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

The Deer Hunter


Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

(1978) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, Pierre Segui, Mady Kaplan, Amy Wright, Mary Ann Haenel, Richard Kuss, Joe Grifasi, Christopher Columbi Jr., Victoria Karnafel, Jack Scardino, Joe Strnad, Helen Tomko. Directed by Michael Cimino

Waiting for Oscar

1979 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actor – Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep
Best Original Screenplay – Michael Cimino, Deric Wasburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Best Cinematography – Vilmos Zsigmond
WINS – 5
Best Picture
Best Director – Michael Cimino
Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Walken
Best Sound
Best Editing

Ritual are an important part of life. We mark various rites of passage – birthdays, weddings, funerals – with rituals whether we label them such or not. Rituals give our lives a sense of constancy, a feeling of continuation and connect us to past, present and future.

Mike (De Niro) is a Pennsylvania steelworker on his last day before joining the army with his buddies Steve (Savage) and Nick (Walken). Steve is also getting married to Angela (Alda) who is pregnant but not by Steve. The wedding is a traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony followed by a traditional raucous Russian reception. Nick proposes to his girlfriend Linda (Streep) and the next day the three friends, joined by their friends Stosh (Cazale), John (Dzundza) and Axel (Aspegren) go hunting for deer. Mike tells the group about his “one shot” philosophy of hunting.

Next it’s off to Vietnam. The three men are sent their separate ways but against all odds are reunited unexpectedly during an attack on a village which the NVA has occupied. Unfortunately, the attack fails and all three men are captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

They are tortured by sadistic guards and forced to play Russian roulette against one another. Mike manages to outwit his guards and shoots them, allowing the three men to escape. By chance an army helicopter finds them but only Nick is able to board it. Steve, who is badly injured, floats down the river and Mike goes after him to rescue them. He manages to carry Steve to safety.

Nick becomes involved in underground Russian Roulette parlors in Vietnam while Mike goes home. Embarrassed by the fuss everyone makes over his return, he tries to locate Steve. Eventually Mike locates him in a local veterans hospital. Mike is eager to go back to Vietnam and find Nick whom he is certain is still alive and whom he promised he wouldn’t leave behind in that country. All three men will eventually return home in their own way but none will come back the same as when they left.

In many ways, this is as powerful a movie as you’re likely to ever see. Cimino, definitely inspired by the scope and grandeur of The Godfather, seems to want to make a movie that explores America’s mixed emotions about the Vietnam war. Cimino wants to make an adult epic, one with plenty of symbolism and foreshadowing. While I can applaud his ambitions I do believe his reach exceeded his grasp.

This is a movie that dwells on minutiae. It comes to the point – and surpasses it – of being cinematic babble. The wedding sequence that takes place over the film’s first hour (!) is a good 45 minutes too long. While it’s supposed to establish what the men are giving up and leaving behind, at the end of the day I don’t think all of this is necessary to the story. Worse yet, Cimino and his co-writers create lapses that sacrifice logic for emotional power. For example, the Russian roulette sequences which are at the heart of the film – what captor would give his captive a loaded weapon? That’s why there are no recorded instances of American POWs being forced to shoot themselves as is depicted here. Why wouldn’t you shoot your captor if you were going to do that?

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some powerful performances to be observed here. De Niro was in his heyday, on a string of roles that established him as one of America’s best actors in the 70s and 80s (and of course all the way through until now) and his work as the film’s moral center garnered him yet another Oscar nomination. Streep, already with two Oscar wins to her credit, was luminous as Linda while Walken established his career with a searing performance that would win him Oscar gold.

Ultimately what undoes the movie is its lack of focus. I’ve watched the movie several times and each time I try to find what it is that has so engrossed people whose opinion I respect and who consider this one of the best movies ever made. Each time I come away unable to find that same level of respect, although there is some. Ultimately I am let down by this film, one which in trying to be realistic, symbolic and thoughtful falls into the abyss of being none of the things it tries to be. In my opinion, this is the most overrated Best Picture winner of all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Some powerful performances by some of the best actors of the time whose careers received big boosts from this film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overblown, overrated, overly long wedding sequence, full of plot holes and inconsequential business.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some extremely intense situations and images, war violence, language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cazale was in the final stages of cancer when filming began and due to his weakened condition, his scenes were filmed first. When the studio caught wind of his condition, they put pressure on Cimino to replace the dying actor but Meryl Streep put her foot down and threatened to leave the production if Cazale was removed. He died shortly after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Unbelievably, nothing but the usual suspects.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar concludes!

Out of the Furnace


Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper

Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing  jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.

Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his  brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.

And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.

When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).

Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.

First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.

Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.

Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.

Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.

There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.

For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.

REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!