Captain Fantastic


Viggo Mortensen points out from which direction the Orc hordes are charging.

Viggo Mortensen points out from which direction the Orc hordes are charging.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street) Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Gallen Osier, Rex Young, Thomas Brophy, Mike Miller, Hannah Horton. Directed by Matt Ross

 

This is not a world conducive to raising kids. We are forced to work jobs that take ever-increasing amounts of our time, forcing us to leave them at day care, in schools where getting an education is an uphill battle and with diversions and distractions guaranteed to change our kids from thoughtful, caring people into automatons parroting whatever the cool kids are saying and preferring to do things that require no thought at all.

Ben (Mortensen) has decided to chuck all of that aside. Something of a latter day hippie tilting at the same windmills of Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer did, he has removed his family – his wife and six kids – to the woods of the Pacific Northwest. There, they live off the grid; killing and growing their own food, making whatever it is they need, selling their crafts for the little money they do require and Ben both schooling and training the kids not only how to live off the land but to defend themselves from those who would take them off of it by force.

Ben has been doing this alone since his wife Leslie (Miller) has been hospitalized but when his worst fears come to pass and she dies, the entire family is devastated. Ben, a believer in transparency (when it suits him), tells his children in the bluntest terms possible. This of course precipitates a storm of emotion.

Nothing, however, when compared to what comes out of Jack (Langella), Leslie’s bereaved father who blames Ben and his alternative lifestyle for his daughter’s demise and forbids him and his children from attending her funeral. This, of course, inspires them all to pile into the family school bus and head to the services. Along the road, they’ll visit Ben’s sister Harper (Hahn) and her husband Dave (Zahn) who are far more in the normal meter with two sons of their own and predictably, things don’t go particularly well. When the confrontation comes, it will expose some raw wounds in what appeared to be a tight-knit family and call into question Ben’s methods and dearly-held philosophies.

Much of how you’re going to take in this film is going to depend on your attitudes towards the counterculture, both then and now. Those who look at the movement and find it to be self-righteous and arrogant will see those things in Ben; others who look back at that and see commitment and courage will see that in Ben. Curiously, there’s no drug use going on here, so far as I can tell. However, those who think that white rich people are getting the short end of the stick are likely to find this movie to be somewhat offensive.

Mortensen will probably always be Aragorn in my book; since he exploded in the public perception in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogy, he has stayed away largely from mainstream movies and typical roles. In some ways, Ben is as close to Viggo as we’re ever likely to see. Mortensen is a well-known iconoclast and besides being an incredibly handsome dude, has acting chops guys as good looking as he can only dream about. He is meant to carry the movie and he does.

The kids playing his kids managed not to get on my nerves, quite a feat when you get six child actors together for any reason. Occasionally I’d see a little bit of annoying little brat going on but for the most part the kids are interesting, thoughtful and bright. Ben’s oldest Bo (MacKay) has been accepted at some of the most prestigious universities in the country which isn’t the kind of thing that impresses his father, who disdains anything that has anything to do with the establishment, including education.

The first third of the movie has some beautiful landscapes from Washington State, and the cinematography is correspondingly lush. The middle third is essentially a road movie, largely taking place in deserts and plains and is as different a road movie as you’re likely to see. We get some glimpses of hypocrisy cracking through Ben’s veneer of moral rightness, as well as some of the conflicts going on within the family. In some ways, this is the most interesting part of the picture.

The final third is basically Ben and the kids coming to terms with the fall-out of Ben’s home schooling and attitudes towards mainstream life. There should be catharsis here (and the filmmakers sorely wants there to be) but the ending is such a letdown that any kind of catharsis just gets lost in the backwash. The ending feels arbitrary and inorganic and doesn’t seem consistent with what I thought the movie was trying to get across. Now, I might have misconstrued the filmmakers’ intentions and that’s okay, but quite frankly my wife and I looked at each other after the final credits started rolling and said in almost perfect unison “Really?” You don’t want to leave a movie with that kind of feeling.

Ross is best known as an actor in HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley turns out to be a fairly promising director. The timing here for the comedic parts are right on and the drama parts aren’t especially overbearing. While he could have used a better ending, he certainly has plenty to build on for a future career behind the camera if that’s the path he wants to take.

Even given all that, this is still an amazing, thought-provoking movie with one of the most charismatic actors in the business at the top of his form. In a summer full of disappointing blockbusters and run-of-the-mill sequels, this is a literal breath of fresh air.

REASONS TO GO: Mortensen is a powerfully charismatic actor. The film depicts an interesting conflict between alternative ideas and mainstream reality. It’s not your ordinary road movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending was a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and a brief scene of graphic nudity (Viggo Mortensen fans, rejoice!).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The group of children cast in the film came to call Mortensen “Summer Dad” throughout the shoot during the summer of 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Automatic Hate
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Life, Animated

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The Graduate


So here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

(1967) Comedy (AVCO Embassy) Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry, Brian Avery, Walter Brooke, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Eddra Gale, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, Kevin Tighe, Ben Murphy, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Elisabeth Fraser, Lainie Miller. Directed by Mike Nichols

With Mike Nichols, one of the more acclaimed directors of the 60s and 70s, passing away recently it behooves the critic to look back at some of his best films and this one, his second feature, is considered by many to be his best which is a difficult choice to make when you consider you also have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Carnal Knowledge and Silkwood to choose from.

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated from a prestigious Northeastern university and like many 21-year-olds then (and now) has not a clue where to go from here. After a party thrown by his parents to celebrate his graduation, he drives the wife of his father’s law partner, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) home where she tries to seduce him. A little unnerved, he turns her down and scurries home.

Afterwards, he reconsiders and awkwardly arranges a hook-up at a local hotel. The affair continues on through the summer; Mrs. Robinson just in it for the sex. Mostly though Benjamin just drifts in the pool at home, not able to make a decision on graduate school or heading directly into the workforce. He’s not even looking to date anyone, although Mr. Robinson (Hamilton) and Ben’s dad (Daniels) push him into dating Elaine (Ross), the daughter of the Robinsons. Benjamin is at first reluctant and does everything possible to sabotage the date but realizes that he was unkind to the poor girl who ran out of the strip club he took her to in tears. He tries to make it up to her and the two end up connecting and Benjamin feels like he might be falling in love.

Mrs. Robinson is NOT pleased and wants him to cut things off with her daughter. Benjamin has no intention of doing so, even though Mrs. Robinson threatens to come out with their affair so Benjamin heads this threat off at the pass and tells Elaine about it. This does not go well and she ends up fleeing back to Berkeley in the fall.

Benjamin, thoroughly besotted at this point follows her there and tries to explain what happened. That’s when Mr. Robinson gets involved, letting Benjamin know that their relationship is over and he will press charges if he continues. He also lets him know he is pulling Elaine out of Berkeley and marrying her off to Carl (Avery), a high school sweetheart leaving Benjamin at a crossroads.

The American Film Institute lists this as the 17th best movie ever made which is pretty impressive when you consider that well more than 100,000 films have been made all time just in the United States alone. Nichols established himself as one of the finest film directors of all time with his first two movies (Virginia Woolf was his first) after making his name as a theatrical director, which he returned to regularly over his long career.

In many ways this was a counterculture film in the sense that it looked at the hypocrisy of American culture and examined the angst of the younger generation which was at the time beginning to rise up and rebel against the norm. When placed in the context of its time, this was a monumental touchstone to the film industry who began to break away from the strictures of the studio system and were making movies that reflected the growing unrest and taking artistic and creative risks that would redefine the medium in the 70s and set the stage for a new golden age of movies.

Hoffman was not well known when he was cast for the part; his audition consisted of a love scene with Katherine Ross which Hoffman, who had never done one, felt awkward about. It was that awkwardness that convinced Nichols to cast Hoffman, as he was looking for a kind of underdog quality to Benjamin. Hoffman’s performance was a career-maker; it established him as a major new talent and led to one of the more interesting acting careers in the history of Hollywood. Bancroft also turbo-charged her own career, playing an older woman even though she was merely 35 at the time. Her performance here is considered one of the finest of her career.

And we can’t discuss The Graduate without talking about the soundtrack. “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel was one of the greatest songs ever written for a movie and plenty of other Simon and Garfunkel songs pepper the soundtrack, most notably “The Sounds of Silence.” Few films have ever utilized the songs of a single artist the way this one did and as well.

This is definitely a movie of the 60s and while some of the visual and dialogue references are somewhat dated, the movie stands up surprisingly well. Even today the affair between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin can seem a little bit daring. One wonders how the movie would have fared if it had been made in 2014 and released now (as a matter of fact this Tuesday is the anniversary of the movie’s release). Something tells me that modern audiences would have taken to it as much as the audiences of its time did (see the Box Office Performance if you don’t believe me).

The Graduate is a bona fide classic and should be required viewing for all film students and film buffs alike. There are many transcendent moments in the movie – the climactic scene in the church is one that I can watch over and over again, for example. While the movie may feel a bit too sophisticated for some, it nonetheless remains a movie whose greatness cannot be denied.

WHY RENT THIS: Bancroft and Hoffman both set the bar high. One of the best films about sexual politics ever. One of the greatest soundtracks ever. Holds up pretty well approaching 50 years later.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little dated in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and situations, sexual situations and a bit of mild foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Faye Dunaway was offered the part of Elaine but turned it down in favor of Bonnie and Clyde.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a one-on-one interview with Dustin Hoffman and an extensive six-page booklet with notes and photos from the film. The 40th Anniversary edition (from 2007) includes the Hoffman interview but oddly not the booklet. It does contain a featurette on how the movie influences modern directors, a four-song CD with the Simon and Garfunkel songs from the movie and finally, a featurette on the seduction scene and what prompted the characters to do it.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Stream), Amazon (Stream only), Vudu (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye, Columbus
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: From Russia With Love

Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

Year of the Living Dead


The secret to creating an iconic horror film is not found in a cartoon.

The secret to creating an iconic horror film is not found in a cartoon.

(2012) Documentary (Self-Released) George A. Romero, Larry Fessenden, Gale Anne Hurd, Elvis Mitchell, Sam Pollard, Mark Harris, Jason Zinoman, Chris Schultz. Directed by Rob Kuhns   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

There is no doubt that circa 2012, zombies are the new cool. The success of the comic turned basic cable TV hit The Walking Dead has contributed mightily to that but there is nobody with any sort of historical perspective at all who won’t admit that without Night at the Living Dead, zombies would be relegated to a kind of horror film B-movie ghetto.

Romero was a young college dropout in Pittsburgh back in 1968 when he decided to make a movie on his own. He, like many other Pittsburgh-based filmmakers, worked on the children’s television program Mister Rogers Neighborhood (one of Romero’s vignettes, Mr. Roger Gets a Tonsillectomy is shown and I kid you not, it is one of the most terrifying things you will ever see) as well as local advertisements.

The movie was largely shot on a wing and a prayer with investors and local TV personalities appearing as actors, zombies and occasionally as technicians. It was shot on the fly and with an almost non-existent budget. It got little or no positive press mainly because it broke so many taboos – an African-American hero whose race is never commented upon in the film, children murdering and eating their parents, zombies chowing down on living, screaming victims.

Largely over time, the movie has grown from cult status into a cultural touchstone. Within the context of its time when race riots were running rampant, the counterculture was protesting the war in Vietnam with increasingly violent repression from the government in reprisal and a general distrust of the American dream of their parents by an entire generation of young people, Night of the Living Dead was almost inevitable – if Romero hadn’t made it, someone else might well have made something like it. It’s unlikely however that anyone else would have blown off Hollywood movie conventions as easily as Romero did; while he essentially claims he didn’t know any better, I honestly believe that his innovations were done deliberately.

This documentary examines the film and it’s time, largely through interviews of critics, writers, academics and filmmakers (including Hurd, producer of The Walking Dead). There are also some nifty illustrated/animated sequences drawn by Gary Pullin that give the audience an insight into the production itself.

Because of the focus on a single film, Kuhns is able to drill down and really examine the movie’s historical, political and cinematic influence and the implications it has had on modern society and movies, not to mention it’s continuing influence on American culture. Romero is a delightful interview whose engaging personality is such that you wouldn’t mind watching two hours of talking head interviews with the man. Between the Romero interview and the illustrations as well as extensive footage from the movie itself and some archival footage of events of the day, the documentary is anything but dry. While those who don’t like the original movie might find this dull, if they are into history and social studies at all they will still find this fascinating. While the focus is definitely on Night of the Living Dead, you don’t have to be an obsessive fanboy to appreciate Year of the Living Dead. If you are, however, you may just want to demand your local art house get a copy of the movie so that you can spend your nights wrapped up in this well-made and thoughtful analysis of one of the great movies of all time.

REASONS TO GO: Romero is an engaging storyteller. Filmmakers really drill down and don’t just get backstage anecdotes but place the movie within the context of its time.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t fans of Night of the Living Dead will find this dull.

FAMILY VALUES:  A few disturbing horror images and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interviews for the film were conducted between 2006-2011.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has made a few appearances on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Room 237

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: First Comes Love and more coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

The Names of Love (Les nom des gens)


The Names of Love

We need to send Sara Forestier to the Republican National Convention next year.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Music Box) Jacques Gamblin, Sara Forestier, Zinedine Soualem, Carole Franck, Jacques Boudet, Michele Moretti, Zakariya Gouram, Nabil Massad, Cyrille Andrieu-Lacu, Cristina Palma De Figueiredo, Lydie Muller. Directed by Michel Leclerc

Back in the day the counterculture sorts used to proclaim “Make love, not war.” This is a film that takes it to new heights.

Arthur Martin (Gamblin) has a dull, common name – the French equivalent to Bob Jones. He is an ornithologist working for the French government doing autopsies on dead birds to determine how they died and whether or not a disease is involved that might cause problems for the French meat industry.

His mother (Moretti) was a survivor of the Holocaust whose parents were deported to Greece. These twin events served to traumatize her deeply; Arthur’s dad (Boudet) has made a series of taboo subjects that are not to be discussed in order not to upset mom. Although Arthur’s parents have their quirks (they seem to latch on to every failed technology that comes along, from the Betamax to the Laser Disc – I’m sure the HD DVD is in there somewhere too), Arthur grows up in a fairly repressed environment which makes him a kind of weird boy who is absolutely anathema to the ladies. This makes it incredibly hard for him to get laid.

Baya Benhmamoud (Forestier) is a free spirit whose father (Soualem) was a refugee from Algeria (which at the time was a French colony) in France illegally. Her mom (Franck) was a hippie who advocated France’s withdrawal from  Algeria and overall, peace and love in general. Mom helped Dad get his French citizenship. Dad is one of those people who loves to help other people fix things; his happiness always seems to be secondary to everyone else’s and Baya yearns to make her daddy happy.

When Baya is molested by a piano teacher, it drives her to express her sexuality more openly than she might have. Inheriting her mother’s political outlook, she basically categorizes everyone into two categories; good people and fascists. It is her goal to have sex with fascists and convert them to her way of thinking.

Baya is a bit scatter-brained, forgetting in one unforgettable scene to put on clothes before leaving the house. You know that she and Arthur are going to meet (she storms into a radio interview he is doing as she is working at the station answering phones and proclaims him a fascist for scaring people with fears of bird flu) and when they do, both of their views about life, love and sex are going to change forever.

The movie is based on some actual experiences the director-writer had with his partner which I suppose could only happen in France. Can you imagine some hippie chick bedding Rush Limbaugh in order to change his allegiance? Forgive me while I throw up a little in my mouth – feel free to join me if you wish.

Forestier won a French Cleo (their equivalent of the Oscar) for her performance here and I have to admit, she is very natural and uninhibited in this role which might make an American actress run screaming for her trailer and locking the door behind her. Baya is very aware of her ethnic background but also aware of her own sexuality and what she can do with it. One wonders if the inspiration for her read the Lysistrata, a play by Aristophanes in which the wives and girlfriends of a Greek army withhold sex from their husbands until they come home from war. I suppose it can work both ways, men being such sex-driven animals.

Gamblin has to play as white-bread a character as you’re likely to find in French cinema. He is all rules and repression, rarely letting what is bubbling below his surface be revealed. Once Baya works her magic on him, he discovers the joys of sex and attraction which turns him into a bit of a maniac. Gamblin has to insure that Arthur treads the line between lust and love, a line the French understand very well (in general) and that Arthur be one of the exceptions to that rule. One of the fine things about French cinema is that Gamblin wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as romantic leading man material in Hollywood, but he fits this role very nicely in a physical sense.

The movie brings sexual politics into actual politics and the line blurs as to which is which at times. There is a lot of poking fun at stereotypes of both the left and right, and while I’m fairly ill-informed as to how the French political system works and some of the jokes no doubt went sailing above my head like an Independence Day rocket, nonetheless there’s enough here that is universal enough that non-French speaking audiences will get a kick out of it too.

REASONS TO GO: A low-key comedy with gentle humor that brings sexual politics to real politics. Forestier is easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: The central conceit of the script might be too much for the more puritanical.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of nudity (most provided by Ms. Forestier) and some accompanying sexuality; there’s also a bit of swearing (in French).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After an actress initially cast as Baya demanded a nude scene be removed from the script, Forestier requested it be put back in the script as she felt it was central to the character’s identity.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is near the end of its release run and might be much easier to find on DVD/Blu-Ray when it’s released to home video October 18th.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Real Steel