Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

(2019) Drama (Big Boss Creative) Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jacob Vargas, Blake Michael, Jenny Gago, Tim Abell, Tabitha Brown, Anthony Jansen, Karim Diane, William Guirola, Braxton Davis, Danielle Dotson, Destiny Toliver, Sarah-Jayne Bedford, Monique Chachere, Pam Levin, Tori Griffith, Kelly Hancock. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of homeless people in this country today. Most of them are people who have fallen through the cracks, unable to support themselves due to mental illness, drug abuse or just plain bad luck. A staggering percentage of those living on the streets are children.

One such is Alisha (Buck), a street-savvy 12-year-old girl whose dad refers to her as Princess – that is, when he remembers who she is. For the most part, Iraq war vet Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Gathegi) is caught up in a waking nightmare of mental illness, reliving terrible moments from his time in country. Willis was injured by a roadside bomb and his periods of lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. Alisha’s mother has long since split, a victim of her own nightmares generated by drug abuse. Father and daughter survive on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Alisha doesn’t have to live on the street. She has a caring social worker named Magdalene (Ortiz) who genuinely wants to see her safe and sound but time and time again, she refuses or runs away, preferring to be with her dad who has nobody to take care of him but Alisha. Her dad’s paranoid delusions preclude him from accepting any sort of help. Most of the time he is docile, going wherever Alisha leads him but occasionally something triggers him and he gets violent.

Alisha has become entirely suspicious of the motives of most adults, Magdalene’s obvious example aside she has dealt with far too many people who don’t have her best interests at heart. Even Magdalene doesn’t seem to understand how devoted she is to her dad nor is Magdalene able to act on it even if she did. Even genuinely good people like prospective foster parent John Austin (Sheen) who, like Alisha, is a talented writer is met with stony silence and suspicion.

Things begin to spiral from bad to worse as Alisha falls into the clutches of a human trafficker and briefly considers selling herself to get her dad and her out of L.A. and away to somewhere where they can both be safe. However, her dad’s demons surface at the most inopportune time and Alisha is left facing a nearly impossible decision.

In many ways this is a very powerful film and much of the reason for that is the performances. Buck does an impossibly mature job playing young Alisha and bears the burden of carrying the film on her back with dignity and grace. From time to time a child actor comes along that you know instinctively has enormous talent, talent enough to move on and become a big star in his or her own right. Buck is just such an actress; there isn’t one false note in her entire performance here and she pulls it off in a way that would make a whole lot of adult actresses green with envy.

Gathegi also gives a standout performance. Yes, I know he mostly has to stare straight ahead with a blank expression but you try doing that for a long length of time and see how difficult it is to do. In rare moments of lucidity, Bo is fully aware that he is an anchor dragging his daughter down into his own private hell and he whispers to her gently that it is all right for her to let him go. We never know if he heard him until the very end of the film. The chemistry between Buck and Gathegi is natural and alive; the two work seamlessly off one another. The performances aren’t the problem here.

In many ways this is a very cliché film and Carlson like many indie filmmakers seems loathe to make the kind of deep cuts during the editing process (Carlson is an editor by trade and the hardest thing in that line of work to do is to edit your own footage objectively) that the film needed. As a result, it feels at times that the plot is running in place and not getting anywhere. Not only is the movie on the long side, the plot has a whole lot of clichés; the well-meaning social worker with an overwhelming case load and constraints laid on her by an unfeeling bureaucracy; a war veteran with psychological (or in this case physical issues causing the psychological) issues, a seemingly nice guy offering salvation but delivering damnation.

It’s a shame because I think there are a lot of good ideas here. In the interest of transparency however, I should point out that of my circle of friends who have seen the film, I am very much in the minority – Da Queen in fact has proclaimed this as her favorite film of the Festival so far. I can see where she would like it – the father-daughter relationship is very powerful here and I think a lot of people are going to be swept up by it and that’s not a bad thing. Still, those who look beyond the best feature of the film might see a few imperfections in the overall work.

REASONS TO SEE: Buck delivers a strong performance and has good chemistry with Gathegi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie wanders a bit and could have been a little shorter.
FAMILY VALUES: The is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson is best known for his 2011 award-winning documentary Bhopali.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Most Dangerous Year

Pick of the Litter


This film is truly about man’s best friend.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Phil, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot, Potomac. Directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman

 

All right, in the interest of full disclosure I will make my confession now: I am a dog nut. Not a dog lover – that implies some sort of sanity. I’m absolutely crazy about dogs. There was a meme going around Facebook not long ago about the seven signs your spouse is a dog nut – I fit all seven of them. It drives my poor wife to distraction sometimes. Naturally, when I found out about this documentary about puppies going through the rigorous training of becoming a guide dog I was all in.

Guide Dogs for the Blind is a Northern California-based organization that as their name implies provides guide dogs for those who are sight-impaired. The standards are high and the training rigorous. Many of the puppies that are enrolled in their training program are born right there at GDB and in this particular case we follow the five Labrador puppies from a single litter. Their names are Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and, incongruously, Phil.

Each of these puppies will be weaned from their mother in the San Rafael kennel, then placed at five months with “puppy raiser” families which include “empty nest” couples, a high school student and his mom, a PTSD-suffering man who uses the dogs as a distraction from his own issues, and families who simply want to help out. Each of the pups will have one of three outcomes. If they are unable to handle the standards of training, they will be “career changed” i.e. washed out of the program and placed with other charities or, occasionally, placed with families permanently. The second outcome is that females may be kept at the San Rafael facility to be bred. Finally the outcome everyone wants, to pass all the rigorous tests and be placed with a blind person to be their best friend and protector.

The puppy raisers go into this with the understanding that they will get the dogs for no more than a year and in some cases, much less. They are fully aware that they are training their charges for someone else’s benefit, not their own. Throughout the process, the dogs will be tested every three months for certain sorts of behaviors that might disqualify them; an inability to follow commands, a tendency to be easily distracted – that sort of thing. Some dogs may be taken out of the program before their time with the puppy trainers is done.

When their time with the raisers is done, the puppies are brought back to the GDP facility for more intensive work with trainers who will give them particular skills, such as dealing with traffic, with train platforms, walking on streets without sidewalks, the kinds of things that the sighted take for granted but can be deadly if not navigated correctly. The dogs go through a series of exams that test them on particular skills. If they don’t pass, they are given one more chance. If they pass, they advance. If not, they are career changed.

While this is like a lot of child competition documentaries that have proliferated like Starbucks franchises lately, there is a distinct difference in that while there is rooting interest in all the pups, there are no real losers here. None of these dogs have any awareness of the stakes involved; they are all going to wind up somewhere in caring environments.

We don’t see a whole lot of the training the pups go through with their puppy raisers, although the primary responsibility of the raisers is to bring the candidates into the world, learning to interact with their surroundings so that they are better able to do their jobs. The puppy raiser parents are trying to give their charges the best possible chance at acquiring the skills they will learn in the more intensive training phase in San Rafael.

The dogs have plenty of personality; Potomac is “mouthy” and loves to nip his handlers. Phil is endearing and has a bit of a hound dog appeal. Patriot has a ton of energy which sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus. Primrose is affectionate almost to a fault and Poppet is cool, calm and collected (for the most part).

This is as much about the trainers and the raisers as it is about the dogs themselves and I’m sorry that I didn’t get their names written down but I’d forgotten my notebook when I attended my screening. However, I was completely enchanted (dog nut) and was grinning ear to ear throughout the film (dog nut). I was rooting for all the dogs to succeed (dog nut) but I did have one particular favorite (dog nut). In these times of divisiveness and stress, dogs are a natural tonic (dog nut) and this movie may even convince a few non-dog nuts. However if you’re anything like me (and more power to you if you are) you’ll want to see this one every time you’re feeling blue. Expect that this one will be a permanent part of my video collection once it’s available for sale.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers, this is your jam. The stories of the trainers and foster families are pretty compelling. Gives you a sense of what the training the dogs go through. I was grinning ear to ear from beginning to end and never lost interest.
REASONS TO STAY: Cat people may take umbrage.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in San Rafael, California in 1942 to aid blinded soldiers returning home from the Second World War.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heart of a Dog
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
All About Nina

Hunt for the Wilderpeople


An odder couple you will not find.

An odder couple you will not find.

(2016) Comedy (The Orchard) Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Rhys Darby, Troy Kingi, Taika Waititi, Hamish Parkinson, Stu Giles, Lloyd Scott, Selina Woulfe, Mabelle Dennison, Timothy Herbert, Sonia Spyve. Directed by Taika Waititi

Florida Film Festival 2016

Kids aren’t always easy fits. They aren’t always little darlings. Some have had a tough go of things and they don’t always behave like angels. They act out. They lash out. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad kids though.

Ricky Baker (Dennison) is a kid just like that. After his mom gave him away, he has been shuttled from foster home to foster home. Each time he ends up back in the hands of child services and Paula (House), his exasperated case officer. Ricky has one more shot – out in the sticks with Bella (Wiata), a kind-hearted woman living on the edge of the bush with her husband, curmudgeon Hec (Neill) who clearly wants nothing to do with Ricky – and for whom the feeling is mutual.

Circumstances arise that force Ricky and Hec to go fleeing into the bush with the incorrect assumption that Hec has somehow abused Ricky (mainly due to the surprisingly naive Ricky himself) and that due to circumstances, Ricky will be remanded to juvenile jail until he turns 18 as he has used up all of his foster care opportunities. The two become the object of a massive manhunt, becoming a major news story in New Zealand and the two become folk heroes.

With the relentless Paula chasing them and bounty hunters on their tail, it will take all of Hec’s bush knowledge to keep the city-bred hip-hop loving Ricky safe. And all of New Zealand seems hell bent on capturing the two and sending them both to their respective jails.

From the co-director of the wonderful What We Do in the Shadows, this is one of those movies that either the humor will appeal to you or it won’t. For me and Da Queen, it definitely did. There’s a scene early on of Bella killing a wild boar which won’t sound funny on paper, but had me in stitches. Comedy gold, I tell you.

Sam Neill, who has been around for quite awhile, puts in what just might be his best performance ever here. It’s not that Hec is just grouchy; he has to deal with all sorts of emotions, including some tender ones, during the course of the film. I’ve always liked Neill, going back to his turn as an adult Damian in The Omen III to his work in Jurassic Park and one of my favorites, The Hunt for Red October. This is the movie that fans of this actor should make a point of seeing.

Also, mention must be made of Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker. This is a young actor who has amazing comedy chops. He is blessed with a script that doesn’t descend into chintz or shtick, nor does it unduly play off of Dennison’s size (he’s overweight as you can see from the picture). Yet they don’t make him a laughingstock, as the movies often do with portly kids. That’s a good thing to see, but as well, Dennison nails his role and makes Ricky Baker a memorable character. That’s not an easy thing to do in a film like this.

The scenery is beautiful – New Zealand came by its reputation as one of the most beautiful places on Earth honestly. The soundtrack is also chock full of some terrific Kiwi pop songs that will keep your toes tapping throughout. There literally is nothing not to like about this movie.

Okay, maybe one thing. Some of the humor might be a little more over the top than some American audiences are used to. There’s a character played by @Midnight favorite Rhys Darby named Psycho Sam who lives up to his name. His presence derails the movie a little bit even though Darby does a fine job. It just feels like the character came in from another movie.

Otherwise, this movie rocks from beginning to end. It’s funny, sweet and like Ricky himself has a heart of gold under all the bluster. Definitely one of the finer movies to be screened at the Florida Film Festival this year. It’s out and about the country right now, doing a walkabout of its on in American theaters. Catch it at one while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Much funnier than I was led to believe it was. The soundtrack is abso-bloody-lutely terrific. Majestical scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too out there for some.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the birthday scene, ten takes were filmed of the cast singing “Happy Birthday” to Ricky until someone realized that they didn’t have the rights to use the song. Therefore, the actors made up a new song on the spot, the one which appears in the film (and also partially in the trailer).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buddymoon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience begins!

Jack of the Red Hearts


Famke Janssen prays for strength.

Famke Janssen prays for strength.

(2015) Drama (ARC Entertainment) AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, John D’Leo, Sophia Anne Caruso, Drena De Niro, Chris Jarell, Tonye Patano, Maria Rivera, Preston Fritz Smith, Ana Maria Jomoica, Stephen Hill, Nan Lynn Nelson, Harry Sutton Jr., Drena De Niro, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jenny Jaffe, Brianna Mann, Christine Toy Johnson. Directed by Janet Grillo

Autism is something that is often written about and occasionally depicted on the movie screen but rarely does it show what it means day to day to a family with an autistic child, particularly a low-functioning one. As the mom here snaps at an insensitive remark about her autistic daughter, “She’s not Rain Man.” Sadly, the movies give an image of autism as a kind of cute disease turning the folks that have it into happy idiots. That’s as far from the truth as can be.

Jack (Robb) is a street-smart, street-tough kid who has just turned 18. She and her sister Coke (Caruso) have been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention for years. Jack’s probation officer (Patano) is pretty much fed up with her and is ready to send her to adult jail this time, now that she’s old enough. Jack wants nothing more than to get Coke out of the system so the two can live together and take care of each other.

But Jack’s going to need money to get an apartment for them if that’s going to happen and something more stable – a real job that pays well, but Jack has no employment experience. With the help of a friend she connives her way as a caregiver into the household of Kay (Janssen), Mark (Cohen), Robert (Broussard) and autistic Glory (Richardson).

The bills have been piling up and they can no longer afford Kay staying home and caring for Glory, but the child needs full-time supervision and the family needs two incomes and quite frankly, Kay needs the break, worn down from caring for a child who is no easy task. Jack, a born hustler, convinces the actual applicant (Jaffe) to leave her resume and references with her and then Jack assumes the identity of Donna, a well-qualified caregiver. Of course, Jack knows nothing about caring for an autistic 11-year-old but she figures how hard can it be?

Well, any actual parent of an autistic child will tell you that it can be terrifyingly hard. Autistic kids, depending on the type of autism, can lash out, go into trance-like states, be stubborn as mules, obsess with odd items, require rigid conformity and/or act out in very violent and public ways, often when it is least convenient. The thing the movie gets right is that caring for a child who has difficulty functioning can break a parent down; this is their child whom they love and they can’t hold a conversation with them, or at least only a rudimentary one. It requires extreme patience and an amazing amount of love.

What it doesn’t require is a stock character from an Afterschool Special who is about as badass as Taylor Swift saving the day. The script is riddled with clichés and as predictable as the Cubs missing the playoffs. Robb is a talented actress but she is reduced to face-scrunching, high-level mugging and when called upon to smoke (which she does because, you know, street kid) she’s the most unconvincing smoker ever, clearly not inhaling. I’d much rather that Jack be a non-smoker than be an approximation of one.

I’ve met several autistic kids in my life, some more high functioning than others but Richardson is completely unconvincing in the role. Her smile is like she’s posing for a head shot and when she’s screaming and acting out, I don’t see in her performance how incredibly intense this acting out can be. The best way to think about it is that she’s pretending to smile rather than actually smiling. Now, I’m fully aware that every autistic kid is different and some may well smile like they’re in a toy commercial, but it comes off as non-genuine here and it is distracting overall to the movie. Richardson has a history of playing Annie onstage, so you know she’s got talent, but this was a definite misfire and I blame the director, who should know better.

I liked Janssen’s performance as the long-suffering mom. Janssen clearly gets how stressed out Kay is and how bone-weary she is. When Janssen gets the chance to act with silence, she is marvelous – conveying far more of the parental experience with her eyes and her facial expression than the script is doing. Sadly there is so much that the script does that stops the movie dead in its tracks, like a family sing-along that feels completely in-authentic and the denouement in which is exactly what you think it will be. Even the plot twists aren’t twists so much as lane changes.

I really give the filmmakers credit for wanting to make a film about how autism affects the entire family, and there is a great movie to be made on the subject, but this really isn’t it. Too many predictable plot points, unconvincing acting from the two actors who needed to be at their best and just pedestrian filmmaking torpedo what should have been a compelling film. Janssen’s performance is worth checking out but that only takes the movie so far; a very mild and disappointing recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Janssen is compelling as the mom. An inside look at the life of a family with an autistic child.
REASONS TO STAY: With a predictable movie-of-the-week plot, loses some of its credibility. Robb and Richardson give subpar performances.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of teen misbehavior, adult subject matter, teen smoking and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grillo in real life is the mother of an autism spectrum child.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Legendary

I Remember


I Remember

Griff Blane and Rick Baker prepare to roast some S'mores.

(2008) Drama (Self-Distributed) Griff Blane, Rick Baker, Cassie Raye, Daniel McKinney, Randy G. Scott, Buddy Metz, Craig Hanley, Whittaker Garick, Charlie Wiggins. Directed by Ray Gaillard

When we see the homeless, we tend to view them as failures at life. They are scary in a way, as despair and desperation can drive people to do terrible things – and we sure don’t want to be around when they do.

Buck (Blane) is an eight-year-old boy who’s been through much more than any eight-year-old boy should have to. Both his parents were killed in a car accident and he and his little sister Molly (Raye) have been separated and sent to different foster homes. Whereas Molly is in a loving middle-class home, Buck has been left in the tender care of George (Wiggins), a brutish man who never tires of telling Buck that he’ll never amount to anything, or pointing out he’s been kicked out of every foster home he’s been sent to.

Driven past the breaking point, he escapes George’s clutches, leaving him with a present he’ll remember for a good long time. He decides to go out looking for his sister, but hasn’t a clue how to find her. Living on the streets and eating out of garbage bins, he finally attracts the notice of Joe (Baker), a kindly man who is also homeless.

Joe takes Buck to a camp outside of town where other homeless people are living as best they can. Joe teaches Buck the ropes and imparts the wisdom of how to survive on his own. Still, Buck is focused on finding his little sister and despite Joe’s warnings to the contrary, goes out after her. The attempt will lead Buck into a life and death situation, one in which he must make a decision that will color the direction his life takes from then on.

First-time filmmaker Gaillard filmed the movie in and around Columbia, South Carolina using friends and family as actors and crew members. Taking into account the nature of the production, it has to be said that this is definitely unpolished; the acting is uneven, as such productions usually are. However, this doesn’t feel like an amateur film. The cinematography is gorgeous, utilizing its locations nicely, and the script rarely descends into cliché.

Blane is a credible young actor; he takes the less-is-more route, rarely overplaying his hand. The result is that he comes off as a boy who is in a bit of a shell, but capable of violence when cornered. Simply put, Buck is not a kid to mess with. Blane gets that across, but manages to retain the inner core of a child. Many better known child actors wouldn’t have been able to pull that off. If he chooses to pursue acting as a career, he has a bright future in it.

Baker (not the special effects make-up guy) is the wise old Yoda to Blane’s Luke Skywalker. He plays a very complex character that is homeless by choice, rejecting the money-centric society that America has evolved into. Baker even resembles a Jedi with his snow-white hair and ponytail. In any case, he is the film’s heart in many ways and carries that aspect off solidly.

Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised with the movie that depicts how the homeless are perceived by society in a very realistic manner. There are a couple of rednecks in the movie (Hanley and Garick) who precipitate a good deal of violence. Some of the violence is sudden and brutal in the manner that violence often is. Sensitive souls should note that while the movie isn’t gore-drenched, it doesn’t shy away from it either and the violence that exists in that stratum of society is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner.

The movie is a slice of life of lives that are often marginalized; that it depicts these people as human and worthwhile is a unique feature all of its own and should be applauded. It is a bit of an eye-opener as a matter of fact, and these are the kinds of movies that should be appreciated and savored. While it is exceedingly difficult to find the movie in local theaters, I would highly recommend ordering the movie from the website below. Talent such as Gaillard’s and his cast and crew should be nurtured and encouraged; I suspect that Gaillard has plenty of additional stories to tell and I for one look forward to seeing them.

REASONS TO GO: While very raw, the movie depicts the life of the homeless and how they are regarded by society in a very realistic manner. The movie is well-filmed, utilizing its locations very nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence can be off-putting to those who are sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a smattering of foul language. While the lead character is a young boy, it would be advisable to watch the movie with your children to answer questions about the situations and the ensuing violence, some of which is directed at the boy, others committed by him.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before making this movie, Gaillard had no movie-making experience and knew very little about the process. He read several books on the subject at his local library and checked out information on the Internet before purchasing a camera and putting together the funds to film the movie, mostly with friends and family.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is on the festival circuit and your best bet is to see it at one; if you can’t find it, the movie is available on DVD at its website www.iremembermovie.com.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Princess and the Frog