The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

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The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

The Railway Man


Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

Those who walk along straight tracks are liable to get run down by a train.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bryan Probets, Michael MacKenzie, Jeffrey Daunton, Tom Stokes, Tom Hobbs, Akos Armont, Keith Fleming, Ben Aldridge, Yukata Izumihara, Masa Yamaguchi, Michael Doonan, Keiichi Enomoto. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

The number of veterans that come home from war with PTSD is staggering. Nobody comes back from war unscarred, even if they didn’t get a scratch on them in battle. These days, our combat vets have programs through the VA that can help them through it, although getting into those programs these days can be frustrating and time-consuming. Back in the days of the Second World War, PTSD wasn’t even a recognized condition.

Eric Lomax (Irvine) certainly has scars, some which aren’t visible at all. Captured by the Japanese after the Fall of Singapore, he and his fellow soldiers were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway which was also called the Death Railway for the number of prisoners of war and Asian civilians who died in its construction. Lomax, a railway enthusiast and an engineer, was spared the forced labor because engineers were needed for other tasks. In secret, he also built a radio receiver which would have devastating consequences for Eric when it was discovered.

Years later, Eric (Firth) has met a nurse named Patti (Kidman) whom he has fallen deeply in love with. The two get married but Patti is troubled by her husband’s frequent night terrors, his violent mood swings and panic attacks. Whatever shell he has built around himself to cope with what he has been through is crumbling. Desperate, she talks to Finlay (Skarsgard), his best friend who at first is reluctant to talk to her about what Eric went through but at last gives in. Eric was brutally tortured, facilitated by a translator named Takeshi Nagase (Ishida).

Not long after, Finlay brings news to that Nagase is still alive. The former translator is now a museum tour guide (Sanada) in the very building the atrocities were committed in. Finlay urges Eric to go to Thailand and confront Nagase. Eric is reluctant to but a dramatic act by Finlay convinces him to go.

This is a true story, based on Lomax’ own autobiography. While a few facts were fudged – the meeting between Nagase and Lomax was portrayed as a complete surprise to Nagase when in fact the former translator had been prepared for his arrival through correspondence, and while Lomax’ motives to go to Thailand were portrayed here as initially a need to take vengeance, his book states clearly that he went to seek closure and confront his former tormentor face to face. It also doesn’t mention that Eric had been previously married and had three children by that marriage who figured in the actual story as well. Other than that (which are major issues it must be admitted) and the time compression of some events, the movie pretty much follows the book closely.

Firth has a difficult role to play. Not only is he a man in deep mental anguish, he also has to play a shy, retiring sort more interested in railroads than people, yet with a good heart. We get every side of Eric Lomax here, from the man in pain to the man bestowing the most divine of human gifts that one can give another, and I’m not talking American Express gift cards here.

Kidman’s role is less complex but she performs it no less satisfactorily. This isn’t a real glamour role for the star but she is still as lustrous as ever. She’s not a background performer here, although her character does take a backseat to Firth’s but then again, it’s not called The Railway Woman.

The message is a powerful one. Lomax not only forgives Nagase, but recognizes that his pain runs deep as well. When Nagase reads those words and collapses in tears, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Sometimes all we need is acknowledgement that we are hurting to make us feel better.

The depictions of torture are pretty graphic. Those who are wondering what waterboarding is will get a good idea of it when watching this movie. It serves as a reminder that our leaders who authorized using it as a means of extracting information failed to learn from history when it comes for the effectiveness of this method in getting reliable intelligence. It had the extra added side effect that it made me even more angry at the CIA, the Bush Administration and our military for allowing it to happen. We are supposed to be better than that and I expect our political and military leaders to be better than that.

To forgive is divine and never is it as divine as when a wrong as heinous as this is committed on a person. Hollywood is quick to make movies about revenge but movies about forgiveness are few and far between. While the filmmakers belabor their point a bit, I still think that if we made more movies emphasizing forgiveness that we as a culture would benefit greatly.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific job by Firth. The theme of forgiveness is powerful and unusual for a Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Overplays its point.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence against prisoners of war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Patti Lomax attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival last year and received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bridge Over the River Kwai

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Transcendence

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

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Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa

The Act of Killing


A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

A surreal musical number from the movie within a movie.

(2012) Documentary (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sakhyan Asmara, Soaduon Siregar, Syamsul Arfin, Yapto Soerjosoemano. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment, a means of forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours. This isn’t one of those. THIS is a movie that isn’t meant to be enjoyed so much as experienced, one that will leave you struggling with the powerful emotions and concepts it brings out in you when the movie’s over.

Starting in 1965, assassinations of Indonesian generals in an attempt to destabilize the government led to General Suharto taking control of the government. This in turn led to almost a year of unbridled mass murder ostensibly to rid the country of communists who were blamed for the assassinations. In reality, the job was given to a large extent to members of organized crime and the definition of “communists” was broadened a bit to include those who in general disagreed with the military junta and all ethnic Chinese. Later it was essentially expanded to “anyone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One of the more revered of the death squad leaders is Anwars Congo. Now a white-haired grandfatherly sort, he is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth.  He, like the other death squad leaders, have never answered for their crimes of murdering civilians in cold blood. In fact, they are thought to be heroes and boast openly about being able to do whatever they wanted, including wanton rape and looting.

Congo tells us that the stink from the blood of the victims had grown so great that he chose to start using a wire garrote to kill his victims which required less cleaning up after. In an extraordinary move, director Oppenheimer gives Congo and a few of his cronies the opportunity to re-enact their atrocities on film in whatever style they liked.

Why would they want to, you may ask? Well, these were men heavily influenced by American b-movies (Congo had gotten his start scalping cinema tickets) and during those terrible months of late 1965 and early 1966, often used westerns and gangster movies as inspiration to carry out their heinous acts. So they do just that, filming in the style of noir, gangster movies and yes, even a musical number which concludes with the spirit of one of the victims thanking Congo for murdering him and sending him to heaven, after which he shakes the mass murderer’s hand and raises it in triumph like a prize fighter.

The cognitive dissonance depicted in this film is mind-blowing.  Gangsters are looked upon with admiration. They claim that the term gangster means “free men” (a misconception that is repeated often by the ex-criminals) and reveled in the complete freedom to do whatever they chose without regard to law or morality. The bullying and terrifying tactics are looked upon as national symbols of pride.

While most of the perpetrators have no outward remorse or guilt over their acts, cracks begin to show in Congo’s facade. He complains of nightmares that plague him nightly. Things begin to unravel when he portrays a victim being strangled in a police office. He wonders aloud if his victims felt what he did (the experience so unnerved him that he was unable to continue). Off-camera, Oppenheimer says gently but firmly that they felt much worse; they knew they were going to die while Congo knew that in his case, it was just a movie.

This leads to the denouement when Congo returns to the rooftop where he committed many of the savage acts. His growing realization over what he had done leads to one of the most compelling and literally gut-wrenching scenes in modern cinematic history.

In the viewer, there is an immediate instinct to go and comfort the grandfatherly Congo, but then we reach an epiphany of our own – does this man who committed so many monstrous acts (he claims to have killed about a thousand people personally) deserve comfort? Is there no forgiveness for him? That is a question I’m still wrestling with. How does one redeem oneself for mass murder? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I don’t think anybody does.

Leaving the Enzian afterwards, there was so much swirling around in my head and in my heart (as was occurring with my wife as well) that the normal discussion about the film was a bit muted. I can’t say that this movie is enjoyable – but I can say that it’s important. Given our own propensity for mass shootings these days and the genocidal events that occur to this day, it’s sometimes hard to accept that there is any goodness inside the human race at all and it makes one wonder if the universe wouldn’t be a better place if the entire planet were wiped out by a convenient meteor strike. However, watching he change that occurs in someone who was such a monster at one time gives me hope that there might actually be some humanity in the human race after all.

REASONS TO GO: Makes you think and feel. One of the most powerful and moving climaxes in recent cinematic history.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems stagnant and redundant in a few places although the film’s climax brings all the parts together.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language. The themes are extremely adult (dealing with mass murder) and there are some intimations of children endangered. Also, lots and lots of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, were so moved by this film that they came aboard as executive producers.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Year of Living Dangerously

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Family

The Ledge


The Ledge

Sometimes the view from the top isn't the one you want to have.

(2011) Suspense (IFC) Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard, Jaqueline Fleming, Chris Gorham, Maxine Greco, Geraldine Singer, Dean West, Jillian Batherson, Tyler Humphrey, Mike Pniewski, Katia Gomez. Directed by Matthew Chapman

 

How far would you go for love? Most of us are willing to go out of our way to get flowers or dry cleaning, or maybe give up watching the big game to take her to the opera. How many of us would stand out on a ledge for hours, knowing that if we don’t jump by a certain time the one we love will die in our place?

That’s the dilemma placed before Gavin Nichols (Hunnam). He has had the bad luck to fall for Shana Harris (Tyler) who works for him in the hotel he manages. Not so much bad luck to fall for a co-worker; bad luck because she’s married to Joe (Wilson), a fundamentalist Christian whacko. In fairness, Joe rescued Shana from a life of drug abuse, prostitution and otherwise not-niceness.

Joe, as you might guess, didn’t like the thought of his wife sleeping with another man much. He goes a little bit psychotic – all right, a lot psychotic – particularly because Gavin is an atheist who rooms with a gay man. If there’s anything that would drive a conservative Christian crazier, I can’t think of it at the moment. Joe is particularly affronted because he’d had them into his home for dinner and spirited discussions (read as lectures) about faith and spirituality.

So he kidnaps his own wife and sets her in a room opposite a high rise and tells Gavin he needs to climb out on the ledge and wait there until a certain time of day. At that time, he is to jump. Otherwise he’ll get to witness his love shot in the head.

Of course, his being out on a ledge attracts the attention of the police and Detective Hollis Lucetti (Howard) is sent out to talk him down. Lucetti is having a bad day of his own. He has just found out that he’s sterile. That’s no picnic in and of itself, but when you’re married and have watched your wife give birth to two kids who are supposedly your own…that can make you question a few things – like your wife’s fidelity. He’s dealing with this and trying to talk Gavin down and meanwhile time is ticking away…

I really like this premise a lot. It makes for excellent suspense fodder. Unfortunately, it bogs down quite a bit. The spirituality/faith aspect kind of muddies the waters. I’m not too down with conservative Christians to begin with but why do they get portrayed as nutcases in movies so much? I know plenty of Christians who have sex lives that are just fine and don’t go off the deep end when confronted with homosexuality or atheism. They make convenient villains, I guess.

Wilson does twitchy as well as any actor out there. He can be menacing while still seeming normal and nice on the surface. That’s an art form in itself, folks. Kudos to Wilson for his performance here. Howard is a terrific actor who never seems to give a bad performance. He doesn’t give a bad one here either. Tyler is lustrous and Hunnam, which most U.S. audiences would know from the “Sons of Anarchy” cable show is solid.

I would have personally preferred a more straightforward suspense film here. It works without the ecumenical finger-pointing I think. The atheism vs. Christian argument turns into a distraction, particularly since nobody seems to be able to make any points that have any sort of freshness to them. If that kind of thing floats your boat, there are plenty of debates on the subject available on the Internet that are far more intriguing than this.

Sometimes simple is better and that’s one that got by the filmmakers in this instance. It’s not a bad film – don’t get me wrong – it’s just kind of not memorable. I would even say it’s good but it’s really just shy of that – it has a lot of good elements to it. It just doesn’t have enough of them to really move me to recommend you make much of an effort to find this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performances from the leads. Nice premise. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much going on – was sterility subplot really necessary?

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality, plenty of bad language and a couple of instances of violent behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,216 on an unreported production budget; no way this made any money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Cabin in the Woods