Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

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Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story


Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

(2012) Documentary (Corner of the Cave) Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, Michael Patrick Hearn, Patrick Skene Catling, Steven Heller, Burton Pike, Patrick Joseph Sheehan. Directed by Brad Bernstein   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

Children’s books are a big business. Dr. Seuss is a household name after all. There have been other authors – Maurice Sendak, Martin Handford, Margaret Wise Brown and Jo Rowling – who have made a good living at influencing young minds and stirring up young imaginations.

Another name on that list should be Tomi Ungerer. Unless you’re my age or older, his name might not be familiar. In the 60s, he was one of the most popular and highly-regarded illustrator and writer of children’s books that there was. He had created such books as Crictor, The Three Robbers, Flat Stanley and Moon Man.

He was born in Strasbourg and was quite young when his father passed away. Not long after that, the Nazis invaded France and in Strasbourg, a city near the French and German border, French was forbidden. Young Tomi learned to speak German (although his mother defiantly spoke French) and became so fluent in it that even today he speaks with a distinctly Germanic accent, so much so that many assume he’s Austrian or German.

After the war he emigrated to New York City, believing (correctly as it turned out) that he could make his fortune here. He had always loved to draw and had become quite good at it. Inspired by the line drawings style of the New Yorker, he got a job with a children’s publishing house (Harper & Row) and soon became very familiar with the top of the bestseller’s lists. Although a bit on the eccentric side, he was tolerated because his books were selling.

As the 60s wore on, Ungerer – whose sympathies lay with the counterculture – produced a number of posters protesting the Vietnam War. He also created a book of erotic drawings called The Underground Sketchbook followed by Fornicon,  a book that not only was erotic but satire as well, commenting on the increasing mechanization of sex.

That was all it took. Abruptly Ungerer’s services were no longer needed. His books were pulled from the shelves and remained so for decades (some of his books only recently returned to print and others remain so). Eventually Ungerer fled New York for Newfoundland where he worked briefly as a pig farmer – by that time he was married with children and had to do something to support them. Eventually he relocated to Cork in Ireland where he remains today.

In his 80s, Ungerer remains something of a gadfly. The filmmaker (a veteran of VH1’s Behind the Music series) effectively utilizes Ungerer’s artwork and animations to great effect, interweaving talking head interviews, archival footage and home movies to flesh out Ungerer the man. As interesting as the art is, Ungerer himself is even more fascinating. He has lived several lifetimes and seen so much – yet he retains that eye that artists have, that personality that allows them to see life through eyes that reject the normal while understanding it.

I found this to be fascinating stuff. I was familiar with his name more than I was with individual artwork or books – although I’m the right age, I don’t remember having any of his books in the house (my mom and sister might chime in and disagree but I simply don’t remember them if we had any) and watching the movie his style looked familiar but not overly so. I might have wished to spend more time looking at his drawings but then there’s always a visit to the museum devoted to his work in Strasbourg. I even have a good friend who lives in the area.

REASONS TO GO: Ungerer is an engaging presence. His work speaks for itself. Brings his story and artwork back into the public eye.

REASONS TO STAY: Some folks might find his point of view and art offensive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some artistic nudity and sexual humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like many films of late, this one got much of its funding from a Kickstarter campaign.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been firmly established on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crumb

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shepard and Dark