Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

Miss You Already


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper, Paddy Considine, Jacqueline Bisset, Tyson Ritter, Mem Ferda, Noah Huntley, Janice Acquah, Charlotte Ubben, Shola Adewusi, Honor Kneafsey, Anjli Mohindra, Ryan Lennon Baker, Joanna Bobin, Eileen Davies, Sophie Holland, Charlotte Hope, Frances de la Tour, Lucy Morton. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Often Hollywood puts out buddy flicks to explore the relationship between two people. More often than not it is of a pair of male friends, generally in stressful situations. Women tend to be more in romantic situations when filmmakers capture their friendships with other women.

Lily (Collette) and Jess (Barrymore) have been friends for, well, like, forever. Jess, an American girl whose Dad had been transferred to London, has grown up to be an environmental activist. She lives on a houseboat on the Thames with her boyfriend Jago (Considine) who is busy trying to get her pregnant, which turns out to be a daunting task (who knew it would be so hard getting Barrymore pregnant?) while Lily is a rock and roll publicist who has married Kip (Cooper), a one-time rocker himself who has settled down to create a successful business. Lily has two kids, a boy and a girl.

But while their lives have been great to this point, life (as it often does) is about to throw a wicked curveball at them; Lily has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lily, who has quite a bit of vanity inherited from her TV actress mother (Bisset), stresses her way through chemo, hair loss, and wig selection. By her side through all of it is Jess, there to babysit her kids, make them healthy meals they don’t want to eat and offer emotional support for her best friend.

But things aren’t rosy. Lily is unraveling at the seams as the disease runs its course. She lashes out, especially after enduring a double mastectomy which her husband is unable to deal with. Intimacy goes out the window and maybe their marriage with it. Their friendship is sorely tested and with revelations during an impromptu trip to the Moors (in an effort to recapture their wild impetuous youth), perhaps destroyed beyond repair – just when they need each other most.

Hardwicke is best known for directing the original Twilight film. One of the things I really liked about the film is that she cast Barrymore, who generally plays flighty impulsive characters, as essentially the stable, sober one while Collette, who often plays the reasonable character, as the free-spirited one. There is also real chemistry between the two women, making their friendship believable which is at the center of why the film works.

Barrymore is sometimes a little too cloying for my taste but she is much more centered here in giving one of her best performances in years. Barrymore excels when she has a character who is not just a flighty little minx with a heart of gold; she’s a smart actress who can be deceptively intelligent which I quite suspect is very much what she’s like in person – not that I’m ever going to know. She does rock Jess this time out.

However, it is Collette who has the meatier role and the veteran actress runs with it. It would be easy to make Lily a melodramatic martyr, a collection of cancer-related tics and Collette chooses not to. Lily is terrified of dying, even more so of losing her hair and her breasts and occasionally acts out. More than occasionally, actually, but totally understandable.

The progression of the cancer is handled matter-of-factly as we see the ravaging of the body that the disease commits. One of the things the movie addresses is how breasts are often tied in with a woman’s self-image; when Lily’s breasts are taken, her self-image is severely shaken. This is definitely a movie that should win the commendations of breast cancer awareness groups worldwide.

Personally, I think that a case of tissues should be handed out at the ticket office. The movie is cathartic to the max, and anyone who likes a good cry at the movies will come away more than satisfied. While the movie drifts into occasional rom-com cliches, and some of the action feels a bit forced, this is one of those movies that is delightful and touching, funny and sad, and at the core is a very real relationship between two women you might long to hang out with yourself.

Sure, some of this is awfully contrived and some of this is awfully manipulative, but it is well-acted enough and serious enough to make it worth your while. This is one of those movies that upon first examination doesn’t seem to be much more than typical, but once you plop your butt down in the seat it becomes much, much more. Don’t let the subject matter scare you off; this is one of the better movies about women and their relationships that you’re likely to see.

REASONS TO GO: Authentic chemistry between Barrymore and Collette. Cathartic. Excellent performance by Collette. Sober treatment of breasts and how they relate to female self-image.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally cliché.  Forces when it doesn’t need to.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexual content and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jennifer Aniston and Rachel Weisz were both at one time cast as Jess but both dropped out, leading to the casting of Barrymore.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Office

Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!