Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan


Even sitting down to a meal can be a work of art.

(2020) Documentary (Greenwich) Jim Denevan, Marcus Samuelsson, Deval Patrick, Damani Thomas, Jane Rosen, Catherine Panip, Hans Haveman, John McCarthy, Linda Butler, Sean Baker, Dina Brewster, Matt Lackey, Paul Kulik, Nion McEvoy, Danika Markegard, Jason Weiner, William Fox, Randall Graham, Andrew McLester, Tish Denevan. Directed by Patrick Trefz

 

It is true that art can come in all shapes and forms. It is also true that art can be found sometimes where you don’t expect to find it.

Jim Denevan is an artist. His canvas is nature. He began by drawing geometric shapes and patterns in the sand. His art is extremely impermanent; the tide and wind can wash it away in moments. His art, however, is no less beautiful for that; there is a kind of elemental magic in it, as you might find from a shaman conducting a ritual, or a sorcerer constructing a spell. Either way, his work has a powerful effect on the viewer.

Denevan also has a passion for food and eating, and he felt that we as a species needed to get closer to the sources of the food we eat. From this sprang his organization, Outstanding in the Field. Outstanding in the Field conducts these elaborate events where tables are set up in specific, exact ways, generally in places where food is sourced – farms, ranches and orchards. Local chefs are called in, sometimes some fairly well-known ones, who prepare a menu and then supervising the preparation of the meal. Jim acts as a kind of a host and facilitator, making sure that things are set up properly so that the guests have the kind of experience he envisions. Sometimes things go like clockwork (rarely) but most times they don’t; windy conditions means place settings are blown all over hither and yon; rain can cause the event to be relocated indoors; beach-set Outstandings can end up with waves crashing into guests.

But Jim perseveres and does these hugely popular events year after year (for those interested in signing up for a future event, point your browser here). The film shows smatterings of various events, interspersed with some of Jim’s art, drawn on beaches, deserts or in fields. Mostly we’re hearing from farmers, chefs and former guests who sing the praises of the event, as well as a few art curators who sing the praises of Jim’s artwork. That’s to be expected.

My issue with the way that the filmmaker chooses to make his film is that he shows brief clips from a variety of Outstanding events from all over the world with almost zero detail about the event itself. I think it would have been far more interesting to see how one event was put together, from the menu planning to the set-up to the execution. Then, we could have gotten more of a feel for the experience. The way it’s done is more like flipping through the pages of a magazine article without stopping for more than a few seconds on any page and expecting to gain an understanding from that. It doesn’t work. I could have gotten as much information from a list of past events run by the organization.

We also don’t see much about what drives Denevan to make his art until the very last 20 minutes or so when he begins to talk about the mental health issues of his family and how it affected him. It’s pretty intense stuff, and seemed to be included as an afterthought, but it is really the most illuminating segment in the film. Yes, I think Denevan’s endeavors are worth a documentary, but it feels like we just skimmed through the surface here rather than doing a deep dive into either his life or his art. A little more effort and detail might have made this a better movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows how hard and food can collide.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker goes skipping from event to event without a whole lot of detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a frank discussion of mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three of Denevan’s brothers were diagnosed with schizophrenia within the same year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: ;As of 9/26/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Song of the Butterflies

An Amityville Poltergeist


Parris Bates is feeling blue.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Parris Bates, Rebecca Kimble, Conor Austin, Airisa Durand, Jon Ashley Hall, Natalie Lucia (voice), Calvin Morie McCarthy, Alex Onda, Jason Reynolds, Sydney Winbush. Directed by Calvin Morie McCarthy

 

Making a movie is no easy task. It is a collaborative effort, requiring many hands of talented technicians, imaginative creative people and of course wonderful actors. Movie sets can be a battleground where egos run rampant, or a carnival where the absurd reigns supreme. Sometimes, a movie set can be incredible fun when everything is clicking. They can also be unbridled chaos when everything is not.

Jim (Bates) is a college student who, like most college students, is in dire need of an infusion of cold, hard cash. His best friend, stoner Collin (Austin) recommends he sell his own blood plasma which neelde-phobic Jim is loathe to do, Instead, he gets a job housesitting for $500 a day, which seems a little excessive for sitting around the house. It sure beats working.

However, the elderly homeowner, Eunice (Kimble) warns Jim that she’s not concerned with people breaking in to the old house. She’s much more worried about what’s already inside. As her son (Hall) takes her away for a brief hospitalization, one wonders if the old lady might better be served with a different kind of hospital. However, as Jim starts to hear inexplicable noises, he realizes the old lady might not be as crazy as she sounds – and as the incidents grow more frightening and more violnt, he also realizes that $500 per night was way not worth it.

I have to be honest; I’m generally a sucker for a good haunted house movie. This isn’t one. For one thing, I have to admit that I was not thrilled that the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the Amityville franchise – it’s not even set there – and there isn’t a poltergeist in the film (not really). Then again, if truth in advertising laws were applied to movie marketing, there’d be a lot of Hollywood executives with criminal records.

For some reason, the filmmakers filmed the movie as if it were filmed in perpetual twilight. Even the scenes set at night have a bluish tinge to them, like the only lighting came from a TV screen. The film photo above isn’t from a brief moment in the film – the entire movie is lit like that. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to do that or sheer incompetence, but either way, I suspect most will get tired of the effect and tune out quickly. If the lighting doesn’t get you, though, the writing will. The plot is difficult to follow with way too many flashbacks, and while I’m guessing the screenwriters (Hall, who played the son, and McCarthy, who directed, co-wrote the script) were trying to blur the line between dreams and reality, they blurred it a little too much and after awhile I wouldn’t be surprised if some give up on the film long before the final credits run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is entirely without merit. The makeup effects by Zach Smith are pretty good, and Parris Bates has some potential, although his character is a bit on the whiny side. But the movie feels awfully amateurish, and while horror fans tend to be a bit more forgiving about such things, they do require some big scares and there just aren’t any.

I take no joy out of savaging a film like this. Generally, I wouldn’t run a review for a movie I disliked as much as this one because I generally feel that making a movie requires passion and commitment and I don’t doubt that the filmmakers have both of those things, and as I said, there are some redeeming features here so it isn’t entirely a waste of your time, but if you’re looking for a real good haunted house movie, there are just too many excellent ones out there (including The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist as well as literally dozens of fine indie budget films) to make it easy to recommend this at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Bates has a certain amount of appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Underlit throughout with a curiously blue tint. Poorly acted and terribly written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some nudity, a fair amount of drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as a pizza delivery guy early in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Turning
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Knocking (Knackningar)


What is real and what is not?

(2021) Suspense (LaskCecilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Krister Kern, Alexander Salzberger, Charlotta Akerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Christina Indrenius Zalewski, Naida Ragimova, Bengt Braskered, Karin Holmberg (voice), Tobias Almborg, Bill Hugg, Maria Norgren, Nilla Hansson, Karin de Frumerie, Emil Almén, Meliz Karige. Directed by Frida Kernoff

The mind is a powerful and mysterious instrument. It can pick up on the smallest clues, but it can make up things out of whole cloth. When it isn’t functioning properly, we cannot trust the sensory input we receive from it. What, then, does one do to distinguish what reality is?

Molly (Milocco) has suffered an awful tragedy. One moment she is napping on the beach, smiling at the whisper that her partner is going for a swim, the next her life has been completely upended. So much so that she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Now, though, she is about to be released to try and resume a normal life. An apartment has been arranged for her in a high-rise on the edge of an unnamed city in Sweden. It is spacious, not particularly new but at least it has potential. There is a nice balcony with a view.

Molly settles in with what possessions she has and is urged to make of it a home. She tries gamely, looking for décor but seems a bit unsure as to what appeals to her. And there is a persistent knocking noise coming from one of the apartments above her. Maybe it’s someone hanging a picture, but the knocking is irregular and lasts too long. Maybe someone is dancing on their floor at night?

Molly goes upstairs to inquire of her upstairs neighbors – all men – as to what the source of the knocking is, but nobody else seems to hear it. There are also strange stains appearing in the ceiling. Molly begins to suspect that the rhythmic knocing could be morse code – someone might be trying to communicate with her. And the idea forms that there is someone being held captive – a woman. Other clues begin to arise – bloody clothes found in the dumpster, loud arguing, glimpses of abusive behavior by one of the men living above her. Molly calls the police, but they are less than helpful and given Molly’s history, fairly certain that what’s going on is all in Molly’s head. As the knocking becomes more insistent, Molly grows more desperate to find the source. She is absolutely convinced that there is a badly injured woman calling out for help the only way she can and Molly is just as certain that she’s the only hope the woman has of rescue.

Kernoff has some admirable instincts as a filmmaker. She creates an atmosphere that is slightly off-kilter, letting the viewer know that there’s something that’s not quite right. Is it Molly? Is it something sinister? We’re never really sure until the end and that’s some masterful filmmaking. Kernoff also makes magnificent use of light and shadow. Early on much of the light is reflected off of other surfaces – mirrors, windows, floors. Molly often tries to hide within shadows; behind the curtains of her apartment which are generally drawn, always in a kind of half-light that visually illustrates Molly’s fragile mental state.

She is aided by an extremely strong performance by Milocco who is on-camera virtually every moment, most of the time by herself. She carries the movie with confidence; the more certain Molly grows, the less certain the audience is. That’s in part good writing but also Milocco’s instincts that help create that dichotomy.

One of the underlying messages is the way women are marginalized by men. That’s not to say this is anti-man; Molly is generally treated like a well-meaning but foolish child who is given a pat on the head and reassurances that her concerns will be looked into – sometimes by other women as well. Our patriarchal society in general tends to believe women less often than men. It is why so many women are hesitant to report instances of sexual assault; often they are disbelieved, even asked if they might have misinterpreted what happened to them. To an extent, olly is treated as an unreliable witness in the film not only by the various men in the movie but also by Kernoff herself; we all have that kernel of doubt in our heads right up until the very last moments of the movie when that doubt is resolved.

Molly, like most victims of trauma, lives partially in those moments of trauma. Throughout the film, Molly returns again and again to that day in her head when tragedy befell her. We never see the event actually take place; we assume what has happened. It is as if Molly can’t bring herself to face the actual event. We hear a scream and we surmise. It’s very effective and from a psychological standpoint, quite an accurate representation of what trauma and tragedy does to the hyman psyche.

The movie is not without flaws. Although at a compact 78 minutes it doesn’t ask for an unreasonable investment of time, the pacing is kind of jerky; it does build to a climax but there are also some moments that seem inert compared to others that passed before it. During a freak-out near the end of the film by Molly, a GoPro is placed on Molly facing her so as she moves in almost a whirl of angry, frustrated movement – a tarantella of ranting – we are treated to Milocco’s facial expressions as she rages at the upstairs neighbors, insisting that there is something terrible going on – but the camera movement becomes dizzying and a bit intrusive. Molly’s world is spiraling around her, I get the visual representation but the end result is that I had to look away from the screen until the scene was done, missing the nuances of Milocco’s performance.

Although the movie does contain some horror tropes – the knocking itself sounds like it’s coming straight out of a haunted house movie – this isn’t a horror movie at all. It’s more of a psychological thriller. Given the strength of Milocco’s performance, the nuances of the film’s message and the overall unsettling tone, this is a worthwhile film to seek out. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the major indies picked this one up for release in the fall or winter. If you’re not already watching the Sundance festival virtually (where it premiered), this is one to keep an eye out for on your own local festival or when it eventually gets a national theatrical/VOD release, which I’m pretty certain it will.

REASONS TO SEE: Kernoff does a fine job of setting an unsettling mood. Milocco gives a bravura performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Johannes Theorins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaslight
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Night

Elyse


In 2020, catatonia might be viewed as a blessing.

(2020) Drama (GravitasLisa Pepper, Anthony Hopkins, Aaron Tucker, Tara Arroyave, Fran Tucker, Julieta Ortiz, Griffin Thomas Hollander, Donat Balaj, Anthony Apel, Danny Jacobs, Everett Kelsey, Connor Garelick, Natalia Tucker, Susan Papa, Brittani Ebert, Riccardo Spinotti, David M. Jackson, Daisy Barber, Annette Dugan, Diana Arroyave. Directed by Stella Hopkins

 

Some movies are just slam dunks as far as critics are concerned. They are easy reviews to write; the words just flow. Some are much harder to articulate though.

This turgid melodrama stars Pepper as the titular character, a well-coiffed, well-dressed wife of a wealthy lawyer (A. Tucker), living in a gorgeous modern house where her adorable son (Hollander) is looked after by a solicitous nanny (Ortiz). But all is not perfect in paradise. Elyse suspects her husband – baselessly, it turns out – of having an affair with the nanny’s daughter Carmen (T. Arroyave) who works at her husband’s firm. She also has a very dysfunctional relationship with her patrician mother (F. Tucker).

At a dinner party, fueled by too much drink, she has a meltdown. Her husband, concerned over her increasingly volatile behavior, wants her to see a psychiatrist, a Dr. Lewis (A. Hopkins) who had some success with one of the other lawyers in his firm. Elyse agrees and actually develops a bond with him. However, not all is what it seems and to quote David Byrne, “You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful house?”

 

This is something of a family affair, with the director being married to one of the stars, and also related to two other actors by blood (her maiden name is Arroyave). There is also a mother/son team of actors playing mother-in-law/son-in-law here. That’s all very cozy, but it feels very much like this was cast largely from people the director knew and was comfortable with, rather than getting the best actors for the roles. It shows particularly in the lead roles where, with the exception of the one Oscar winner in the cast, the performances are uniformly stiff and uninspired.

But then again, the dialogue is truly dreadful. You can’t ask an actor to say a line like “This house is an empty shell…of vanished dreams” and expect him (Aaron Tucker, in this case) to make it sound like something a real human being would say. You know a film is going to be pretentious when the opening voice-over narration quotes The Wizard of Oz and you know that the film is about mental illness. I mean, Zoinks! Home viewers may end up banging on their TV in frustration as the first half of the film is in black and white with occasional splashes of color in a ham-fisted attempt at symbolism. Even when the main crux of the plot unfolds – it’s not a spoiler to say that Elyse is actually catatonic and in a mental hospital with Dr. Lewis trying to reach her and bring her back into consciousness – there is little to surprise the viewer and a whole lot to make them want to watch something else.

Still, Anthony Hopkins – who also produced the film and scored it – is a reliable factor and worth watching even in a bad movie, and trust me gang, the rating for this would be a hell of a lot lower if the Oscar-winning actor wasn’t present. Believe it or not, I take no joy out of trashing a film; I know that nobody goes into making a movie with the intent of making a bad one, but sometimes, despite the best intentions, that is exactly what is produced. However, Hopkins fans don’t have to feel bad about his lot – in a couple of weeks, his new film The Father will be coming out and that might well be one of the best films of a year that most of us will want to forget anyway.

REASONS TO SEE: Anthony Hopkins is always a treat.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is simply awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Stella Hopkins has been married to star Anthony Hopkins since 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Farewell Amor

Cured


LGBTQ rights are human rights.

(2020) Documentary (Story Center) Barbara Gittings, Dr. Frank Kameny, Kay Latusen, Lawrence Hartmann, Ron Gold, Dr. Richard Pillard, Charles Silverstein, Richard Socarides, Don Kilhefner, Rick Stokes, Dr. John Fryer, Gary Alinder, Richard Green, Sally Duplaix, Harry Adamson, Robert Campbell, Dr. Saul Levin, Evelyn Hooker Directed by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer

In an era when progressive politics have taken a beating and there seems little for liberals to feel good about, one thing that is a case close to the heart of every self-respecting leftie is LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t that long ago where staying in the closet meant survival; people who came out were hounded, their careers were ruined, they became pariahs and outcasts. Gay men and women weren’t allowed to be teachers; many of them weren’t allowed to attend church. They certainly weren’t allowed to marry people of the same sex.

Part of the issue was that homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Gay men and lesbians were treated using psychotherapy and sometimes more barbaric methods, including shock treatment and aversion therapy. The monolithic American Psychiatric Association, comprised mainly of older white men – had decreed it so and in their official manual of mental illnesses. This label perpetuated discrimination against the LGBTQ community and early leaders such as Dr. Frank Kameny of the Mattachine Society and Barbara Gittings of the Daughters of Bilitis realized until this changed, they would never be able to achieve equality in this society. To make this change meant they had to change the minds of the APA and with doctors like Charles Socarides at the forefront, there didn’t appear to be much chance of that.

However, as those leaders looked into it, the case for the APA began to look extraordinarily thin without nearly any backing evidence. In the meantime, researchers were discovering evidence using approved scientific methodology that homosexuality was far from being a mental disease but a healthy expression of sexuality.

The fight wasn’t an easy one and those early pioneers were risking everything to be involved in the fight. It was a serious career risk to even be identified as an ally of homosexuals and people could end up without a career, or worse. But some people did step out of the shadows and into the light, and they did pay the consequences but for the most part, these people became heroes in the early gay liberation movement and helped pave the way for the kind of acceptance that the LGBTQ has gotten from mainstream America that was unthinkable even a decade ago. While there is still plenty of way to go, this documentary shows in a well-thought-out manner how that fight took shape, with plenty of archival footage, interviews both contemporary and recent with those that took part in changing the mind of the APA (which finally happened in 1973) and those descended from the principals who are no longer with us, like Barbara Gittings’ partner Kay Latusen, and Richard Socarides, the son of the psychiatrist most vehemently against declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness – and, ironically, gay himself.

The movie celebrates people of courage both gay and straight who are largely forgotten by the mainstream society, but nevertheless are as important to the LGBTQ equality movement as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rep. John Lewis were to the African-American civil rights movement. Given that the gains of the last ten years are threatened by a strengthening conservative and evangelical segment of our society, these people should be remembered in order to inspire others to step forward and take up their torch.

The film recently played Outfest, the most prestigious LGBTQ-centric film festival in the world. It is also scheduled for Outshine, the Miami LGBTQ film festival in the coming week. While the movie doesn’t have a distributor (yet), it will continue to play festivals and special screenings. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Told in a methodical and intelligent manner. Reminds us of some forgotten heroes. A timely reminder of how far the LGBTQ movement has come.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed to clarify the direct line from declassifying as a mental illness to the right to marry triumph for those whose sense of history is not acute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing imagery of shock therapy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Psychiatry Association first classified homosexual as a mental illness in 1952.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: For the Bible Tells Me So
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Centigrade

Words on Bathroom Walls


(2020) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Charlie Plummer, Taylor Russell, Andy Garcia, AnnaSophia Robb, Beth Grant, Devon Bostick, Lobo Sebastian, Molly Parker, Walton Goggins, Evan Whitten, Drew Schend, Jared Bankens, Reinaldo Faberlie, Aaron Dominguez, Cruz Abelita, Ellie Dusek, Sean Michael Weber, Dominique Hayes, Linzi Gray, Julianna Barkas, Ashley Victoria. Directed by Thor Freudenthal

There was a time when made-for-TV movies tended to feature a “disease of the week.” That trend has finally made it to Young Adult novels and the movies based on them.

Here the disease is treatment-resistant schizophrenia. It’s the sort that manifests itself in sounds nobody else can hear and sights nobody else can see – visual and auditory hallucinations. The condition is admittedly fairly rare, but as it is a fairly dramatic mental disease, makes for good fictional fodder by author Julia Walton, adapted here by screenwriter Nick Naveda.

The afflicted party is Adam (Plummer), a high school senior with aspirations towards culinary school. For Adam, the hallucinations take the shape of three humans – the oily Joaquin (Bostick) who represents his libido, the free-spirited Earth mama Rebecca (Robb) who represents his good intentions, the burly bodyguard (Sebastian) who represents his fear, and a swirling black cloud that represents the chaos inside him.

He has successfully hidden his condition from friends and school administrators until a breakdown in a chemistry class leads to a horrific accident. Adam is summarily expelled as a danger to other students, and eventually ends up in a strict Catholic school, whose principal Sister Catherine (Grant) informs Charlie and his desperate mom (Parker) and her new boyfriend Paul (Goggins) that the condition for acceptance into the school is that Adam stay on his new drug treatment, and keep the school apprised of his progress in therapy sessions (in a nifty twist, Plummer plays the therapy sessions to the camera, putting the audience in the role of psychiatrist – well, at least we critics had pen and notepad handy to further reinforce the illusion).

Adam aims to lay low and keep his head down until graduation so that he can achieve his dreams, but he is having issues with his math class. Enter Maya (Russell), the class valedictorian who has some hidden issues of her own, who agrees to tutor Adam for a princely sum. Teen hormones being what they are, Adam soon falls for the fetching Maya who in turn begins to develop some affections for the good-hearted Adam.

But the meds that Adam is on are affecting his taste buds, and a budding chef can’t have that, so he ditches the meds which is the kind of decision you’d expect a teen to make – with predictable results. With Adam teetering on the edge of losing everything, can he keep it together long enough to get through to graduation?

The movie plays it safe on most subjects, preferring feel-good moments to gritty realism with some exceptions (as when Adam encounters a clearly potential older version of himself on a bus, talking to himself). Throw in the usual teen movie clichés – the feeling of being an outsider, the different-is-okay message that goes against the teen instinct for conformity, the awkward attempts at romantic connection, the prom disaster, and the graduation speech that Solves Everything. There are the straight-arrow adults who Don’t Understand, and the unexpectedly hip adult mentor/role model – in this case, Andy Garcia as Father Patrick, a combination of Sigmund Freud, Yoda and Father O’Malley of The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The movie is largely saved by an attractive cast. Plummer and Russell are two of the better actors in the teen movie genre, and they not only deliver solid performances separately, they also have great chemistry together. Parker is terrific as the mama bear who fiercely defends her cub, even against himself, and Goggins is particularly wonderful in a small but important role as the stepdad with whom Adam has a contentious relationship. It is also nice (and fitting) to see Robb and Bostick, both teen movie mainstays not long ago but who have moved on to more adult roles.

One of my issues with the film is that it uses Adam’s mental disease as almost a gimmick; yes, there are those who suffer through these sorts of hallucinations but I would have liked to see a more common form of schizophrenia that more kids suffer from and that they might relate to better. It’s a very difficult subject to tackle, mental illness is, and I’m not sure there’s a good way to do so without feeling like exploitation.

This is one of the first films back in theaters after the major theater chains have reopened, which will work in the film’s bottom line favor. Likely it would have been lost in the late summer shuffle of blockbusters and back-to-school releases. Currently, it is only available in theaters so for those in places that have not allowed theaters to reopen, or for those who are not comfortable with going out to theaters quite yet, you’ll have to wait a bit to catch this one at home.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances by Plummer and Russell particularly, but also Goggins and Parker.
REASONS TO AVOID: Full of teen movie clichés while at times trivializing the mental illness subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and serious adult themes regarding mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker and Russell play mother and daughter on the Netflix series reboot of Lost in Space.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ravage

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

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