Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
If the Dancer Dances

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Weed the People


A father teaches his son to “grow your own”.

(2018) Documentary (Mangurama) Mara Gordon, Bonni Goldstein, Tracey Ryan, AJ Kephart, Amanda Reiman, Sunil Agarwal, Shirley Kephart, Josh Ryan, Sharon Lane, Angela Peterson, Yohai Gulan Gild, Jeffrey Rabe, Donald Abrams, Adrian Peterson, Chris Kephart, Angela Smith, Ethan Nadelmann, Stewart Smith, Angela Harris, Alice O’Leary-Randall. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

Marijuana has been demonized for decades in this country. The FDA has placed marijuana on an equal footing with heroin in terms of enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the country wants it legalized, particularly for its medicinal benefits but our government refuses to even consider it, largely because Big Pharma wants it to remain criminalized.

This film argues the case for legalization rather effectively, following five families with children who are afflicted with cancer. Desperate for relief from pain and suffering both from the disease and the chemo treatments, the parents turn from traditional medicine to alternative cures. California, where medical marijuana has been legalized for years, is the setting here and a family from Chicago, which sets up residency in California in order to get the cannabis oil that might be keeping their son alive, is also followed here.

Physician and advocate Bonni Goldstein counsels family through the sometimes confusing process of qualifying for the medical marijuana program is profiled as well as Mara Gordon, a former process engineer who has become a cannabis oil cooker, helping patients determine the dosage needed for their children. “We are lab rats,” she states grimly and indeed it’s true; there has been very little research done into the use of cannabis to treat cancer and much of what Gordon does is through trial and error. Sometimes the results are spectacular, bordering on the miraculous as tumors shrink and cancers flees. In one case here, the usage of the cannabis cannot stop the child’s death from his disease.

There are a lot of talking heads and a lot of scientists and doctors giving mainly anecdotal evidence – as I said there is little in the way of formal studies – about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating cancer, improving appetite and reducing pain. The science and logic are well supported even though some of the science (particularly when they talk about cannibinoids and chemistry) went sailing over my sadly non-scientific head but the filmmakers do make a very good case.

However, one can’t help but feel manipulated. Any good will that the movie generates for its cause disappears in light that the filmmakers use children exclusively to make their point. Adults need cannabis oil just as desperately as children do but sick kids make more of an emotional impact. It reeks of dirty pool and while I suppose that the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window when a family member is in a life or death fight, it still rubbed me the wrong way and felt a little exploitative to boot.

I also felt that the filmmakers were presenting cannabis as a cure that can’t fail, like penicillin was once. The fact is that cannabis is ineffective for some people (one of the children, as I stated, didn’t survive) and that may well be due to the lack of clinical studies – and I totally agree that such studies should be undertaken forthwith. Still, it seems a bit cruel to build up the hope for parents of sick kids or families of sick adults. Even Gordon, who approaches the subject with level-headed perspective born of an engineering background, cautions “I can’t promise anything,” as she sits down with those who are desperate for anything. The treatment is prohibitively expensive and isn’t covered by most insurance policies.

One physician early on cautions “The plural of anecdote is not ‘evidence’,” and the filmmakers seems to lose sight of that here. The stories are indeed compelling, the subject is indeed worth exploring, the advocates interviewed are indeed passionate and the children quietly courageous. All that is to the good. If Epstein had handled the subject with a little bit more of an even hand, I think her documentary would have been far more persuasive. I support the conclusions more in spite of the film than because of it – not what I’m sure any filmmaker wants to hear about their documentary

REASONS TO GO: It’s an important topic that needs to be addressed. The advocates are engaging and truly passionate. The children with cancer are resilient, courageous and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads and the science sometimes goes over mine. The filmmakers are a little too biased.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references although mostly in medical terms.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, it has only been illegal in this country for about 75 years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super High Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bodied

Birdman


The angel on Michael Keaton's shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

The angel on Michael Keaton’s shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Damian Young, Keenan Shimizu, Merritt Weaver, Natalie Gold, Clark Middleton, Jimmy Marsh Garland, Akira Ito, Michael Siberry, Katherine O’Sullivan. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu

Our identity is sometimes self-affixed. Other times it is forced upon us by circumstances, or by others. When you are a celebrity, you are often trapped within the latter situation. A memorable role or performance can change people’s perception of you until you realize that you aren’t seen as anything separate from that performance or role. You become trapped in that role forever.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) has had such a role. The superhero Birdman made his career through three hugely successful movies but after three of them he decided to turn his back on the part which by then was far too late. By the time he’d turned down Birdman 4 he was already yesterday’s news, a has-been.

Itching to make a comeback, he’s putting on a Broadway production that he has written, directed and is starring in. adapted from the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With his closest friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis) helping him with the business end, he has cast his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first time Broadway actress Lesley (Watts) and Ralph (Shamos), possibly the worst actor ever. When a fluke accident knocks Ralph out before the first preview performance and Jake frantic to find a replacement, Lesley offers to call Mike (Norton), with whom she once had a relationship. Mike, being a big star who could certainly draw larger audiences, is immediately brought in even though some have misgivings about Mike’s general attitude and backstabbing tendencies.

Riggan and Jake have sunk everything into this venture and know that if it fails, Riggan’s career is done. With Riggan’s adult daughter Sam (Stone) acting as his personal assistant to offer support – okay, to rip her father a new one at every opportunity, a vicious New York Times theater critic (Duncan) waiting in the wings to savage the play because she hates Hollywood stars with a passion, it is no wonder Riggan is beginning to have delusions of telekinetic superpowers, of hearing the voice of his cinematic alter-ego in his head with whom he has long conversations. Can Riggan pull this off and save his career?

Inirritu has tended to do dramas with a kind of heavy hand in the past with movies like Babel and Biutiful to his credit. This is more of a heavy handed comedy in many ways although at the end of the day I think it is more accurately classified a drama with fantasy and comedic overtones.

Keaton, who once played Batman in two Tim Burton movies back in the day, is inspired casting. In return he delivers his greatest performance to date. Riggan is a tortured soul of missed opportunities, bad turns and ill-advised choices. Those are the kinds of things that keep a person up all night and Riggan clearly isn’t getting much sleep. His chance at redemption is a long-shot at best and Riggan knows it. Years wasted away from his family that ended his marriage to a faithful wife (Ryan) and created a rift between Riggan and Sam. On top of that, he’s having delusions, hallucinations – call them what you will – which make more sense to him than the sensory input from the reality around him.

Give him a good supporting cast and a terrific script and you have a winner without fail. One of the things I like about Birdman besides Keaton is the ambiguity within the script. In many ways, you are given “just the facts” without any editorializing. You are left to make your own opinions with the information you’re given. If you need an example ask yourself this when you leave the theater: What did Sam see at the window? Those who have seen the movie will get the reference. My friends and I debated that very question after the movie was over and I don’t think any two of us had exactly the same answer.

Inarritu chose to shoot the film to resemble one long continuous shot a la Rope by Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of critics have praised this technique but I thought it got a little gimmicky, particularly near the end of the movie when they were running out of ways of transitioning from one point of view to the next.

This isn’t a mainstream movie although it isn’t so far out that mainstream audiences can’t enjoy it. This isn’t a typical indie movie either although it isn’t so Hollywood that indie audiences won’t embrace it. Not everyone is going to like it although critics have thus far enthusiastically recommended the movie but while most of the people who saw it with me admitted that they liked it, there were some who were ambivalent about it. I won’t say it’s a transformative movie experience although I will say it’s insightful – and allows you to reach those insights honestly. It is likely to be an Oscar contender although I suspect that there are other movies that are more likely to win the gold statue come February. However, I think a lot of people are going to see this as one of the year’s best movies and I really can’t fault them for that.

REASONS TO GO: May be Keaton’s best performance ever. Line between fantasy and reality is thin. Ambiguous where it needs to be. Terrific supporting cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A little gimmicky in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of swearing, some brief violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was shot at the St. James theater on Broadway, one of the most prestigious theaters on the Great White Way where such plays as Oklahoma, The King and I, Becket and Hello, Dolly all made their Broadway debuts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: St. Vincent

Carriers


The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Christopher Meloni, Emily VanCamp, Kiernan Shipka, Ron McClary (voice), Mark Moses, Josh Berry, Tim Janis, Dale Malley, Jan Cunningham, Mary Peterson (voice), Sequoyah Adams-Rice, LeAnne Lynch, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Alex and David Pastor

Zombies are all the rage in post-apocalyptic horror, but as scary as the living dead might be, what could be scarier than a monster you can’t see: a virus. It is not the virus itself that frightens, although the results end up the same whether infected with a virus or having your brains munched on by a walker but what the virus turns us into.

Danny (Pucci) and Brian (Pine) are brothers. Danny, once bound for Yale before higher education became more of a school of hard knocks, is the more reserved and the smarter of the two. Brian, more of a working class stiff, is the more pragmatic particularly in terms of survival. Along with Brian’s girlfriend Bobbi (Perabo) and Danny’s friend Kate (VanCamp) they are headed to the coast, to Turtle Beach, a resort where Danny and Brian have fond memories.

They have some hard and fast rules which essentially boil down to stay away from those who might be sick which is essentially everyone. They carry bleach and surgical masks which they wear whenever they venture out of the safety of their stolen car. The more they can keep to the four of themselves, the safer they’ll be.

As they drive west they run into a father (Meloni) and his daughter (Shipka) who is infected. They’re trying to make it to a complex where a cure is said to be. At first Brian says no way Jose but eventually circumstances force him to help the other two. For their troubles, Bobbi gets infected although she tries to hide it at first. However, there’s no hiding the horrors that are to follow.

 

In some ways this is a bloodless film (although there are a couple of scenes where the infected burble up blood through various orifices). There is little in the way of gore and hardly any violence. Even when the girls are confronted by survivalists who have rape on the minds comes to naught when they discover that Bobbi is sick after they force the girls to strip down to bra and panties. Followers of Joe Bob Briggs and Drive-In Cinema will be sorely disappointed – back in the 70s and 80s there would have been pustules exploding blood, bodies dripping with gore, knife fights and of course the girls would have been naked and likely raped. Ah, the good old days.

But this is a different era and audience sensibilities are different now. This is meant to be more of a psychological horror film as we watch the tight-knit group slowly disintegrate. You have the natural conflict between brothers which always makes for good cinema, but even that is watered down some and the writers gave them the golden opportunity of having one brother be intellectual, the other working class. I mean, how much more conflict do you need?

Apparently plenty because in the hands of the Pastor brothers this is a kinder, gentler apocalypse, one that is suitable for prime time network television. The moral decisions here are fairly basic – survival versus compassion and in a situation such as this, well, there’s really only one decision so even that conflict feels forced and artificial.

Pine, who went on to Star Trek fame not long after this was filmed, has plenty of presence and charisma as he acts the role of leader here. There is a nice dynamic between him and Pucci, who is more of the conscience of the group. Eventually the roles get reversed but while it is a bit jarring in the way they do it onscreen, the actors manage to make it believable nonetheless.

This is a pretty flawed movie which the studio essentially gave up on before Pine’s success brought it out of the vaults and into a brief release. This isn’t the greatest of post-apocalyptic horrors – it could have used a little more edge – but it has its merits and Pine is worth seeing in this role before he went on to become James Tiberius Kirk. Ladies be warned though – he spends a good portion of the film with a surgical mask on.

WHY RENT THIS: Pine and Pucci make an effective team.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely grim and lacks visceral thrills.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, plenty of disturbing images and a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2006, Carriers was shelved until Chris Pine’s success in Star Trek motivated the studio to dust it off and give it a brief limited release.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes, Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin Fever
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Coherence

Ruby Sparks


Zoe Kazan has just punk'd Paul Dano.

Zoe Kazan has just punk’d Paul Dano.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Elliott Gould, Steve Coogan, Chris Messina, Deborah Ann Woll, Aasif Mandvi, Toni Trucks, Jane Ann Thomas, Alia Shawkat, Wallace Langham, Emma Julia Jacobs. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 Cinema of the Heart

The problem with love is that we can’t have the perfect mate. That’s because we ourselves are imperfect and besides, how boring would it be if the person we were with was perfect? There’d never be any growth…ever. It would always be exactly the same. What would you do with perfection?

Calvin (Dano) isn’t really worried much about perfection. He is worried that he might have already peaked in life. He wrote a wildly successful, award-winning novel when barely out of high school. That was ten years ago and he hasn’t written a word since. His brother Harry (Messina) is supportive as his agent (Coogan) who surely must be the most tolerant agent in history. Calvin still does the occasional reading and still carries enough cache to get numbers slipped his way but he is in a funk that has finally compelled him to see a shrink (Gould) who tells him to write about the perfect girlfriend.

This works wonders. Calvin starts writing in a feverish pitch about the most wonderful girlfriend ever. She makes all other girls look like harpies by comparison. Calvin can’t stop writing about her…until she shows up in his house, just as real as you or I.

At first, Calvin thinks he’s blown a fuse. Then he realizes that everyone can see her, and that she is in fact real. Calvin freaks out quite naturally while Ruby (Kazan) wonders why he’ s acting so strangely. However it turns out that when Calvin writes about her, whatever he writes happens; if he writes she speaks French fluently, she starts conversing in perfect French. If he writes that she’s doing naked jumping jacks…well, you get the idea.

The relationship turns toxic though. Calvin turns into a right little shit about it and starts abusing his power over poor Ruby who although compelled to do as he writes is still an autonomous thinker in all other ways. Can a man mess up the perfect situation?

Of course he can. That’s the nature of men after all. Dayton and Faris, the team that brought us Little Miss Sunshine, have this as their follow-up and while it doesn’t measure up to their last movie in terms of sheer quality and laughs, proves that it at least wasn’t a fluke either.

Dano is at once both the perfect choice and the wrong choice for Calvin. He’s perfect in that he captures Calvin’s indecisive nature and his kind of general “wandering through life” vibe. He is the wrong choice however in that the very things that make him perfect make it difficult for an audience to connect with the lead character. Is that a fault of the actor? I dunno. I think that a lot of indie comedies have aspired to a Jon Heder-like character in every comedy which perhaps is an unconscious attempt to duplicate the success of Napoleon Dynamite which is the kind of studio douchebaggery the indie scene is supposed to be against.

The movie has a kind of a sweet core though which is nothing to sneeze at, and Kazan does make for the world’s best girlfriend, which isn’t surprising since she co-wrote the movie. While the ostensible protagonist is Calvin, it is Ruby that you’ll remember from the film and Kazan’s portrayal of her. She has the same kind of screen attractiveness that another Zoe (well, Zoey – Deschanel) possesses and may well have the same kind of successful career that she has.

I like the premise a lot but thought the execution of it was uninspiring. Calvin’s decline from nice nebbish to real jackhole is a bit jarring and doesn’t serve the story well. I kept wondering what the point was that the writer were trying to make – that all men are manipulative jerks, or that perfection is something we can’t handle, or that we’re never satisfied with what we make up in our heads – I don’t really get it. But then again that might be part of the master plan, to leave you trying to figure it out which isn’t a bad thing. It’s still a really good movie despite my criticisms of it and I really do recommend it whole-heartedly but I’m still scratching my head a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Kazan makes a great perfect girlfriend. Intriguing premise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. Dano a bit too laid back.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of bad language and a little drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, not only were Dayton and Faris a couple but so were Dano and Kazan.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a real interesting but brief featurette on real life couples involved in the making of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget; I think that the movie was profitable in all likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Than Fiction

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Conclusion of Cinema of the Heart 2013

Leaving (Partir)


There's no passion quite like illicit passion...

There’s no passion quite like illicit passion…

(2009) Romance (IFC) Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi Lopez, Yvan Attal, Bernard Blancan, Aladin Reibel, Alexandre Vidal, Daisy Broom, Berta Esquirol, Gerard Lartigau, Genevieve Casile, Philippe Laudenbach, Michele Ernou, Jonathan Cohen, Helene Babu. Directed by Catherine Corsini

Cinema of the Heart

Cheating on a spouse is one of the great universal taboos. It is not acceptable in any culture that I’m aware of, although there seems to be some tolerance in some European cultures for middle aged men to have younger mistresses.

That same tolerance isn’t extended to middle aged women however. Case in point, Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, a French film which explores the subject. Middle aged Suzanne (Thomas) has lived most of her life in France (she’s English) and had put her successful career as a physical therapist on hold to raise her children. Now that they’re nearly gone, she’s eager to resume her career and to that end her tightfisted husband Samuel (Attal), a physician, is remodeling a shed in the yard to serve as her office. He’s hired Ivan (Lopez), a Spanish emigrant, to do the work – under the table, of course.

When Suzanne forgets to set the parking brake on her car, sturdy Ivan chases it down but it runs over his foot. Mortified, Suzanne feels a bit guilty knowing that he was planning to travel to Spain and visit his daughter from another marriage. She feels obligated to drive him there. Along the way they get to talking, get to know each other…and at the trip’s conclusion, they kiss.

Of course one thing leads to another and soon the two are embarking on a torrid physical affair. At first Suzanne is happy for the first time in a very long time and soon she comes to realize that her marriage has been a loveless sham. She wants this. She wants it all. And she tells Samuel so.

Big mistake. Samuel as you can guess doesn’t take all too kindly to this. When Suzanne leaves, he freezes all her funds. She is left with no money and no career. As her finances dwindle into desperation stage, she resorts to taking some of her things from her home. When Ivan tries to sell them, he’s arrested for stealing them as Samuel had reported them stolen.

When Suzanne begs Samuel for mercy, he tells her quite matter-of-factly if she returns home to her old life, Ivan will be set free. The horror of her situation causes Suzanne to faint. But unconsciousness won’t put off the decision for too long – and it’s a decision with ramifications far beyond what’s expected.

Now on paper it sounds pretty straightforward. Love is the answer, isn’t it? Wellllllll, not always. Suzanne’s commitment to Samuel is both legal and moral and breaking it isn’t without repercussions in both areas. Her carnal re-awakening seems to have overwhelmed her thoughts about the ramifications of her actions to her children and her community. But she’s entitled to happiness, isn’t she?

It’s a delicate question. Samuel seems to be quite a good guy at least initially – a little bit miserly but nothing too horrible. He seems genuinely supportive of his wife. It is only after the affair becomes known to him that he turns into a real bastard. Attal captures both sides of Samuel quite nicely.

Thomas, an Oscar winner for The English Patient, has become one of the biggest stars in France and is quite frankly one of the best actresses on the planet although she isn’t usually considered as such here but she makes Suzanne compelling, even though she’s not always what you would call the nicest of people. She’s kind of a bitch in fact and when we see her faced with her worst dilemma, her reaction is not only unjustified but it’s not unexpected.

This isn’t a hearts and roses kind of movie. It really looks at the seedier side of love and the results are catastrophic for everyone involved. There are some very intense sex scenes here with Thomas and Lopez, but the affair seems to be much more about the physical than about the romantic. It’s a fairly cynical look at love which is a pretty un-Gallic point of view in my opinion. Still, Thomas is so excellent and the cinematography so beautiful that one can overlook the fairly unremarkable story and consider the double standard I alluded to earlier – how different a film would this have been if it had been Samuel having the affair?

WHY RENT THIS: Thomas at her very best. Highly erotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pedantic story really has little to say. Lead characters are so selfish and unlikable that it is difficult to root for them.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality and some violence; also a bit of bad language and situations more suitable for adults than children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leaving represents the 15th film directed by Corsini since her first La mesange in 1982.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I think the movie most likely broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day 2

A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material