Uncle John


Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

(2015) Suspense/Romance (Self-Released) John Ashton, Alex Moffatt, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Don Forston, Laurent Soucie, Gary Houston, Tim Decker, Mark Piebenga, Janet Glimme, Michael Sassone, Matt Kozlowski, Eli Rix, Carol Sekorky, Charles Stransky, Andy Cameron, Ian Pfaff (voice), Donna Steele, Tammy Newsome, Adria Dawn, Ashleigh LaThrop. Directed by Steven Piet

Florida Film Festival 2015

Most of us have some sort of secret or another; few people are completely transparent. Maybe it’s a secret crush we harbor for someone we work with or maybe it’s a dark deed done in the heat of passion. Maybe it’s just how we feel about the man who raised us.

John (Ashton) is an aging man who lives on a Wisconsin farm he inherited from his dad but is no longer a working farm. He has managed to keep the land but has turned his skills to carpentry, where he installs and repairs cabinets or builds furniture in the small town near his farm. Generally his social life involves hanging out in a diner with his friends, men he’s known and hung out with likely since childhood. They’re all old men now, chattering about gossip like you’d expect from old women. The main source of gossip is the disappearance of Dutch (Soucie), a former roustabout who had found Jesus and was trying to make amends to everyone he’d wronged which was a fairly sizable list.

Ben (Moffatt) is a young man working for a digital animation studio in Chicago that handles a lot of advertising accounts. He works long hours and doesn’t have much time for a social life. His latest project has a new producer, Kate (Lyng) who is a very attractive young woman. Ben is instantly attracted, and it soon becomes clear that the feelings are mutual but both are aware that office romances can be career killing things, so they keep things cordial but the fire is clearly smoldering. The two are forced to spend a lot of hours working together and naturally begin hanging out after work, a post-work cocktail here, a late dinner of Thai food there. Even though Kate is trying to get Ben laid with hook-ups at their local bar, Ben bicycles home late at night with Kate on his mind.

When the client for the project that Ben and Kate are working for demand some late changes, a weekend work session begins to take its toll. Ben suggests some pastries at the best bakery he knows – in the small Wisconsin town he grew up in. Kate is all in and they take a road trip to visit Ben’s Uncle John, the man who raised him after his parents passed away.

In the meantime Dutch’s brother Danny (Blevins) is certain that his brother is dead despite the fact that no corpse has been found. He is also certain that his brother has been murdered, even though signs point to a fishing accident. His suspicions land on John, whose behavior arouses Danny’s instincts and while the genial John denies it, Danny is certain he knows a lot more about the situation than John is letting on. With Ben and Kate arriving for a visit, both stories begin to swirl towards the inevitable; will Kate and Ben give in to their feelings for each other and will Danny confront John with the violence that is clearly bubbling beneath his surface?

Piet is attempting the rather ambitious task of filming two different stories in two disparate genres and then entwining them together in a single movie. The effect is not unlike switching channels on broadcast television between two different movies whenever a commercial interruption occurs. It’s an intriguing notion on paper.

For the most part, Piet does achieve what he seems to be aiming for – the two stories make their way through the course he lays out for them. It’s like they’re both swirling down a drain as they reach a denouement, moving faster and faster towards their conclusions before joining and merging at the bottom of the drain. Some of the best moments in the movie occur when all four of the main characters are together.

Oddly, Piet then chooses to separate the stories again with Ben and Kate in the house and John and Danny out in John’s workshop across the yard in a converted barn. The sex/death metaphor is a bit hoary for the most part but effective as the two stories reach their conclusions and the questions outlined earlier are answered. We end up very much full circle in a lot of ways.

Ashton, who most know as the by-the-book Sgt. Taggert in Beverly Hills Cop, does some of the best work of his long career here. John is a pillar of the community sort who seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s a widower and lives alone, even though there’s at least one woman in the community who wouldn’t mind a little canoodling with him. However, his affection for his nephew seems very genuine and the chemistry between Ashton and Moffatt is really the adhesive that binds the film together.

How well the movie works for you is going to depend first of all on how patient you are as the two stories move closer and closer together. As I sat through the film, I found myself wondering if there was going to be some sort of destination but the swirling around the drain metaphor is apt; the further into the movie we go, the faster the two stories seem to get towards merging into a single story. The two stories are pretty compelling with a slight edge towards the suspense story of John and Danny – there are too many awkward courtship moments in the Ben-Kate romance for my liking. Still, if you stick with it, the reward here is worth the effort. I admire the audacity of the filmmakers to purposely make two stories that seem as different as can be and then attempt to join them seamlessly together; it’s not 100% successful in that venture but it is close enough to it that I think this is worth keeping an eye out for on your local film festival circuit. Hopefully the movie will get some distribution and also bring back Ashton’s career as he has been absent from the screen for far too long.

REASONS TO GO: Ballsy move, incorporating two disparate stories. Ashton delivers a fine performance and has good chemistry with Moffatt.
REASONS TO STAY: Two stories merge and yet stay separate. Takes maybe too long in delivering payoff.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moffatt is a past member of Chicago’s esteemed Second City troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rope
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Greenberg


Greenberg

Greta Gerwig is surprised that Ben Stiller knows his way to the kitchen.

(2010) Dramedy (Focus) Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Susan Traylor, Merritt Wever, Blair Tefkin, Mina Badie, Mark Duplass, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Max Hoffman. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There are those among us who are just harder to get along with than others. They, for whatever reason, seem bound and determined to alienate everyone around them, pushing them away with the firm hand of someone who has no intention of letting anyone near, but terrified that they will spend their lives alone.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is like that. After a stint in a mental hospital, he has returned to his old L.A. stomping grounds (he used to be in a band) to housesit for his successful older brother (Messina) who is opening a new hotel in Vietnam.

His job is to care for the dog and the home while the family is gone. His brother’s assistant Florence (Gerwig) is left to hold the bag and inevitably become Greenberg’s assistant, not by choice but by necessity. Greenberg is prickly and socially awkward. He lashes out the people around him, writing letters to express his deep disappointment to various institutions and corporations. He holds people to standards he himself refuses to meet.

He hooks up with old friend Ivan (Ifans), a former member of his band and has trouble understanding why Ivan and the other bandmates were hurt by his actions, abandoning them just as it seemed they were about to achieve success, moving to New York City to become a carpenter. In the meantime, he is building a doghouse for his brother and entering a tentative, somewhat strange relationship with Florence. It is borderline abusive – Greenberg is often cruel in his remarks, sometimes purposefully so. He does things often without thinking. In short, he’s not a very nice guy. He himself doesn’t realize it – in many ways, he is the least self-aware character you will find in the movies.

Baumbach is one of the most interesting indie directors out there, with such movies as The Squid and the Whale in his credits. He has a flair for taking an unlikable character, as Greenberg is, and making them front and center and without resorting to cutesy Hollywood clichés gives the audience a way to if not relate to them at least understand them somewhat.

Stiller does perhaps the best work of his career as Roger Greenberg. Stiller’s work in comedies often puts him in the persona of a poor man’s Seinfeld – handsome, charming and quirky – but here he really comes into his own. A role like this is a bit of a chance – stars often feel the need to protect their persona as zealously as they trademark their images – but this certainly is a far cry from Stiller’s usual roles.

Gerwig has gotten a lot of positive reviews for her performance and that’s no accident; she has a very different role to tread, portraying a vulnerable and sweet girl without getting too cloying. Florence is one of those kinds of girls who you run into in bookstores from time to time, who flash that sweet but self-conscious smile for a millisecond that lights up an entire room like a flashbulb, then reverts to that mysterious half-smile that girls seem to learn from birth to bewitch guys. Her character has a shy, un-self-confident air about her and its rather sweet, but again, not cloyingly so.

Ifans is also charming, playing a bit of a sad sack, long-suffering friend who puts up with the slings and arrows Greenberg sends his way until he finally can take no more. He has a scene near the end where he has it out with Greenberg that is one of the movie’s highlights. It’s a tribute to him as an actor that you rarely notice how good he is in his role, until you think about it afterwards and realize that he was as good if not better than anyone else in it.

This is the kind of movie that defies conventions and typical Hollywood stereotypes. It’s not an easy move to watch at times – Greenberg can be an absolute rotten bastard. However, it is rewarding in that you find perhaps parts of yourself that up to now have not held up to self-examination. There’s a little bit of Greenberg in all of us; just hopefully, not a lot of him.

WHY RENT THIS: Exceedingly well-acted character study that is as fascinating as it is at times repellent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Roger Greenberg isn’t the most likable protagonist ever; you may find yourself rooting for him to get his just deserts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was composed and arranged by James Murphy of the electronic band LCD Soundsystem.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last King of Scotland