The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

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

The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

New Releases for the Week of September 4, 2015


Best of EnemiesBEST OF ENEMIES

(Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr. Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammer (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and LBJ had announced that he would not run for President. The counterculture was beginning to make its presence felt and there was a great deal of anger directed towards the American government for the first time. Richard Nixon, who would eventually win the presidency, was running against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with Alabama governor George Wallace running on an independent ticket, and the election was as vitriolic as it had ever been. Trying to make sense of everything, a series of televised debates was set up – not between the candidates, but between conservative commentator/essayist William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal author Gore Vidal. Both men were urbane, charming and literate and both absolutely loathed one  another with a passion. These debates would change the way television covers politics.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for some sexual content/nudity and language)

Chloe and Theo

(ARC Entertainment) Dakota Johnson, Theo Ikummaq, Mira Sorvino, Andre De Shields. Elders of the Inuit Eskimos, disturbed by the effects of climate change on the polar ice cap, send Theo to New York City to speak to the United Nations. He meets and befriends a young homeless woman who becomes inspired by his gentle wisdom. With the help of a kind lawyer, they will get the opportunity to present their message to the world; change our destructive ways before we are destroyed by them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

Mistress America

(Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson. A lonely college freshman in New York City is compelled by her mother to look up the daughter of the man mom is about to marry, a kind of soon-to-be stepsister. The two hit it off and the freshman begins to accept her proto-sister as a role model. However, as she is seduced by the energy and madcap schemes of her friend, things take an abrupt change. An early review for the film can be found here.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Tangerine

(Magnolia) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Clu Gulager. Christmas Eve in El Lay is like nowhere else, and even on Christmas Eve there can be prodigious drama. Sin-Dee, just released from jail after doing 28 days for soliciting and when the volatile working girl finds out that her pimp slash boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was cooling her heels, the proverbial ca-ca is going to hit the fan.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and drug use)

The Transporter Refueled

(EuropaCorp) Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright. The franchise is rebooted with Ed Skrein taking over for Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a dapper, fastidious sort who has a complicated set of rules for his vocation of transporting sensitive cargo for questionable people. A father-son bonding weekend is interrupted when he takes a job for a client, a quartet of lovely femme fatales who orchestrate a daring bank robbery. Unfortunately, they have stolen from the Russian mob and Frank is caught reluctantly but squarely in the middle.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens Thursday)
Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements)

Un gallo con muchos huevos

(Pantelion)  Starring the voices of Bruno Bechir, Carlos Espejel, Angelica Vale, Omar Chaparro. Amongst Mexican children, Huevo Cartoon is king and the animated television series makes it to the big screen and for the first time, to El Norte. A small, timid young chicken must find his inner rooster if he and his friends are going to save his family and his home from an evil rancher.

See the trailer, interviews and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal The Loop
Rating: NR

A Walk in the Woods

(Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen. A travel writer rather than retiring to his beautiful wife and large family, decides to push himself one last time and hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. He can only find one friend to accompany him however; the irascible and womanizing Katz, who is more interested in sneaking out of town to avoid paying a debt. The peace and tranquility that the writer longs for goes right out the window with that decision.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)

Mistress America


Just two broke girls talkin'.

Just two broke girls talkin’.

(2015) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung, Charlie Gillette, Shelby Rebecca Wong, Joel Marsh Garland, Andrea Chen, Seth Barrish, Shana Dowdeswell, Dean Wareham, Amy Warren, Shoba Narayanan, Morgan Lynch, Adrea Teasdale. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There is New York, and then there is everywhere else. I suppose that those who live there have every right to feel a kind of smug superiority about where they live; after all, they have world class museums, world class concert halls, world class nightclubs, world class restaurants…hell, anyone who is bored in New York isn’t trying very hard.

Tracy (Kirke) is becoming a New Yorker. Well, she’s becoming a college student at Barnard. Keen to be a writer, she’s not the sort that fits in easily. That’s especially true lately, as her mom (Henderson) is getting ready to re-marry. Tracy yearns to become a member of the literary society at Barnard, who celebrate publication of a new author by sneaking into their room at night and throwing a pie in their face while they sleep. Rad, eh? However, she meets rejection even here. Tracy realizes to get in with the literary crowd she’s going to need something special to write about.

As part of her mom’s new marriage, she is going to have a new stepsister, so upon her mom’s insistence she arranges to meet her soon-to-be-sister, Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy takes an immediate liking to Brooke. She’s almost ten years older and established in the city; she’s getting ready to open a fabulous new restaurant and has some really cool ideas. She hangs out with cool people and lives in a loft that’s zoned for commercial use. She’s full of energy and life and talks a mile a minute, sometimes about deep things but sometimes just idle chatter.

When one of the investors in her restaurant – the one who happens to be her boyfriend – pulls out, Brooke is left dangling in the wind. She has no choice but to go to the home of her arch-nemesis Mamie-Claire (Lind) in the Godforsaken wilderness of Greenwich, Connecticut and demand her due. You see, years ago, Mamie-Claire stole an idea of Brooke’s and made a fortune out of it. That wasn’t the only thing she stole though – she took two of Brooke’s cats and her boyfriend at the time Dylan (Chernus) who was himself independently wealthy but is now Mamie-Claire’s somewhat henpecked husband. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

But things go from bad to worse as the discovery is made that Tracy has been writing a story with Brooke as the lead character – and not everything is complimentary. Brooke is feeling betrayed and everybody around her – even Mamie-Claire – think that was a dick move. But was it?

I do think Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote this thing, were out to make a modern screwball comedy. The rhythms of the dialogue are very similar and the patter is snappy, although not in a retro way. I’m thinking that this is a brilliant move on their part because in many ways Gerwig is a modern Carole Lombard.

But as smart an idea it is, the ambitions here are a bit more than the pair can chew. The trouble with screwball comedies is that they are a bitch to pull off right, and there are so many examples of great films in that genre out there that unless you’re damn near perfect from screenplay to final film, your movie is just going to suffer by comparison.

The movie here isn’t perfect. It starts out with a couple of very annoying characters whose dialogue is so unrealistic, whose attitudes are just so smug and self-important that it’s incredibly hard to do anything but despise them. If I ran into Brooke and Tracy at a cocktail party, I’d quickly find other people to chat with – they’re way too pretentious for my taste. When I think of indie films that Baumbach and Gerwig have collaborated on previously, the first half of the movie has the worst characteristics of their worst efforts. I really was ready to write this one off before I was halfway through the movie.

Fortunately it gets better. In fact, it improves a hell of a lot and the scenes set in Greenwich are inspired. Gerwig always seems to do better in large ensembles than in smaller groups; when it’s essentially just her and Tracy with Tracy being a shadowy image of Brooke, the movie is just annoying. When Brooke has a lot of people to bounce off of, the movie is enjoyable. I think that Gerwig is one of those actresses who needs to be diluted a little bit and the more people she has to interact with, the better she is. Da Queen has said that she can only take Gerwig in small doses and I can see why she has that effect on her; there is a bit of a narcissistic quality to the characters Gerwig plays in Baumbach films and those types of characters tend to rub Da Queen the wrong way.

I was very torn with this movie. The first part is excruciating but the second part I really liked. So how does one rate a movie like this? Straight down the middle; a zero for the first half of the film, a ten for the second for a cumulative score of five. Be warned that the first part of the movie is hard to sit through but the second half makes the first half almost worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Gets better as it goes along. Gerwig is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: Horrible first half. Characters act and speak like they’re in a 21st century screwball comedy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Lola Versus Gerwig played a character named Lola. In Gone Girl Kirke played a character named Greta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Digging for Fire