Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

Supergirl (2016)


A young woman who is strong as she is beautiful.

(2016) Documentary (FilmRise) Naomi Kutin, Ed Kutin, Neshama Kutin, Ari Kutin, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin. Directed by Jessie Auritt

Sometimes young people come along who are just extraordinary. They stand out as having passions, being goal-oriented, natural leaders. Naomi Kutin is just such a person.

When we meet her in this documentary she is just 10 years old but she already owns the power lifting world record in the 97 pound class. She routinely beats people twice her age. During the course of the film we watch in awe as she lifts three times their own body weight. To quote the title of a mostly-forgotten 70s television show, that’s incredible.

Her parents are extremely supportive. Her father Ed is a power lifter as well and often competes in the master class at the same meets his daughter does. He has been training her from the time she expressed interest in the sport. Her mother Neshama who converted to Judaism is also extremely supportive but is very careful to make sure Naomi gets to express other sides of her personality as well. In the meantime, she goes to all of the competitions her daughter lifts at and shouts encouragement from the sideline; “Go Supergirl,” the nickname that she and Naomi’s friends have bestowed upon her. There is also her younger brother Ari who is in the autistic spectrum but who clearly adores his big sister – a feeling that is amply returned by Naomi. She is protective of him and encourages him when he also takes up an interest in power lifting.

In fact Naomi and Supergirl are almost two different people. Naomi is a devout Orthodox Jew but also a modern little girl who titters over boys with her friends, likes bright colors and is aware of all the pop culture touchstones that girls her age are into. Supergirl is a dedicated and focused athlete who spends most of her time training and before lifting psychs herself up with primal screams and grunts that you wouldn’t expect coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old…or anyone else.

Auritt shot the documentary over the course of three years, from the triumphs of re-setting the power lifting record for her weight class to her struggles to stay in that class even as she is growing out of it. Much of Naomi’s self-identity, at least early on, is wrapped up in her world records. As it becomes clear that her body is growing into the next weight class, Naomi is dead set on keeping her weight at 97 pounds even though she is taller and not as centered as she was before her growth spurt.

Even as Naomi is wrestling with the inevitability of her weight increase, she is dealt a devastating blow as she begins to get terrible migraines. Soon it becomes clear that the cause of her migraines is her training and weightlifting; the doctors advise her to give it up but Naomi doesn’t want to. At first she fights through the pain but when she can no longer do that, she tries to find alternative solutions to maintain her health and still compete in the sport she loves at the level she is used to. As we watch, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to have what she wants.

What the movie makes clear is that Naomi is not the victim of stage parents who live vicariously through her achievements; nobody who is this dedicated and this focused does what Naomi does because they’re trying to please their parents. Her passion for power lifting comes straight from the heart. I’m sure there will be people who see this who will criticize the parenting going on, but personally I don’t think that’s valid. There are trolls all over the Internet as we see when Naomi reads some cruel comments that appear on her Facebook page. People really do suck sometimes.

It is also fascinating to watch how the Kutin family reconciles the weightlifting with their religious beliefs, although there are a few questions I have; their faith requires that there can be no electrical devices used during the Sabbath but we watch them on one occasion observing the Sabbath as a family; isn’t the camera an electronic device? Perhaps I’m ignorant of what is allowed on the Sabbath and what is not. Still, it is refreshing to see just how normal this family is other than the constant training. Watching Naomi and her mom go dress shopping for Naomi’s bat mizvah is about as fun as being there with them. In a sense, we are although of course we get no input into the dress Naomi chooses. Pity, that, because I have excellent taste in dresses. Moving along….

It is clear that the director has a good deal of affection for the subject of her documentary and who can blame her? Naomi is an extraordinary little girl. And for the record, she’s a beautiful girl who is going to grow to be a beautiful woman. She may power lift but she’s not sacrificing an iota of her femininity for it. I sense that her mother is seeing to that to a certain degree, but the fact is that Naomi just plain likes being a girl.

The story is pretty straightforward and told in a manner that is easily followed; Auritt doesn’t augment her film with animations or graphics for the most part other than the bare minimum. This is a traditional documentary style which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Auritt wisely chooses not to reinvent the wheel and just presents Naomi’s story mainly in Naomi’s own words. The talking heads mainly belong to her parents.

This isn’t the kind of documentary that is going to change your life for the most part. It is the story of a focused and special young woman and to be fair it will be inspirational to many. The takeaway is that those who are willing to put in the time, discipline and work to achieve their dreams can achieve them regardless of their age or size. That’s a good lesson, but not one that hasn’t been given in other films as well. Naomi Kutin is a special little girl and I think you’ll enjoy watching her story. You might even be inspired to go beyond your own limits in the thing your passionate about. And that, as it turns out, is what life is all about.

REASONS TO GO: Naomi is an impressive young person. The film gives us a glimpse into the daily life of an Orthodox Jewish family in a way that is very simple and direct.
REASONS TO STAY: The film isn’t as compelling as it might be. There are some incongruous moments.
FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that I wouldn’t feel concerned about allowing children or young people to see.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Auritt got the inspiration to do the film after reading a profile of Naomi online.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tickled

Paterson


Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Rizwan Manji, Barry Shabaka Henley, Trevor Parham, Troy T. Parham, Brian McCarthy, Frank Harts, Luis Da Silva Jr., Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Kacey Cockett, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Sterling Jerins, Masatoshi Nagase, Sophia Muller. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

Paterson is a bus driver. Paterson is also coincidentally the name of the New Jersey town in which Paterson plies his trade. It is not coincidentally the home of famed 20th century poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Paterson (the bus driver) also writes poetry in a journal he keeps with him. He scribbles during lunch breaks and before he starts work. He uses mundane, everyday subjects to inspire him. He leads a mundane, everyday life.

Director Jarmusch is notorious (or acclaimed) for finding the rhythms of life and setting his films to those rhythms. We see Paterson’s routine; getting up in the morning at 6:15 precisely, eating breakfast with his wife Laura (Farahani), going to work, coming home for dinner – Laura is apparently not much of a cook but he gamely is polite about pretending to enjoy it. Afterwards he takes his English bulldog Marvin out for a walk, ending up at his favorite watering hole talking with Doc (Henley) the bartender and then heading home to go to sleep with his wife.

We follow Paterson in his routine over the course of a week. It’s not a particularly important week – just a normal, mundane, everyday week. His wife is making cupcakes for a popup farmer’s market. She has ordered a guitar which she paints black and white like everything else in the house and dreams of becoming a country music star, which would be a bit of a stretch being that she is an immigrant from Iran which in the current climate might not fly among a certain element that loves country. He overhears conversations on the bus, adjusts his mailbox which always seems to be leaning (late in the film we find out why), and sometimes just sits out by the beautiful waterfall that is Paterson’s pride and joy.

Paterson is definitely a working class environment. Some might remember that it was the town in which Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was framed for murder; it is referenced during the film but not dwelled upon, at least not as much as the fact that it was also the home of Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello fame. Then again, Laura’s penchant for black and white patterns might allude to the racial divide that led to one of the most notorious legal cases of the 20th century that was part of the DNA of Paterson at the time.

There is a beauty to the rhythms of life here. Jarmusch is an expert to finding the beauty in the mundane. But, as mundane as Jarmusch wants to make the environment of Paterson, he can’t help but populate it with quirky indie film characters that lend an air of “this isn’t real life in the rest of the world” to the film. I think in some ways it sabotages what he’s trying to do and for me it diminished the enjoyment of the film. Why can’t films about ordinary people actually have a few ordinary people in them?

Driver is a bit white bread here. He doesn’t really distinguish himself much which is likely what Jarmusch had in mind. Paterson (the bus driver) is basically a pretty nice guy without much ambition; his poetry is amazing (written by real life poet and Pulitzer prize winner Ron Padgett) but he refuses to publish them. He clings to them like a lap bar on a particularly scary roller coaster and when near the end of the film an event occurs that puts that to paid, it feels like it should be more liberating than it is. Or at least more traumatic than it seems.

I’m not really quite sure what to make of Paterson (the movie). On the one hand it achieves the “all about nothing” that the Seinfeld show aspired to. On the other, it definitely succumbs to indie film clichés. On a third hand, it plays as a cinematic tone poem, analogous to the works of Williams and T.S. Eliot. There’s beauty here but Jarmusch makes it oddly humorless, although there are occasional twitches of the lips that approximate smiles. It’s an elegant movie that’s not completely successful but is completely worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a cinematic tone poem.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters inhabit Paterson’s world.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Driver undertook training to drive the bus for three months in Queens; he passed is licensing test a week before shooting started and was able to drive the bus himself, allowing Jarmusch to get a broader amount of options in shooting the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mike and Molly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Country: Portraits of an American Sound

Danny Collins


Pacino describes the size of his paycheck as a bemused Bening and Benoist look on.

Pacino describes the size of his paycheck as a bemused Bening and Benoist look on.

(2014) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Nick Offerman, Aarti Mann, Katarina Cas, Giselle Eisenberg, Anne McDaniels, Eric Lange, Brian Smith, Michael Patrick McGill, Cassandra Starr, Scott Lawrence, Meghan Aruffo, Eric Schneider, Linda Wang. Directed by Dan Fogelman

Fame is something we wear on our heads like a sombrero; it might appear to some to be like a halo but at the end of the day it’s just straw.

Danny Collins (Pacino) has been living with fame for most of his adult life. Once a promising folk singer, a cross between Bob Dylan and John Lennon, he has settled into a groove as a soft rock pop star, feeding off the energy of his massive hit “Hey Baby Doll” and others of that ilk, not a one of them written by Danny Collins and none of them as heartfelt or insightful as those he wrote himself in his youth. But thirty years have passed under that bridge and there’s an awful lot of water that went with it.

After another rote concert filled with screaming old ladies whose days of beauty were decades gone and who retained just enough of their bloom to be utterly ridiculous, he’s ready to give it all up. Those feelings are sealed when his best friend and manager Frank (Plummer) gives him a letter written to him by John Lennon back in his youth. You see, Danny had done an interview with a now-defunct rock magazine with a smarmy interviewer (Offerman); the interview catches the attention of none other than John Lennon who wrote him a letter care of the smarmy interviewer who promptly sold the thing. Frank had only found it a few months earlier.

For Danny, the effect is galvanizing. He tells Frank to cancel his upcoming world tour and points his private jet towards Jersey – not before breaking up with Sophie (Cas), his much younger fiance. Why Jersey? That’s because that’s where his estranged son Tom (Cannavale) lives. Tom is a working class guy, the sort that takes whatever construction job comes his way in order to feed his family; his very pregnant wife Samantha (Garner) and his severely ADHD afflicted daughter Hope (Eisenberg). Danny was pretty absent in Tom’s life and Tom didn’t take kindly to it and hasn’t really been able to get past it.

But given Danny’s sex drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, that might not have been a bad thing.  Danny has made a lot of mistakes in his life and in many ways his chickens have come home to roost. He has occupied a room in a suburban Hilton, arranged for a grand piano to be brought in and sets out to woo the attractive manager Mary (Bening) and charm his family, but both are uphill battles for a man who has become used to taking the path of least resistance.

Fogelman, who’s made a tidy career writing Disney animated films (including Cars) and unimpressive comedies (including Last Vegas) makes his directorial debut here. In all truth it’s pretty solid if unspectacular; Fogelman hits all of the right notes and while he doesn’t take a whole lot in the way of chances, he delivers a product that is more than palatable.

That’s mainly because of the presence of Pacino who delivers one of his more enjoyable performances of recent years. Danny is a charming Irish rogue at his best and while that sort of role hasn’t exactly been one Pacino has been noted for in his career, he does a great job of making Danny the kind of guy that you’d love to hang out with but that you wouldn’t want dating your sister.

He’s got a solid supporting cast behind him, with the ever-lovable Bening as the love interest, the just-as-charming Plummer as the best friend and Cannavale (more on him in a moment). Only Garner seems a bit wasted in her role as the daughter-in-law as she mostly seems confused and bewildered, although she shows a bit of backbone when Danny offers to get Hope in to a prestigious school that they could never afford to get her into on their own.

I honestly think Cannavale has it in him to be an A-list leading man. He has mostly been cast in thug roles but I don’t think they suit him very well; he seems to do better with more sympathetic parts. Here he’s gruff and a bit stubborn but at his core he’s a good-hearted man who just wants to do right by his family.

The soundtrack is definitely worthwhile with plenty of John Lennon songs, although they are used a bit of a ham-handed manner; I mean, we don’t need to hear “Working Class Hero” to know that Tom is just that or “Instant Karma” after a failed attempt at reconciliation with Tom. The Danny Collins songs – the Leonard Cohen-like one he’s writing in the hotel, and the insipid pop “Hey, Baby Doll” are less memorable.

The story is a bit rote and the plot twists are pretty old school if you ask me. Then again, this isn’t a movie about redemption; it’s about understanding who you are and growing when need be. What I like about this movie is that Danny doesn’t end up being the perfect grandfather/father and write insightful songs that re-energize his career. The changes in his life are coming piecemeal as best as he can. In that sense, Danny Collins is a real character because real people don’t make wholesale changes but gradual ones. Nothing happens overnight except maybe a Beyonce album.

REASONS TO GO: Pacino is a hoot. Cannavale continues to be a cinematic presence.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really inspire audience commitment. Predictable ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, some nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was inspired by the real life story of English folk performer Steve Tilston who learned of a similar letter sent to him by John Lennon 40 years after the fact.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Somewhere
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unfriended

Trade


Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

(2010) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Alicja Bachleda, Paulina Gaitan, Kate del Castillo, Marco Perez, Linda Emond, Zack Ward, Tim Reid, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Natalia Traven, Guillermo Ivan, Christian Vazquez, Jose Sefami, Leland Pascual, Jorge Angel Toriello, Luz Itzel, Eren Zumaya, Norma Angelica, Kathleen Gati. Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner

Like most things, human trafficking to a large extent has much to do about sex. Most human trafficking is for sex slaves and most of the victims are women. It is at epidemic proportions and is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

In Mexico City young Adriana (Gaitan) has been given a bicycle as a gift from her brother Jorge (Ramos) and despite warnings not to ride it because it is too dangerous, Adriana decides to do so anyway and of course manages to run into members of the Russian Mafia who kidnap her off her bike. Jorge, feeling responsible, does some digging and discovers that she’s about to be shipped off to New Jersey and arrives at the house where she’s being held moments too late, witnessing her being loaded into a truck along with several other girls.

He manages to follow them to a border town where he hooks up with Ray (Kline), a Texas Ranger who has been searching for his own daughter for a decade who has been similarly kidnapped. He agrees to help Jorge and drives him to New Jersey, the last stop for Adriana before being put up for auction on the Internet. Is rescue in the cards for Adriana? Is redemption in the cards for Ray?

Human trafficking is a major law enforcement issue worldwide and has become a billion dollar industry for organized crime. There is certainly a good movie to be made on the subject. The issue is that the filmmakers who tackle it tend to go for titillation ahead of content and that is the case here. There are plenty of scenes of sexuality and rape but very little that looks at the impact on families of losing loved ones, or the challenges of law enforcement in tackling this epidemic.

Kline can always capture the decency of a character but while this particular character is a Texas Ranger, Kline doesn’t really radiate the toughness that those law enforcement officials seem to be infused with on a cellular level. While Ray’s strong force of will is in evidence, you never get the sense that he’d be capable of kicking anyone’s ass. Still, Kline makes the character sufficiently compelling that he’s worth watching. His chemistry with Ramos seems pretty genuine.

Cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk offers some magnificent views of rural Mexico as well as urban Mexico City scenes as well as bucolic suburban New Jersey shots. There is definitely some interesting procedural suppositions about how the human trafficking industry works and it is handled in a very un-sentimental way, despite the prurient content. Some of the scenes engender legitimate suspense.

That is undercut by the overuse of shaky hand-held cameras which have become epidemic in cinema, sadly. As someone who has issues with vertigo to begin with, I am extra-susceptible to the nausea that comes with the use of that technique so I might be forgiven if I’m a little overly sensitive about the subject. Even if you don’t mind that so much, you’re bound to notice the plot points that strain credibility and the way the movie meanders from time to time and loses plot focus.

Affection for Kevin Kline can only  take you so far and sadly the flaws outweigh the strengths in this particular film. That’s a shame because the subject matter deserves a really good movie; this just isn’t it.

WHY RENT THIS: Kline is always reliable. Some nice cinematography. Un-sentimental and occasionally gripping.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much shaky-cam. Plot proceeds with impossible coincidences. Loses narrative structure at points. Too titillating for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, much of it involving minors as well as a fairly graphic rape. There is also lots of violence and foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the original news article that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Dracula Untold

The Front Man


Why, yes, we're in a band.

Why, yes, we’re in a band.

(2014) Documentary (DevlinPix) Jim Wood, Christie Wood, Dan Snyder, John Kayne, Glen Burtnik, Graham Maby, Howard Stern, Beetlejuice, Robin Givens. Directed by Paul Devlin

Florida Film Festival 2014

We are all the stars of our own documentary feature. Our lives are, to us, as important and meaningful as any we see on the screen or read about in the newspapers and history books. The one thing we all have in common is that our lives are ours to live.

Jim Wood is one of those guys who not only gets to have his own documentary feature, other people are going to get to see it as well. In all honesty he’s a pretty ordinary guy in a lot of respects – he’d probably be the first to say he’s just a guy from Jersey – but he has hopes of being a rock star. Or at least, he did.

He did something about it too. He has a band – the Loaded Poets – that have been playing in Jersey bars and recording tracks for about 27 years now, dating back to when they were in high school. He and his band mates – Dan Snyder and John Kayne – have been plugging away for nearly all that time. They have no illusions that they’re going to hit it big. That’s just about impossible to do even if you’re young and attractive and while these guys aren’t necessarily bad looking, they’re well past the young portion of the equation. In other words, you won’t be seeing them on American Idol ever and also as unlikely on such shows as America’s Got Talent or The Voice.

Which is likely all right by them. They want success on their own terms which means the songs come first, and in all honesty they aren’t half bad. However, Jim has joined his bandmates in wedded bliss – and Jim’s got a gorgeous wife in Christie. She’s very supportive of his music – going so far as to make out with Beetlejuice on the Howard Stern show just to get her husband’s webpage advertised on his show – but she realizes neither one of them are getting any younger and the window for having a family is beginning to swing shut with an ominous creak.

Jim is a wacky kind of guy who sometimes looks at least on-camera like he doesn’t take much seriously but that would be doing him a disservice. While I have no doubt that he’s a kid at heart, one gets the feeling that when he needs to be he’s smart and mature. The decision to have the kid alters his life as he trades one dream for another – although he continues to make music on his own terms.

While fame eludes him, he talks to a couple of local boys who grabbed a fair slice of fame of their own – Glen Burtnik who had a minor hit in the ’80s and was a member of Styx for several years, and Graham Maby, best known as the bass player for the Joe Jackson band. Both offer insights into fame, rock and roll and how to integrate it into a good life.

This is like watching a documentary about your buddy down the block. Devlin, who has known Jim since kindergarten, uses home movies and years of footage that he has taken to compile a look at an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. A huge fan of the Z-Movie Alien Factor, he seeks out its director Don Dohler and after impressing the affable director by quoting dialogue, casts both Jim and Christie in one of his last films (he passed away in 2006) as victims of vampires.

While the movie violates one of the prime commandments of home movies – your child is always far cuter to you than it is to everyone else – to be fair that’s a violation that occurs in a number of documentaries. Otherwise, Jim, Christie and their coterie are people you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with at a barbecue down the street. This isn’t the most important documentary you’ll ever see but I could have spent more time with the people onscreen and at the end of the day that’s about the highest compliment you can pay to any kind of movie.

REASONS TO GO: Very human. Likable subjects.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really vital.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and a few instances of foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Devlin’s local TV pilot Slammin’  which presented the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe semi-final poetry slam as a sporting event, was nominated for two local Emmys.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anvil: The Story of Anvil

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Slingshot

Out of the Furnace


Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper

Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing  jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.

Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his  brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.

And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.

When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).

Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.

First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.

Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.

Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.

Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.

There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.

For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.

REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!