Wind Traces (Restos de viento)


Grief can spawn its own demons.

(2017) Drama (Conejo Media) Dolores Fonzi, Paulina Gil, Ruben Zamora, Julieta Egurrola, Juan Carlos Vives, Diego Aguilar, Itari Marta, Claudine Sosa, Anajose Aldrete Echevarria, Martha Claudia Moreno, Catalina López, Lorenzo Costantini, Juan Carlos Tavera, Karla Rico, Erwin Veytia, Sofia Fernández, Lara Escalante, Mateo Lujano, Gisola Ruiz, Laura Morett, Ana Morgado. Directed by Jimenta Montemayor

We sometimes believe that life is linear; events happen in a progression from birth to death. That’s not how we perceive it, however. Life is a series of moments, some memorable but most not. Sometimes the most mundane of moments carry with them the most elegance, the most grace, the most meaning.

Carmen (Fonzi) is having trouble coping. She can barely rouse herself out of bed in the mornings and she doesn’t get her daughter Ana (Gil) and son Daniel (Aguilar) to school always. She tells the kids that their father has gone away and will come back but Ana, who’s a bit more world-wise knows instinctively that her mother is lying to her. Perhaps Carmen believes it herself.

Carmen has difficulty focusing on things other than getting dressed up and going to the local lounge. She looks amazing and catches the eyes of the single men (and many of the married ones too) as she struts around the bar but she really isn’t looking for company. She’s just doing something that makes her feel alive. She exists in the semi-twilight of alcohol, cigarettes and shock; she may as well be an extra in The Walking Dead.

Daniel copes as best he can; he imagines fantasy figures; one, a thick shambling creature with antlers and a raggedy cloak. Other times it’s an indigenous North American who appears to resemble more the Indians of American westerns more than the natives of Mexico. Either way the figure shows up regularly around Daniel.

At first Ana can’t see the fantasy figures but soon she begins to see them as well. Carmen eventually goes out on a date with a co-worker to a carnival which bothers Daniel immensely. All three of the family members exist as ghosts within their own lives, haunted by memory and haunted by the future without their beloved father and Carmen’s beloved husband. What can they do to begin living again?

This is not a feel-good kind of film nor is it meant to be. The people in this movie are undergoing some of the worst days of their lives and we’re right there in the trenches with them. Fonzi is one of the most beloved actresses in Argentina; this movie illustrates exactly why that is. Not only is she out-of-this-world beautiful, she is also a tremendous performer; Carmen has many layers to her and Fonzi explores them all. She can be sexy and flirtatious one moment, nearly non-functional the next. She tries to bake a cake for her children to brighten their spirits but only ends up dampening up her own in one memorable sequence. She doesn’t have the emotional resources to help her kids through the ordeal and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around her that she’s willing to call upon for support; in fact there are family members she avoids talking to so that she doesn’t have to tell them that her husband is gone and this is months after the fact.

The children do a lot of acting out which is to be expected. The actors playing them however act like real children in that situation would act and that is unexpected. A lot of times child actors have difficulty with negative and difficult emotions; Gil and Aguilar didn’t seem to have that problem and that’s crucial to the success of the film. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled right out of a movie in which the subject matter involves a family dealing with loss because the child actors were completely unconvincing.

Daniel has almost an obsession with native indigenous figures; he watches American westerns (the fantasy figures tend to resemble American natives rather than the Aztec and Mayan indigenous of Mexico. It does make for some jarring visuals but I can’t see why that wouldn’t be a thing in reality. Some iconic American images have tended to bleed over the border in certain respects.

Cinematographer Maria Secco shoots most of the indoor shots in muted colors; even the exterior shots have a less vibrant look to them than normal; everything is seen through a veil of tears and numbness. It’s very effective in setting the tone. The press material describes the film as atmospheric and that’s the most accurate description you’re likely to find.

Watching the pain all three of these people are clearly in can be excruciating at times. It’s like visiting a friend who isn’t that close who is suffering from intense grief and feeling helpless to do anything about it. I wanted to give all of them a hug but of course that’s impossible; all you can do is endure with them and empathize.

There is a visual poetry here that gathers from a variety of sources. I found the movie to be compelling but not always easy and sometimes those are the best kind there are. Be warned if you’re going to see this there is some work involved and almost expected but the reward is not necessarily insight so much as being put back in touch with your own compassion. That can be a worthwhile endeavor all of its own.

Tickets for the Festival can be bought here.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautifully atmospheric. The filmmakers handle grief in a realistic way.
REASONS TO STAY: Although it accomplishes what it needs to, the fantasy creature isn’t particularly impressive.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult (despite the presence of children) and as well there is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Montemayor isn’t making movies, she conducts workshops for girls recently rescued from sexual slavery to help give them marketable skills and reintegrate them back into society.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Monster Calls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
12 Strong

Advertisements

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

The Frighteners


Michael J. Fox doesn't like getting pushed around.

Michael J. Fox doesn’t like getting pushed around.

(1996) Horror Comedy (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace-Stone, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Julianna McCarthy, Troy Evans, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield, Desmond Kelly, Jonathan Blick, Todd Rippon, John Sumner, Jim McLarty, Anthony Ray Parker, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Peter Jackson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Special gifts generally turn out to be curses more than gifts. People who are different are regarded with suspicion and sometimes out-and-out hostility. On top of that, those who can see dead people are being hounded by the dead to take care of unfinished business with the living. It’s enough to make a would-be ghostbuster  pound his head against a tombstone.

Frank Bannister (Fox) hangs out at cemeteries. Not because he’s fond of graveyards but it’s a good way to drum up business; to discover who has had someone dearly departed and then allow their loved ones to communicate or avoid said lately deceased. The Sheriff (Evans) tolerates Frank to a certain degree although he doesn’t approve. That’s because he knows that Frank has been through a lot; namely, a car accident in which his wife Debbie (Bloomfield) was killed. There were whispers that if may not have been an accident and Frank’s career as an architect came to an end, as did construction on the house he had designed and was building for his wife.

Some see Frank as a charlatan who manufactures “hauntings” and then charges exorbitant rates to “cleanse” them but nobody can prove it. In fact, Frank is a con man who manufactures the hauntings – through the use of three ghosts. You see, ever since the car wreck, Frank can see dead people. His friends Cyrus (McBride), a disco apparition from the ’70s complete with magnificent ‘fro, nerdish Stuart (Fyfe) and The Judge (Astin), a decomposing gunslinger from the Old West lift things around and make people (who can’t see them) think there’s a poltergeist about. Frank steps in with fake instruments and a squirt gun full of “holy” water and cleanses the house. It’s not an honest living, but it’s a living nonetheless. He manages to meet Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Alvarado) when her oafish husband (Dobson) dies of a heart attack.

In fact the people of Fairwater have been dropping like flies lately, all with massive heart attacks. Frank witnesses one and realizes that a supernatural entity in a grim reaper cloak has latched itself to the town and he’s the only one who can stop it. Can he protect the comely widow whom he has begun to get sweet on, avoid the manic obsessive FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Combs) and save the town?

This was one of Jackson’s last movies before embarking on the massive Lord of the Rings project; prior to this he had made movies for the New Zealand market including the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures and the over-the-top Bad Taste. It was not a box office success, mainly because it was something of a compromise of sorts and not quite as anarchic and gore-drenched as earlier horror projects. It was also criticized for being a bit of a mish mash of other movies kind of lumped together.

Nevertheless, it’s still a romp. Fox shows why he was such a terrific leading man, completely charismatic and likable even as he was a bit of a cynic. He also showed some real vulnerability, something he didn’t necessarily do often in previous roles. It remains in my mind one of his best performances ever on big screen or small. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast, every one of whom does decent work here at worst.

There is a bit of a Ghostbusters vibe as well as a kind of tongue-in-cheek Beetlejuice feel (the movie shares composer Danny Elfman with the Tim Burton classic). There are also bits of The Shining and Poltergeist woven in with a bit of Scooby Doo and Re-Animator in there for good measure.

The ghost effects are definitely a bit dated but still effective. There are some other creature and practical effects that are definitely retro but work well even now, nearly 20 years after the fact. In fact, this is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, right up there with the ‘busters and Beetlejuice as far as I’m concerned. The villains are very villainous (Busey as a serial killer is a natural), the heroes are not-quite-competent but always plucky, the romantic interest beautiful in an Andie MacDowell kind of way and the scares are masterful occasionally, although Jackson has a tendency to go for the laugh as much as the scare. This may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread but it’s a great pop up some microwave popcorn, gather the family round the couch and put this on the TV at Halloween kind of movie. And isn’t that worth something?

WHY RENT THIS: Fun as all get out. Fox is a hoot. Definitely an irreverent vibe. A few genuine scares.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Leans more to the comedy side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, lots of horrific images and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to Astin’s character as “Doc,” his Back to the Future partner-in-crime. He broke his foot during filming, delaying production for about a week. This would be his last leading role in a film as the long shoot in New Zealand caused him a good deal of homesickness and he resolved to stay on the small screen, accepting a role in Spin City shortly thereafter.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Generally most major releases come with a making-of documentary which generally run in the 20-30 minute range. The one here is over three hours long and gets into details rarely gone into in home videos, including a read-through of the script at Jackson’s home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29.4M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (stream/rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2014 concludes!

The ABCs of Death


You really don't want to know what F stands for.

You really don’t want to know what F stands for.

(2012) Horror Anthology (Magnet) Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (voice), Erik Aude, Kyra Zagorsky, Ivan Gonzalez, Dallas Malloy, Sarah Bonrepaux, Lee Hardcastle, Fraser Corbett, Peter Pedrero, Darenzia, Arisa Nakamura, Hiroko Yashiki, Lucy Clements, Match, Yuri Murata, Je$$ica, Harold Torres, Mattias Oviedo, Alejandra Urdlain, Takashi Nishina, Chems Dahmani, Vanja Lazin. Directed by a bunch of people.  

Horror movies are undergoing a quiet renaissance with an underground that is active and imaginative. While many of these movies aren’t getting theatrical releases, with the advent of YouTube, VOD and other means of putting movies out there, we’re seeing some really good stuff not just here in America but from all over the world.

Tim League, founder of Fantastic Fest, America’s premier genre film festival, wants these talents to see the light of day. Along with co-producer Ant Timpson (a Kiwi whose Incredibly Strange Film Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious) he came up with a concept – assign 26 of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming horror film directors a letter of the alphabet and have them make a short film relating a word starting with that letter to death and then with all 26 shown as a single film.

Like all anthologies, the quality varies and with this many shorts (most of which last less than 5 minutes) there is a wide variety of styles and content. Some are more comic than horrific, some taking on a combination of the two. Many are attempts to push the boundaries, not only of gore but of good taste. Some are intriguing, some are innovative, some are repulsive and some are mediocre. Most people will find at least one of the shorts to be outstanding.

There were some that were just plain horrific in an old-fashioned sense –  A is for Apocalypse is, for example, from Nacho Vigolando (of Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial) in which a savage murder is turned into an act of mercy. One of my favorites was T is for Toilet in which an overly skittish young man who has an irrational fear of toilets (a fear which turned out to be justified) done in Claymation – the director, Lee Hardcastle, actually won the 26th spot on the roster in a contest.

Xavier Gens, the French director who helmed The Divide has one of the more straightforward shorts in the bunch.  In X is for XXL, a tormented overweight French woman decides to take matters into her own hands and reinvent herself to be more in line with the aesthetic of beauty that French models ascribe to. Take from that what you will.

There is also much humor. J is for Jidai-Geki (Samurai Film) from Japanese director Yudai Yamaguchi has a samurai about to deliver the coup de grace for a samurai committing hara-kiri unable to keep a straight face because of the faces his charge is making. Q is for Quack has Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die) and Simon Barrett commiserating over the disrespect afforded them by being assigned the letter Q and at their billing  in the credits. They concoct a brilliant way to make their segment stand out – then screw it up about as badly as it can be.

There are some surreal segments such as O is for Orgasm and W is for WTF. There is the animated K is for Klutz and the Russ Meyers tribute S is for Speed. I could go on and on but I don’t think it necessary to go over all 26 entries. You get the drift.

There’s enough good stuff to outweigh the bad by a pretty decent margin, so I can recommend this for most horror fans and even those mainstream moviegoers who don’t mind having their boundaries pushed a bit. This isn’t for the faint of heart, the squeamish or the easily offended. Who it is for are those who are looking for something a bit out of the norm and have an open mind about movies. I recommend bringing along someone with a big booming belly laugh. There was a guy like that at my screening of the film and it helps immensely.

REASONS TO GO: Some big laughs and some big scares. Pushes some boundaries and offers examples of what’s going on in the horror underground around the world.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven – some of the segments are less successful than others. Too much toilet humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Crude humor, graphic nudity and gore, foul language, violence, disturbing images and themes, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ant Timpson and Tim Teague, producers of the film, are best known for running the Incredibly Strange Film Festival and Fantastic Fest respectively; Teague is also CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; critics really didn’t get on board for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: V/H/S

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: I Declare War

The Way


The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes

White Noise 2: The Light


White Noise 2: The Light

Katee Sackhoff is thrilled that fans think "Battlestar Galactica" is better than "Firefly;" Nathan Fillion isn't so sure.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Nathan Fillion, Katee Sackhoff, Craig Fairbrass, Adrian Holmes, Kendall Cross, Teryl Rothery, William MacDonald, Josh Ballard, David Milchard, Tegan Moss. Directed by Patrick Lussier

I don’t often review direct-to-home video releases; they are almost always uniformly bad. I caught this one because it was initially going to get a theatrical release but was pulled and exiled to direct-to-video land instead. I expected the worst; instead, I actually was rewarded.

Abe Dale (Fillion) has a wonderful life that becomes shattered when his wife (Cross) and son (Ballard) are murdered before his very eyes while taking breakfast in a local diner by a psycho named Henry Caine (Fairbrass) who then turns the gun on himself. They had just been sitting down to pancakes; the crime was as senseless as it was brutal.

Understandably, Abe is distraught and eventually becomes overwhelmed by grief. He takes a bunch of pills with the intention of easing his pain permanently but his best friend Marty Bloom (Holmes) discovers what he’s up to and rushes him to the hospital. There Abe dies and experiences travelling through a tunnel of light where he sees his wife and son waiting for him, but it is not to be. His heart is re-started and he returns to the operating room.

He wakes up in a hospital bed and things don’t look quite right. He is administered to by a sympathetic nurse named Sherry Clarke (Sackhoff). Dr. Karras (MacDonald), his attending physician, writes off his enhanced eye-sight as a by-product of the trauma to his system, believing the effect will go away after a few days. Abe can see electrical auras, discharges from iPods and cell phones, even the auras of people. The horror is that the only auras he can see are in people who are about to die.

He also discovers that he can prevent those about to die from expiring and when he does, their auras go away. However, he then discovers to his horror that three days after their lives are saved they are possessed by the Devil and go on a murderous rampage. He also is shocked to discover that Henry Caine is still alive and moreover had the same ability as Abe does. It becomes his mission to get to the bottom of it and discover how he can prevent the devil from possessing the saved – because one of those he saved was Sherry, whom he has developed a certain attachment for.

Director Patrick Lussier makes some really smart choices here, going for more of an atmospheric thriller and distancing the movie from White Noise, a surprise hit horror film that concerned itself more with Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and wasn’t nearly as good as this is.

Much of the reason this works so well is Nathan Fillion. I think he’s one of the most underrated actors out there; he is just so damn likable, even when he’s playing a scoundrel (as he does in Serenity). I’d be willing to bet that Katee Sackhoff is going to join him on that list. She’s as far off from Starbuck (her “Battlestar Galactica” character) as it’s possible to get, and she’s actually very likable here.

The problem with the movie has to do with a couple of elements. First off is the ending of the movie. I don’t mind a movie taking a leap off the deep end into fantasy, but when it does so sideways and in a manner that defies logic, I take exception. Without going into much detail, Abe – who’s shown himself to be a smart fella throughout the movie – does some pretty dumb things. That’s a screenwriting sin that just absolutely drives me crazy; changing a character for the sake of advancing the climax. Write better is the only advice I have in this case.

For the most part, this is well-directed, well-acted and well-conceived. While it fails when it tries to combine science with the supernatural, it nonetheless is a solid bit of horror entertainment (although I somehow doubt most would qualify this as a horror film – it’s more of a supernatural thriller). And as for a direct-to-video sequel outshining the original? That in itself is a feat worth recording.

WHY RENT THIS: Fillion is one of my favorite actors right now. There is a pretty good concept here that deserved a better fate. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending dives into the deep end of the preposterous pool.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing images and a few instances of blue language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dr. Karras character’s name is an homage to Father Karras, the priest played by Jason Miller in The Exorcist.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are a home video staple, there is more than half an hour’s worth of them, making this an abundance of unseen footage. There is also a nifty featurette on Near Death Experience survivors.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Surveillance