A Murder in Mansfield


Some father-son chats are more intense than others.

(2017) Documentary (Cabin Creek) Collier Landry, Dr. John Boyle, Rusty Cates, Matt Trammel, Annie Trammel, Mark Caudill, Susan Messmore, Dave Messmore, George Ziegler, Susan Ziegler, Dr. Dennis Marikis, Bryan Neff, Sylvia Neff, Michelle Barth. Directed by Barbara Kopple

On December 30, 1989, Noreen Boyle – wife of a popular and charismatic doctor in Mansfield, Ohio – disappeared. 26 days later, she was found wrapped in a green plastic tarp below a concrete basement in a home in Erie, Pennsylvania that her husband had bought for his pregnant mistress, intending to move in. Noreen had asked for a divorce prior to her disappearance.

The good doctor was accused of the crime and put on trial. Certainly there was evidence – he had purchased a jackhammer two days before his wife disappeared, for example – but the most damning testimony was that of his then 12-year-old son Collier whose composed, almost eerily adult demeanor won a lot of people over. He became something of a local hero and was instrumental in getting the conviction of his dad.

More than a quarter century later, Collier – now using the surname Landry – is an L.A.-based filmmaker who is returning home to Mansfield to get some closure. He had undergone an ordeal that was simply unimaginable, losing his mother and father and adopted sister all within days. He was completely and utterly alone. The detective on the case, David Messmore and his wife Susan, were eager to adopt the young boy and young Collier wanted to live with them but a judge ruled that the Ziegler family instead would raise Collier. The young man was devastated at first but eventually accepted the situation and became close to his adopted family which enabled him to remain in Mansfield and keep his friends close.

Collier wants to reconnect with the people important to him but also get closure from his dad who continued to maintain his innocence from prison for 26 years. After his first parole hearing, John Boyle changed his tune somewhat to claim that Noreen had fallen accidentally and hit her head and that he was only guilty of trying to cover it up. Collier doesn’t believe it. Neither do we.

It’s hard not to be inspired by Collier Landry. If you spoke to him on the street, you’d never know he has such an awful tragedy in his past. He seems pretty well-adjusted and grounded and as we get details about his father’s neglect and abusive behavior, it’s a wonder he didn’t indulge in a violent lifestyle himself. Landry is certainly the star of the show, from the video of his testimony from the 1990 trial of his father (at the age of 12, sounding and acting more like an adult than most adults in similar circumstances would) to the jailhouse interview with his dad in which he asks him point blank “What happened that night?” followed by “Are you a sociopath?” Landry and Kopple clearly think that he is and you can’t really disagree.

This isn’t a true crime documentary in the strictest sense, although there are elements of it. This isn’t like anything you routinely see on Investigation Discovery or 48 Hours. This is rather more about the journey of Collier Landry, how he overcame the demons of his childhood to lead a productive and satisfying life. One has to admire his resilience and even now, 26 years after the crime, the town of Mansfield clearly still holds him dear to their hearts as a radio interview early on in the movie illustrates.

And yet Landry is still haunting by the crime, as well he should be. He spends time talking to a psychiatrist and to his adopted parents, asking them for their advice on meeting up with his dad. The confrontation, which takes place in prison, is not really the emotional payoff you’d think. As with most things in life, it doesn’t go exactly as we might hope and while Collier professes that he got the closure that he needed, it wasn’t the closure that he wanted. Life is funny like that sometimes.

This isn’t among Koppel’s best work (last year’s Miss Sharon Jones! was) but it still approaches true crime from the point of view of those left behind to deal with the loss of loved ones, something we rarely get with any detail from documentaries. The finished product here feels a bit unfinished, if you get my drift – there’s a lot of the story that feels unexplored and perhaps too much emphasis was placed on Collier’s confrontation with his dad which while packing a dramatic punch conceptually doesn’t really deliver it in reality. The real attraction here is Collier Landry himself and more time should have been spent on his journey than on his father’s. Either way, this is compelling drama and for those who like both character studies or true crime documentaries there is something  there for both camps.

The film made it’s world premiere earlier this evening (as it was published) at the prestigious DOC NYC festival, the largest film festival in the world devoted to documentaries. It should be playing the film festival circuit in the upcoming months with possible a limited release afterwards; if what you read here sounds interesting to you, keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO GO: Landry is an inspiring subject. The interviews are less talking heads and more friends catching up. This is a home movie in the best possible sense.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, adult themes and some gruesome images of a murder victim.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kopple has been making documentaries for more than 40 years, winning an Oscar for Harlan County USA.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Abyss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sky and Ground

Strad Style


Danny Hauck in his home studio.

Danny Hauck in his home studio.

(2016) Documentary (1170 Productions) Daniel Hauck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Stefan Avalos, Rodger Stearns, Mary Hauck, Alfredo Primavera. Directed by Stefan Avalos

Slamdance

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some are more realistic than others. Then again, that’s what dreams should be right – to reach for the unattainable, the unlikely, the impossible?

Daniel Hauck is a bipolar man who lives in an isolated farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio. Since he was a young boy he has been fascinated by violins. More than fascinated, really; it would be more accurate to call it a passion or an obsession than anything else. He doesn’t really have the talent to play them so much but he develops an urge to build them.

Besides that he’s also into custom cars and car clubs but that’s really a hobby that is a bit more expensive than he can afford at present being unemployed with almost no prospects of anything coming along anytime soon. He lives a lonely existence by choice although he does have a computer in which he keeps up with social media.

It’s on Facebook that he meets Razvan Stoica, a concert violinist considered to be one of the best in the world right now, although he is not well-known in the States – yet. The two befriend one another and begin messaging each other. They talk about classic violins and Stoica mentions that he would love to play one of the most famous in the world – Guarneri del Gesu’s (a contemporary of Antonio Stradivari and a fellow resident of Cremona in Italy) Il Cannone, or the cannon, the violin made famous by Paganini. .Daniel, perhaps impetuously, offers to build him a replica of the instrument.

Daniel hasn’t built a violin of this caliber before and he has no training in doing so. Nonetheless, he goes after the project with a certain amount of joie de vivre and learns what he can from the Internet. He also gets the help and support of Rodger Stearns, a local violin maker and woodworker. While his mother Mary and cousin David Campbell give him various degrees of support, Daniel proceeds largely through trial and error using the tools he has and making homemade UV booths and other ingenious ideas to keep the process going.

In the meantime, Razvan has expressed that he wants to play the instrument during a series of concerts in June starting in Amsterdam. Can Daniel overcome the odds and produce an instrument up to the exacting standards not only of one of the greatest concert violinists of our time but also one of the all-time masters of violin making?

Hauck is an engaging subject, often self-deprecating and sometimes raging against the difficulty of his situation and of the task he has set before himself. He is in many ways a perfect documentary subject, candid and open about nearly every aspect of his life. He has a dream yes, and he is determined to fulfill it but like most dreams it isn’t an easy one and it wouldn’t have been hard to abandon it at any time.

Avalos does just about everything on the project, including running the camera, editing, directing, producing and interviewing the subject. It’s very much his show and it shows enormous promise. The cinematography is as good as any I’ve seen for a documentary in the last year or so and not only captures the clutter of Danny’s home but also the stark beauty of the Ohio landscape in winter, the gorgeous Renaissance-era architecture of Cremona, and the sensuous lines of the violin.

There’s an awful lot of instruction going on here as well as Hauck takes us through the making of his violin. He knows what to do – he’s just not always sure how to do it and not everything he does ends up in success. Still, it’s fascinating stuff watching the project go from pieces of wood to a beautiful musical instrument.

I don’t know that this is so much an inspiring story so much as a comforting one – human beings are capable of so much more than we ever think we are and this reaffirms that. I’m hoping that a distributor that knows what to do with good documentaries gets hold of this; it deserves to be seen by a large audience. The logline may sound a bit dry but this is nonetheless a documentary that leaves the audience feeling good after the end credits roll and at a time when so many documentaries are hell-bent on telling us what’s wrong with the world, it’s nice to see what’s right.

REASONS TO GO: Danny Hauck is an engaging and fascinating subject. The film is actually extremely instructive on the difficulties of making a violin.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the editing is a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Avalos was originally doing a documentary about “new violins” versus “old violins” and met Hauck through the process of researching it. When he discovered Hauck’s story, Avalos elected to focus on that instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mao’s Last Dancer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 20th Century Women

Wiener-Dog


Music to tame the savage beast.

Music to tame the savage beast.

(2016) Black Comedy (IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Charlie Tahan, Ari Graynor, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Marcella Lowery, Connor Long, Tyler Maynard, Devin Druid, Sharon Washington, Rigoberto Garcia, Haraldo Alvarez, Dain Victorianio, Andrew Pang, Trey Silver, Molly Gay, Bridget Brown. Directed by Todd Solondz

 

Indie auteur Todd Solondz is one of those directors that either you love or you hate. There is rarely anyone who takes the middle ground with his films, which tend to be somewhat misanthropic. His view of the human condition, particularly as it applies to American suburban life, is pretty bleak. Would that change given in his newest film?

No it wouldn’t. This has been touted as something of a follow-up to his seminal 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse but only in the sense that it has a couple of characters in common with that film albeit portrayed with all-new actors. This is a series of four vignettes linked together with the presence of a sad-eyed dachshund who endures four different owners of various degrees of likability.

He is brought from the pound initially by Danny (Letts) and Dina (Delpy), parents of Remi (Cooke), a young boy who survived what appears to be some form of cancer. He’s lonely and depressed and the Wiener-Dog, as he names him, seems just the tonic. However, Danny and Dina have their own things going on; Dina isn’t above manipulating her son, explaining that the reason that they have to have Wiener-Dog spayed is so that she doesn’t get pregnant from being raped by a local dog. Charming.

But Remi frankly isn’t mature enough to handle the dog so she is returned to the local shelter to be put down. However, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Gerwig) rather than putting a healthy dog to death steals Wiener-Dog away and keeps her for herself. In many ways Dawn is as lonely as Remi was, and now that she has a Wiener-Dog of her own, she renames him Doody after Howdy-Doody, not necessarily getting the other connotation of that name.

A chance meeting with an ex-high school classmate named Brandon (Culkin) whom she continues to crush on despite the fact that he was unrelentingly cruel to her in high school leads to a road trip to Ohio, ostensibly to get drugs but also for Brandon to meet up with his brother Tommy (Long) and his wife April (Brown), both of whom are afflicted with Down’s syndrome. They will galvanize Dawn into doing the most selfless thing she’s ever done.

After a hilarious “intermission” starring Wiener-Dog herself, we go to the next vignette. Doody is now owned by Dave Schmerz (DeVito), a screenwriting teacher at a New York-area university (and not one of the better ones) who is juggling teaching students who don’t think they have anything to learn with trying to sell a screenplay that his condescending agent has been dangling in front of him like the proverbial carrot. He doesn’t realize that he’s a laughingstock, his refrain of “What if…now what?” having become something of an iconic mock. This leads him to do something quite drastic.

Finally, we meet Nana (Burstyn), a bitter, crotchety elderly woman who lives with an apathetic housekeeper (Lowery). Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Mamet) who never visits unless she needs money. Zoe has a new boyfriend, the artist Fantasy (Shaw) who doesn’t have a terribly high opinion of anyone not named Fantasy. Nana and Zoe end up having a bit of a heart-to-heart but as it turns out, something nasty is just around the corner for Nana.

Solondz is, as I mentioned earlier, not really everyone’s cup of tea. Those who enjoy his particularly type of brew will find this film extremely palatable, although some may grouse that his movies all carry similarities that are beginning to get a bit repetitive. He likes to employ the anthology format and has done so on more than one occasion.

When Solondz is at his best, he can be wickedly funny. He blows past boundaries without a second thought and treats sacred cows like they’re so much hamburger meat. However, his point of view about humanity is not very compatible with those raised on Disney thinking that everyone is basically a prince or princess at heart. Mostly, he sees humans as selfish, self-centered, cruel, vain and morally weak. He doesn’t paint flattering pictures of the species and quite frankly he isn’t required to.

He sure does coax out some great performances from his actors though. DeVito turns in a marvelous performance that is easily the best thing he’s done in years or even decades. His sad sack screenwriter is a figure of pity even though he is a bit of jerk at times. Still, DeVito does a lot of work with his eyes getting his emotions across here and it works. You can feel the beat down dog elements of the character and you can also feel the pressure beginning to escape as he reaches the boiling point.

Equally marvelous is Burstyn, who wears this bizarre oversize eye wear that are like a cross between aviator sunglasses and World War I flying ace goggles. She orders people around like a martinet but that doesn’t disguise the terrible vulnerability inside her. She knows her granddaughter is taking advantage of her, and she knows her granddaughter is making terrible life choices, but nonetheless she helps her out. Burstyn imbues the role with gravitas and dignity, solidifying herself as the grand dame of American cinema.

Da Queen was very vocal about her feelings for the film, stating that she dug it right up until the last five minutes and I have to concur. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge dog person; I have been known to wear a t-shirt that states “I don’t care who dies in a movie as long as the dog lives.” Animal lovers in general and dog lovers in particular will have a hard time with the ending. I get why Solondz went this particular route and to a certain extent I can admire it, but those who find violence to animals unpalatable had best check out before the movie ends.

There are moments here that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Solondz but the ending was really a deal killer for me. Maybe it’s a bit illogical for me to be fine watching humans being chopped up like celery but not able to watch even a hair on poor Fido’s head harmed but that’s how I’m wired, so take this with a grain of salt. This isn’t filmmaking for everyone, but then again it’s not meant to be. I can admire a movie like this without liking it and the shame of it was that I liked most of it but the parts I didn’t like I loathed. Maybe that’s what Solondz had in mind all along.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny moments here. DeVito and Burstyn come through with some tremendous performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is extremely disturbing and most definitely not for dog lovers. A little bit too much like all of the director’s other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty disturbing content (particularly if you’re an animal lover) as well as some animal excretions, as well as quite a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse was originally played by Heather Matarazzo who turned down the opportunity to reprise the role. Greta Gerwig was cast instead.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Welcome to the Dollhouse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Breaking a Monster

Room (2015)


Room is the world and the world is Room.

Room is the world and the world is Room.

(2015) Drama (A24) Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Cas Anvar, Zarrin Darnell-Martin, Tom McCamus, Sandy McMaster, Jee-Yun Lee, Matt Gordon, Randal Edwards, Justin Mader, Brad Wietersen, Jack Fulton, Kate Drummond, Chantelle Chung, Megan Park. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

The world is what we perceive it to be. For some, the world is vast and extends far beyond our planet. For others, the world is boiled down to the small space of their room.

Ivy (Larson) has a very close relationship with her son Jack (Tremblay). On the occasion of his fifth birthday, she bakes him a cake. He watches TV and she makes sure he gets plenty of exercise. She tucks him into bed at night with a story, then awaits the return of his father.

But this isn’t an ordinary situation. Their home is an 11×11 garden shed and his dad kidnapped Ivy when she was 17, tricking her into getting into his car by appealing to her compassion. Since then he has kept her locked up, raping her regularly (and inadvertently creating Jack) for seven years. Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight which mostly just allows them to see passing clouds. For Jack, Room is the entire world.

Finally, his mother devises a bold escape plan and the two are finally liberated. For Jack, his world has suddenly expanded like a sponge thrown into water. For Ivy, it means a reunion with her mom (Allen) and Dad (Macy) who have divorced in the aftermath of her kidnapping. It means coping with the media which clamors to hear her story. It means adjusting to freedom, something Jack has never known.

But the thing is, both of these souls are wounded, suffering from acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even if Jack hasn’t known any other life than Room, now he has to completely readjust his world view which is no easy task even for a five-year-old. Ivy has to deal with reintegrating herself into a world which has moved on without her, and she has to deal with the reality of what was done to her. She is no longer in survival mode and that can be the most dangerous time of all.

Room, which is based on an extraordinary novel turns out to be an extraordinary film. Abrahamson has taken the script, adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, and breathed life and color into it even if the color is mostly grey. The movie is set in Ohio during the fall and winter and it seems to be eternally raining, snowing or cold. Even the interiors are full of fall colors, the hospital where they are kept briefly sterile white. Only Room has bright colors, which is both ironic and intentional.

The effect brings a chill to the audience even if considering the horrifying circumstances that Ivy endures does not. And make no mistake, while those circumstances mirror several real life cases in which women were imprisoned, used as sex slaves and forced to bear children by their captor, this is a unique story unto itself and completely fictional – and completely plausible.

What makes this work are incredible performances by Larson and Tremblay. Their relationship is at the center of the story, and it is happily an authentic one. Larson has turned in several outstanding roles in a row and for my money is emerging as one of the best young actresses around. Don’t be surprised if Oscar comes knocking on her door for her work here, and certainly don’t be surprised if she nabs some high-profile roles because of it. Her character is strong on the outside, but the facade is crumbling and revealing an inner vulnerability that is heartbreaking, particularly when things come to a head about midway through the film.

Tremblay plays a child who gets frustrated, particularly when told things he doesn’t want to hear and often acts out with screaming tantrums – in other words, a typical five year old. While I think a few too many of these fits of anger are presented here – we get the point of his frustration and after awhile like any child’s tantrum they grow wearisome – that is certainly not the fault of this young actor who delivers a mature performance many veteran actors would have trouble producing. This may well be the top juvenile performance of the year.

Speaking of veteran actors, Joan Allen – one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses – does a stellar job here as a mother who has to readjust to having her daughter back after thinking she was lost forever, and having to deal with that daughter’s own rage issues, and shifting inability to cope with all the emotions that are just now coming to the surface. Allen delivers a character who is magnificent in her grace and patience. She’s the kind of mom we all would want to have.

The story is not an easy one to watch. We are looking at people who are soul-sick, who have all suffered at the hands of the actions of one monster. All of their lives have been shattered – even Jack’s although he never knows it – and picking up the pieces is no easy thing. In many ways this is a story that is genuine and authentic. It deals not just with the physical aspects of the story, but the emotional ones as well and you’re likely to be thinking about it long after the movie is done.

It may be too intense for some; some of the scenes are raw and hard to watch. Still, thinking about it, I think you’ll agree that sitting through those scenes may feel awkward at times but it is well worth the effort.  Clearly one of the best movies of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances from Larson and Tremblay. Excellent supporting performances by Allen and McCamus. Taut, excruciating story.
REASONS TO STAY: The frequent tantrums can be annoying. May be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, intimations of rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joan Allen and William H. Macy played husband and wife in Pleasantville as well.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kiss the Girls
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Lucha Mexico

Bad Words


Spelling bee-yatch.

Spelling bee-yatch.

(2014) Comedy (Focus) Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall, Rachael Harris, Ben Falcone, Steve Witting, Beth Grant, Gwen Parden, Anjul Nigam, Allan Miller, Bob Stephenson, Patricia Belcher, Matthew Zhang, Madison Hu, Michael Patrick McGill, Judith Hoag, Greg Cromer, Kimleigh Smith, Connor Kalopsis, Rachel Taylor. Directed by Jason Bateman

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop screen, trying to come up with a way to start this review. I couldn’t think of anything pithy or wise, so I just thought I’d cheat and lead with how I couldn’t come up with a lede.

Cheating though is something Guy Trilby (Bateman) is not above. At 40 years old, he’s had an unremarkable career as a proofreader with one somewhat quirky but useful skill – an eidetic memory that allows him to remember how every word he sees is spelled.

An indifferent student who never passed the eighth grade, Guy discovers that there’s a loophole that would allow him to enter the Golden Quill National Spelling Bee. Parents are aghast at the 40-year-old man entering a competition meant for children. Dr. Bernice Keagan (Janney), the President of the Golden Quill foundation that runs the Bee, is just as aghast and tries to figure out ways to get Trilby out. The founder of the Golden Quill, gruff academic Dr. William Bowman (Hall) is also appalled, particularly since this is the first year that the Bee will be televised nationally.

Intrepid reporter Jenny Widgeon (Hahn) wants to get to the bottom of what is motivating Guy but instead winds up in the sack with him…more than once. The only one who seems to be making any headway with him is Chaitanya (Chand), a 10-year-old competitor who has been ostracized as nerd his entire life. Like most people, Chaitanya seems to bring out a testy, vulgar response in Guy but for whatever reason he is able to make friends with the 40-year-old man. However, they are still competitors and at least one of them will do whatever it takes to win.

Bateman takes over the director’s chair for the first time in his career and the result is pretty impressive. It doesn’t hurt that he has to work with one of the 2011 Black List screenplays (an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays to that date). He also gets one of the better nice guys in Hollywood and managed to talk him into an unlikable role. I hear he has an “in” with the star.

This is a vulgar, vulgar film with every profanity you can imagine, some of them hurled loose by kids. There is a good deal of sexuality as well including some fairly frenetic sex scenes with Hahn screeching “Don’t look at me!” at Bateman as they copulate. People who are easily offended with foul language and sexuality should be warned that there are plenty of both here.

But beyond that, this is a comedy that hits the funny bone with a sledgehammer. Da Queen almost bust a gut laughing. However, I do have to admit that the kids drove me crazy. Even the one playing Chaitanya, who was better than most of the rest of them, occasionally would get on my nerves, sounding whiny which is the way to get on my nerves the most quickly.

That aside, this is a very funny comedy which may be a bit too mean for some. Certainly the critics have been making mean remarks about it – which I suppose under the circumstances is understandable. If I were you though, I’d ignore those critics and go check it out on your own and make your own opinion.

REASONS TO GO: Hysterically funny. Bateman does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: Chand gets a little whiny in places. May be too raunchy for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  A surfeit of expletives, some brief nudity and plenty of sexual and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the filming took place at the Sportsman’s Lodge in the San Fernando Valley.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old School

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Noah

Take Shelter


Michael Shannon has a point.

Michael Shannon has a point.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker, Tova Stewart, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Knisley, Robert Longstreet, Heather Caldwell, Guy Van Swearingen, LisaGay Hamilton, Ray McKinnon, Stuart Greer, Bart Flynn, Sheila Hullihen, John Kloock, Marianna Alacchi. Directed by Jeff Nichols

One man’s prophecy is another man’s mental illness. We sometimes have dreams that are disturbingly real and sometimes we ascribe some sort of prophecy of the future to them. Sometimes the dreams are so vivid and repetitive we think that they MUST be trying to communicate something to us. Is it a kind of craziness – or something we ignore at our peril?

Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a pretty ordinary guy living in a small town and working construction. His wife Samantha (Chastain) sells crafts to supplement their income which they sorely need; their daughter Hannah (Stewart) is deaf but a cochlear transplant might restore at least partial hearing. Curtis’ insurance would make that operation possible. With this hope looming ahead of them, life is pretty good all in all.

But all is not perfect. Curtis begins to have some disturbing dreams; the family dog inexplicably attacks him. And most importantly, a massive storm destroys his home. The dreams are so vivid that Curtis begins to act on them in waking life. He pens his dog – who has always been mellow and well-behaved – in the yard. And he begins to work on expanding his storm shelter.

His best friend Dewart (Whigham) is sanguine about all this, defending his friend as the towns people begin to whisper that Curtis may be losing it. Curtis isn’t so sure that they’re wrong – there’s a history of mental illness in his family, and he consults with his institutionalized mother (Baker) to see if she had dreams when her problems started.

But things are escalating out of control as Curtis’ dreams grow more and more disturbing. His behavior takes a turn for the worse and when he loses his job even his saintly wife must admit that something is terribly wrong. Is Curtis losing his mind? Or is he privy to a terrible tragedy that will destroy everything he has if he does nothing about it?

Nichols, who first directed Shannon in Shotgun Stories and met him as an actor on Tigerland does a fine job of blurring the line between dreams and reality. There are times when we realize that we are viewing a dream (as when the sky rains oil) but there are others where we aren’t entirely sure and neither is Curtis.

Speaking of Curtis, this is one of Shannon’s best roles to date. Most people to this point recognized him for his work on Boardwalk Empire although his turn as General Zod on Man of Steel may have netted him some mainstream notice. Shannon has always come off to my way of thinking and a tightly wound spring. There is always an undercurrent of darkness in his characters, even his comedic ones (although his comedic rules are few and far between). His size and his intensity make him intimidating and that shines right through in nearly every role he plays.

Chastain, who was in the midst of a pretty good run when this was made, also does some sterling work although she’s a bit overshadowed by Shannon. She has quickly become one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood. While she has been less busy in 2013 (she appeared in no less than seven feature films that were released in 2012) she has built a great base to build a stellar career on. No doubt there are further accolades in her future.

The movie is a bit predictable in places, particularly towards the end but otherwise this is a really good movie. The viewer is left, along with the characters in the movie, to wonder if Curtis is really having visions or just going nuts. I wish the ending would have been a little more ambiguous but otherwise I really liked the way this movie developed and even more so Shannon’s performance which was Oscar-worthy although he wound up not being nominated. Something tells me you don’t have to be much of a prophet to predict that there will be Oscars in his trophy case at some point.

WHY RENT THIS: A bravura performance by Shannon. Blurs the line between reality and dreams nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit rough here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stewart, who plays Hannah, the deaf daughter of Curtis and Samantha, is deaf in real life.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a Q&A in which Shannon and Nichols discuss their long-time friendship and this film in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on a $5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Field of Dreams

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Family Tree


It's always the quiet ones...

It’s always the quiet ones…

(2011) Dramedy (EntertainmentOne) Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Chi McBride, Max Thieriot, Britt Robertson, Selma Blair, Keith Carradine, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, Gabrielle Anwar, Rachel Leigh Cook, Jane Seymour, Christina Hendricks, John Patrick Amedori, Evan Ross, Madeline Zima, Evan Handler, Pamela Shaw, Hannah Hodson, Ally Maki. Directed by Vivi Friedman

When you look at your neighbors, what do you see? Upstanding church-going citizens? Kinky fetishists? Hard-charging workaholics? Bratty snot-nosed teens? Or all of the above?

In the world of Serenity, Ohio, the last answer would be appropriate. Bunnie Burnett (Davis) is an offensive shrew who rules her family through her sharp tongue and sadistic sensibilities. Her husband Jack (Mulroney) seems meek and inoffensive on the outside but years of being browbeaten has worn him down, turning him into a quaking philanderer after years of being refused sex by his wife. She would no doubt emasculate him if she knew but the truth is she’s far too busy engaging in role-playing games with their neighbor Simon Krebs (McBride) to do much investigating.

Her children aren’t much better. 17-year-old daughter Kelly (Robertson) is promiscuous and foul-tempered – she is well along the road of becoming her own mother although if you pointed it out to her you’d probably get kicked in a very sensitive portion of your anatomy. Kelly’s twin brother Eric (Thieriot) has fallen under the sway of pot-smoking gun-toting preacher Reverend Diggs (Carradine) who talks tough on the outside but on the inside…well he’s just an idiot.

During a particularly rough game of home invasion/rape fantasy with Simon, Bunnie is accidentally dealt a particularly severe whack on the head (Simon flees, leaving Bunnie to be discovered by her family) which leaves her with an unusual amnesia in which all her memories after the first year of her marriage have disappeared. Once again, Bunnie is the woman that Jack fell in love with. It’s an opportunity for the whole family to start fresh. The trouble is, the other lunatics in Serenity may not necessarily let them.

This is supposed to be a black comedy. Now, I understand that in such enterprises that a certain amount of cynicism should be expected and even appreciated. HOWEVER, the fact that every…single…character has some sort of dark side or sexual secret gets old really fast. You find yourself having nobody to really hang your hat on – everybody here is basically a douche, although some find at least a measure of redemption by the closing credits. For the most part even Jack who’s perhaps the closest thing to a truly nice character still cheats on his wife – deservedly or not. Not that I’m a prude nor do I need my lead characters to be too good to be true (in fact, some comedies go too far the other way). I just need my characters to act like PEOPLE and not CHARACTERS. How many characters do you run into every day when you walk out the door of your house (and I’m not talking about the ones at the multiplex) – I’m betting none. I can’t find too funny a comedy in which I identify with nobody.

Which is a shame because there are a lot of really talented actors involved as you can read from the cast list. Mulroney, who some might remember from My Best Friend’s Wedding has some decent screen presence and Davis is one of those actresses who has tons of talent but doesn’t get the roles these days that she is worthy of. Most of the rest of the cast – particularly Blair, Seymour, McBride, Carradine and Hendricks are either wasted in scarcely developed roles or appear in little more than a glorified cameo.

I like the concept here of a dysfunctional family given an unexpected second chance to be a family. I just wish they’d tried for a simpler approach and eliminated a lot of the extraneous characters who are just that – characters – that detract from the film overall and turn it from the satirical comedy it could have been into a wooden, leaden blunt instrument without the finesse to really capture my attention – or my laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: A somewhat satirical look at family and community dynamics. Nice opportunity to play “spot the character actor.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Muddled and scattered. A little bit too mean-spirited for my taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, violence, bad language (a whole lot of it) and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received its world premiere at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set home movies.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,035 on an unreported production budget; no way in Hell this made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Family Time

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Monsters University

Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards

The Watch


 

The Watch

Ben Stiller finds another teen who thought Night at the Museum sucked.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Mel Rodriguez, Doug Jones, Erin Moriarty, Nicholas Braun, R. Lee Ermey, Joe Nunez, Liz Cackowski, Johnny Pemberton, Billy Crudup, Sharon Gee. Directed by Akiva Schaffer

 

There are things that define a neighborhood that we seem to have lost sight of for the most part in the 21st century. Neighborhoods were once places where neighbors looked out for one another; where we shared lives with those who lived around us. Those kinds of neighborhoods are becoming increasingly rare.

Not in Glenview, Ohio though and that’s why Evan (Stiller) loves it so much there. He and his wife Abby (DeWitt) emigrated from New York to escape the cold, impersonal big city life and find a place where they could raise their children the right way – not that they have any children quite yet but they’re working on it.

When a security guard (Nunez) is gruesomely murdered in the Costco that Evan is managing, that galvanizes Evan. He has already founded a running club and a Spanish club in his neighborhood; now it’s time for something a little more useful – a neighborhood watch. The police, in the person of Sgt. Bressman (Forte), are doing little to find the killer and in fact Bressman thinks Evan is a strong suspect.

However, his neighborhood is less enthusiastic – only three other guys show up to the meeting that he calls. Bob (Vaughn) is a contractor with an epic man-cave who sees the Watch as an opportunity to hang out with the guys and drink plenty of beer. Franklin (Hill) is a bit of a nutcase who failed the psychological tests in order to join the Glenview Police Department; he lives with his mom and longs for police-like action. Then there’s Jamarcus (Ayoade) who sees the Neighborhood Watch as a means to meet women. Not exactly the battalion of crime fighters Evan was looking for.

Still, they are at least willing to play along for the most part, although much of their crime work has beer involved, and much talk of male penises. Bob and Evan start to bond in an odd way; Evan confesses that the reason he and Abby haven’t been able to conceive a child is because he’s sterile; Bob expresses his frustration over his teenage daughter Chelsea’s (Moriarty) increasing infatuation for Jason (Braun), a super-arrogant teen with designs on just one thing – the thing most teenage boys have designs on.

In the meantime, their investigation is leading them to the killer – and that killer isn’t local. And by not local, I mean not of this earth. When their beloved Glenview looks to be ground zero for an alien invasion, can these four screw-ups suck it up and become earth’s last line of defense?

Veteran SNL director Schaffer has a script co-written by Seth Rogen to work from but this isn’t one of his better efforts. Mostly what the problem is here is the unevenness. The movie has some genuinely funny moments, but not of the sort that will leave you sore from laughter as the better comedies will. The sci-fi aspects are for the most part pretty cheesy; why does every alien have to have lime green goo dripping from them? Just saying.

In any case, the two don’t mix well. At times we have some pretty odd moments of a joke in the middle of a serious scene that cheapens the drama; at others, a more dramatic episode in the middle of some of the more really funny moments. The effect is to keep the audience off-balance and not in a good way.

Stiller, Hill, Ayoade and particularly Vaughn are some of the most talented comic actors on the planet and they actually perform pretty well here. Vaughn is memorable even though his shtick is pretty much the same one he usually uses – the loud and aggressive manly sort with a heart of gold – we see the latter most clearly in his relationship with his daughter which is, as most dad-teenage daughter relationships are is a bit on the love-hate side. However, the relationship is depicted here a bit simplistically.

And what’s the deal with all the phallic references? There are so many references to the male sex organ that you have to wonder if there’s some sort of fetish being played out here. Hey, I’m as proud of my equipment as the next guy but sheez, I don’t feel the need to mention it quite so often.

So what we have here is a sci-fi comedy with some talented people in it (and lest we forget, the very sexy DeWitt who has some nice moments here) and simply not living up to its own potential. As much as I like Vaughn, Stiller and company, I think that talent like theirs deserves more than just an onslaught of dick jokes to deliver. So do we.

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments. Vaughn is one of my favorite comic actors at the moment.  

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the humor feels forced. Serious and funny stuff don’t flow well, leading to some jarring moments.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sexual content and a bit of sci-fi violence. The language is universally foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Neighborhood Watch but the title was changed due to sensitivity over the Trayvon Martin shooting.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100. The reviews are uniformly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night at the Museum

COSTCO LOVERS: Evan is the manager at the Costco and the climax takes place there; as you might expect there are several jokes about bulk buying throughout the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Sympathy for Delicious

I Am Number Four


I Am Number Four

Timothy Olyphant and Alex Pettyfer discover that catering has run out of bran muffins.

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel, Jeff Hochendoner, Patrick Sebes, Cooper Thornton, Judith Hoag, Emily Wickersham, Jack Walz. Directed by D.J. Caruso

Growing up is hard enough without moving from place to place, never being able to set down roots or forge deep connections with friends. How much worse is it when you’re being chased by alien killers bent on your destruction before you develop powers over which you have no control and no idea what those powers are going to be?

Ask John Smith (Pettyfer) all about it. That’s not really his name; he’s not even human. He is Number Four, one of nine young teenagers who are the last of their kind, bred to be protectors of their race, the Loriens, but a cruel, homicidal race called the Mogadorians wiped them out before the teens could develop their powers. They were then brought to Earth, each with a warrior-guardian to protect them until their powers manifested.

Unfortunately, the Mogadorians followed them to Earth and have started to kill the teens, one at a time in order. Each teen is wearing a pendant with a symbol on it; the Mogadorians are taking them with each murder. The first three are dead; John is next on the hit list. After John makes an unwanted YouTube appearance, he and his guardian Henri (Olyphant) are forced to relocate to the lovely Rust Belt town of Paradise, Ohio.

Despite Henri’s warning for John to stay home and skip school, he gets stir crazy and enrolls in the local high school. There he meets Sam (McAuliffe), the resident geek whose dad disappeared a few years back and who was something of a UFO nut. He also falls for Sarah (Agron), the town shutterbug which leads him to run afoul of Mark (Abel), the quarterback of the football team and something of a jock jerk (ah, the timelessness of stereotypes).

However, the Mogadorians are hot on his trail and so is a hot young blonde named Jane Doe (Palmer) who turns out to be Number Six. Together, the four young people will take on the Mogadorians and their monstrous creatures, a sort of combination between a rhino, a bat, a dog and a crab – only about twenty feet long and ten feet tall.

This is based on a book that was co-written by James Frey, who you may recall caused a stir some years back when Oprah ordained his alleged biography as a book about courage until it came out that he had fudged a number of the facts in it. He has since founded a writing collective called Full Fathom Five and this book, the first in a series, was credited to Pittacus Lore which is Frey and Jobie Hughes. There is actually quite a backstory to the writing and publishing of the book which in some ways is more fascinating than the actual book itself.

I had fairly high hopes for the movie not so much for who was onscreen but for who was behind it. Caruso is a highly talented director whose works include Suburbia and Eagle Eye. There is also writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of “Smallville” and Marti Noxon of  “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”  as well as Michael Bay in the producer’s chair and of course Steven Spielberg lurking in the background as the head honcho of DreamWorks.

Certainly of all the young adult fantasy novels that have come our way in recent years trying to create a franchise for themselves, this isn’t the worst of them. It isn’t the best either; certainly not along the lines of a Harry Potter or a Narnia (or some would argue, the Twilight series). Still it has a good deal going for it.

First and foremost is Pettyfer, a young British up and comer whose angular good looks and smoldering screen presence is certain to set a lot of young pre-teen and teenaged hearts a-flutter; certainly Hollywood has noticed, casting Pettyfer in a number of high profile projects in the coming months. Here, he is ideally suited to the role of John carrying off both the brooding angst as well as the yearning for normalcy that is present in most teenagers – needing to fit in and stand out all at once.

Olyphant is one of those actors who elevate most of the projects he’s involved in. Best known for his work in “Deadwood,” he is circling around a breakout role that will elevate him into stardom. He hasn’t gotten there yet but it’s only a matter of time. The two females, Agron from “Glee” and Palmer, who is set to appear in the new Mad Max: Fury Road, are gorgeous but while Agron is fairly disposable, Palmer has the makings of a solid female action star.

The problem here is that the movie spends a whole lot of time dwelling on the teen interrelationships that make it a lot like “One Tree Hill” and the like. I’m wondering if the filmmakers are consciously trying to appeal to the teen soap crowd as well as the action/sci-fi crowd; it’s only in the last 30 minutes that the movie really takes off and when it does, it’s a solid, fun movie with some nifty special effects and CGI beasties.

Unfortunately it takes awhile to get there. The set-up of the movie takes a bit too long, and too much time is spent with Henri acting like a mother hen to John and John brooding over Sarah, or raging at Mark and his goon squad. I haven’t read the book but from the synopsis I’ve read of its plot, the movie seems to follow it pretty basically and quite frankly, that element of the book doesn’t work well cinematically speaking.

Still, the last 30 minutes are quite a ride and if you’re willing to sit through the first 60 minutes, it’s worth the wait. Pettyfer is to my mind a future star – he has everything going for him, especially the screen presence which is an intangible you can’t teach. Caruso helped make Shia LaBeouf a star and despite the pretty much universally negative reviews of this one, I can’t help but think that what’s going to emerge the most from this film is not necessarily a new franchise for DreamWorks but a new star who is going to have a really good career ahead of him.

REASONS TO GO: The last 30 minutes are a great ride. Pettyfer has big star written all over him.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much exposition to begin with. Goes the teen soap route and really torpedoes the sci-fi action vibe.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sequences of violence and sci-fi action. There are a few bad words, but not really in a pervasive manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shalto Copley was originally cast as Henri but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict.

HOME OR THEATER: The last 30 minutes should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Collector