The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When the Bough Breaks: A Documentary About Postpartum Depression


Three brave women discuss that which society deems to be a stigma.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Brooke Shields (narrator), Carnie Wilson, Aarti Sequeira, Lindsay Gerszt, Diana Lynn Barnes, Bradley Gerszt, Haiti Harrison, Peggy Tanous, Naomi Knoles, Joy Burkhard, Raul Martinez,, Jenna Liddy, Tanya Neybould, Jane Honikman, David Arredondo, Vivian Burt, Jacqueline Goodman, Angela Burliing, Staci Janisse, Randy Gibbs, Candyce Carpenter. Directed by Jamielyn Lippman

 

For a long time women who felt down after giving birth were dismissed as having “the baby blues” or some such. “You’ll get over it,” was the prevailing logic. “Suck it up and get back to cleaning the house!” It hasn’t been until relatively recently that postpartum depression was seen as something serious – and occasionally lethal.

The first smart decision the filmmakers made was getting Brooke Shields involved as a narrator and producer. She in many ways became the face of postpartum depression when she wrote a book confessing her own issues and how she got through it – and was promptly read the riot act by Tom Cruise for admitting to taking medication for it. Some of you might remember that embarrassing moment in the actor’s career.

The genesis of the project was Lindsay Gerszt who suffered from a severe postpartum depression after the birth of her son Hunter. The filmmakers follow her through six years of a variety of different therapies, including acupuncture and electronic stimulation. We see how her husband Bradley copes (or doesn’t) with her situation, which I think is an excellent move on the part of Lippman – depression doesn’t just affect a single member of the family. Everyone has to deal with it.

There are a lot of talking heads here, mainly of women who have been through one of the various forms of PPD and some who have survived the worst of all – Postpartum Psychosis whose sufferers often have religious-based hallucinations and do bodily harm to themselves or their children including murdering them.

We do get some clinical information from various psychologists and specialists but the fact remains that PPD can strike any woman regardless of family history, social standing or culture. There are some things that can make you more susceptible to it (like a history of depression) but it can literally happen to anyone.

The filmmakers do talk about one of the worst aspects of PPD and that’s the stigma attached to it. There’s basically a stigma attached to any mental issue but in the case of Postpartum it really gets in the way of getting well. A lot of women won’t talk about the feelings they have because they are ashamed and feel that they’re “bad mommies.” Postpartum Depression often affects the bonding between women and their babies; women report feeling like they need to get away from their babies and don’t want to be around them. They cry often and sleep a great deal. Even the sight of women and their children in the mall can set off feelings of inadequacy. In some cases that feeling of alienation extends to their husbands/significant others and family members often bear the brunt of the victim’s frustrations and anger.

Again, with celebrities like Brooke Shields and Carnie Wilson (of Wilson-Phillips) coming out to share their experiences, things are getting a little better in that regard but we’re only starting to catch up now. Still screening for Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis isn’t standard in most states and for some women and their children, that can be fatal.

One of the faults I have with this movie is that it isn’t terribly representative. Most of the women here are well-to-do, live in beautiful homes, drive expensive cars – and most importantly can afford all manners of therapy for as long as they need it. That’s simply not the norm however; towards the end we get the experiences of a couple of families who are less affluent but in both cases it’s sufferers of Postpartum Psychosis whose illness leads to tragic ends. I think the movie would do a whole lot more good if women of less means can relate to the women in the film; I suspect many will look at the movie and say “But I can’t afford any of that” and instead of getting help they do like women have done through the ages and just suck it up, buttercup. It looks like nearly all of the women are from Southern California as well.

I will add this caveat that I saw this immediately after watching HBO’s excellent Cries from Syria which really makes this look a little bit like First World Problems and that’s achingly unfair. Post-Partum Psychosis claims the lives of women and children all over the globe and to put an exclamation point during the end credits, we are informed that two of the women interviewed for the film had taken their own lives since filming had been completed. If you are pregnant, about to be pregnant or know someone who is pregnant or about to be, you owe it to yourself – and them – to give this a watch. It could help you save the life of someone you love.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers make some excellent points about the demonization of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: Dwells too long on the experiences of celebrities and the rich; I would have liked to see more focus on women who don’t have the means to get six years worth of therapy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some frank discussion of violent events and childbirth as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project began when Lindsay Gerszt and Tanya Neybould discussed their postpartum depression with their friend filmmaker Jamielyn Lippman and the three determined to make a documentary about the condition which remains stigmatized.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Founder

Lights Out (2016)


Attention Teresa Palmer: there's a blue light special in the basement.

Attention Teresa Palmer: there’s a blue light special in the basement.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Rolando Boyce, Maria Russell, Elizabeth Pan, Lotta Losten, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Ariel Dupin. Directed by David F. Sandberg

 

As humans, we are conditioned to fear the unknown and what can be more unknown than darkness? We can’t see what’s in the dark – our eyes aren’t built for it. In the dark, anything can happen and not all of it is pleasant. Sometimes, that which lives in darkness can be downright terrifying.

Rebecca (Palmer) is a metal-loving young woman who has a – I hesitate to call him a boyfriend but he does have sex with her and they’ve been dating for several years – friend with benefits named Bret (DiPersia) who is a musician who plays metal. She lives on her own in an apartment over a tattoo parlor. She left home the moment she could pack her bags; hallucinations and nightmares had driven her to the brink of madness.

This is where her mother Sophie (Bello) dwells as a matter of course. Sophie was committed to a mental institution as a little girl and came out fragile, but her issues seemed to be under control with medication, and her second husband Paul (Burke) – not Rebecca’s dad by the way – has watched with some alarm as his wife’s mental condition starts to deteriorate rapidly. When Paul meets a tragic end, Sophie pretty much slides off into the deep end.

Rebecca’s half-brother Martin (Bateman) has now begun to have the same kinds of nightmares and hallucinations that just about destroyed Rebecca’s sanity. Concerned that Sophie is terrorizing her little half-brother, Rebecca moves to take Martin over to her apartment and out of Sophie’s influence. Sophie, who not only hears voices but has conversations with them, seems to be talking to a presence named Diana. Diana, as it turns out, was a friend who brutalized her in the asylum but had met a gruesome end. Some ends, as it turns out, are not as permanent as others.

Sandberg based this movie on a short movie – less than three minutes long – based on the same creature. With the feature clocking in at just a hair over 80 minutes, he certainly knows how to keep his stories compact which is laudable these days when movies routinely hit the two hour mark. He also uses a very interesting trope for his demonic presence; it only becomes visible and physical in darkness. Shine a light on Diana and she becomes incorporeal and harmless. When that light goes out…well, Diana raises havoc with those unfortunate to fall under her crosshairs.

This isn’t a particularly gory movie, nor are there a ton of murders (although a couple of hapless cops do get Diana’s special attention near the end of the movie). Most of the film is spent basically running away from Diana who is apparently very possessive of Sophie and doesn’t want to share her with anyone, even (and maybe especially) her own children.

It is refreshing to have characters in horror movies not act like utter and complete idiots, doing things that no rational sane human being would ever do. Say what you want about the leads here, they act like you and I would probably act in a similar situation, although to be fair I’d probably be a screaming wreck about a third of the way into the movie were it my life story.

The acting isn’t particularly outstanding; Bello is one of my favorite actresses but she makes some odd choices as Sophie – no pun intended. The part is a little bit of a caricature of a crazy person and if you don’t get the jitters watching Sophie for any length of time, you’ve probably taken some Valium recently. That or you drink enough coffee to make you permanently immune to the jitters. Palmer is beautiful and has some facial resemblance to Bello, but at the end of the day this isn’t a performance I would put into a star-making category; the success of the film will likely give her career quite a boost however.

Sandberg relies mainly on practical effects here, believe it or not. The CGI is kept to a minimum, although I’m certain that there is some optical trickery going on to make Diane visible and invisible so smoothly. I’m sure a computer or two were employed in that essential process.

All in all, this is a solid, scary movie that is going to make you think twice about turning out the lights when you go to sleep. I’m usually immune to such things, but I have to admit that when I went to bed after seeing the movie earlier that day, I did feel a good deal of apprehension as I shut out the lights. When a horror movie can do that to you, you know that you’re watching a director who knows what he’s about. I’ll be looking forward to his future work with more than a little bit of interest.

REASONS TO GO: You’ll want to sleep with the lights on afterwards. The demonic presence in the film has a nifty conceit.
REASONS TO STAY: Bello is wasted in a caricature of a performance and none of the actors really stand out. There are only so many ways you can make the lights flicker.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of disturbing images and terror, a fair amount of violence, some adult themes and a brief drug reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house in this movie is the same one used in Ouija and its upcoming follow-up Ouija: Origin of Evil.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Jason Bourne

Gabriel (2014)


Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

(2014) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rory Culkin, Emily Meade, Lynn Cohen, David Call, Alexia Rasmussen, Louisa Krause, Deirdre O’Connell, Frank De Julio, Julia K. Murney, Desmin Borges, Biago Simon, Sean Cullen, Jee Young Han, Chase Anderson, Samantha Sherman, And Palladino, Shana Kaplan, Chelsea Linder, Adriana Barnett. Directed by Lou Howe

Florida Film Festival 2015

We know so little about the human mind. What makes it tick, how it processes information, what causes it to malfunction, we really only have an inkling of the mysteries of the brain. We try to help those who have issues with their mental faculties, but really it’s all just stabs in the dark.

Gabriel (Culkin) is taking a bus. He seems friendly enough, although there’s something a little off about him; a little jittery perhaps, or a sense that he’s trying too hard to fit in. In any case, when he arrives at a small college in Connecticut looking for his girlfriend, we think that he’s just trying to visit his girl until we realize that the address he has for her is years out of date. When he finally finds her home address, his frustration that she doesn’t answer the door leads to a brief outbreak of violent behavior leads to our sense of unease about the kid.

Then we find that he wasn’t supposed to be there; he was supposed to be heading home to his family – brother Matthew (Call), a straight-arrow sort who is doing his best for his baby brother and is ready to introduce his fiance Kelly (Rasmussen) to him, and his mother Meredith (O’Connell) who is frenetically protective of her son, checking up on whether he has taken his medication as if he were a seven-year-old.

It is no wonder that Gabriel chafes in this environment, so at his first opportunity he runs off, still in search of his girlfriend Alice (Meade) whom he think will solve all his problems and make his life the perfect thing he always imagined it would be. There are obstacles in his way however, most of them of his own making. For one thing, the only one in his family he trusts as all is Nonny (Cohen), his grandmother and she is in the City (New York, for those wondering). For another, he’s not exactly sure where Alice is spending the winter break. One thing is certain; he doesn’t want to go back to the institution where he had just been released from. He very much wants his freedom.

There is a small coterie in Orlando who are in the know about something called the Uncomfortable Brunch. It takes place at a bar called Will’s Pub on a Sunday morning once a month and during the brunch they show a movie, generally one that is difficult to watch or raises feelings of unease. Those familiar with that event will understand when I say that this is the perfect movie for it.

First-time director Howe pulls no punches, basing the movie on his own experiences with a college roommate who was a diagnosed schizophrenic. This isn’t a movie that is so much a journey as it is a descent, for as Gabriel refuses to take his meds and becomes more and more in the grip of his own obsession, we see him become less and less likable and more and more dangerous to himself and others.

Culkin delivers the performance of his career to date and marks himself as a serious actor to be reckoned with. The intensity of his gaze from under the wool cap that his character wears constantly (an inkling of which you get from the photo above) grows more and more focused even as he himself does not. We get the sense that there’s something not quite right about Gabriel and it isn’t just the various tics and mannerisms. It’s the unpleasantness (I wrote in my notes as I watched this that there was nothing wrong with him a good punch in the face wouldn’t cure, although of course that’s far from true and not one of my shiniest moments) of the character, the sense that he is capable of anything and his overall unpredictability that make him feel like a ticking time bomb. One feels watching Gabriel that this movie isn’t going to end well for somebody, and it may be someone besides Gabriel who is the victim.

The movie is bleak looking as well; there aren’t a lot of warm colors in the cinematographer’s palate here; a lot of blues and grays and whites. That it is set during winter is not an accident; that contributes to the overall bleak feel of the movie. There are also a few nagging questions I had about just what was going on; where, for example, did Gabriel get the money for the bus tickets he buys?

This isn’t easy to watch in many ways but to its credit the movie will get a reaction from you, even if it is an unpleasant one. The world needs movies like this one, if only to remind us that the world isn’t the same for everybody and some folks who may not be the most pleasant to be around are grappling with demons that the rest of us can never understand or relate to. Only their families will have some sense of the hells they live through and sometimes, they’re so busy going through their own hells in dealing with theirs that they lose sight of that.

I can’t say that I’d recommend this movie for everyone – not everyone wants or needs a downer of a film when they’re looking for a movie to watch. However, despite my somewhat lukewarm review, this is a movie that has a lot going for it and for those looking for something a little different and a little more challenging, this is definitely one you should consider.

REASONS TO GO: Culkin is scintillating. No punches pulled view of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: An hour and a half spent with someone you’d probably rather not spend an hour and a half with. A bit too bleak for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in the Hamptons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider (2002)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared

The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go

Words and Pictures


Words and Pictures(2013) Romance (Roadside Attractions) Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Valerie Tian, Navid Negahban, Bruce Davison, Amy Brennerman, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder, Christian Schneider, Keegan Connor Tracy, Andrew McIlroy, Harrison MacDonald, Willem Jacobson, Tanaya Beatty, Tosh Turner, Style Dayne, Mackenzie Caldwell, Eva Allan. Directed by Fred Schepisi

Florida Film Festival 2014

Brevity is the soul of wit. A picture is worth a thousand words.

In a sense, the war between images and verbiage has been going on for quite some time. Writers like myself tend to take the stance that words are the most important aspect of human culture; without words there would be no way to codify our thoughts, to take our greatest concepts and make them real. Artists like my sister tend to believe that pictures are more important; they are expressions of the human soul and can communicate at a glance what it would take pages of words to do. So who’s right?

At a tony New England prep school, that argument is being made flesh. The popular English teacher, Jack Marcus (Owen) whom the students affectionately call Mr. Marc, leads the charge of the word brigade. A well-regarded published author, he can be one of those affectionate curmudgeons, calling his students “droids” and privately despairing of their willingness to pull their heads out of their social media. He’s a scruffy sort but the kids love him.

On the other side is the new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Binoche), a very respected artist. She’s somewhat prickly and immediately puts up a wall between herself and her students – “I’m not here to be your friend,” she tells her students on the very first day, “and I don’t want to hear about your problems.” But, if they want to know how to paint, how to express themselves through art, they’ve come to the right place. She’s passionate about art in general and eventually, about her students.

But these people are very flawed. Jack has become a raging alcoholic, and hasn’t published anything in years. Some very public drunken spectacles have made the school’s board of regents extremely uncomfortable and there are some who want him gone, including other teachers although the loyal Walt (Davison) sticks by his side. Jack also has a very difficult relationship with his son which leads to a whole lot of self-loathing. Jack even appropriates one of his son’s poems and displays it as his own.

Dina on the other hand has severe rheumatoid arthritis which has prevented her from painting a workable piece of art in years. Her frustration at being denied a means of self-expression has resulted in her building walls around her, pushing people away and being generally disagreeable most of the time. And, of course, she looks at Jack as the enemy.

And, of course too she and Jack will soon develop feelings for each other, this being an American movie. But unexpectedly, the student body begins to become involved in the “war” as sides are drawn and debate is engendered. More importantly, they begin to use their minds for something other than figuring out how to beat a boss in the latest videogame, but the newfound relationship between Jack and Dina threatens to destroy them both. Can they inspire their students and each other to be better?

Veteran Australian Schepisi is given a pretty interesting concept to wrestle with, although writer Gerald Di Pego wastes it in a lot of ways by failing to flesh out most of the characters in the film other than the two leads. I find it a bit ironic that the two teachers in the film were supposed to be inspiring their students, but those students are little more than the walking dead – uncaring, mainly just present in their seats with almost nothing to offer during the film. That’s not the fault of the young actors in those seats; they’re given nothing to work with.

On the other hand when you have actors the caliber of Owen and Binoche, you don’t need much else. Their banter is so natural and genuine you have to imagine they are the best of friends off-set. Both of them pull the audience in not only to their viewpoint but to their characters, and both have their battle scars from life. Some are more obvious, like Jack’s drinking or Dina’s anger but much of their vulnerability comes through their eyes, in glances that they give each other as if to say are you going to let me down too? without saying a word. In that sense, I suppose pictures do say a thousand words.

Like a lot of movies over the past couple of years, Words and Pictures fails to learn from its own battle. The movie runs on too long going over the wrong things over and over again. Yes, we get that Jack is an alcoholic and apt to make a spectacular drunken ass of himself at inopportune moments. Yes, we get that Dina is bitter and has lost her inspiration amid the very real pain she’s suffering. We don’t need more than one or two instances to prove the point. If the movie is going to be that long, I’d have much rather gotten more of a look into what the kids were doing and feeling. Teenagers are people too.

I like the idea of a debate between words and pictures. After all, they’re two of the primary ways that humans use to communicate (music being the other). The filmmakers let the audience pick their own side and while writers like myself are naturally going to gravitate towards Owen’s impassioned speech near the end of the film, there is no shame in feeling more akin to Binoche’s own soliloquy. There is also no shame in finding a middle ground and deciding both carry equal importance.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting debate. Owen and Binoche make the film.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit too long. The kids are inane. A few too many rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some mature thematic elements, some sketches depicting the nude human form, and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The paintings used in the film were all painted by Binoche, an accomplished artist for years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Neighbors