Bill Coors: The Will to Live


Bill Coors, Still a silver bullet as a centenarian.

(2017) Documentary (Indie Rights) Bill Coors, Amit Sood, Kieran Goodwin, Quran Squire, Scott Coors, Margo Hamilton, Dr. Scott Shannon, Amie Lee, Graceanne Parks, Tracy Atkins, May Coors, Leon Kelly, Thomas Pauling, John Ortiz, Peter Coors, Rosa Bunn, Herbert Benson, Max Morton, Karl Cordova, Patty Layman, Candice Jones, Brooke Stocks, Elizabeth Archer. Directed by Kerry David

 

Especially these days when it seems like there’s a very real class war going on in this country, we have a tendency to forget that the people in the 1% are just as human as we are. Some of them – a lot of them – are certainly driven by greed and an attempt to not only keep what they have but improve upon it, there are those who have had their share of suffering which has made them very different from those privileged few who cannot have any empathy for those in lesser economic brackets.

The grandfather of William Coors was Adolph Coors who founded the Coors Brewing Company in Golden, Colorado back in 1873. Bill’s dad, Adolph Jr. would inherit the plant from his father who committed suicide in 1929. Bill characterized his father as a stern and exacting disciplinarian who rarely displayed affection to anyone. As a result, Bill had a difficult time showing affection which would later end his first marriage.

Bill was always a success in business; under his stewardship Coors went from being a regional brewery to a national and even global presence; it is the second largest beer company in the United States and the fifth largest in the world. Having come from money, one would think he led a charmed life.

One would be wrong. Depression runs strongly in the Coors family and there were cracks in the facade; his grandfather, the founder of the company, committed suicide in 1929; his daughter did the same in 1983. His older brother Adolph III was murdered in 1960 during a botched kidnapping and his first wife Geraldine died of the effects of alcoholism shortly after they divorced.

Bill also suffered from depression all of his life but it became much more obvious following the death of his brother. He did an enormous amount of research in trying to find a way to overcome his mental health issue. The movie is largely based around an address he gave graduating students of the American Academy of Achievement in 1981; although no video exists of his speech, there is audio of it and it is played throughout the film. In it Bill details some of the critical aspects of overcoming depression and what he calls his eleventh commandment – “Honor Thyself.” He had felt that repeating business platitudes would be of less use and instead delivered an impassioned and highly personal address instead.

That may sound like the dictates of a privileged and entitled generation but in reality it’s a remarkably accurate distillation of what mental health professionals often advise their patients. Bill learned and passed on that in order to love others he must first learn to love himself, something that his unaffectionate father never gave him the tools to do.

Young people, many of them YouTube vloggers, as well as family members, employees, and those close to Bill also chime in with either their own depression stories (musician Amie Lee implores people to communicate when they feel something is wrong) or how Bill has improved their lives.

The main problem here is that the whole thing kind of feels like an infomercial with nothing to sell except Bill’s philosophy of life perhaps. For those who have seen self-help infomercials late at night on cable, this will seem a bit uncomfortably familiar from the music to the way the film is laid out. That does some disservice to the subject who one gets the sense is genuine in his concern for others who like himself suffer from depression.

This is kinda Bill Coors’ story and kinda not. I suspect it was more important to get his message out than to tell his story although he does so mainly to emphasize that it’s possible to beat depression. If you chose to see this documentary, it is unlikely what you expected to see. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing but it can certainly affect how receptive you are to the message. I think the film would have been better served to take Bill’s name out of the title but perhaps the filmmakers were hoping the Coors name would give potential audiences the impression that this is a film about beer – and who doesn’t want to see a film about beer?

The movie is currently paying in New York City with engagements in Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle in upcoming weeks. It will also be available on VOD starting on November 1st. Check your favorite home video providers for availability.

REASONS TO GO: Coors has a very compelling and occasionally heartbreaking story and his message is a worthy one.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays more than a little bit like an infomercial.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coors turned 102 years old shortly before the film was released
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Pick of the Litter

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The Dawn Wall


You can’t beat the view at dawn on the Dawn Wall.

(2017) Documentary (Red Bull/The Orchard) Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, John Long, Mike Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Kelly Cordes, Terry Caldwell, John Dickey, Jason Smith, Matt Jones, Gail Jorgeson, John Branch, Matt Jones, Tom Evans, Becca Pietsch. Directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer

 

There is a fine line between endeavor and obsession. Sometimes a concept can completely take over our lives to the point of souring relationships, alienating family and forcing us to forsake all other things in service to that one thing, that accomplishment that would make our lives complete. It is hard for outsiders to understand.

Tommy Caldwell is one of the world’s most accomplished free climbers – climbers who eschew devices for anything other than safety reasons. Ascent is accomplished only by using limbs; fingers, toes, heels and sometimes other body parts. It requires insane athleticism, even more insane pain tolerance and the kind of focus that requires rigid discipline and unrivaled preparedness.

For rock climbers like Caldwell, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is Mecca. The granite monolith towers 3,000 feet above the valley floor. The back of El Cap, as climbers affectionately call it, has trails that lead to the top for those who are less Type A. Most reputable climbers have done several different ascents of the mountain which are some of the most challenging on earth. Of particular note is the Dawn Wall, so called because when dawn breaks in Yosemite the Dawn Wall is the first surface to be lit by the rays of the sun. Nearly completely smooth, there are few places for hands to grip, for feet to gain purchase. Even the most legendary climbers, like John Long (who provides much of the technical commentary here) were certain that the Dawn Wall couldn’t be climbed.

Caldwell is the type of man who if you tell him he can’t do something, he goes right out and does it anyway but this was different and it wasn’t like he hadn’t had his share of challenges. While on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan, he and then-girlfriend Beth Rodden as well as two other climbers were captured by rebel terrorists. After a remarkable escape, they all returned home safely although Tommy was seriously affected by the incident. Shortly after marrying Rodden, he accidentally sliced off half of his left index finger. Any climber will tell you that free climbers rely heavily on the index fingers. For most free climbers that would be a career killer.

However Tommy Caldwell is not most free climbers. He trained his other fingers to pick up the slack and also to utilize  the remainder of that index finger and emerged a better climber. By this time the idea of climbing the Dawn Wall – which no human had ever accomplished – had taken hold. He spent more and more time researching routes of the wall, climbing parts of it, looking for  route that gave him a chance to accomplish the impossible. His obsession and depression proved to be too much for his marriage. Tommy needed a climbing partner to help him ascend the Dawn Wall; he found one in Kevin Jorgeson, a cheerful California boy who was looking for a new challenge after he had become one of the top boulder climbers in the world. Tommy convinced him to dive right into the deep end – the most challenging free climb on Earth. Together, the two men planned and researched and argued and trained until at last they were ready to make history.

The expedition made headlines all over the world when it happened although to be honest I don’t remember much about it. We see network coverage of the time however, reporters calling on Tommy’s cell phone which apparently got service while hanging on the side of a rock. Documenting the attempt were an army of cameramen and riggers, some hanging from the top of El Cap and giving viewers a unique you-are-there experience. We see the bloody hands of the climbers after a day of hanging by their fingers on razor-sharp cracks in the rock.

The views are breathtaking and Caldwell’s story is amazing. Jorgeson gets less coverage by the team but his moment is in facing the most difficult section of the climb – Pitch 15 (the climb was divided into 32 different sections, called pitches) – which Tommy conquered early on but Kevin made attempt after attempt, always losing his grip and falling (safety lines are worn to prevent them from falling to their deaths). As both men grow more frustrated, Tommy decides to continue on further with Kevin acting as support. Kevin is disappointed but when Tommy conquers the last difficult pitch and stands atop Wino Tower, he knows he doesn’t want to hit the summit alone. He makes an extraordinary decision that puzzles veteran climbers but not those who know him best.

As a character study, we get to know bits and pieces of Tommy Caldwell but he is a fairly shy individual so some things are difficult for him to articulate. That’s okay though: this isn’t really about the story of Tommy Caldwell precisely but at the end of the day it’s about the resilience of the human spirit, the need to conquer the unconquerable, to expand our horizons and to make the impossible possible. In this divisive age where the American spirit seems stunted by political tribalism, self-absorption and malaise, we need men like Tommy Caldwell more than ever. The triumph of mountains conquered – whatever shape those mountains take – is within the grasp of all of us who are willing to make the sacrifice to achieve.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely mind-blowing, particularly the footage on the wall. Caldwell’s story is the kind that is too bizarre to be anything but real.
REASONS TO STAY: Caldwell’s obsessive behavior might be too much for some viewers to understand.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dawn Wall originally made its American premiere at Sundance this year and has also been shown in selected theaters as part of Fathom Events special programming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meru
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Love, Gilda

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie


Old hippies just play on.

(2017) Music Documentary (Paladin) Lee Aronsohn, George “Tode” Cahill, Lynn “Flatbush” Poyer, Kevin “CW” Millburn, Will “Wilbur” Luckey, Rob “Poonah” Galloway, Chris “Cemeto” Doyle, Bill “Das” Makepeace, Greg “Sloth” Sparre, Chris “Spoons” Daniel, Tamara Lester, Chuck Morris, Sam Bush, Julie Luckey, Steve “Spike” Clark, Olivia “Speedy” Luckey, Mary Jane Makepeace, Bill Payne, Scarlett Rivers. Directed by Lee Aronsohn

 

There is a time in our lives which we inevitably link with certain musical styles and sounds. It might be the psychedelic noise of the 60s, the arena rock of the 70s, the new wave of the 80s, the grunge of the 90s or…well, you get the idea. We identify with the music and the era.

In Boulder, Colorado in the early to mid-70s, particularly around the University of Colorado campus, the sound was heavily folk influenced with a kind of hippie aesthetic. Most symbolic of these bands was a group called Magic Music, who had enough facial hair to make a Muslim smile in satisfaction and an affinity for flannel shirts which would make the grunge generation scratch their heads and say “I thought that was our thing.”

Spoiler alert: the band never made it big, despite being hugely popular in Colorado and coming close on several occasions. Their unwillingness to bend on artistic matters as well as some self-torpedoing due to drugs, attitude or a distinct lack of business sense kept them from going to the next step. They broke up in 1975 with no records to their name.

One of their biggest fans was TV producer/writer/creator Lee Aronsohn who was attending CU as a sex and drugs major. He went on to success in his field but over the years the music he heard as a young man stayed in his head. He wondered what happened to the band that so inspired him in his youth. Only one of them remained in the Boulder era; Chris Daniels who continued to play music there with a new band. Through him, Aronsohn was put in contact with the remaining members of the band (Lynn Poyer tragically passed away in 2011) and soon a new idea germinated; to get the band to reunite onstage, playing a one night stand at the 800 seat Boulder Theater. To everyone’s surprise, the show sold out.

These are mostly interviews with the band members, former managers, girlfriends, wives, exes and fans. There isn’t any video footage of the band actually playing extant but there are quite a few still photos around and to Aronsohn’s delight some unreleased demos of the band in their heyday were found and used on the soundtrack. The demos accompany the stills, several of which have been animated into motion. That was a pretty nifty effect but as the story moves from the band’s past to the band’s present, those sorts of animations disappear from the film and I for one missed them.

The band utilized some sweet harmonies (think America and Pure Prairie League) with some fairly standard but lovely folk rock (along the lines of Buffalo Springfield and James Taylor). The music is extremely dated largely due to the lyrics which were of the tree-hugging variety (the band at one time lived in school buses in the Rocky Mountain wilderness) with a generous helping of hippie “love is everything” type sweetness.  Maybe a better secondary title for the film would be Smell the Patchouli!!

Which reminds me: why do non-fiction book authors and documentary filmmakers find it necessary to title their works with unnecessary and often unwieldy secondary titles? Every time I see a colon in a title I feel a sense of rage. Do these authors and filmmakers think that this kind of titling makes their work sound more academic? Knock it off, y’all. It just makes you sound pretentious.

Mini-rant aside, the filmmaking is pretty solid here. Yes, there are plenty of talking heads but for the most part the band members are charming and sweet-natured. While there were some rifts within the band, for the most part a lot of water has gone under the bridge; after all, there were more than forty years between live concert appearances. 40 years an bring an awful lot of perspective even to the most angry and bitter of feelings.

This is very much a niche film. Most people outside of Colorado and not of a certain age group will have never heard of the band and even those that do, not all of them are going to be all that interested in taking a stroll down memory lane. Still, the band’s reunion does have a pretty good emotional punch and if seeing retired hippie chicks undulating in time to the music is your thing, then there’s reason enough to go catch this in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: The reunion scenes are pretty sweet. Early on I like what Aronsohn did with the motion stills.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really intended for a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aronsohn has been responsible for such hit TV shows as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Andre the Giant

Casting JonBenet


A gaggle of beauty queens await their call.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Amy Dowd, Laura Lee, Jay Benedict Brown, Blake Curton, Jerry Cortese, Kit Thompson, Hannah Cagwin, Teresa Cocas, Gary Foster, Taylor Hollenbeck, Lynne Jordan, Dixon White, William Tidwell, Gary J. Neuger, Deb Hultgren, Ronda Belser, Tamara Hutchins, Marian Rothschild, Suzanne Yazzie, Dorinda Dercar. Directed by Kitty Green

 

The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has captured the attention of the American public for more than 20 years now. The six-year-old beauty pageant entrant was found missing on Christmas Eve 1996 with a four-page ransom note found on the staircase; hours later on Christmas Day her body was found in the basement wrapped in a blanket, her head savagely bludgeoned and then strangled by the neck. It is possible that she was sexually assaulted in her last minutes on earth.

The Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado came under intense media scrutiny; stories didn’t add up and accusations were flung, some fairly ludicrous. Her mother Patsy, her father John and her brother Burke were all at one time or another suspects of the police investigation, which became notorious for its incompetence.

Documentarian Kitty Green took a unique tactic looking at the JonBenet murder. While we have seen plenty of newsmagazine crime show segments and similarly-themed documentaries looking at the murder, Green chose instead to film over 15 months in Boulder, interviewing local actors who were ostensibly auditioning for a movie about the murder.

Boulder being a small college town, it’s unsurprising that some of the actors (some of whom were professional, some not) had personal connections to the Ramsey family; one had a girlfriend at the time of the murder who was John Ramsey’s personal assistant. Another had an aunt who lived in the neighborhood. Another gave vocal lessons to JonBenet herself. All of them who had lived in Boulder in ’96 had opinions of who did it.

We get some of the facts of the case through re-enactments and through anecdotes but if you’re looking for a police procedural or a historical examination of the events that took place, look elsewhere. Green’s aim is not to present an examination of the murder from a typical sense but to see how the murder affected not only the people of Boulder but by extension, the rest of us in America.

As the movie goes on, the camera becomes kind of a confessional and the Ramsey case triggers memories of personal tragedies. One man relates to John Ramsey because he himself was accused of murdering a loved one (he was found innocent and the investigation into him was dropped); another actress remembers the murder of a sibling and how it tore apart her household.

Some of the women empathized with Patsy Ramsey, breaking into tears at the thought of their own child being found alone in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket after being brutally murdered. Those are the moments that the movie works best, giving the viewer an anchor to latch onto. When Green goes the more esoteric route (such as a tracking shot near the end in which the actors act out a variety of the many theories about the murder) the film is less successful.

It has been said about the case that nobody knows the truth but everyone has an opinion. Possibly that’s the message that Green was trying to send but her intentions are a little vague. There aren’t any experts in the facts of the case being interviewed so what we are mostly getting are amateur opinions and you may or may not have any use for those.

Still it makes for compelling viewing into human nature; along with the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of JFK and the OJ Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder captured the public attention like few other crimes in the 20th century. That it remains unsolved to this day is perhaps part of the attraction; that we’ll likely never know what happened in that basement Christmas Eve adds to the tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: There are some moments that pack a powerful emotional punch. This is an at times fascinating take on a story everyone knows generally but not in detail.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s more of a social experiment than a documentary. I’m not entirely sure what the point was in making this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2017 edition of Sundance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kate Plays Christine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Post

Voyeur (2017)


Gay Talese, dapper man about town.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Gay Talese, Gerald Foos, Nan Talese, Susan Morrison, Morgan Entrikan, Jackson Scholz, Anita Foos.  Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury

 

We are a society that loves to watch. We are obsessed with chronicling every aspect of our lives and looking in on the chronicles of others. We are a nation of voyeurs, titillated by both the sexual and the ordinary, able to leave our own lives while we glimpse at others, pursing our lips and waggling our fingers as if our own lives are above reproach.

Gay Talese is one of the last of his kind. A New York journalist back when that meant something, he has written some of the most compelling works of non-fiction of the last 60 years. His piece “Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire is one of the defining celebrity portraits ever written and it has influenced the genre ever since its publication. He’s written about crime families in Honor Thy Father and about the sexual mores of the 70s in Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as an observer but admittedly as a participant. Talese has always had a certain swagger and a particular style. His trademark is immaculately tailored suits, often accompanied by Fedora and scarf. Emerging from his Manhattan brownstone, he cuts an urbane figure from a bygone era when such things mattered.

Kane and Koury are given access to the basement of the brownstone which was once used as a wine cellar but now is Talese’s archive and office, a kind of man-cave that is a tribute to a career which, truth be told, merits that kind of celebration. Quite frankly while Talese has garnered his share of controversy over the years, he has also done some incredible work.

Now 85, Talese is looking for one last book and one last story to cap off his career. He thought he had it in a story he had started working on 30 years earlier. Gerald Foos was the owner of a Colorado motel which he had outfitted with an observation platform which ran the length of the property. Through strategically placed ventilation louvers he could observe guests without being seen or heard.

Now this sounds creepy enough but given where society is at this moment in time this seems like a fairly timely documentary. Foos, something of a teddy bear of a man, cheerfully admits to his sexual arousal but insists that this was a research project and not a precursor to Pornhub. There’s an air of disingenuousness about Foos but Talese seems to take him at face value.

However, Foos is reluctant to have his name revealed so that puts a kibosh on any involvement by Talese. However, 30 years later Foos has a change of heart and Talese gets back on the case. Foos gives Talese his journal complete with charts facts and figures about his “research.” Some of the stories Foos has to tell are pretty fascinating. Others are grim – like the murder he claimed he witnessed. Talese knows he’s found the story he’s been looking for.

His editor at The New Yorker, Susan Morrison, is less enthused. She confesses that she thinks that Foos is a sociopathic pervert but agrees the story is a fascinating one. Talese submits it and the fact checkers get to work. Talese also signs a book deal to expand the article in the New Yorker into a full-length non-fiction book that’s sure to be a best seller.

However, the fact checkers turn out some disquieting discrepancies. After the book is published, a Washington Post reporter comes up with a devastating fact that threatens the book’s future and Talese’s reputation as a journalist. Much of what happened is of public record but I am being vague about it in case you didn’t follow the story when it happened because the way it unfolds here truly is blindsiding in a good way.

I think this is one of those documentary projects that began as one thing and then turned into another. This was supposed to be I think a piece on a regal lion making his last charge into the hunt and then morphed into a catfishing piece. I do think it took the filmmakers by surprise; while they give a fairly in-depth portrait of Talese (and Foos) early on, as the situation changes we don’t get a whole lot of commentary from the parties involved.

Talese comes off as a fastidious egocentric man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t really tolerate much exception to his rules. I suppose he can afford to be choosy. Still, he seems to lead a fairly lonely life….makes me wonder if he didn’t pay too high a price to be Gay Talese. But that’s a question that only he can answer.

The directors made use of a miniature model of the motel in an innovative fashion rather than staging recreations of the incidents that Foos related to Talese. There are also virtually no talking head interviews; everything is essentially Talese and Foos with Foos’ enabling second wife lurking furtively on the edges of the film.

Foos remains a somewhat enigmatic figure. He comes off as quite reasonable and even eager to be liked but there’s a creepiness at his core that is off-putting. I don’t think he sees anything wrong in what he was doing; it’s like there’s a big gap where his conscience should have been. The filmmakers, to their credit, don’t editorialize much; they present the story and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.

At the same time though the movie feels like it’s missing context. I think a little bit of outside, objective opinions might have helped the film in the long run – that’s right, I’m advocating for more talking heads – can you believe it? But talking heads have their purpose and sometimes a little bit of that can actually help the viewer feel more informed. I still felt a bit like the viewer is flailing in the dark here.

The documentary has a fascinating quality – as I said there’s a little bit of voyeur in all of us. However, I felt curiously unsatisfied by the movie as if by the end that I hadn’t seen all of it. There is much more to the story I think than is on the screen here and it could be simply that the nature of the watchers is that they shy away from the spotlight when it is they that are being watched.

REASONS TO GO: Talese is one of the last great personalities in journalism. The movie is full of interesting twists (particularly if you know little about it to begin with).
REASONS TO STAY: There is a surprising lack of depth to the documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, occasional profanity and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foos contacted Talese in 1980 after reading his tome on the sexual mores of the 1970s Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
A Ghost Story

Angels Crest


Here's an angel that Charlie missed.

Here’s an angel that Charlie missed.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Dekker, Lynn Collins, Jeremy Piven, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth McGovern, Emma Macgillivray, Joseph Morgan, Greg Lawson, Chris Ippolito, Dave Brown, Colin A. Campbell, Marty Antonini, Ameko Eks Mass Carroll, Jonathan Lachlan Stewart, Julian Domingues, Aedan Tomney, Wally Houn, Lindsay Burns, Barbara Williams, Christianne Hirt, Kate Walsh. Directed by Gaby Dellal

Bad things happen, sometimes to good people and sometimes to bad. Even the worst of events that occur have nothing to do with a person’s goodness or lack thereof. What the true measure of a person is depends on how they deal with the truly awful things that life throws at us.

Ethan (Dekker) is a 21-year-old young man who works at an auto shop in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Angels Crest. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else, where rugged individualism is the expectation and where the bleak winters often mirror the bleak outlook for many, who have no hope of escaping the lives they lead.

Ethan is the father to 3-year-old Nate (Carroll) and his sole caregiver, mainly because Nate’s mommy Cindy (Collins) is a mess, a raging alcoholic who can barely care for herself with a side order of promiscuity. One bright afternoon, Ethan takes Nate for a boy’s trip into the woods. On the way back, an exhausted Nate falls asleep and as Ethan drives towards town, he sees some deer. For whatever reason, he gets out of his truck, makes sure Nate is strapped in to his child’s seat, and leaving the heater running, follows the deer out into the woods.

You can guess that wasn’t a very smart idea. When Ethan returns to the truck, Nate is gone. He searches through the woods fruitlessly, then races back to town, returning with a search party but Nate is nowhere to be found. It takes a little while but little Nate is eventually found, frozen to death. Of course, Ethan is devastated and the hot mess that is Cindy blames Ethan for her little boy’s demise.

The town is sharply divided by the event, some joining Cindy in blaming Ethan and calling for his arrest for negligence (a feeling that the prosecutor (Piven) shares) while others believe Ethan when he says he was gone for just a few minutes and that this was just one of those horrible things that could have happened to anyone.

Like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the film examines the effects of a tragedy on a small town but the similarities end there. In the Egoyan film, the school bus accident that took the lives of a fair amount of children touched nearly every family in town; here, the directly affected are few. Still, the howls of Ethan’s grief are no less heart-wrenching no matter the number of children lost; in some ways the grief of a single person is more relatable than the grief of multiple people.

But the movie goes off the rails because of the excessive number of subplots which for the most part have no real bearing on the matter of hand. There is a lesbian couple (McGovern and Walsh) struggling for acceptance, with McGovern trying to win the affections of her own son (Domingues) who is also a horror show. The prosecutor has some deep dark secret that is motivating him to obsessively pursue an investigation that is tearing the town apart. A diner waitress (Sorvino) struggles to raise her own son on her own and happens to be Cindy’s best friend. Ethan’s best friend (Lawson) feels guilt over having been banging Cindy at the time of the incident.

All of these little subplots are enacted by characters whose only reason to be in the movie is to be involved in these subplots. They add no insight and don’t really enhance the story any. While the movie is beautifully shot with plenty of picturesque snow-covered vistas, the whole thing feels a bit like a soap opera more than a drama. While some of the scenes carry a good deal of emotional resonance, an equal number of scenes fall flat. This is as inconsistent a film as you’re likely to see.

Still, there is enough here that the movie is worth a casual glance if the opportunity presents itself although I wouldn’t put a whole lot of effort into seeking it out. The deficiencies in the film’s story and script nearly (but don’t quite) exceed the movie’s emotional impact.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the scenes work. Evocative. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes don’t. Heavy-handed and plodding. Soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, strong language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was titled Abandoned in the UK.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with Dekker and Sorvino.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $832 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Baby Gone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Creed

Cop Car


The beginning of a bad idea.

The beginning of a bad idea.

(2015) Thriller (Focus World) Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Sean Hartley, Kyra Sedgwick (voice), Loi Nguyen, Sit Lenh, Chuck Kull, Thomas Coates, Justin Barr, Adam Barr, Kathleen Bentley. Directed by Jon Watts

Actions have consequences. We learn this at an early age, usually because we’ve done something foolish or wrong. The consequences are almost always some form of punishment; having a favorite toy or device taken away, being grounded, made to stand in a corner (if we are very young) or maybe being sent to bed early without desert (horrors!). Of course, the more egregious the offense, the worse the punishment.

Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) are a couple of nine or ten year old kids who have decided to run away from their Colorado Springs subdivision. They are traipsing along a vast prairie (being kids, they haven’t particularly thought this through, having only a Slim Jim to sustain them and no water), Travis saying an expletive and Harrison repeating them. It’s all fun and games until they get to a specific word which Harrison is loathe to repeat. Even kids have their limits.

Then they come across something cooler than an F-bomb – an abandoned cop car. At first, the boys timidly run up to the car and having touched it, scurry back fearfully. like some bizarre ritual of counting coup. Eventually they work up the courage to get inside and of course at first it’s all play acting and fun…but then they find the keys.

Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) is not so amused when he returns to find his car gone. You see, he was in the midst of burying a body and had come to fetch a second from the trunk of his car. Having his homicidal activities discovered just would not do. So he goes out to find the pilferers of his official vehicle, while the kids, blissfully ignorant of what’s going on, go on the joy ride of a lifetime.

Watts, who on the strength of his efforts here won himself the director’s seat for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, takes a story that’s been essentially told before, strips it down to its essence, and gives us one taut, well-made thriller. The boys’ ignorance of how things work – they have no clue how to operate a car and make some pretty significant mistakes because of their inexperience – helps keep the tension level high. There’s a sequence when they’re trying to figure out how to fire the guns, peering down the barrels of the firearms and you are absolutely certain that one of the kids is going to get their heads blown off. Da Queen was literally viewing that sequence through her clenched fingers. She wasn’t the only one, either.

It helps that the two juvenile actors he cast are completely natural. They are full of bravado, crazy naive, and bonded together like only little boys can be. They are out on an adventure and are very much, as little boys are, shoot first ask questions later sorts. As I mentioned earlier, thinking things through is not their strong suit. While Travis is clearly the ringleader, the true strength belongs to Harrison – again, as is often the case with little boys. They’re like any little boy you might meet in your neighborhood; a little less supervised, a little wilder, but nonetheless recognizable. That helps the movie a great deal the longer it goes on and is one of the strengths of the film overall.

Bacon is a reliable presence. This is the kind of role he’s done before. The actions of the sheriff are never fully explained; we see him at one point flushing an impressive amount of cocaine down the toilet so we assume that it’s a drug thing, but why he has the two men set for a dirtnap is anybody’s guess. We do know that he’s a vicious and clever sort, not above putting a civilian in the line of fire if it is to his advantage; we are used to our policemen being concerned with our own safety so it never occurs to us that the orders we are getting are not given with that in mind. In some ways, this movie mirrors the public’s changing perception of the police. It’s not that there haven’t been bad cops in the movies – there have been bad cops in the movies as long as there have been movies – but it’s the way we look at this bad cop that’s different.

A couple of times during the movie it did feel like some of the sequences felt a little bit forced in order to advance the story; that happens a lot in these sorts of films although in fairness less often here than in other examples of the genre. There’s an encounter with a motorcycle cop that is very well-written from a tension point of view, but it seems to exist in the story only to show us how clever the Sheriff is. A good rule of thumb for filmmakers is that if a scene isn’t germane to the overall story other than to illustrate a character’s personality trait, it probably doesn’t belong in the movie.

Sure, some of the plot points are a bit contrived but for the most part this is a movie that feels like it could happen and maybe it already has. As thrillers go this one is well done, not quite to the level of last year’s Blue Ruin but certainly in the same ballpark. This is a well-constructed, well-executed edge of your seat entertainment that deserves a spot on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Nice tension. Good performances by the kids who behave like kids.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit contrived in places. Bacon has played this role before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence, a scene of drug usage and kid peril throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the dispatcher is done by Kyra Sedgwick. In addition, the Quinlan County on the side of the cop car doesn’t exist in Colorado or any other state.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your cable or satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Evidence
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Grandma