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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Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiner (2018)


Happy McBride (right) wonders what the blue plate special is.

(2018) Sports Drama (Tri-Coast) Seya Hug, Shannon Staller, Kevin Bernhardt, Randall England, Amin Joseph, Kirk Fox, Archie Hahn, Michael Hudson, Ibok, Jackie Mah, Brian T. Finney, Rocky Giordani, Christopher Meijer, Brian Waslak, Emely von Oest, Kelly Carter, Jessica McCabe, Stephen Scheide, Matt Lathrom, Lydie Denier, Victoria Anne Greenwood.  Directed by Seo Mutarevic

 

Fighting – whether it be traditional boxing, MMA or other forms of modern gladiators – is often defined publicly by he superstars but there are many levels of professionals in between the bottom and the top. Getting from the former to the latter is no easy task and can often be as brutal as what happens in the ring.

Matt (Hug) is a fresh-faced and somewhat naïve young wanna-be who has some talent but is going nowhere. He wants to enlist the aid of former champion Happy McBride (Bernhardt) as a manager, but Hap is not terribly interested. He has career aspirations of his own although he is perfectly happy to take all of Matt’s money and deliver him into a fight he can’t possibly win against a man much bigger than himself. Happy also owes money to people you really don’t want to owe money to.

Matt manages to appeal to Happy’s better nature and Happy reluctantly gets him a fight that is within his weight class. Matt turns out to have a whole lot more than some talent and eventually gets the attention of Happy’s former manager Larry (Finney) who thinks he can take the kid places, leading to some jealousy on the part of McBride. Matt’s overbearing dad (England) also shows up, convinced that his son should be a doctor (Matt left med school to take up fighting) and to complicate things further, Matt has fallen in love with Nikki (Staller) who is Happy’s daughter. Happy can’t help but like Matt more or less but the two could well be on a collision course as their dreams of clawing their way to the top almost inevitably go through each other.

In many ways this is a typical MMA/boxing drama with the kind of elements that are fairly traditional in the genre; a down on his luck fighter taking a younger man under his wing, a checkered past for the older man, an ill-advised romance for the younger man and stardom getting in the way of what might have been a fine mentor relationship. You won’t find a lot of surprises plot-wise here, although there is a very good scene in which father and daughter talk about the mother’s mental illness rather frankly.

The fighting scenes are actually pretty well staged and the action is kinetic. Mutarevic shows some promise as an action movie direction; certainly he understands what constitutes a good action scene. However, the performances of the actors with a few exceptions are fairly wooden, which isn’t necessarily their fault. The dialogue doesn’t always sound the way real people talk and occasionally you get the sense the actors are trying their best to figure out how to make what they’re saying sound natural and not managing to do so.

Staller is pretty and she has some good chemistry with Hug but at times she has a strange accent that sounds almost Eastern European and it is jarring since her onscreen father doesn’t have one. I don’t know if the actress has a natural accent or was trying to put one on but either way, it was jarring and distracting.

Bernhardt however delivered a nice performance as Happy. The character does some really crappy things to those around him, but it’s hard not to root for him. Bernhardt plays him as a charming Irish rogue  and that’s the perfect choice for the character (it helps that Bernhardt wrote the screenplay). I’ve seen plenty of movies in which very competent actors can’t pull off that kind of role, so kudos to Bernhardt for making it look easy.

The movie’s strengths and flaws just about even out in the end. I can’t really give this an unreserved recommendation because of the non-action sequences but I can give it a mild recommendation due to the action sequences. Of course, there’s always the fast forward button for those who don’t want to sit through one to get to the other.

REASONS TO GO: The fight sequences are pretty well staged.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the performances are a little bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a fair amount of MMA violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Seya Hug is the son of professional Kickboxer Andy Hug.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Driver X

Loving Vincent


But is it art?

(2017) Animated Feature (Good Deed) Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, James Green, Bill Thomas, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Josh Burdett, John Sessions, Joe Stuckey, Piotr Pamula, Kamila Dyoubari . Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

 

As a painter, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the world’s most influential, creating works that remain iconic to this day – most of us have seen at least pictures of some of his work. As a person, Vincent Van Gogh was an enigma; beset by mental and emotional issues throughout his life (there are some experts who believe he was bipolar) that led to him shooting himself fatally at age 30 in 1890. He remains a mystery to many, producing over 800 paintings in the last 10 years of his life and then abruptly choosing suicide.

Armand Roulin (Booth) is a roustabout, a ne’er do well who is the son of Joseph Roulin (O’Dowd), the postmaster of Arles where Van Gogh lived and a friend to the Dutch painter. Joseph has come into possession of a letter that Vincent (Gulaczyk) wrote to his beloved brother Theo (Pamula) near the end of his life. It is 1891 and Van Gogh has been dead for a year. Joseph has tasked his son with the job of delivering the letter from the late master to his brother in Paris, only when Armand gets there he is unable to locate Theo. He goes to Vincent’s art supply dealer Pere Tanguy (Sessions) who informs him that Theo has followed Vincent into the hereafter. Armand then decides that in lieu of delivering the letter to Theo he will deliver it instead to Theo’s wife Johanna. Tanguy doesn’t know where she is living but suggests contacting Dr. Gachet (Flynn) in Auvers who treated Vincent in the last months of his life and was with him when he died.

Roulin travels to Auvers only to find that the good Doctor is out of town. He decides to stay at the same inn and pub where Vincent stayed; the kindly innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux (Tomlinson) who remembered the painter quite fondly puts him up in the very room where Vincent lived and died. Armand sets out while he waits for the doctor to return with talking with various townspeople about the painter, from the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Ronan), his housekeeper (McCrory), a boatman (Flynn) and the local policeman (Herdman). The more Armand interviews the people who knew Van Gogh the more murky his death becomes. Was it really suicide, as the painter himself confessed to on his deathbed? Or was it something else?

First off, this movie is a remarkable achievement in animation. The filmmakers started by filming the actors against green screen, then utilized more than 100 artists to create each frame as an oil painting in the style of Van Gogh (inserting actual paintings of the master in various places more than 40 of them – see if you can spot them all) which came out to about approximately 65,000 paintings all told. In a way, we’re getting a view inside Van Gogh’s head and coming about as close as we will ever get to seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes.

The voice acting can be stiff and stuffy at times, but unlike a lot of reviewers I found the story compelling. There is a bit of a mystery to the death of Van Gogh, particularly in light of a 2011 biography that questions the official account of his death and hints that he may have been the victim of an accidental shooting and that he insisted it was suicide to protect the person who shot him. There are certainly some compelling reasons to think it, mainly based on the angle of the shot that mortally wounded the painter. Most suicides put the gun to their head; most don’t kill themselves by shooting themselves in the stomach which is an exceedingly painful way to go. The angle of the wound also suggests a trajectory that would have made it physically unlikely that Van Gogh shot himself although it was possible.

That said, most scholars today agree that this new theory is less likely than suicide and while the filmmakers here seem to lean in the direction of homicide, it at least gives us a bit of a gateway into examining the painter’s works, particularly in the last months of his life. While the movie seems preoccupied with Van Gogh’s death more than his life – something in which Adeline Ravoux actually scolds Armand about during the film – there is no doubt that the filmmakers hold his work in great reverence.

And that’s really the beauty of the film. It brings the world of Van Gogh to life, gives it depth and meaning in ways that most of us could never do on our own. It will hopefully give some folks the impetus to take a closer look at his work and his life; it did me for sure. Spending so much time trying to make sense of his death may give the movie a bit of a morbid tinge but that doesn’t detract at all from the overall beauty that Van Gogh created – and the filmmakers re-created with such obvious love. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on the shortlist for the Best Animated Feature Oscar for next year.

REASONS TO GO: The technique is startling and brilliant. The use of Van Gogh’s paintings is clever. The story is compelling. The end credits are extremely well done. The film will likely motivate you to explore Van Gogh, his life and his work.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems more concerned with Van Gogh’s death than with his life. Some of the voice acting is a little stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly mature; there’s also some violence, a bit of sexuality and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each one of the film’s more than 65,000 frames were hand-painted using similar techniques to what Van Gogh actually used. It took a team of more than 125 artists more than seven years to complete the massive task.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Painting (Le tableau)
FINAL RATING: 8..5/10
NEXT:
Clarity

The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal

Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

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