakers (and Siggi himself) point out that the penis for whatever reason has become a taboo subject, not just here but essentially everywhere. We can talk about any other body part without blushing more or less but bring up the penis and people start to blush and stammer, yet it is a part of our bodies (for males anyway) just as our heart, our eyes and our hair is. That it happens to be the part of our body which not only urinates but also creates life is simply part of its function, like the lungs oxygenate our blood or our stomachs digest food.

Mitchell doesn’t come out looking too favorable for much of the film, although at the very end we begin to see him as less of an oddball and more of a human being whose motivations for the way he acts and the things he does becomes more clear. I can see how some might view him as an object of ridicule but to be honest I found him to be the most fascinating character in the documentary. To those disposed towards judging him (or anyone else in any documentary for that matter), keep in mind that we are spending (when you tally up all the screen time) less than an hour with these people in order to get a glimpse of a certain facet of their lives. That really isn’t enough time to make any sort of comprehensive opinion on who they are as people.

That said, I found this movie to be something of a celebration of things that are outside our comfort zone. I tend to agree with Siggi that we should be able to talk about the penis without resorting to dick jokes (although a few inevitably show up, not always intentionally) and we should be able to view people who are fascinated with them as something other than perverts.

This is one of the most entertaining documents you’re liable to see this year. I have to admit that I had some trepidation towards seeing this initially – what red-blooded guy will admit to being fascinated by a movie about…well, dicks – but once I sat down and actually saw it I realized this was one of the best documentaries of the year. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: Uproariously funny. Celebrates the unusual.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find having so many dicks onscreen a little bit uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: Obviously the subject matter is not for kids. Also there is some male frontal nudity and some mild foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to the two donors in the film, an Englishman and a German both also pledged to donate their members to the museum.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magical Universe

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Devil’s Knot

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road