Gerald’s Game


Carla Gugino is literally a captive audience.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Natalie Roers, Tom Glynn, Stu Cookson, Gwendolyn Mutamba, Ben Pronsky, Jon Arthur, Nikia Reynolds, Kimberly Battista, Michael Amstutz, Chuck Borden, Dori Lumpkin, Chad Kinney, Bill Riales, John Ceallach, Tony Beard, Victoria Hardway, Adalyn Jones. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It has been the year of Stephen King adaptations, with Dark Tower and It having already made their theatrical runs and 1922 recently released on Netflix. This adaptation is of particular interest because 1) Mike Flanagan, who has been impressive with Oculus and Hush, is in the director’s chair here and 2), this is one of King’s lesser works that was thought to be virtually unfilmable. How wrong they were.

One can see why that thought occurred however. The movie is mostly set in a single bedroom with the protagonist alone and immobile for the bulk of the story. There is also a kinky sexuality to it that in the current atmosphere is both timely and perhaps may incite a certain segment of the population to point their fingers and cry shrilly “Objectification! Objectification! Objectification!” We are, these days, gunshy about sex (particularly of the kinkier variety) on both sides of the political aisle.

The marriage between successful attorney Gerald (Greenwood) and his trophy wife Jessie (Gugino) has been troubled for some time now and the two decide to take a romantic trip to a beautiful but remote vacation cabin to try and heat things up. Gerald’s idea of romance is a lot different than Jessie’s however; he wants to handcuff her to the bed and enact a rape fantasy on his wife. At first she goes along with it, but as Gerald gets deeper into the game she freaks out and demands that he stop and free her. At first he is petulant, like a little boy who’s been told he can’t have a cookie. Then he does what most little boys don’t do – he has a heart attack and dies.

Slowly the realization comes to Jessie that she is in an absolutely terrifying predicament; she has no way to free herself from the stainless steel cuffs, no way to get food or water and she is sharing the bedroom with her husband’s corpse and a hungry dog who is desperate enough to enjoy some Gerald tartare. As panic begins to set in and she realizes that nobody can hear her screams, she begins to speak with the angels and devils of her better nature – her angels represented by a strong, self-possessed version of herself and her devils by Gerald himself. While Gerald mostly relates the scenarios in which she dies a horrible death, the alter-Jessie figures out ingenious ways to get water and eventually to concoct a desperate plan to escape – one that will take all of the actual Jessie’s willpower and courage.

But there is soon another player in the play; a deathly, spectral figure with a bag of bones who is stalking her after dark. She realizes that as the last evening falls that he will come for her in the night…and she will join her husband as potential puppy chow if she doesn’t escape before then.

The script follows King’s book pretty faithfully but it lacks the sense of dread and terror that King was able to weave in the book – but to be fair, not every writer is as talented at that particular skill as King is. In fact, very few writers are. Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard turn this more into a suspense film than a supernatural thriller which is what King produced – but the Moonlight Man is excellently rendered, I’ll give them that.

I’ll also give you that this is the performance that I’ve been waiting for Gugino to deliver. It’s masterful as she captures both the strong, self-assured side of Jessie and the frightened, wounded and disregarded part of her. She spends nearly the entire movie in a negligee (and looks mighty fine doing it) but you never get a sense of her being exploited (although some may disagree); she’s a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and one senses that if Gerald had actually had a romantic weekend getaway planned instead of a kinkfest, he’d have gotten plenty of action.

She and Greenwood actually work very well together. Greenwood is sixty-plus at this point but he looks a lot more buff than the overweight Gerald of the book; it’s possible that Gerald’s use of that Little Blue Pill may have been what done him in. The relationship between Jessie and Gerald is believable; these are people who feel like they’ve been together for awhile but have begun to diverge away from one another and neither one knows really how to get back on the same page – or if it’s even possible. They remain civil to one another but there is that undercurrent of tension between them that tells a story of frustrations not voiced and petty arguments that are.

There is a subplot about Jessie’s past about a terrible incident that takes place during a rare total eclipse that does a lot to explain her backstory. It’s sensitively handled and again is pretty timely considering the events of recent months but it might be a little disturbing for people who have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

All in all this turned out much better than I think most of us had a right to expect. It re-emphasizes that Flanagan is the genuine article, a master of horror films who tends to elevate every project he works on and this one is no exception. Not only is it maybe the best adaptation of King you’ll see this year, it is one of the better original films you’ll see on Netflix this year as well.

REASONS TO GO: Gugino gives a career-defining performance and she works very well with Greenwood. The plot is fiendishly clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is not nearly as creepy as the book.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, a good deal of sexuality and some disturbing images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dialogue and plot devices from the film reference such Stephen King books as Dolores Claiborne, Cujo and The Dark Tower.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girlfriend Experience
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
More of Six Days of Darkness

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Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Abundant Acreage Available

The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege (both of his parents are physicians), his parents were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, elite schools of that nature tend to put an enormous amount of pressure on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

To Keep the Light


The loneliness of the lighthouse.

The loneliness of the lighthouse.

(2016) Drama (Quiet Rebellion) Erica Fae, Antti Reini, David Patrick Kelly, Jarlath Conroy, Gabe Fazio, Meagen Fay, Wass Stevens. Directed by Erica Fae

Florida Film Festival 2016

The lighthouse exists to warn sailors away from rocky shores. These days, radar, GPS navigation and other aids have largely relegated lighthouses obsolete but back in the late 19th century, they were a necessity; at night, ships wouldn’t be able to see where the sea ended and the coastline began and without these beacons they would wreck.

Being a lighthouse keeper was a prestigious and honorable job, a task to be performed by a man. However, there were approximately 300 women known to have performed the duties of a lighthouse keeper, many known only through the logbook entries they made. Abbie Moore (Fae) is taking care of the lighthouse that was entrusted to her husband who has been confined to his bed by some unnamed malady. One day a sailor washes ashore, a Swede named Johan (Reini).

At first he is more of a nuisance than anything else. There are no reports of any wrecks, although he claims that his ship went down. Brackett (Kelly), a local official, asks if ne’er do well named Eaton (Fazio) can help out around the lighthouse but Abbie is adamant that she needs no help. Her husband will recover shortly and she is handling the duties capably on her own. It doesn’t take long however for secrets to unravel not only Abbie’s tenuous hold on her position, but also Johan’s story as well. With a pair of inspectors (Conroy, Stevens) soon to come out to make sure that the lighthouse is in tip top condition and that the logs have been adequately kept, Abbie must find the strength to not only keep the house, the light and her husband’s health but to head off challenges from the drunken Eaton.

Fae puts on a clinic of camera composition. Every shot here is literally a work of art; this movie is like strolling through a museum where one great painting after another hangs on the wall. The lighting is also amazing; Fae utilized the light of the lighthouse itself in brilliant fashion, making a changing palate of light and shadows during one sensual scene in the film. While this is her first feature film (she’s also done short films) she is primarily known for her stage plays. With work like this, I sincerely hope Ms. Fae continues her work in the cinematic arts.

Fae has tended to write about women who, as the press notes put it, have been written out of the pages of history. While Abbie is not based on a specific lighthouse keeper, she is a composite character whose personality was created from the diaries, journals and letters of actual women lighthouse keepers of the period. Abbie’s strength and work ethic are admirable but Fae gives the character an inner core that is stronger than steel and grabs the viewer’s attention and admiration. She may be one of the most memorable female characters you’ll see in any movie this year and you certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon after the credits roll.

The movie does amble along at a fairly deliberate pace which might not be suitable for a 21st century ADHD audience but the pacing serves the atmosphere nicely. The time and place – 1876 Maine – is nicely recreated here, although I can’t really testify to its authenticity much, taking place more than 80 years before I was born. The ending isn’t clever or cute, but its sensible and welcome, putting a grace note on a movie that has plenty of them. If there is one movie you see at the 2016 Florida Film Festival, this one is the one I’d recommend in a year that the offerings are particularly strong. It also has a feminist tone which seems to be a theme at the FFF this year, which I also find pleasing. For those who think women aren’t suited temperamentally for the director’s chair (and hopefully none of those read this blog) I would point them in the direction in this film, which is an early candidate for my top films of 2016.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and composition. Strong character performance by Fae. Wonderful use of color and light.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and a gruesome image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Erica Fae’s birth name is Erica Stuart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score found. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Piano
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Other Kids

Unfinished Song


Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

(2012) Dramedy (Weinstein) Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Eccleston, Barry Martin, Taru Devani, Anne Reid, Elizabeth Counsell, Ram John Holder, Denise Rubens, Arthur Nightingale, Jumayn Hunter, Orla Hill, Bill Thomas, Willie Jonah, Calita Reinford, Federay Holmes, Alan Ruscoe, Sally Ann Matthews. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Florida Film Festival 2013

We call ’em tearjerkers. They are movies that (sometimes shamelessly) manipulate us emotionally, bringing us to a nice cathartic cry. There are critics who can’t stand those sorts of movies and excoriate them up one side and down the other. Personally I think these scribes have a real hard time getting in touch with their feelings but that’s just a generalization on my part. However, it is also true that sometimes a good cry is what we need to clean out the old emotional tank and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we are manipulated into doing so – if it’s done artfully.

Arthur (Stamp) is an elderly retired Brit who seems to be in a perpetual state of grouchiness. He hangs out playing dominos at the pub with his friends and lives with his frail wife Marion (Redgrave) who must be some kind of saint to put up with Arthur’s behavior. She’s a dedicated member of a senior choir who calls themselves the OAPz (for Old Age Pensioners, adding the “z” to show they aren’t out of touch – although that sort of thing is about five to ten years out of date). The choir mistress is the plucky, terminally cheerful Elizabeth (Arterton) whose song choices include the B-52s “Love Shack” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Marion has cancer and so it falls on Arthur to take her to and from choir practice. A regional competition is approaching, but Marion’s days are numbered and everyone knows it, including (and especially) Arthur who becomes more and more fiercely protective of her as time goes on. However, as it often does, time runs out before Marion gets to sing at the competition.

Arthur is devastated and his strained relationship with his son James (Eccleston) grows even more so. In fact, Arthur wants nothing to do with his boy and says as much. James is crushed, essentially losing both parents in a fell swoop but  gamely continues to try reaching out until it becomes obvious that nothing will ever come of it.

Elizabeth forms an unlikely friendship with Arthur; both are wounded souls who need someone to lean on and to both of their surprise, it turns out to be each other. Arthur is at last convinced to join the chorus but whether they can defy the odds and beat much more classically-oriented choirs in the competition remains to be seen.

Of late there have been a number of fine movies regarding aging and the elderly coming out of Britain, including (but not limited to) Quartet, How About You? and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is indeed a worthy addition to that list and is so because of the moving performances of the leads, particularly Stamp and Redgrave. Stamp, best known for his villainous portrayals over the years, channels his inner curmudgeon and gives us a character whose inner bitterness is mitigated by the influence of his wife. When she passes, he is utterly lost and we see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

Two of the most affecting scenes in the film take place when Marion and Arthur sing to each other about their feelings, Marion singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” while Arthur sings Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” after Marion is gone. Definitely not a dry eye in the house for that one. Between them, Stamp and Redgrave have 106 years of experience on the silver screen and it shows here.

Eccleston, better known as the ninth Doctor in the hugely popular BBC series Doctor Who shows his dramatic side as Arthur’s somewhat life-wearied son. A single parent, James has a difficult time of things that Arthur doesn’t help much with; he seems to be a decent sort but is clearly frustrated at the gulf between him and his Dad and isn’t sure how to bridge it. Arterton is also building quite the satisfying resume in her career and this might well be her best performance yet which is saying something.

The one gripe I have with the movie – and to be truthful not just with this movie but in general – is its portrayal of the elderly. Yes, I know it’s cute to have them singing rap songs and pop songs from the rock era but I get the sense that the writers of these screenplays have little if any contact with actual elderly people. You know they do sing rock songs, they do dance and they’re more active than ever. Portraying them as cute but befuddled idiots, hopelessly anachronistic, does a disservice to those old people who are a part of our community and should be more valued than they are, but in all fairness Hollywood’s bias is just symptomatic of an overall disrespecting of the elderly going on in society.

That aside, the movie is definitely maudlin in places but is rescued by the dignified and assured performances by the leads. I knew that I was being manipulated but when it is done by master thespians, it’s hard to mind because the performances are so worthwhile. This is playing in limited release but is absolutely worth seeking out if it’s anywhere near you, or catching it on VOD if not.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting performances by the leads. Heart-warming.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit patronizing to the elderly.

FAMILY VALUES:  Arthur delivers a few choice rude gestures and there’s some intimations of sensuality in the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Song for Marion under which name it was released in the UK.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; the reviews aren’t scintillating but are trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young@Heart

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Purge

The 5th Quarter


The 5th Quarter(2010) True Life Faith-Based Drama (Rocky Mountain) Andie MacDowell, Aidan Quinn, Ryan Merriman, Andrea Powell, Michael Harding, Stefan Guy, Anessa Ramsey, Jillian Batherson, Ted Johnson, Patrick Stogner, Bonnie Johnson, William Smith Yelton, Maureen Mountcastle. Directed by Rick Bieber

 

None of us get through life unscathed. Sooner or later we all lose someone close to us. One of the worst things we can experience, however is losing someone long before their time. However, when we are in the depths of that despair we can sometimes find inspiration.

The Abbate family is a close, tight-knit family that is strong in their faith. Their son Jon (Merriman) is attending Wake Forest on a football scholarship and his little brother Luke (Guy) looks to be going down the same road. Mom Maryanne (MacDowell) is proud of her boys as is Dad Steven (Quinn).

But then the unthinkable happens. Luke goes out with a group of his friends; behind the wheel is a boy who is reckless, driving way too fast and too inexperienced to handle it. The car crashes. Some of the boys in the car are killed instantly; Luke lingers on for several days before the decision is made to let him go. Luke had signed up as an organ donor and the members of the family have a difficult time respecting that decision but after much soul reflection and speaking with their pastors, they at last give in. Luke’s organs are harvested.

The grief hits the family hard. Maryanne sinks into a deep depression while Steven throws himself into work. Jon goes on a bit of a rollercoaster ride; sometimes he is the rock the family leans on, other times he is furious at the Lord for taking his brother and other times he seems to have given up, sinking into a beer-colored haze.

After an intervention by Jon’s girlfriend (Batherson), assorted pastors and his weight trainer, Jon gets his life back on track. When the football season begins, he tells his coach (Harding) that he wants to switch his number from 41 to 5 which was the number Luke wore. As the 2006 season begins, the Demon Deacons – predicted to finish dead last in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference – start the fourth quarter of each game with Jon holding his hand with five fingers outstretched in tribute to his brother – the fifth quarter. Soon, his teammates take it up as a show of solidarity, then the fans pick it up and by the end of the year, even opposing players do it as a sign of respect to Jon and his deceased brother.

While the Deacons have an unbelievable season which ends up with an ACC title, a BCC bowl game (the first in the university’s history) and an eventual rating in the top 20, Jon’s family is still having real issues dealing with their grief and holding onto their faith, once a cornerstone of the family. Can they find their way back to happiness, or at least acceptance?

I’m not really a big fan of faith-based movies. I personally don’t like being preached to about how I should accept God’s plan and that if I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior I’ll find eternal life and so forth. That’s all fine for Church but watching a movie isn’t going to convert me and if you need to have a movie re-confirm your faith, you’ve got problems, son.

Still, this one is a little more subtle about it than most which is fine by me – there is nothing wrong to my mind with portraying that a character or their family has faith, nor is portraying a crisis of faith something that should be avoided and it’s quite true that Hollywood tends to avoid anything that smacks of religious faith, so much so that Evangelical Christians have taken to making their own movies.

That’s fine and dandy. Most of them have been quite frankly just plain awful, having no edge to them whatsoever but kind of an attitude that no matter what life throws at you, everything will be better so long as you believe. The Polar Express is a lot like that but at least the visuals are better.

This at least has a bit of an edge, and some of the acting performances are all right particularly from Quinn as the grieving dad. While there are plenty of amateurish performances on the acting side, and a whole lot of cornball in the script, I’ve seen worse from more seasoned professionals so you can’t really complain too much.

This isn’t really a football story and the success of the Wake Forest team is really not what the movie’s about either; it is about the healing of a family. Personally (and nothing against the Abbates) but would a movie have been made if Jon Abbate hadn’t been a star football player and his team performed well above expectations? In making this a non-football story about a football player and his family, it kind of cheapens the similar experiences other families who weren’t lucky enough to have a star football player in their DNA have been through, and that’s really my main problem with the movie; if you’re going to use a football player in the movie, it should be a football movie. If you’re going to make it about a family, any family should do.

Otherwise, those who are devout Christians (and I’m not sure how many of those read my reviews to be honest) will find it a refreshing change of pace from typical Hollywood films. Those who aren’t can rest assured that they won’t feel too preached to during the course of the film. However to both sides I can say that the movie is merely average and won’t really tell a story with characters you can get to know and relate to. Perhaps that would have been the miracle this film needed.

WHY RENT THIS: An inspiring story. Quinn does a nice job as does MacDowell.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film meant for a Christian audience; can be preachy in places. Overdoes the sentimentality.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes might be a little bit rough on the young and impressionable. There are also some medical scenes that are a bit strong and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the pastors in the film are played by real-life pastors. The weight trainer in the film is played by Jon Abbate’s real-life trainer.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $408,159 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s likely the movie barely broke even or possibly even made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cafe