To Kid or Not to Kid


Maxine Trump and Megan Turner share a moment.

(2018) Documentary (Helpman) Maxine Trump, Megan Turner, Josh Granger, Karen Malone Wright, Marcia Drut-Davis, Jane Kevers, Douglas Stein, Mandy Harvey, Tim Belcher, Victoria Elder, Juniper Melnicoff, Andy Williams, Lesley Melnicoff, Leon Wojciechowski, Dutch Yardley, Cynthia Yardley, Dawn Bowker, Bryan Caplan, Dina Ibarra. Directed by Maxine Trump

Motherhood is a central facet of a woman’s life. Biological imperatives aside, women have been socially assigned a nurturing role, one traditionally associated with child-rearing. For most women, having children is a central part of their existence. It was what they were born to do.

But that isn’t the case for all women. Recent studies have shown that one out of five women over the age of forty are childless. Some of that percentage has to do with infertility, but for many women, children just aren’t a part of the picture. Having babies may not fit in with career and life goals.

As filmmaker Maxine Trump (no relation to the President) discovered, there is a stigma attached to being childless when you’re a woman, particularly once you get married. There’s always family pressure: “When are you going to have a baby,” “When are you going to make me a grandma,” when when when. For Maxine, she wasn’t sure what the answer to that question was. That answer might truly turn out to be “never.”

Being a filmmaker, Maxine decided to turn the camera on herself as she went in search of an answer to that very important question – whether or not she wanted to have kids. In Maxine’s case, there were some compelling arguments against; surgeries when she had been younger had left doctors warning her that it was likely that she wouldn’t be able to bring a baby to term initially and that she would have to suffer through several miscarriages before successfully giving birth, which alone would be enough to give anybody pause.

Maxine also values her freedom to pursue her career, and being a filmmaker doesn’t mix terribly well with raising children as she is often called upon to shoot in all sorts of places around the world, some which you wouldn’t want to take a child to. Pursuing that dream was more a part of her identity as traditional female roles were.

It’s not that Maxine hates kids – she has plenty of nieces, nephews and other children around her and she’s more than happy to be around them. It’s just the drastic change in lifestyle wasn’t one that she wanted to make…but at the same time, there was that biological urge nagging at her, telling her that her clock was ticking ever onward and that her window of opportunity to be a mother was shrinking fast. What would her final decision be?

Well, the answer will be much more obvious to viewers I think than it was to Maxine herself. She dithers for much of the movie, often breaking down into tears which she claims at one point that she doesn’t do but by that time she had already done so several times. The question is clearly one that is eating her alive, not the least of which is that if she should choose to be childless she felt it would cost her friendships and relationships. It had already cost her a close friend who had gotten into an argument with her over whether it was selfish or not to have kids (or not to have them) and the two hadn’t spoken in years because of it.

On the selfishness question, incidentally, I need to weigh in since the question is brought up several times during the movie. It is selfish to have children, of course it is. It is also selfish not to have them. So what? What does it matter? It is selfish to eat because in taking in sustenance we are killing a living thing, be it plant or animal. It is selfish to breathe because we expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and in our own small way contribute to global warming. In some things, it is okay to be selfish. We have got to stop apologizing for existing as a culture. It’s okay to be a part of the human race and to want to have kids – or not. It truly isn’t anybody’s business.

This is clearly Maxine’s movie and this is a chronicle of her journey. There are times when her conflict felt a little bit managed in order to give the film some dramatic conflict, but in the end I don’t think that it actually was. There were some points that got pounded away a bit which felt a bit like nagging but perhaps I’m just sensitive to such things.

The movie also follows the quest of 20-something Brit Megan Turner who is attempting to get surgically sterilized. She has no desire to have kids and is concerned that if she continues to be sexually active that she will accidentally get pregnant. There is some resistance from the National Health Service to perform such a surgery without a medical reason; she is continually counseled by doctors to think over her decision since it isn’t reversible once the surgery is performed. At the end of the movie, Megan still awaits the surgery she has been seeking for more than three years.

It’s apparent that the goal for Maxine was to inform other women undergoing the same anguish she herself felt that it is okay to have these needs and to not want to have kids. It doesn’t make her – or they – any less of a woman despite the social backlash. It may be a bit of a primer in places but she does raise valid questions and tries to give valid answers. Not everyone will be able to get past their own ingrained preconceptions about women who choose to be childless and this movie simply won’t work for them. However, for those women out there who are questioning whether or not to have children, this is a good place to start looking for arguments on the side of “not to kid.”

REASONS TO GO: Some valid questions are raised here.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, it felt a bit like it was rehashing territory already covered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two years after attending her first Childless by Choice conference in Cleveland, Trump would become a featured speaker at the annual event
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Good Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Jonathan

Love Always, Mom


The definition of what a family is has evolved.

(2018) Documentary (Cedar Street) Tricia Russo, Greg Russo, Meghan Brenner, Kali Rogers, Lauren Gonnella, Matthew Brenner, Andrew Solomon, Kathryn Kaycoff, Stuart Leitner, Grayson Russo, Kathryn Fiore, Tom Gonnella, Raul Mena, Cathy Wambagh, Grayson Russo, Melanie Carlisle, Don Russo, Donna Russo, Lori Meyers, Carole Lieber-Wilkins, Olivia Erb. Directed by Tricia Russo, Trish Gonnella and Craig E. Shapiro

 

Director, writer and star of Love Always, Mom kicks off her film by intoning “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be a mom.” Certainly that’s not unusual among little girls who see their mommies as little girls and given the maternal instinct that’s present in most women it’s not surprising that the desire is so prevalent.

Tricia would appear to have all the right qualifications; she is married to a good man and as a stable relationship. She is surrounded by a loving and supportive family. She has a good career (not discussed during the film but she works in the film industry, including a stint for Miramax Films) and she’s young and healthy – until she’s not.

She contracts breast cancer and after losing a breast appears to have overcome the odds. Then in 2011 a new metastasized tumor is found in her brain. That one is also removed but now she’s at Stage 4 cancer, a particularly deadly place to be. The drugs that she has to take to survive inhibit her hormones and make a normal pregnancy impossible.

She and Greg (her husband) decide to go the surrogacy route as adoption is out of the question – her life expectancy would be an issue in any potential adoption. However, another body blow is dealt when the doctors are unable to harvest her eggs. A separate egg donor must be found as well. We follow step by step in the process and the obstacles that fall in the way are indescribable. Russo the filmmaker handles them well, explaining things with a minimum of medical jargon.

Her courage and the selflessness of Kali (her egg donor) and Meghan (her surrogate) are remarkable. Until you watch this film or have been through this kind of surrogacy yourself, there’s no way to really describe what all three of these women go through in adequate terms. Women will have an easier time understanding than men in this case; watching what they all go through – two of them in order to help a complete stranger – is absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t admire these women more.

There is also Tricia’s experience with cancer, going from good health to finding a lump to losing a breast to finding the tumor had spread to her brain. We see her high points and low, her pervasive fear that she won’t live long enough for her child to remember her, her feeling that she might not even live long enough to see the child born. Her perseverance and strength are truly remarkable; any misogynist politician who explains that the reason women aren’t paid at an equal rate to men because they lack the physical and mental strength that men have is truly feeding the nation a crock of feces. Either they’re ignorant of how deep the well of strength flows in women or they’re deeply frightened that if women take charge these old white men will be left by the wayside. Maybe they should be.

While sometimes this feels a bit like a home movie (which it essentially is) and sometimes the filmmakers don’t provide enough context particularly regarding the cost of surrogacy financially (which is high – the Russo family shelled out over $130,000 for the egg donor, the surrogate and the legal and medical fees) which is beyond the reach of the majority of Americans. Still this film and now her son Grayson will remain a more than satisfactory legacy for Tricia Russo; regardless of how long or short the remainder of her life is.

Note that the film has no distribution as of yet; it is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit. Hopefully it will get some sort of distribution at some point and be available either theatrically or on VOD. Regardless, this is a movie worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very informative about the processes of breast cancer and infertility. The cinematography is beautiful throughout. Tricia, Meghan and Kali are all incredible women whose courage and selflessness are examples to us all.
REASONS TO STAY: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pink Ribbons, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ramen Heads

Nuts!


Does this man look completely nuts to you?

Does this man look completely nuts to you?

(2016) Documentary (mTuckman) Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, John Causby, Kelly Mizell, Jeff Pillars, Thom Stylinski, Fran Taylor, Pope Brok, Gene Fowler, Dr. James Reardon, Megan Seaholm, Dr. John R. Brinkley, John R. Brinkley, Jr. Directed by Penny Lane

 

Our need to believe can sometimes push us beyond the bounds of reason. We often feed our own belief systems with that which makes no logical sense, but because it jives with what we want to believe, we accept it as fact. That’s nothing new, as the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley will attest.

John R. Brinkley arose from the tiny town of Milford, Kansas (a town which ironically no longer exists as it sits at the bottom of a reservoir today) when a local farmer complained that his sexuality was something of a “flat tire.” Brinkley suggested that he, as the town’s local doctor, transplant goat testicles into the farmer and voila! Nine months later the formerly flat tire was, as they say, fully inflated and no longer shooting blanks.

The good doctor quickly became a wealthy man as people from all over the country began to flock to his Milford hospital for the transplantation of their own. Results were, to say the least, startling. Dr. Brinkley also became one of the first to use mass media to his advantage, establishing a 5,000 watt radio station in Milford which not only broadcast the doctor’s health-related screeds but also became the first station in the country to broadcast country music.

Brinkley had it all back then, in the 1910s and 1920s; wealth, a wife who adored him, a bright-eyed son he called Johnny-Boy, a palatial manor, private airplanes and yachts and as the 1930s rolled in, the attention of a crusading journalist for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Morris Fishbein went after Brinkley with a vengeance, claiming that the good doctor was a quack. He would see to it that Brinkley’s license to practice medicine was revoked as well as his license to operate a radio station.

Undeterred, the gadfly of a doctor ran for the governor of Kansas and might have won but for ballots that had been voided under shady circumstances. Eventually, Dr. Brinkley discovered a pharmaceutical solution to impotence and men were once again lining up to recapture the virility they once had. It was Viagra before Viagra was Viagra. And not content with reaching a portion of the country, Dr. Brinkley constructed a million watt radio station in Mexico that would beam his message to the entire country. Once again, Dr. Brinkley was riding high…and we all know what happens to people who ride high.

Director Penny Lane, who previously gave us Our Nixon, a look at the former president through the home videos of those around him, has done a masterful job here. In a short 79 minutes she deftly weaves the tale of Dr. Brinkley through archival footage, animated recreations and a very limited use of talking heads. However, she makes the most of the interview footage as she uses historians with specific specialties – James Reardon for the history of Kansas, Megan Seaholm for the history of medicine and the AMA and Gene Fowler for the history of radio. All contribute important background for the story.

The animation is done by several different studios and starts out in black and white as the early days of Brinkley’s rise are illustrated and gradually shifts to color as we enter the 1930s and beyond. The graphics are generally simple and sometimes crudely drawn but they suit the subject nicely and are a welcome addition to the narrative, although some of the animations are occasionally not as powerful in illustrating the story as they might be.

The interesting thing here is that Lane credits the self-aggrandizing biography of Brinkley written by Clement Wood in 1934 and commissioned by Brinkley himself. In that sense, we see Brinkley through Brinkley’s own eyes and there’s a peculiar fascination there; it really is in car wreck territory in a lot of ways. And we eventually learn that we are not hearing the absolute truth from Brinkley and as the story unravels, our perceptions are forced to change radically, showing Lane to be a masterful storyteller and illustrating vividly that the need to believe rests in us as well.

The tone of the film has a bit of a cornpone edge to it and those documentary purists who want their true stories set to a serious tone, this might be a bit vulgar. Believers in alternative medicine may shudder at some of the things that are illustrated here and might take offense if they choose to believe that the film is an indictment of alternative medicine in general (it’s not).

This is a story as American as apple pie and while it was big news back in the day, it is barely a blip on our historical radar. Few today remember Brinkley and if they do, it’s more for his pioneering use of radio than for his various treatments of impotence. His is also a cautionary tale; as the narrative changes and we realize what is really going on, we are given graphic evidence of how easily manipulated we all are. In an age where anyone can say anything on the Internet and present it as fact and be believed by millions, we are far more vulnerable to the John R. Brinkleys of the world than we were even back then and that’s a frightening thought.

REASONS TO GO: An American tale in every sense of the word. A pervasive sense of humor that is almost subversive. The change in tone near the end is unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too goofy for purists. Alternative medicine practitioners may cringe a little. Some of the images are ineffective.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual dialogue and suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the special jury award at Sundance for documentary editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Informant (2012)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: X-Men: Apocalypse

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

This is Where I Leave You


A rooftop tete-a-tete.

A rooftop tete-a-tete.

(2014) Dramedy (Warner Brothers) Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz, Aaron Lazar, Cade Lappin, Will Swenson, Carol Schultz, Kevin McCormick, Olivia Oguma, Beth Leavel, Carly Brooke Pearlstein. Directed by Shawn Levy

It is well known that you can choose your friends but not your family. Families can be a tricky thing. We may grow up in the same house, have pretty much the same experiences and yet still turn out to be different people. My sister and I were born eleven months apart but I’m sure there are times that she wondered what planet I’d been born on.

The Altmans are gathering for a sad occasion; the patriarch of the family has passed on and their mother Hilary (Fonda) is insisting that the four siblings and their families stay at her house to sit shiva – a Jewish tradition in which the family of the deceased sit in low chairs, host mourners at their home and say prayers for the dead – for seven days. It was their father’s dying wish, she tells them. When it comes to this particular ritual, they may as well have called it seven days in hell.

Judd (Bateman) is a wreck. He caught his wife (Spencer) cheating on him with his boss (Shepard) and apparently the affair had been going on for a year. His sister Wendy (Fey) is married to a prick (Lazar) and is saddled with two small children including a baby. She would have married the love of her life, Horry Callen (Olyphant) but a car accident left him brain damaged and he essentially pushed her away. She still pines for him though.

Oldest brother Paul (Stoll) runs dad’s hardware store now and is trying to get his wife Alice (Hahn) – who used to date Judd before he got married – pregnant. Finally the baby of the family Philip (Driver) is kind of the black sheep/family screw-up who is dating his much older therapist (Britton) but still manages to screw that up too.

They all come for the week, grudgingly. It doesn’t help that Hilary wrote a best-seller based on her kids and overshares on a regular basis. Also in the mix is Penny (Byrne), a high school sweetheart of Judd’s who is still in town. Everyone in the family, Judd wryly observes, is sad, angry or cheating.

I was surprised to discover that this is based on a novel. The reason for my surprise is that the film has kind of a sitcom feel to it, a dysfunctional family trapped in the same house together. Like a sitcom, the whole supposition here is that a week together as a family can cure all the troubles that plague the individual members of the family and make everyone whole again. We all know that when families are forced to stay together usually the opposite tends to be true.

Director Shawn Levy, who has a hit franchise in Night at the Museum, is not the most deft of comedic directors but he does have some touch and having a cast like this certainly doesn’t hurt. Fey and Bateman are two of the most accomplished comedic actors in the movies these days and Driver is heading in that same general direction. When you have Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne and Kathryn Hahn in support you must be doing something right as well.

Strangely though the ensemble doesn’t quite gel; it feels like a bunch of actors reciting lines more than an actual family. You don’t get a sense of closeness from anybody except for Fey and Bateman and even they seem a little bit distant from each other. Still, they capture the squabbling and occasional affectionate ball-busting that goes on in a large family quite nicely.

Of course, most of the family are fairly well-off financially (except for maybe Philip and his girlfriend is apparently quite wealthy) and the problems are definitely of the white people variety so that may put some people off right there. One thing that works about the family dynamic is that nobody really talks to anybody else. Not about the important stuff, anyway. When Judd arrives, for example, only Wendy is aware his marriage has ended. It isn’t until several days in when everybody wonders where his wife is that he finally blurts it out angrily. It illustrates the inherent dysfunction but then again in a family in which your mother has essentially paraded all your secrets out for everyone to see I can understand why some of them might be tight-lipped.

There are enough laughs to carry the movie along more or less and enough pathos to make you feel good at end credits roll, so I can give this a reasonably solid thumbs up. However, the movie is pretty flawed considering the talent working on it so be forewarned in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the dysfunctional family dynamic. Really great cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat manipulative.  Unrealistic “sitcom syndrome” ending. Ensemble doesn’t quite gel.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of swearing, some sexuality and a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the source novel, Judd recalls a childhood incident in which he observes his mother exercising to a Jane Fonda workout video. In the movie, his mother is played by Jane Fonda.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Walk Among the Tombstones

The Odd Life of Timothy Green


The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Jennifer Garner. Alias. *sob*

(2012) Family (Disney) Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, CJ Adams, Odeya Rush, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, Dianne Wiest, M. Emmett Walsh, Lois Smith, Common, Ron Livingston, James Rebhorn, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Peter Hedges

 

Raising children can be explained as an imperative drive programmed into our DNA. The urge to reproduce is part of our survival instinct – in this case, survival of the species. We are not always, however, able to reproduce in conventional ways. Sometimes we need a miracle.

Cindy (Garner) and Jim (Edgerton) Green need such a miracle. After years of trying everything to conceive a baby they’ve had to come to the hard realization that it wasn’t going to happen. This is devastating to them both as it was one thing they both desperately wanted. So they grab a bottle of wine and write down all of the components that the fruit of their cohabitation would have had – a big heart, artistic talent (Picasso with a pencil), honest to a fault, and the sort of boy who could make an old man laugh but also score the winning goal.

They take these scraps of paper and bury them in a box in their garden. Lo and behold, as such movies are wont to do, a magic storm arises and lightning strikes. From out of the garden a young boy (Adams), covered in dirt, emerges. They are, of course, aghast and at first think he’s some sort of runaway. But as he addresses them as Mom and Dad, they slowly realize that this is the perfect child they dreamed of.

Say you want about the good citizens of Stanleyville, Pencil Capital of the World, but this small town in the Heartland takes the sudden appearance of a child in their midst in stride. Amber alerts are for big city kids; why, the Greens say he’s theirs so he must be. Of course Timothy (that’s his name, after all – the only boy’s name on the Greens’ list of names – there are 53 girls names on there to give you an idea) has leaves growing out of his legs but he keeps those hidden. And he also has a tendency to turn his face to the sun and stretch, much like a plant. Me, I’d be looking for a pod somewhere.

However, Timothy isn’t there to take over the planet. In fact, it’s not quite certain what he’s there for. He apparently is there to figure out if Cindy and Jim are decent parents and they appear to be, although they tell everyone repeatedly that they make a lot of mistakes. They’re both under a lot of pressure though, particularly Jim. The pencil plant where he works, run by Franklin Crudstaff (Livingston), his father (Rebhorn) and his iceberg-cold Aunt Bernice (Wiest), is in danger of being shut down and layoffs are happening in waves.

Cindy works at the pencil museum which is run by Bernice, with whom Cindy doesn’t get along well. Take You Kid to Work day is a recipe for disaster when you have a kid who’s honest to a fault but that’s not Timothy’s doing so much.

Timothy is far more interested in wooing Joni Jerome (Rush), an outsider like himself who looks to be about five years older in the way of girls the same age. The two are both artistic, but in hidden ways and they bring out the best in each other. That lead to affection that is more than friendly. Still, Timothy has much to do and a limited time to do it in – because every bloom must one day fade to make way for the next bloom.

This was written by Ahmet Zappa, Dweezil’s younger brother. It has the quirky element his dad would have appreciated, but it’s much more mainstream than he would have liked. In fact, in a lot of ways, the story is pretty predictable which probably doesn’t matter for the younger demographic of the target audience but their parents might not appreciate it as much.

The good thing is that the movie is well cast. Edgerton and Garner play like a sincere but somewhat inept couple who are in turns overprotective and at other times wanting their son to be his own man. These aren’t perfect Ozzie and Harriet parents by any stretch of the imagination, which makes the movie far more accessible.

The story is told mostly as a flashback during an interview with an Adoption Agency official (Aghdashloo) who is determining if the Greens are ready for a child, so we know that Timothy is out of the picture in some way. Which way isn’t clear, but it won’t be hard to figure out.

The movie is frank about loss and grieving, and there are several scenes of pathos that might be a bit much for the really small children. The movie is frankly manipulative which I usually don’t mind so much but I think that they could have been a little bit less formulaic about it.

I like the Midwestern charm here; the film seems to exist in a perpetual sunny autumn, a Hollywood Indian summer that allow for beautiful rainless days and harvest sunsets. It’s beautiful to look at, and I’m a sucker for the fall anyway so my snide remarks about the seasons will remain unsaid.

This has the pitfalls and positives of the average 21st century family film. The elements of the supernatural harkens back to such Disney classics as Darby O’Gill and the Little People only with much better special effects. There’s enough schmaltz to make an atheist choke and the inherent messages of accepting those who are different and never giving up no matter what the odds pass muster for Disney kid messages. Despite the fine performances from the adults and the fine chemistry between Adams and Rush, at the end of the day the movie is merely adequate and certainly fine if you want to take the family to a non-offensive family movie that isn’t a blatant marketing ploy to sell toys and Happy Meals.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Garner and Edgerton, and Adams and Rush. Very sweet in feeling. Doesn’t shy away from pathos.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels manipulative. Not always true to its own internal logic.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some of the themes here might go over the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used here was the same one where Halloween II was filmed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are somewhat negative but more towards the mixed side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Race to Witch Mountain

SOCCER LOVERS: Timothy shows off some pretty impressive moves in his moment of glory on the pitch.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Burke and Hare

The Watch


 

The Watch

Ben Stiller finds another teen who thought Night at the Museum sucked.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Mel Rodriguez, Doug Jones, Erin Moriarty, Nicholas Braun, R. Lee Ermey, Joe Nunez, Liz Cackowski, Johnny Pemberton, Billy Crudup, Sharon Gee. Directed by Akiva Schaffer

 

There are things that define a neighborhood that we seem to have lost sight of for the most part in the 21st century. Neighborhoods were once places where neighbors looked out for one another; where we shared lives with those who lived around us. Those kinds of neighborhoods are becoming increasingly rare.

Not in Glenview, Ohio though and that’s why Evan (Stiller) loves it so much there. He and his wife Abby (DeWitt) emigrated from New York to escape the cold, impersonal big city life and find a place where they could raise their children the right way – not that they have any children quite yet but they’re working on it.

When a security guard (Nunez) is gruesomely murdered in the Costco that Evan is managing, that galvanizes Evan. He has already founded a running club and a Spanish club in his neighborhood; now it’s time for something a little more useful – a neighborhood watch. The police, in the person of Sgt. Bressman (Forte), are doing little to find the killer and in fact Bressman thinks Evan is a strong suspect.

However, his neighborhood is less enthusiastic – only three other guys show up to the meeting that he calls. Bob (Vaughn) is a contractor with an epic man-cave who sees the Watch as an opportunity to hang out with the guys and drink plenty of beer. Franklin (Hill) is a bit of a nutcase who failed the psychological tests in order to join the Glenview Police Department; he lives with his mom and longs for police-like action. Then there’s Jamarcus (Ayoade) who sees the Neighborhood Watch as a means to meet women. Not exactly the battalion of crime fighters Evan was looking for.

Still, they are at least willing to play along for the most part, although much of their crime work has beer involved, and much talk of male penises. Bob and Evan start to bond in an odd way; Evan confesses that the reason he and Abby haven’t been able to conceive a child is because he’s sterile; Bob expresses his frustration over his teenage daughter Chelsea’s (Moriarty) increasing infatuation for Jason (Braun), a super-arrogant teen with designs on just one thing – the thing most teenage boys have designs on.

In the meantime, their investigation is leading them to the killer – and that killer isn’t local. And by not local, I mean not of this earth. When their beloved Glenview looks to be ground zero for an alien invasion, can these four screw-ups suck it up and become earth’s last line of defense?

Veteran SNL director Schaffer has a script co-written by Seth Rogen to work from but this isn’t one of his better efforts. Mostly what the problem is here is the unevenness. The movie has some genuinely funny moments, but not of the sort that will leave you sore from laughter as the better comedies will. The sci-fi aspects are for the most part pretty cheesy; why does every alien have to have lime green goo dripping from them? Just saying.

In any case, the two don’t mix well. At times we have some pretty odd moments of a joke in the middle of a serious scene that cheapens the drama; at others, a more dramatic episode in the middle of some of the more really funny moments. The effect is to keep the audience off-balance and not in a good way.

Stiller, Hill, Ayoade and particularly Vaughn are some of the most talented comic actors on the planet and they actually perform pretty well here. Vaughn is memorable even though his shtick is pretty much the same one he usually uses – the loud and aggressive manly sort with a heart of gold – we see the latter most clearly in his relationship with his daughter which is, as most dad-teenage daughter relationships are is a bit on the love-hate side. However, the relationship is depicted here a bit simplistically.

And what’s the deal with all the phallic references? There are so many references to the male sex organ that you have to wonder if there’s some sort of fetish being played out here. Hey, I’m as proud of my equipment as the next guy but sheez, I don’t feel the need to mention it quite so often.

So what we have here is a sci-fi comedy with some talented people in it (and lest we forget, the very sexy DeWitt who has some nice moments here) and simply not living up to its own potential. As much as I like Vaughn, Stiller and company, I think that talent like theirs deserves more than just an onslaught of dick jokes to deliver. So do we.

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments. Vaughn is one of my favorite comic actors at the moment.  

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the humor feels forced. Serious and funny stuff don’t flow well, leading to some jarring moments.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sexual content and a bit of sci-fi violence. The language is universally foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Neighborhood Watch but the title was changed due to sensitivity over the Trayvon Martin shooting.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100. The reviews are uniformly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night at the Museum

COSTCO LOVERS: Evan is the manager at the Costco and the climax takes place there; as you might expect there are several jokes about bulk buying throughout the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Sympathy for Delicious

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

Made in India


Made in India

Lisa Switzer peruses a travel guide as she prepares for an unforgettable journey to India.

(2010) Documentary (Self-Released) Lisa Switzer, Brian Switzer, Aasia Khan, Rudy Rupak. Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha

As medical technology advances, ethical and legal issues are beginning to arise as procedures begin to allow things that were previously impossible to occur. This is particularly true when it comes to human procreation.

Brian and Lisa Switzer have been trying to make a baby for years, but nothing worked. They had tried nearly everything possible to get Lisa pregnant but eventually it was discovered that Lisa had medical issues that had left her infertile. Having Lisa carry a baby to term was no longer an option.

The couple was basically left with two choices; adoption and surrogacy (Lisa has viable eggs – her ovaries are intact – but her uterus had to be surgically removed). Lisa was adamant; she wanted a baby of her own genetic make-up and Brian supported her in trying to make her dream happen. Yes,  Lisa is one determined Texan. However, finding a surrogate mother in the United States is prohibitively expensive – the entire process can run, depending on where you live, anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000, much of which has to do with the fees paid to the surrogate (usually in the neighborhood of $35,000) and legal fees.

Their options limited, they turned to medical tourism – the act of going out of the country for lower cost medical procedures – and the website Planet Hospital. From there they were hooked up with a clinic in India and a young mother named Aasia Khan. Aasia is a Muslim woman living in Mumbai with her husband and three children in abject poverty. Her sister-in-law had discovered that certain clinics paid Indian women what in India is a goodly amount of cash. Indian law requires that only married women are eligible to act as surrogates, so the unmarried sister-in-law was ineligible but Aasia certainly was. She knew her husband would object but the money was too tempting so she signed up for it.

She and Lisa were matched up and Lisa and Brian flew to India to have Lisa’s eggs harvested and Brian’s sperm collected. The egg was fertilized in the lab and implanted in Aasia. Per the clinic’s policy, neither parents nor surrogate were allowed to meet. The Switzers returned to San Antonio to wait while Aasia returned home to explain to her husband what was going on. He was understandably unhappy but asked his wife to limit her surrogacy career to this one baby.

However it turned out it wouldn’t be just one baby – Aasia was pregnant with twins. The Switzers were overjoyed, Lisa completely beside herself. They had mortgaged their house, sold everything and put every penny they could get their hands on into their dream and now it all appeared to be worth it.

As time went by, the Switzers received constant updates from Mumbai and Aasia was moved into an apartment that the clinic used for surrogate mothers where they could be monitored more thoroughly and the environment made cleaner and more conducive to a pregnant mother’s needs.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Nearly two months early, Aasia began to bleed and the doctors at the clinic determined that she needed to go to the hospital. Rather than transport her to the hospital the clinic had an agreement with, they sent her to the hospital nearest the apartment, one the clinic hadn’t worked with previously. An emergency Cesarean was performed.

Lisa was summoned hastily from Texas and went to the hospital to visit her babies in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Except, as far as the hospital was concerned, they weren’t her babies – they belonged to the birth mother – and refused to issue a birth certificate listing Lisa and Brian as parents, without which the twins wouldn’t be U.S. citizens and thus the parents wouldn’t be able to bring them home to Texas.

The relationship between Lisa (who had travelled alone to India because Brian couldn’t get away from work) and the hospital became increasingly contentious. Heartbroken and frustrated, she turned to the U.S. Embassy for assistance in navigating what was an increasingly difficult and complex legal issue. In the meantime, Aasia discovered she wasn’t getting compensated what she thought she deserved and wanted to re-negotiate with the clinic and get something from the Switzers as well.

To their credit, the filmmakers took no sides on the issues, choosing to present the story as it unfolded and letting the viewers reach their own conclusions. An industry is arising out of surrogacy – it made $350 million two years ago and that number is expected to rise exponentially. The potential for abuse is rampant as countries all over the globe struggle – slowly – to enact legislation that creates guidelines and regulations for parents, medical professionals and surrogates to abide by.

Still, there are discrepancies. The contract the Switzers signed with Planet Hospital itemized that Aasia would be paid the equivalent of $7,000 while the contract she signed with the clinic only gave her about $2,000. What became of the difference is never fully explained (although Aasia was able to negotiate for a greater payment owing to her carrying of twins and medical issues that arose from it).

There are risks involved with surrogacy – and they are amply demonstrated here. Besides the medical and legal ramifications, there are also moral issues – when you think about it, the Switzers essentially were buying a baby. Yes, it was genetically theirs but once that line is crossed, where does it stop?

There are also those who would – and did – argue that the Switzers should have adopted. In their defense, even for parents with a stable household, the process of adoption is a costly and lengthy one and there are no guarantees even then that the Switzers would receive a baby in a reasonable length of time if at all.

Not being a woman, it is hard for me to comment on the urgency of Lisa Switzer’s mission to have a baby of her own. There is certainly a case to be made that she was acting out of selfishness; regardless of how you view her crusade, her determination has to be admired. She becomes the central character of the documentary, but Aasia’s bubbly personality, her quirky sense of humor and her quiet determination to make a better life for her family may stay with you more. I only wish we could have learned more about her, although I suspect the filmmakers were given a narrow bandwidth in which to work in terms of what could be discussed. I got the impression Aasia wanted a good deal of privacy.

This is an issue that is unfolding now, and the outcome has yet to be determined. This documentary presents the issues very logically and rationally without expressing any preferences to one viewpoint or the other. You are left therefore to make your own conclusions. For my viewpoint, it appears as if the business end of the surrogacy question is the one most being served and although I hope otherwise, the rights of the surrogates themselves will most likely take a backseat to the concerns of maximizing the profits for the business interests that become involved. In any case, there are no easy resolutions here and the filmmakers seem to respect the intelligence of their audience enough to not try to provide any. It is no wonder that this won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Florida Film Festival; it is a virtual textbook on how to make a documentary properly.

REASONS TO GO: Raises many thoughtful issues about the legal minefield that is surrogacy, particular in regards to low-cost surrogacy in emerging nations. Filmmakers admirably adopt no viewpoint but tell the story simply.

REASONS TO STAY: Aasia’s backstory could have used some beefing up.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is very adult, but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Switzers were referred to the filmmakers by Rudy Rupak of Planet Hospital. After leaving a message for the couple, the filmmakers were contacted within ten minutes by the Switzers and the agreement for the documentary team to film their journey was reached.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a DVD release is likely on the horizon, your best bet is to catch this at a local film festival.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Troll Hunter