For the Birds


A bird in the hand…

(2018) Documentary (Dogwoof) Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, Sheila Hyslop, William Brenner, Paul DerOhannesan, Jenny Brown. Directed by Richard Miron

 

There are some who say that there is a very fine line between love and obsession. Still others assert that in love there is always a degree of obsession. However, I think everyone agrees that too much obsession, no matter how great the love, is a very bad thing.

Kathy Murphy lives on a lovely property in upstate New York in a small town called Wawarsing. While the mobile home she lives in is spartan, she and her husband Gary seem pretty content with their lives. She finds an abandoned duckling on her property one day and decides to raise it. She becomes enchanted with the waterfowl; soon more ducklings follow. Then chicks. And geese. Even a couple of turkeys.  Before anyone knows it there are over 150 birds living in close quarters in the shed and having the run of the house.

Kathy goes from being perceived as a kind-hearted animal lover to a slightly eccentric bird enthusiast to a full-blown crazy lady. The birds have completely taken over her life; she spends all her time feeding them, caring for them and hanging out with them. The house becomes fetid with the smell of bird droppings and the noise is so bad that Gary, who works nights, must turn on his stereo full blast to drown out the birds calls so he can sleep. The situation begins to affect his health.

Neighbors begin to notice the mess and the unsanitary living conditions for the birds and call the local SPCA. The Woodstock Wildlife Refuge is notified and workers like Sheila Hyslop, a charming Scottish lady and committed volunteer for the Refuge who is visibly affected by the situation in the Murphy homestead, try to convince Kathy to part with some of her feathered children.

Yes, Kathy actually considers the birds as her babies, which is ironic because she has an adult human daughter who has a child of her own; Kathy has essentially cut them out of her life. In fact, she’s cut everyone other than Gary and the birds from her life and even Gary who clearly loves his wife in order to put up with this for years is getting fed up. Eventually the SPCA animal police are called in and they seize almost all of her birds. A legal battle ensues and although local tax lawyer William Brenner represents her, it must feel to Kathy as if everyone has deserted her – including Gary.

Miron is actually a volunteer at the Woodstock Refuge himself which is where he first encountered the story. Considering Kathy’s contentious relationship with the Refuge, it must have taken some pretty extensive sweet-talking to get her to allow the kind of access she gives the camera crew. Kathy herself makes a fascinating figure; she clearly has at least some form of mental illness. The repetitive phrases she uses, the fast-paced staccato vocal cadences and the rapid head movements certainly give that impression.

You would think Miron would take a very negative view of Kathy and at times, she does come off negatively but Miron is also surprisingly sympathetic as you realize that Kathy is not a monster; she’s also not the sort who endangers her birds because of a mental deficiency. What she does have is a hoarder’s mentality which eventually puts her in an untenable situation where she can’t possibly give the birds adequate care but she refuses to recognize that until it’s too late.

Lest you think this is a downer of a movie, it isn’t. Kathy does find a kind of redemption at the end although it doesn’t come until she hits rock bottom, which often is what it takes for people to make changes in their lives and their attitudes. What prompts Kathy to make those changes is never truly explained. All I can say in the five years that are covered in her life, Kathy ages in a pretty stark manner and I’m talking American President stark. She’s not youthful at the start of the film but you can still see vestiges of her youth; by the time the final credits roll she has clearly aged into the role of an old woman. Love can do that to you.

While this is definitely interesting viewing, it isn’t essential. Miron does a surprisingly good job of telling Kathy’s story, thanks in no small part to the editing work he did in coordination with Jeffrey Star which is where the story really takes off. We often overlook how important film editing is to the finished product but this is certainly an example of how crucial it can be and how it can make or break a movie. Fortunately in this case, it’s make.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering portrayal of obsession and its effects on relationships.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film doesn’t explain very well how Kathy turned her life around.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity as well as a sometimes-disturbing depiction of mental illness and animal neglect.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five-year period.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Extracurricular Activities

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Denial (2016)


Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the "Fantastic Beasts" film series.

Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the “Fantastic Beasts” film series.

(2016) True Life Drama (Bleecker Street) Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss, John Sessions, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Pip Carter, Jackie Clune, Will Attenborough, Max Befort, Daniel Cerqueira, Laurel Lefkow, Elliot Levey, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Andrea Deck. Directed by Mick Jackson

 

The trouble with history is that people are constantly trying to rewrite it. Sometimes that’s in an effort to interpret the significance of events but sometimes it’s in an effort to promote a point of view.

Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) is a professor of Jewish history from Queens teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. She is promoting a book entitled Denying the Holocaust in which she discusses how an insidious effort is being made to discredit the pain and suffering of millions of Jews. At a lecture promoting the book, she is confronted by David Irving (Spall), a British historian who had enjoyed a lucrative career on the basis that he claimed there was no evidence that Auschwitz had any gas chambers. An unabashed admirer of Hitler, he offers $1,000 to anyone who can conclusively prove that the Holocaust happened. Lipstadt refuses to debate him on the basis that she doesn’t “debate facts.”

xzSo Irving sues the American academic and her publisher (Penguin Press) for libel, but he does so in a British court because under British law, the burden of proof rests with the defense rather than the accuser. In other words, Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust happened and then on top of it, that Irving knowingly distorted the facts otherwise. Penguin agrees with her that this suit must be fought and so they hire a British dream team; solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson). Incidentally, the film explains the two roles; the solicitor researches the case and the barrister argues it in court.

The strong-willed and often just plain stubborn Lipstadt immediately begins to butt heads with her defense team. She wants to take the stand but they refuse to put her there and she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. They absolutely refuse; for one thing, the charismatic Irving, who is acting as his own barrister, would use the opportunity to shame and abuse the survivors and in the words of Julius, “they’ve suffered enough already.” Lipstadt begins to have serious doubts that she is being well-represented.

Although this was fairly big news when it happened less than ten years ago, the details are not well-known particularly in America where knowledge of news going on across the pond tends to be less well-reported. While you may know how the trial turned out (and in case you didn’t I won’t mention it here) how it got there might be a bit less well-known.

Weisz has a tendency to play somewhat strident characters and certainly Lipstadt qualifies. While I’m not sure she’ll get Oscar notice since the role is somewhat similar to ones she’s done before, it certainly is not outside the realm of possibility that she will. I’d also put up Wilkinson and Spall for nomination consideration as well.

Strangely, Weisz was one of the things I liked least about the film. She whines quite a bit through it and often comes off as condescending to the British legal experts who I would think know her system much better than she does. I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of the real Lipstadt this is but if it is, she’s not a very pleasant person to know. It isn’t until the end of the film that she forms even a glimmering of a relationship (with Rampton) that isn’t confrontational and judgmental.

Even though the material is fairly dry – unlike how they’re portrayed in the movies most court cases are unexciting and even dull – Jackson does a good job of keeping things lively and even interesting. He manages to explain most of the ins and outs of how the law works in Britain to us ignorant Yanks without talking down to us. I am curious if it played differently in the UK where they’d understand the system somewhat better than we do.

There are some things in which the filmmakers acquitted themselves – ‘scuse the pun – well as well as others in which the jury is still out on. Weisz can be an acquired taste as an actress, particularly in roles like this which aren’t necessarily likable. Those who don’t like courtroom dramas might also think twice about this, even though the courtroom scenes are staged better than most. And some people just plain get uncomfortable around the holocaust. You know who you are.

At the end of the day, this is not necessarily a triumph so much as a success. I liked the movie overall and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it but at the same time it’s not the kind of movie that’s going to end up being one of the movies that this year is remembered for, at least by me. Check it out if you have the chance but I think that you may wait and see if the Academy gives it any love before you do.

In these uncertain times with a climate seemingly skewed towards bigotry and hate, it is somehow comforting to see truth and justice win over those things – perhaps it still can. I like to think so. It takes people like Deborah Lipstadt, standing up for those who would lie and obscure and diminish and in so doing, relegate an entire race to second-class status. It’s a lesson that all of us should take to heart.

REASONS TO GO: Most of the performances here are strong. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Weisz is a little shrill here.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult concepts here that might be too much for the sensitive sorts; there’s also some fairly strong profanity from time to time.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the dialogue in the courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the trial transcripts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man in the Glass Booth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gimme Danger

Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

Woman in Gold


The principals of the tale.

The principals of the tale.

(2015) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Antje Traue, Nene Gachev, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, Tom Schilling, Moritz Bleibtreu, Anthony Howell, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Asli Bayram, Jasmine Golden. Directed by Simon Curtis

When the Nazis swept through Europe, they would quickly evict wealthy Jews from their homes, taking their possessions before sending the residents to concentration camps for the eventual Final Solution. After the war was over, many works of art and personal possessions were not returned to their original owners or their descendants.

One such work was Gustav Klimt’s (Bleibtreu) masterwork Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I which was eventually retitled Woman in Gold. The portrait hung proudly in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum and was considered “Austria’s Mona Lisa” for its station as the pre-eminent artwork in Austria. But at one time, it hung in the apartment of the Bloch-Bauer family.

For Maria Altmann (Mirren) however, the portrait meant something different; it was not merely an important work of art, it was a memory of her aunt (Traue) who passed away too young of meningitis in 1925, a refined and beautiful woman who was an important influence on her life. Some 15 years later, the Nazis took control of Austria and seized their home and nearly all of their things including a priceless Stradivarius (which at one time resided in Hitler’s Alpine retreat) and five Klimt paintings including the one of her aunt. While her Uncle Ferdinand (Goodman), Adele’s husband, had presence enough to relocate to Switzerland before the Nazis arrived, young Maria (Maslany), her husband Fritz (Irons) and Maria’s parents were trapped. A harrowing escape got Fritz and Maria out of Vienna but her parents were left behind where they would die.

Years later, when her sister had passed away, Maria found some letters among her effects in reference to the painting. With Austria undertaking a highly-publicized restoration of Nazi plunder back to their original owner, she was curious about what could be done to restore that which had been stolen from her family and returned to her, so she calls on Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), son of an old friend (Fisher) of Maria’s and grandson of the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg. At first, having just taken a job at a large firm and inexperienced in this kind of law, he is reluctant to take the case but when he discovered that the painting was valued at over $100 million, his interest was piqued.

However, getting the painting back would entail going to Vienna, something Maria swore she would never do, but it was necessary to find Adele’s will which the Austrian government claimed had given the painting to them. There, aided by a sympathetic journalist (Bruhl) Randy discovers that Adele never owned the painting to begin with – her husband Ferdinand did and HE had bequeathed the works of art to Maria.

The Austrian government was reluctant to part with the painting and through every roadblock possible in Maria’s way, but Randy – who was greatly affected by a visit to the Holocaust memorial in Vienna which reminded him that members of his family were dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night and taken to places where they would die horribly – was resolved to see justice done. With Maria’s resolve flagging, could he convince the frail old woman to see the fight through to the end, though it take them to the American Supreme Court?

Mirren is one of the most delightful and versatile actresses, able to do a regal Queen, a working class dress shop owner or a droll assassin with equal aplomb. Her performance here as Maria is scintillating and certainly the focal point of the movie, but more of a surprise is Reynolds, who is generally charming beefcake but has rarely performed to this level in a dramatic role; it’s in fact his best acting performance yet in my opinion. Maslany, who has been so good in Orphan Black, also is superior as a young Adele who leaves her country and manages to get to America with nearly nothing to her name but the love of her husband to sustain her.

There are some powerful scenes here; when Adele says goodbye to her parents, I could only imagine how many similar conversations were taking place at that time in that situation where children would say goodbye to parents who knew that they would never see their offspring again.

I have to admit that when the actual case took place midway through the last decade I initially sided with the Austrian government; I thought that a work of art isn’t truly owned by an individual but by humanity. My mind has been changed on that accord.

You see, art is not just an ephemeral theoretical thing; it is real, tangible, powerful and personal. A painting of your favorite aunt isn’t just a picture; it is a representation of the soul of someone you love. That’s a powerful thing; when that representation is ripped from the family who it belongs to rightfully, it is doubly powerful. Maria Altmann and Randy Schoenberg weren’t just fighting for Maria’s rights; they were fighting for all those who had been left behind to die, a reality the film makes very clear in yet another powerful scene near the end of the movie.

While some critics have characterized the movie as boring, I didn’t find it so. Even though I knew how the case turned out I was mesmerized, mainly because the acting here is so top of the line. Yeah, this isn’t for everyone; some people point out that this is yet another Holocaust movie and there are those who are tired of hearing about the Holocaust. Has there been oversaturation of the Holocaust in movies?

No. Not even close. Some people may be uncomfortable with the discussion of the subject; perhaps then you should talk with someone who lost someone in the Holocaust. Even though generations have come and gone, there are those who can only view it through the prism of family members murdered and lives destroyed. Judging from the way we treat gay people, how religious zealots murder at will and how we continue to hate blindly because people are different than us, it is clear that we haven’t learned a goddamned thing. So I say to Hollywood, please do continue to make movies about the Holocaust. Please continue to remind us what the devastating consequences are when we say nothing when the rights and lives of others are jeopardized. We clearly need to be reminded of what silence buys us.

REASONS TO GO: Mirren is terrific as always and Reynolds delivers his best performance ever. Some very moving moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a few scattered bad words and some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran actress McGovern is married in real life to the director, Simon Curtis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adele’s Wish
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Florida Film Festival coverage begins with Wildlike

Black or White


Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

(2014) Drama (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Newsome, Indigo, Bertha Bindewald, Joe Chrest, Ireyon Johnson, Janeline Hayes, Lloyd Dillon, Ernest Wells, Angela Jones, David Jensen, John McConnell, Robert Larriviere, Lindsey G. Smith. Directed by Mike Binder

In many ways, race is the central issue for America not only in the 20th century but sadly into the 21st as well. It informs many of the political struggles that have been going on. After all, do you think that there would be quite the push for the strengthening of gun owner rights if there wasn’t a white fear of young black men? While some things are better than they were 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma to Montgomery in an effort to assert voting rights for the African-American citizens of this country, for the most part things are sadly, drearily, depressingly the same.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is barely coping with life. His wife (Ehle) has just passed away in an auto accident. He’s lost but he can’t afford to be; he has a granddaughter to raise. Eloise (Estell) entered the world under difficult circumstances; her mom, Elliot’s daughter, died in childbirth and her dad, Reggie Davis (Holland), a raging drug addict, wasn’t fit or interested to be a father. Elliot has a lot of issues with Reggie, blaming him for a lot of things some of them deserved, some not.

Rowena (Spencer) is Reggie’s mom and she’s very sympathetic to Elliot’s plight but in some ways not. She wants to be closer to her granddaughter, understandably and especially now but Elliot is struggling with this. He respects Rowena although he doesn’t really like her much, believing she has a blind spot when it comes to her son. Rowena, frustrated by Elliot’s intransigence, consults her brother Jeremiah Jeffers (Mackie), a high-powered lawyer who sues Elliot for custody of Eloise on Rowena’s behalf.

Eloise is confused by all of this; she loves her grandfather very much but she also loves her Gramma Wee-Wee, as she calls Rowena. However left to her own devices, the seven-year-old would want to stay with the man who’s been around her all her life. Not that anyone’s asking her, of course.

But Rowena has ulterior motives. She sees Eloise as an opportunity to save her son; surely once he is given the chance to be a dad, he’ll step up to the plate. Elliot will do anything to keep this from happening; however, the case is far from open and shut. You see, Elliot has another friend; it’s the bottle and he has climbed into it hard after his wife’s untimely passing.

So with Reggie sniffing around, Elliot getting paranoid and Rowena becoming increasingly unsure that she wants to use Jeremiah’s bulldog tactics which paint Elliot as a racist alcoholic, even if it is true – which it only is half-true. What is going on is a struggle between a man who has lost everything and a desperate mother with a little girl caught in the middle.

This is the type of movie that can be incredibly powerful in the right hands and veteran Mike Binder would appear to be those hands, but frankly he doesn’t pull it off. Instead of making this a powerfully emotional film that acts as a lens on modern race relations, Binder instead goes for the easy answers with an ending that absolutely wipes out any credibility the movie might have had.

Costner was particularly motivated, financing the production himself for the most part. This is a much more layered role for him; he tends to play fairly easy-going guys who have a penchant for doing the right things although often his characters have a checkered past. His immense likability helps make this movie charming, despite the fact that his character isn’t doing a lot of charming things, showing up so blotto that he can barely stand at times and using the N-word when confronting Reggie. He also has a speech during the courtroom proceedings which while I think it gets to the heart of what the movie is trying to get across, damages Elliot’s case significantly.

Elliot sees his wife in (often) alcohol-induced flashbacks and certainly they make it clear that she was his rock, leaving him floundering in her absence. It is telling that we only get to see his wife in flashback; his daughter, with whom he was estranged and seems to be much angrier about, never appears in any sort of flashback. Clearly Elliot hasn’t forgiven her yet.

Fortunately Costner isn’t alone. Spencer has blossomed into one of the most dependable actresses in Hollywood; ever since making her splash in The Help she hasn’t delivered one performance that has been anything less than fantastic. Mackie is also a terrific actor who is terrific here as well. There are a couple of relative newcomers here however who deliver fine performances; comedian Bill Burr who as Elliot’s partner gets a couple of dramatic sequences, and young Jillian Estell who carries herself extremely well for an actress this young. Something has to be done about that hand grenade hair though; it’s distracting.

With an opportunity to make a really important film on race relations, the writers and filmmakers instead go the safe route, substituting cliche for insight. That makes this relatively easy to digest and certainly free of controversy. In this way it doesn’t offend anyone, but the movies that invite the most discussion and in some cases actually make the most difference socially speaking are the ones that are offensive to at least someone. If you’re going to have Kevin Costner utter the “N word” at a young African-American man, you might as well not squander the opportunity by being timid in all other aspects but unfortunately that’s exactly what this movie does.

REASONS TO GO: Costner at his likable best in a more layered role than he usually gets. Spencer, Mackie, Burr and (surprisingly) Estell are all strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable throughout. The ending is a whopper that really derails the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drunkenness, intimations of drug use, a fight and some occasional strong language as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to the memory of J.J. Harris, who was Costner’s personal friend and his first manager. Harris passed away in 2013.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kramer vs. Kramer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Strange Magic

Little Accidents


Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

(2014) Drama (Archer Gray) Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas, Jacob Lofland, Chloe Sevigny, Beau Wright, Randy Springer, Louie Lawless, Joseph Longo, Travis Tope, Alexia Rasmussen, Kate DeLuca, Tim Gooch, Mike Bizzarri, Peter Herrick, Steven St. Gelais, James DeForest Parker, Mike Seely, Kimberly Shrewsbury. Directed by Sara Colangelo

There are those who say that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t discern what those reasons are. However, there are those who think that life is a series of accidents great and small, that things happen entirely through random chance. I guess your point of view depends on whether or not you believe in luck or that you make your own luck.

Amos (Holbrook) is a quiet, single young man living in the small town of Beckley, West Virginia. He doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary except for one thing; he was the sole survivor of a mining accident that took the lives of ten of his fellow miners. After having been out of town recuperating and undergoing physical therapy, he has finally returned home, still unable to use all of his limbs fully. The town waits with baited breath to see how he testifies about the accident. Should he say it was company negligence, the families of the dead (and Amos himself) would get an enormous payday. However the rest of the miners know that if that happens, the company will close its doors and they’ll all be out of a job. Both sides are putting a great deal of pressure on Amos.

Bill Doyle (Lucas) is the manager of the mine that collapsed. The company is already putting distance between him and them, telling him to get his own legal representation and putting him on suspension. But he has far more on his mind – his son JT (Tope) has disappeared and there has been no trace of him for days. His wife Diane (Banks) is beginning to suspect her husband had something to do with the disaster – certainly the town thinks so. Despite her grief, the town is turning their backs on her and her husband, shunning them.

Owen (Lofland) is going through a difficult time. His father was one of the miners killed in the accident. His mother (Sevigny) is showering him and his Downs-afflicted brother James (Wright) with gifts of video games and iPods. Owen, a high school freshman, wants desperately to fit in among the older kids, even bribing them with beer but they tend to make fun of him and think of him as beneath them. He carries a terrible secret – he alone knows what happened to JT.

The power of the secrets carried within begins to tell upon all of the main characters who start to unravel. Diane begins an ill-advised affair while Amos dithers between telling the truth about the accident and lying about it. Owen, wracked with guilt and pain, strikes up friendships with both Amos and Diane, one representing the father he lost and the other representing the friend he might have had.

First-time director Colangelo chose to film in a small West Virginia coal mining town and that gives the film the right atmosphere of authenticity but the real authenticity comes from the emotional reactions of the players involved. Owen, in particular, acts like a child unequipped to deal with a terrible situation, acting out and behaving out of panic.

The one exception to this is the relationship between Diane and Amos, which doesn’t ring quite so true and doesn’t have the feel of a relationship motivated out of sex nor one out of emotional need. It’s like they’re together because they don’t have anything else better to do and I felt zero sparks between the two of them.

That said, I think Holbrook has huge potential. The former model and poet is electric here, showing the quiet dignity of a Gary Cooper mixed in with the warm humanity of a Tom Hanks. While he has gotten some buzz in previous appearances, here he shows not only that he can carry a film emotionally but he has the screen presence to hold our attention every moment he’s on the screen.

Lofland, who was impressive in Mud, is just as good here. He carries the look of a boy haunted by demons larger than he can bear and still he has time to be protective of his younger brother. He does lash out at his mom who attributes it to missing his dad, and then he sort of adopts Diane as a surrogate mom, the mom he wished he had perhaps. It’s a terrific performance and when you consider Lofland’s age, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he may turn out to have the kind of talent that we’ve seen from Abigail Breslin, Haley Joel Osment, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Hutcherson and Dakota Fanning.  He may end up being better than any of them.

All in all, this is a wrenching movie about the choices we make, the consequences of those choices and the secrets we choose to keep and how they affect us. It’s a slice of life movie sure, but there is something almost epic about this particular slice even though the film itself is very intimate and low-key. It is the subjects of this movie that are greater than the sum of its parts. This may end up like Winter’s Bone in the sense that it brings a huge star to public notice – world, meet Boyd Holbrook. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Fine performances by Holbrook, Lofland and Lucas. Excellent emotional realism.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Relationship between Amos and Diana is unconvincing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language, some sexuality and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were torn between two locations, one in Northern Kentucky before settling on Beckley, West Virginia only a week before pre-production began.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/14: Since the movie is not yet in general or limited release, there are no scores as yet on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Skies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Delivery Man


Chris Pratt needs a hug.

Chris Pratt needs a hug.

(2013) Comedy (Touchstone) Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Simon Delaney, Bobby Moynihan, Dave Patten, Adam Chanler-Berat, Britt Robertson, Jack Reynor, Amos VanderPoel, Matthew Daddario, Jessica Williams, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Leslie Ann Glossner, Derrick Arthur, Michael Olberholtzer, Kevin Hopkins, Jessica Abo, Kate Dalton. Directed by Ken Scott

There’s a difference between being a dad and being a father and sometimes the two get confused. Anybody with sperm can be a father; not everyone is cut out to be a dad.

David Wozniak (Vaughn) is a charming but incompetent slacker who delivers meat for his father’s (Blumenfeld) Brooklyn butcher shop. He often gets sidetracked, using the truck to take care of his personal business and essentially chauffeuring the meat around Brooklyn. He takes four times as long to deliver the same meat as other drivers and it seems likely that if his dad didn’t own the joint he would have been fired long ago. His brothers Victor (Delaney) and Aleksy (Moynihan) are exasperated with his aimlessness. David needs some focus, a reason to be responsible.

He might have one now that his girlfriend Emma (Smulders), a cop, tells him she’s pregnant. David is thrilled and looks forward to being a dad but Emma isn’t so sure she wants him to be around. She needs stability and security; she wants to know that David will be there when he says he’ll be there and won’t leave her holding the bag every time, something he has done to her many times in the past.

David is also $80K in debt to loan sharks who are threatening to drown him in his own bathtub. To make matters worse, he’s also been served with an injunction. It seems that 20 years earlier, he’d donated sperm to make some extra cash. A lot of it, in fact. Due to a clerical/systemic error at the sperm bank, an excess of his ejacula has been used to procreate – 533 times. Yes, David is the proud pappy of 533 kids and 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to discover the identity of their sperm donor father. David had signed an anonymity clause for every one of his donations and had used the name “Starbuck” as a code to determine the source of his sperm.

Realizing he needs a lawyer, David goes to his best friend Brett (Pratt), a single father of four who isn’t respected by his children, his mother – pretty much everyone else for that matter – who happens to have a law degree. Brett actually welcomes the opportunity – this is the kind of case that can become a landmark and establish a fella in the profession.

David is given for reasons that I dare not even guess a folder full of profiles of the 142 progeny who are involved in the lawsuit and given strict instructions not to open them. David being David, he opens one up and discovers that one of his sons (Hopkins) is a basketball star. Heartened, he decides to open other profiles and discovers that each of them are pretty decent kids, from the one who is a struggling actor (Reynor) to one who is struggling to get her life together after years of drug addiction (Robertson).  One of them, Viggo (Chanler-Berat) manages to figure out David’s identity and rather than disclose it moves in with him.

Becoming the guardian angel for his kids turns David’s life around, despite Brett’s protestations that he is potentially harming his own case. Will David’s past sins threaten everything or will his new attitude finally make him the man Emma thought he could always be?

This is an English-language remake of the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck which played this year’s Florida Film Festival and had a brief theatrical run at the Enzian earlier this fall. The same director who did that does the remake and I’m not sure whether or not that was a good idea – this is virtually a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake that differs only in minute details from the original.

Which is fine because I liked the first film so much but the remake doesn’t really add anything. Vaughn is as affable and as charming an actor as you’ll find in Hollywood and this is the sort of role that he has built his career on, albeit David is less of a fast talking con man than some of Vaughn’s other performances. In fact contrasting Vaughn with David Huard who played David in Starbuck I think if anything Vaughn is more laid-back than Huard was. Who would have predicted that?

The things that made the first film so enjoyable are present here as well – the heartwarming charm, the gentle humorous pokes at fatherhood. Although the subject matter of sperm donation has an inherent sexual component and it is alluded to in a couple of jokes, this is largely as family-friendly a comedy as you’re likely to find from a major studio release these days and it certainly lacks the raunch of Judd Apatow’s work or the Hangover series. Some might say that there’s not enough edge here but that’s entirely a matter of personal taste.

As pleasant comedies go this one is inoffensive and while I would certainly recommend Starbuck ahead of this, those who haven’t seen the former will certainly enjoy this one, quite possibly a lot. While the average movie critic and cynical indie-loving film buff might decry this as too manipulative, a little manipulation can be a good thing from time to time.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is as engaging as ever. Funny and heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks edge and energy. Doesn’t add anything to the original.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexual material, a bit of drug content, some foul language and brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt gained 60 pounds to play the out-of-shape lawyer Brett.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Book Thief