Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

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Sunset (2018)


Patricia (Barbara Bleier) peers out at a bleak future.

(2018) Drama (Random Media) Barbara Bleier, Austin Pendleton, Liam Mitchell, David Johnson, Juri Henley-Cohn, Suzette Gunn, Erin Bruch, Tom Coughlin, Amanda Rae Dodson, Cameron Berner, Faith Bruch, Anthony LoCascio, Michael Pacyna, Erika Rademaker, Susan Feinman. Directed by Jamison M. LoCascio

 

For a very long time the human race has lived with the idea of its own extinction. Whether brought down by the wrath of God or by the hubris of science, there has been a constant Damoclean sword hanging over our heads. For the most part, we try not to think about it, going about our daily lives. How would things change if we knew that end was imminent?

Patricia (Bleier) is given a surprise birthday party by her longtime husband Henry (Mitchell). All of their friends are there, from Henry’s former partner Ayden (Henley-Cohn) who has a successful financial business of his own and Ayden’s girlfriend Breyanna (Gunn). Also in attendance is Henry’s current employee Chris (Johnson), a mentally challenged young man that Patricia and Henry have more or less adopted (he lives in their home), and Patricia’s former colleague Julian (Pendleton). It should be an occasion of joy but hanging over their head was the recent nuclear attack on Los Angeles. They live in New York so they are well aware there’s a huge target painted on their home.

The pall on the occasion is further lengthened by an argument between Henry and Julian regarding the government’s handling of the L.A. situation; Henry believes that retaliation should be part of policy while Julian believes that the government’s conventional weapon attacks have only made matters worse. Patricia, who has mobility issues after an accident permanently damaged her spine and ended her dancing – and dance teaching – careers, decides to call an early night. There is tension between Henry and Julian beyond the argument; it seems that Julian has some strong feelings for Patricia, feelings that Henry is well-aware of.

The next day, the news comes that an attack on New York City is expected and that the city is to be evacuated. That leads to mass panic; looting and worse are the orders of the day. The news provokes different reactions in all of them; some of fear, some of anger, some of confusion but all have decisions to make: where do you go when the world has gone mad?

This is the second feature from LoCascio and there are a lot of good things here. This isn’t a movie that dwells on the geopolitical implications of a nuclear conflict, nor does it get wrapped up in special effects or barrel-chested heroes saving the world from annihilation at the very last possible moment. This is a movie about people, people who are facing the unthinkable and trying to cope. In many ways this is the most real movie about nuclear holocaust that’s ever been made.

But there are flaws here. At times the acting feels stiff; Johnson in particular tries a little too hard and it shows. While Bleier and Mitchell make a believable couple, Bleier doesn’t quite carry off the role the way perhaps it should have been. She needed to be a little more fragile, especially in light of what happens in the last third of the film. Henley-Cohn acquits himself the best here; he has some screen presence and a kind of Mark Harmon-like rugged boyishness that is appealing.

The movie’s main strength – its intelligence – does also lead into something that may prevent audiences from connecting; it’s very talky. Most of the movie is made up of conversations between various characters as they discuss the impending attack and what their plans are. There’s not a lot of action here and I don’t mean in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sense; I mean that the characters are curiously inert. They’re waiting for something to happen rather than making things happen. American audiences tend not to respond to that very well.

The ending though is a hum-dinger. I won’t go much further than that other than to say that you may not find a better one in a movie this year. LoCascio gets points for sticking the landing; that’s not an easy task and a lot of filmmakers these days fail to do so which can take a great movie and turn it into a mediocre one. On the contrary, the last few minutes of the movie are truly magic.

Right now the movie is preparing for a July 3rd release date on most of the major VOD and streaming platforms. Given the interesting premise I imagine that a lot of people looking for something new to watch may end up clicking on it. While I can only muster up a qualified recommendation, the movie does at least not spoil a great premise. If the performances were a little bit better, this might have been one of those sleeper movies that comes up and takes you by surprise, pleasantly so. Still, I can’t honestly say “skip it” either.

REASONS TO GO: Henley-Cohn has a Mark Harmon-like quality. The ending is really terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the performances are stiff or way over-the-top. Some may find it a little too talky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a brief scene of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Veteran film lovers will recognize Pendleton as Dr. Larrabee from What’s Up Doc.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle Mile
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Cakemaker

Grace Jones: Bloodlight + Bami


Nobody owns the stage like Grace Jones.

(2017) Music Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly Dunbar. Directed by Sophie Fiennes

At 70, Grace Jones remains what she always has been – a fashion innovator, an icon in the LGBTQ community, a fierce personality and an unparalleled performer. Although she did a 1985 documentary on herself, that was much more of a concert film.

Jones throughout her career has been deliberately enigmatic, meticulously maintaining her image which is intimidating and alluring at once, the very pinnacle of androgyny combining performance artist and disco diva. In her heyday she was one of the most successful artists specializing in club music and yet few but her most devoted fans (and most of her fans are, to be fair, devoted) knew much about her background.

You won’t learn much here either. Fiennes follows the legend as she records her most recent reggae-tinged album in her home country of Jamaica where she was born – her family are prominently featured. At home, she affects a Jamaican patois which is largely missing from her speech now although it must be said that she adopts the accent of wherever she is – an upper class British lilt when in London, a slightly French twang in Paris and upstate New York (she grew up from age 13 near Syracuse) when in the States.

All that aside, Jones has had the kind of career that has been influential far beyond her own immediate circle and further beyond the confines of any catwalk, concert hall or movie. She deserves a definitive documentary but let’s face it; we may never get to see one and this one certainly isn’t it. I will grant it’s far more revealing about her background than any other documentary I’ve seen on the lady but she is a difficult nut to crack. She doesn’t tolerate shit at all nor does she have to. She has never been particularly open about her background; while she sometimes complains here about the grind that comes with being a pop diva (she endures a particularly insulting music video because as she reminds us, the fees she gets for it will pay for the entire album she’s recording. While she is clearly adored by her fans (most but not all of whom are gay) and she is more or less accessible to them, she also keeps her distance as well.

It doesn’t help that Fiennes has delivered a fairly disjointed documentary that jumps from place to place, inserts concert footage (which is the best part of the film by the way) and almost never gives any particular insight as to who Grace Jones is. She also fails to identify nearly anyone who appears onscreen, whether backing musicians, dancers, family or friends – hence the somewhat abbreviated cast list.

Yes, I get that she is the very definition of fierce and is not above confrontations when she thinks they are needed; I get that she is spiritually connected to her family and her homeland; I get that she enjoys the larger-than-life limelight and the persona that she’s carefully crafted over the years. But what lies behind the excessive masks and hats, the glitter and the make-up, the long model legs (that are still as long and as beautiful as ever)? We don’t get even a glimpse and that’s what I really wanted to see.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The direction is somewhat haphazard. One gets the sense that the director wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace Jones: State of Grace
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cold War

RBG


The Notorious R.B.G.

(2017) Documentary (CNN Films/Magnolia) Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Arthur Miller, Clara Spera, James Ginsburg, Brenda Felsen, Jane Ginsburg, Lisa Frey Inghausen, Martin Ginsburg, Mary Hartnett, Aryeh Neier, Wendy Williams, Sharon Frontiero, Ted Olsen, Amina Sow, Eugene Scalia, Kelly Sullivan, Frank Chi, Helen Alvarez, Lilly Ledbetter. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

For the American left, Supreme Court Justice is an icon approaching rock star (or more correctly, rap star) status. In the last few years she has become something of a pop culture touchstone, with her beaded/lace justice robes (in place of ties) and her nickname “The Notorious RBG” taken from the name of a rap star.

The bookish and somewhat reserved Ginsburg is an unlikely pop icon but the truth is she has been a tireless crusader for gender equality her entire career, starting when she attended Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of just nine women in a class of over 500. Since then she’s argued as a lawyer six cases before the then-all male Supreme Court, winning five of them.

She might never have been a Supreme Court justice (the oldest sitting on the court currently) had it not been for her husband Marty. As gregarious and outgoing as she was quiet, he was the yin to her yang. Although he sadly passed away in 2010, he used his contacts in the Bill Clinton administration to get his wife an interview for the vacant bench position. Clinton later realized in the first few moments of the interview that he knew he had his candidate. Marty and Ruth made a formidable team.

Since then she’s been one of the few liberal voices on a largely conservative court and has mostly penned minority opinions but those opinions have been some of the most thoughtful and well-researched legal papers of the last thirty years. Say what you want to about her politics; Ginsburg has a first class legal mind. The filmmakers do a particularly stellar job in presenting some of these opinions in an easy-to-digest manner, making sense of her legal arguments for laymen.

There is definitely more than a little lionizing going which is understandable – she has long been a hero to feminists and liberals – on here and much of the focus is on her gender equality work. While Ginsburg doesn’t really consider herself a radical feminist, she certainly believes very strongly that women should have the same opportunities as men and should be paid commensurately for their skills.

If I have a complaint about this film it’s that it makes Ginsburg out to be something of a one-trick pony, really glossing over other subjects she has also weighed in on in favor for her stances on women’s issues. The filmmakers do show her to have a bit of an impish sense of humor as she is bemused by her current status. We also get a sense of the closeness of her family who address her fondly as bubbe and take great delight in teasing her about her terrible cooking which she herself admits to. Everyone needs a flaw to be human, right?

While Cohen and West aren’t going to win any awards for outside the box documentary filmmaking with RBG, they did do something even the best documentarians sometimes fail to do; they gave us insight into their subject. That’s not necessarily an easy task especially given that their subject is notoriously reticent and fiercely private. I would have liked to get a bit more about how her progressive viewpoints came to be but essentially they came from her parents so I suppose that there isn’t a lot that Cohen and West could have done to elaborate further.

I suspect most readers who tend towards the right side of the political spectrum will want nothing to do with this movie and I can sympathize with that that. I tend to give the films of Dinesh D’Souza a miss since I disagree with his politics vehemently so I can’t condemn conservative viewers for doing the same thing I myself do. I can only say that one of the more charming sequences portrays Ginsburg’s long-time friendship with the late Antonin Scalia, her very conservative colleague on the bench. Some liberals do grouse about this sequence but I think it illustrates her willingness to understand all sides of an argument. If Ginsburg and Scalia could find a way to mutual respect and admiration (both were opera devotees) perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the country.

REASONS TO GO: The explanations of her legal decisions are superbly handled. While there is some hero worship going on, the subject comes off as very human. Certainly those of a leftist persuasion will enjoy this film.
REASONS TO STAY: There really isn’t a lot of explanation as to how she arrived at her progressive beliefs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some content discussing controversial subjects.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ginsburg was one of nine women to graduate in the Harvard Law School class of 1956 with over 500 men.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best of Enemies
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Lean on Pete

Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story


All she wants to do is dance, dance…

(2017) Documentary (Greenmachine) Darlinda Just Darlinda, Minnie Tonka, Gal Friday, Hazel Honeysuckle, Jezebel Express, Murray Hill, Duane Park, Garo Sparo, World Famous Bob, Dirty Martini, Perle Noire, Trigger, Jonny Porkpie, Val Valentine, Little Brooklyn, Shelly Watson, Gigi LaFemme, Anita Cookie, Tatah Dujour, Sailor Sinclaire, Blanche Debris. Directed by James Lester

Burlesque is an art form which is rarely considered as such; some reformed to it as “titty shows” and even less flattering epithets and dismiss it as pandering to the male desire to objectify women. This sort of opinion exists both on the left and the right.

Honestly, the opinion is about as wrong-headed as you can get. Yes, the dancers do remove their clothes and there is a sexual element to what they do but that’s only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We see the girls developing and practicing routines putting in long hours trying to hone their craft. There is often a sly and saucy sense of humor to their sets; one particularly clever dancer did a set in a costume resembling a Dungeons and Dragons monster known as a Beholder.

This documentary focuses on the recent revival of Burlesque and focuses on a diverse selection of dancers in the New York City area and fittingly so as the epicenter of that revival has been New York although there are strong scenes in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere as well. That revival has been a hit among hipsters but also in the LGBTQ community to a very large extent. None of the real names of the dancers are there; they all use stage names much like their antecedents did with a somewhat playfully sexual tone.

The film starts with a brief summation of the history of Burlesque and quite frankly, there are documentaries that show off that history much better than this one does but that’s all right; the object here is to concentrate on the modern take on Burlesque rather than looking back at what came before. There are plenty of docs that will give you a more comprehensive look at the somewhat checkered past of Burlesque. For all intents and purposes this movie begins with the 1996 revival that was spearheaded by the Cher/Christine Aguilera film Burlesque, a few clips from which are shown here. It’s hard to believe more than twenty years have passed since that film.

The dancers are preparing for a pair of Burlesque competitions (there’s a competition for everything and documentary filmmakers will always find them) in Las Vegas (the Burlesque Hall of Fame) and New York (the Burlesque Festival) which at least for this veteran documentary viewer gets to be pretty anti-climactic. Yes, these are important events for dancers but the viewer rarely gets invested in them in the same way.

The film shines not so much when it’s looking at the competitive aspects but on the personal ones. The stories of the ladies are fascinating and no two are exactly alike. We also get a lot more in-depth things; explanations as to why they feel empowered by taking off their clothes and what led them to do it in the first place. It is also worthy of note that not all of these women fit the traditional perceptions of beauty; some are heavyset while others have a more alternative aesthetic. Every one of them though are compelling and I daresay I couldn’t think of a reason I wouldn’t want to spend more time with any of them.

The dancing is inventive and the costumes and routines fun. The modern Burlesque dancer is into more than just twirling tassels with their breasts (although there is some of that here) but putting on a coherent show with an actual story of sorts. It is obvious that a lot of hard work and imagination goes into the creation of these routines and the viewer is sure to have a newfound respect for these women when they see the physical hardships as well as the emotional and mental ones that these ladies go through.

The background stories are compelling and the ladies for the most part articulate and thoughtful. I could have done without the two competitions – they seemed an unnecessary distraction. The movie really shines when the dancers themselves take center stage. There are a few male dancers as well (a troupe of men wins one of the competitions) and the movie doesn’t really explore the connection between the LGBTQ community and modern Burlesque but that’s okay. Those looking to see boobs and pubes may end up disappointed; much of the time nipples are covered with pasties and the crotches with panties or décor. The prurient interest factor therefore is a little bit obscured but at the end of the day this is less about the breast than it is about the rest. These are extraordinary women and you won’t be sorry to get to know them.

REASONS TO GO: The interviews with the dancers show surprising depth and self-reflection. The girls particularly Gal Friday and Hazel Honeysuckle are intriguing personalities.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary’s format is a bit formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
 RBG

Keep the Change


This isn’t your usual romantic walk on the boardwalk.

(2017) Romance (Kino-Lorber) Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Jessica Walter, Will Deaver, Tibor Feldman, Nicky Gottlieb, Christina Brucato, Sondra James, Jennifer Brito, Jonathan Tchaikovsky, Tommy Beardmore, Alex Emmanuel, Luke Rosen, Charlton Lamar, Anna Suzuki, Mary Cassera, Evander Duck Jr., Lori Burch, Kennedy Hall, Yvanna Barktidy. Directed by Rachel Israel

 

Some movies are for everybody. Some movies are not. Some come easily to any audience. Others require patience. This film is one of the latter.

David (Polansky) is a man who yearns to be normal. He has some quirky mannerisms, the most glaring being his propensity to tell inappropriate jokes. Most are funny only in the abstract – “Why did the bum vote for Obama? He wanted CHANGE! Haw haw haw!” However, this mannerism has gotten him into trouble on a number of occasions, repelling first dates with jokes about rape and more to the point, making jokes about pigs to a cop. This lands him, very unwillingly, at the Connections program at the Jewish Community Center in New York in which people on varying degrees of the Autism spectrum are given the opportunities to socialize in a safe environment.

David isn’t having it. He’s just “passing through” as he tells one of the participants and is sure that he is far better than the weirdos (his word) that make up the program. However, he is paired up with the somewhat outgoing Sarah (Elisofon) who might break into song with little encouragement and who mostly communicates through clichés and aphorisms. This annoys David at first but when she proclaims that David is “real real smoking hot and sexy,” he takes notice.

This isn’t a match necessarily made in heaven; her affections towards other guys drive David crazy as he wants a normal girlfriend. David’s casual cruelty hurt Sarah to the core but often she is able to scrunch up and just keep going, having learned to endure anything the world can dish out at her. Autism patients often must in order to survive.

The plot isn’t anything to write home about. It’s standard rom-com stuff but of course with a difference; rather than attractive young indie types or Hollywood A-listers, the actors are mostly autistic themselves. Israel is to be applauded for this and as a card carrying lefty I have to give the movie points for this. That doesn’t excuse the movie for going the predictable route though.

I get that the intent seemed to be reminding us that for all the quirks and tics of the autistic they are just like us, and it’s a great message to send. Am I sure that Israel was 100% successful in getting that across? Well, no. I think I have to be careful here because I’m not trying to say that those with autism don’t have stories to tell; of course they do. I can only though react to what I see onscreen and I wasn’t altogether satisfied. Some of the plot points felt a little bit contrived and considering all the trouble the actors and filmmakers went to in making this as authentic as possible they seemed to sabotage their own film in that sense.

Elisofon is absolutely charming. She is guileless and if her character is a bit on the sexy Pollyanna side, there’s nothing wrong with that. You won’t find a character like her anywhere in the movies. Polansky has a much more difficult job; his character is largely selfish and unlikable and it is his character who has to undergo the most change during the course of the film. That’s not always the easiest thing to embrace for any actor. There will be times that he says and does things however that will make most viewers cringe. Even when the person who says something cruel has autism, it still hurts when he or she says it. David doesn’t see himself as autistic or if he does, as one who is above all the others in Connections. He wears sunglasses everywhere and when he gets flustered he makes a loud honking noise that’s a cross between a sneeze and clearing the throat and has his share of insecurities. His overbearing mother (Walter) likely contributes to that smug sense of self-importance. David’s family is wealthy which largely insulates him but his mother wants him to have a “normal” wife, one who can take care of him after his parents are gone. The thought of him pairing up with someone else who is autistic is about the most terrifying thing she can imagine.

There are some moments that will genuinely tug at the heartstrings and those folks who have some contact with the autistic community – whether or not a family member or friend – will look upon this film fondly. The rest of us will likely have to accept that this is an imperfect movie and be okay with that once we decide to pull the trigger and give it a view. One certainly has to applaud the efforts to bring this community onto the screen where they have largely been rendered supporting cast members or stereotypes. This is a breath of fresh air in that regard albeit one that could have used a bit of air freshener. There will be those who don’t have the patience to see this through to the end – and while the first instinct will be to look down on those people as bad people, I find myself having a hard time doing that. After all, asking those who have limitations to go beyond them is no easy task and just because some folks will have as hard a time with this as a certain segment will have with Love, Simon is not a reason for scorn; it’s an opportunity for education.

REASONS TO GO: There are some occasional moments of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone will have the patience to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the Best Narrative Feature award and Israel won the Best New Narrative Director award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maineland

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (Sidney Hall)


The Hollywood version of a writer hard at work.

(2017) Drama (A24) Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Drayer, Christine Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo, Danny Cullen, Richard Beal, Ryan Willard, Cris Williams, Stephanie Purpuri. Directed by Shawn Christensen

 

From time to time, people who are at the top of their field, wrapped in success and fame, who simply walk away. It’s an irresistible story for the rest of us who wonder why those folks give up what the rest of us dream of. It is a sign of the prurient side of ourselves.

Sidney Hall (Lerman) is a gifted writer. Ask him; he’ll tell you so. We meet him in a high school writing class in which he has been tasked with writing an essay on the meaning of life. What he delivers is a treatise on his willingness to masturbate over a popular cheerleader and his feeling that he’s wasting his efforts on it. Needless to say, this doesn’t impress the tightly wound English teacher much.

Duane (Abdul-Mateen) knows that Sidney is just breaking the balls of the teacher who doesn’t understand him. He acts as kind of a mentor (and later a literary agent) to Sidney, delivering him to a prestigious publishing house and it’s acerbic editor (Lane). Sidney’s first novel, about the suicide of a high school student, becomes not only a bestseller but a cultural phenomenon and makes him wealthy and a bit of a rock star.

But Sidney’s personal life is a shambles. He left home, getting away from his shrill and controlling mother (Monaghan) and with his high school sweetheart Melody (Fanning) who later becomes his wife. But success breeds some not so pleasant side effects and Sidney’s marriage is crumbling as he becomes more and more self-absorbed. After losing the Pulitzer to another writer and devastated at the end of his marriage, Sidney abruptly disappears from public view.

A series of arsons in bookstores and libraries in which Sidney’s books alone are targeted for burning puts a detective (Chandler) on the trail of Sidney, who has at this point become something of a hobo, riding the rails with his dog Homer. But what motivated Sidney to walk away from everything? What is inside the mysterious box he dug up with his jock friend Brett Newport (Jenner)? Who is the mysterious detective chasing him and why is he so keen to find him? There are ghosts haunting Sidney Hall and perhaps that is why he wants to become one himself.

Director Shawn Christensen has enormous talent; it was clearly on display in his last movie Before I Disappear and there are moments where you can see it in this film. Unfortunately, this is much more of a mess than his last movie was. Christensen has three separate timelines interweaving with one another; Sidney’s last weeks in high school as his relationship with Melody begins and his relationship with Brett is explained. There’s also the apex of his career as a successful writer in his 20s in which his nascent ego has reached full flower, alienating him from just about everyone including his wife. Finally we see him as a lonely and just about psychotic wanderer, cloaked in self-loathing and with only a dog for company.

There are a lot of revelations in the film and to be honest some of them work, others are more on the ludicrous side. Lerman is a fine actor but he’s unconvincing here particularly in some crucial scenes which quite frankly undermines the whole she-bang. He also has almost no chemistry with Fanning whose character is so massively cliché that we’re banging our heads against the wall in frustration.

There are a lot of clichés on display here; the writer in his study, a glass of whiskey beside him, cigarette smoke curling up from his keyboard as he ponders the weight of his next few words. There is in fact a great deal of pretentiousness here, from the condescending dialogue to the portrait of the writer as a young snot. Although we find out near the end of the film that Sidney has suffered greatly at the hands of life, by that time it’s really too late to rescue the character from being someone we can’t stand to be around for very long – and we’re forced to hang out with him for nearly two hours.

Yes, the movie is much too long and feels padded out with gratuitous misery. We get it, Sidney’s life sucks and success isn’t all it’s cut out to be yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t help that the leaping back and forth from timeline to timeline is done with leaden hands, leaving the audience frustrated yet again.

The sad thing is that there really is a good film somewhere in here. The cast is strong top to bottom and the performances are for the most part compelling; Nathan Lane brings some well-needed levity to the movie and Blake Jenner is surprisingly strong in his role as well. This just feels like a director trying to spread his wings but for whatever reason he plummets from his perch to make a great big ker-splat on the ground. I’m hoping this is just a misstep for Christensen and that we can still expect better things from him in the future. This isn’t going to be one of the highlights on his resume though.

The film is just hitting theaters after a month-long run on DirecTV. It is also still available there for subscribers to that satellite service. Expect it on a larger array of streaming services in the near future if you’re of a mind to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Nathan Lane is always a hoot. There are some really nice cinematic moments. The cast does pretty well in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The storytelling is disjointed and frustrating. The movie goes on way too long. The dialogue and plot are way too pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lerman plays Sidney as a high school student, in his 20s and lastly in his 30s; Lerman is actually 25 years old.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listen Up, Philip
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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Submission