Country: Portraits of an American Sound


Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

(2015) Documentary (Arclight) Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Henry Diltz, Sandi Spika Burchetta, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Lorrie Morgan, Rosanne Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Holly Williams, Jim Halsey, Raeann Rubenstein, Larry Gatlin, Dr. Diane Pecknold. Directed by Steven Kochones

 

Country music, whether or not you are a fan of it, has to be considered America’s soundtrack. Sure, rock and roll is just as American an invention but whereas rock became more of a world music, country has remained an essentially American sound. It is the music of rural America, the music of the working man (and woman) and one which has always held American values close to its beating heart.

Throughout its history, country music has been not only a music but a style and photographs have helped to not only capture that style but export it. There have been eras when country performers wore dazzling rhinestone-studded costumes onstage; other eras they have been dressed in their Sunday best and then there have been times when their attire of choice has been that of the cowboy – or the working farmer. There have even been times when country stars wore the latest fashions.

All of it has been captured by some of the great photographers of their era. Names like Henry Diltz, Les Leverett, Raeann Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner, Henry Horenstein and Michael Wilson have captured country’s biggest and shiniest stars in their lens. Through those lens, they didn’t just capture moments on stage, or posed publicity stills (although they did that too), but they captured the essence of who these artists were (and are). Through these pictures, we got to know the faces behind the voices and in a sense, got to know them as living, breathing people and not just talented musicians and singers.

Through the auspices of the Annenberg Space for Photography (a Los Angeles-based museum for the pictorial art and an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation, a charitable institution that supports the arts) comes this documentary gathering some of not only the most iconic photographs in the history of country music but also a variety of images that help illustrate the rich history of country as well as its ongoing contribution to American culture.

Veteran documentarian Kochones (who founded Arclight, a distributor of terrific documentaries as well as some non-fiction films) has a wealth of material to draw from but that is very much a double edged sword; the hour and a half running time is not nearly enough. It isn’t often that I see a film in which I wish it was longer but that is the case here. The material could easily have filled a mini-series and maybe it should have. One of the biggest drawbacks to this particular film is that it feels rushed. While some of the stars and subjects get an adequate treatment, others feel almost glossed over. Perhaps a mini-series would have given the filmmakers time and space to give all of the subjects the attention they deserved.

Although there are a galaxy of country stars interviewed here it is the photographs that are justifiably the real center of attention. Some of them are amazing, like Johnny Clash flipping a very intense bird at the camera, a fresh-faced young Dolly Parton at the beginning of her career (and there’s a star I wish they had spent time interviewing) and the Carter Family looking stiff and formal like Civil War-era photographs taken sixty years later.

Lyle Lovett talks eloquently about country music being less about songs than about stories and so it is with the stars who sing those songs. They all are stories in their own right with their own personalities and their own experiences. They bring those to each and every song that they sing. The machinery of the business can sometimes in its zeal to manufacture an image forget that the stories that got these talents to their attention are what attract the fans the most; perhaps that’s a bit naïve on my part but I think that it’s true. Image is important in ANY musical genre of course – it’s a kind of shorthand that invites the listener in and allows them to be captured by the music – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. These images however not only define those stars but in many ways allow those stars to be themselves for all to see.

This is definitely going to appeal to all true fans of country music, although they might not be satisfied with the snippets of songs that are played, but even non-fans will find this very educational. I am more an admirer of country than a lover of it – like rap music, it doesn’t speak to me as much as rock and roll does – but even someone who isn’t a true believer such as myself can respect the relationship the stars have with their fans and at the hard work and talent displayed not only by the musicians but by the photographers who created the images that helped establish them as stars.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is high quality. The images depicted here are an absolute treasure that will delight fans young and old of the genre.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit rushed; it might have been better served as a mini-series.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry has been performed in the Grand Ole Opry House; previous to that it was held at the Ryman Auditorium; during the winter months the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months November through January.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VuduYouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and  the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Gold

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Dark


Hey, I'm walking here, I'm walking here!!

Hey, I’m walking here, I’m walking here!!

(2015) Suspense (Screen Media) Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Michael Eklund, Brendan Sexton III, Benny Ash, Redman, Eunice Ahn, Steel Burkhardt, James Dinonno, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Anita Valentini, Rose Wartell. Directed by Nick Basile

 

On August 4, 2003, New York City suffered through one of the worst blackouts in the city’s history. Anyone who hasn’t lived through a blackout will not understand what a big deal they are. They often happen in the middle of summer when temperatures are high, so your home gets gradually hotter and hotter. There’s no refrigerators so no cool drinks; there’s no TV, Internet or or radio unless you’re on a battery-operated device and once those batteries die, there’s often no way to replace them as batteries quickly sell out and most markets. You can’t cook if you have an electric stove (and often if you have a gas one) and once the sun goes down, no light except for candles. Plus, plenty of people will take the opportunity to be assholes and looters. It’s not pleasant at all.

Kate Naylor (Able) already has problems enough. A former model, she’s working as a yoga instructor and lives with photographer Leah (Breckenridge) – in fact, she’s recently moved in with her into a Brooklyn loft. She hasn’t quite unpacked yet which irritates Leah, but then a lot about Kate is irritating. For one thing, Kate smokes a ton, even though Leah is after her to quit. Kate’s also got kind of a temper and a bit of a masochistic streak, shocking her girlfriend when she asks her to choke her during a sexual encounter early in the movie.

When the blackout hits, Leah is out of town and things between the two women are disintegrating despite Leah’s best efforts to make it work. Kate seems disinterested in meeting her halfway and when she has the opportunity to pick up a Canadian biker (Eklund) during the blackout, she does so. She also fends off the advances of neighbor John (Sexton).

As the darkness deepens, Kate lights up some candles, poses for some self-portraits in lingerie, listens to tunes on her boombox and looks at old photos of old affairs. She begins getting restless, especially once she’s finished all the booze in the loft. She gets dressed up in a slinky dress and goes out to a local tavern that has a generator, and gets trashed. Once she gets home, she hears noises and sees disturbing things, like someone rattling her doorknob. Her sanity begins to erode. But then, her sanity was not too stable to begin with.

The concept of a woman alone in the darkness is not a new one as a subject for suspense movies, but this is the only one I know of in which the heroine is mentally ill. Able, who is a fine actress just starting to get some intriguing roles, gets the lion’s share of screen time and she does a pretty good job. For the most part, Kate’s issues are not easily seen unless you spend a couple of hours with her, particularly in a stressful environment.

The problem with Kate is twofold. For one thing, she’s such a bitch that it’s hard to really relate to her or root for her. That’s the double-edged sword of having someone with emotional or mental issues as your lead character; your audience isn’t going to relate to them unless they have similar issues. They may find the point of view fascinating (as Kate’s is from time to time) but after awhile the charm or lack thereof dissipates. This isn’t a knock against Able’s performance, just the way the character was written.

The movie does drag a little bit, particularly through the middle when Kate is alone in her apartment, taking pictures of herself, taking a bath and slapping herself in the face. After a little while, you may want to join her. Sorry, that was just impossible to resist.

Sound is very important in the movie and Basile makes good use of it (he also gets points for using a Dead Can Dance song on the soundtrack). There are a few jump scares but Basile uses the sounds of the city to portray the normalcy, then as the blackout rolls in, the sounds change and become much more threatening. It’s a masterful piece of the storytelling puzzle that is rarely used this well.

I also thought that the relationship between Kate and Leah was portrayed in a manner that really rung true. These two don’t sound like a Hollywood couple; they are the kind of couple that exists in the real world, far from perfect but definitely with at least a spark there. These are people probably sitting at the table next to you in the coffee shop or the bistro.

There was a minor quibble for me in the plot; during the blackout, Kate ends up drawing herself a bath. However, from a logical standpoint, she lives at least two or three stories up. How did the water get there? Most buildings use pumps to get the water up to the higher floors. That wouldn’t be working in an electrical blackout. Just saying.

There was enough to recommend this film but only just; the use of sound and Able definitely are the things to look for here. I would have liked Kate to be more relatable but that’s more of a personal preference. I’m sure there are plenty of film buffs who wouldn’t have a problem with it. Oh, and with Joe (Gremlins) Dante as an executive producer on this, there is definitely a pedigree. All in all, a promising indie film that is flawed but mildly recommended.

REASONS TO GO: Really awesome sound. Realistically depicts the dynamics of a relationship that is falling apart.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit. The lead is too unlikable to relate to.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity, a couple of sex scenes as well as further sexual content, drug us and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Basile’s first feature film that’s not a documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wait Until Dark
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Bridgend

Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police


It rocks to be Sting!

It rocks to be Sting!

(2012) Musical Documentary (Cinema Libre) Andy Summers, Sting, Stewart Copeland, Kate Lunken Summers. Directed by Andy Grieves

In the heyday of MTV, the Police were one of the bands that were essentially made for the music video age. Blonde and good looking, sometimes the fact that they made really good music got lost in the image. Melding a variety of musical forms including (but not limited to) New Wave, reggae, jazz, blues with the occasional burst of discordant noise, they were often unfairly characterized as purveyors of disposable lightweight pop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the easygoing blonde facade were three strong personalities who often clashed. Bassist Sting was never much of a team player and said so; he would get into heated arguments with his band mates over things ranging from chord changes to which singles were released off of albums. The band member’s egos stemmed from the fact that all three were talented musicians and songwriters in their own rights, and recording sessions often became wars of attrition.

Finally, the band called it a day in 2006 which startled the music press and fans alike; their most recent (and it turns out final) album Synchronicity had been a monster success and they were considered by many to be the biggest band in the world. All went their separate ways, however; Sting to a successful solo career, drummer Stewart Copeland to TV and film composition and guitarist Andy Summers to a string of instrumental albums both solo and with other guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

In some ways though, the way the band broke up left both the fans and the band itself feeling a lack of closure so in 2007, partly in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first single “Roxanne” the band announced a reunion tour. It would be a one-time event; as Sting put it, “There will be no album. There will be no follow-up tour.” The tour would be the last hurrah for the band, a way of saying goodbye to their fans one final time.

Summers, prior to the reunion, wrote a book on his time with the Police entitled One Train Later and decided to do a documentary. Copeland, who had taken Super 8 movies of the band on tour, had previously released a documentary entitled Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out back in 2006 but it wasn’t until well after the reunion had concluded that Summers and Grieve, assuming the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as a film editor, assembled both from archival footage of the band as well as newer footage from the reunion tour shot by Lauren Lazin.

Here we hear Summers laconically reading from his book over the images and video. Summers, who these days resembles comedian Eric Idle portraying a rumpled professorial sort, is not the most expressive reader ever; most of the voiceover is monotonic which can lull the viewer to sleep, or at least lead them to lose interest. To be sure, however, he’s a good writer and the prose is well-written.

One drawback is that the film is exclusively from Summers’ point of view. That’s a double edged sword; we get a very definitive, consistent viewpoint throughout, but that’s the only viewpoint we receive. While we hear Sting and Copeland in interviews talking about the band, there’s a kind of facade that is practiced by members of any band which is meant to keep the world at large out of the inner sanctum. Only from Summers do we get any kind of emotional resonance and while that is much appreciated, the film could have used more participation from his bandmates as well.

Grieve, with his background in editing, really weaves the footage from the 70s and 80s nicely in with concert footage from the reunion tour. It’s a nice effect although to be honest the songs don’t really change much in arrangement over time for the most part although once in awhile the band messed about with the arrangements to some of their lesser known tunes. We do get a sense that the divides that split the band up remain intact; they seem to be better friends outside of the band than within it.

There are some nice tidbits here; Summers, for example, was briefly a member of Eric Burden and the Animals prior to joining the Police. He was much older than his mates, who teasingly tried to convince an interviewer that the Summers who played in psychedelic bands like Dantalian’s Chariot and blues bands like Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band was actually the Police guitarist’s father. Another anecdote that was interesting was that the band’s first appearance on the influential British music show The Old Grey Whistle Stop nearly didn’t happen when a can of hairspray exploded in Sting’s face, necessitating a hospital visit to save his eye; he was forced to wear oversized sunglasses for the appearance because of it.

Summers does go into more personal aspects of his life, such as how the marriage to his wife Kate developed and then disintegrated due to his constant touring with the band, how he sunk into reckless behaviors after the divorce and how an interest in photography went from being a hobby into being therapy. Happily, the couple reconciled and remarried and have since given birth to twin boys in addition to the daughter they had during his Police days. These are some of the more compelling moments in the film.

In some ways this is an ego project for Summers but I suspect he’s okay with that characterization; this is more “Andy Summers and the Police” than a fair, balanced portrayal of the band and their music. Summers says, with some pride, “We were allowed (to have egos) because we were really good musicians” without any hint of irony, and deservedly so. This is a band that really never got its critical due during their existence and even less so afterwards. They were more than just a trio of pretty boys that grew out of the punk clubs of England and escaped into pop superstardom; they wrote some amazing songs that still sound good today. I just would have wished for a documentary that was a little less one-sided.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice interweaving of archival concert footage with more recent stuff. Informative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too Summers-centric in a self-aggrandizing way. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some minor swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The comic book character John Constantine (who appeared in a sadly now-defunct NBC series this past season) was based  visually on Sting.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Some of Summers’ photos appear in a photo gallery; there’s also a Q&A session with Summers from the film’s L.A. premiere, a promo piece on his solo album Mysterious Barricades, an interview with Summers and finally a Summers-made trailer for the film (in addition to the official one).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,262 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental Only), Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soul Boys of the Western World
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hitman: Agent 47

Boyhood


Life is an ongoing investigation.

Life is an ongoing investigation.

(2014) Drama (IFC) Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Steven Prince, Bonnie Cross, Marco Perella, Libby Villari, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villareal, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham, Nick Krause, Angela Rawna, Evie Thompson, Brad Hawkins, Barbara Chisholm, Jenni Tooley, Savannah Welch, Taylor Weaver, Jessi Mechler. Directed by Richard Linklater

Seinfeld was famously a sitcom about nothing. Here we have a movie, filmed over a 12 year span, in which nothing much happens. Nothing much, maybe, except life.

That is what this movie is all about. Richard Linklater, one of the more respected directors in the indie ranks who has such seminal films as Dazed and Confused and Slacker to his credit as well as the ambitious Before trilogy, took the time to film this movie with the same core cast of actors over a 12 year period. What he ended up doing is filming a series of short films which he later stitched together into a full-fledged feature film as we watch the cast grow up and age before our very eyes.

Mason (Coltrane) lives with his mom (Arquette) who is divorced from his dreamer of a father (Hawke) and his sister Samantha (Linklater) with whom he bickers constantly. She’s got a bit of the princess to her and she knows how to stomp her feet and declare her position without equivocation.

They live in various locales in Texas as mom takes on a series of boyfriends and husbands with varying degrees of success. She also goes back to school and gets her degree, enabling her to teach at a local community college. Dad in the meantime returns back to Texas from Alaska and means to take on a more active role in the lives of his kids. At first he’s just another, larger-sized kid along with them, but as time goes by he starts to change and becomes more the father he should have been all along.

Critics have been falling all over each other to praise this movie as you can tell from the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so much so that I can’t help wonder when the inevitable backlash is going to hit. All I can say is not now and not here. This is a magnificent film, one that will engender discussion for a very long time; certainly when you leave the theater you’ll be talking about it.

This was always a project that was going to need a little bit of luck. Getting the parents of the child actors to agree to taking a couple of weeks each year to film for 12 years is quite a commitment to ask for, even from the professionals. What if the kid actors turned out to be terrible? What if one of them decided they didn’t want to do this anymore – and in fact one did. Surprisingly, it was the director’s daughter who asked her daddy to kill her off in the movie. Thankfully, Linklater had enough vision to insist his little girl see it through – and eventually she came back on board.

The point is, there were a lot of ways that this project could have been torpedoed but in every sense of the word this movie was charmed. For one thing, who would have guessed that Coltrane would turn out to be a charismatic young actor? Linklater may well have suspected but there really was no way to know for sure when a kid is eight years old how he’s going to react to things when he’s eighteen.

Nonetheless, Coltrane gives an unexpectedly terrific performance. Sure there are times when as a young boy his acting is a bit forced by as the movie continues you see him grow more and more confident in his ability. By the time Mason heads off to college, there is a maturity to the boy and the performance that simply put gives the movie a grand shot in the arm. I don’t know what Coltrane’s future plans are but he certainly has the presence and the talent to make a go of it in the motion picture industry.

Arquette, who filmed concurrently to her work in the TV show The Medium for a good portion of the movie, has a complicated role. In many ways, her character is the least defined; while Hawke’s dad has a defined journey from flamboyant and immature daddy wannabe to responsible and surprisingly wise father, her character is always the most responsible one of the two. Her issues stem from her very poor choices in men, some with devastating consequences to her family. She’s a very bright, attractive woman but by movie’s end she’s alone. One wonders if her character deserved that fate.

We watch Mason and Samantha grow up before our very eyes while their parents grow older and wiser. One of the complaints that I’ve heard is that there are stretches where nothing happens, but those who make that complaint miss the point. Life happens, and sometimes life happens subtly. It isn’t just the big watershed moments in our lives that make us what we are – it’s the little things as well, sometimes as small as bowling without bumpers.

The late Gene Siskel was a huge fan of slice of life films and undoubtedly this is the kind of film he would have championed. There is no slice of life movie that takes such a slice out of life and makes it seamless and organic. We don’t watch this movie so much as live it; throughout we are reminded of the events and situations in our own lives either as children growing up or as parents raising children, or even both. Those of a certain generation will find nostalgia in Harry Potter book release parties, a spot-on soundtrack, Ninetendos and campaigning for Obama. Others will recognize the kinds of challenges they faced growing up in the era, or raising kids in  the era.

Either way, this film will move you and take you places that while you may have already been there, will give you a fresh perspective on the matter. We all react to movies based on what we take into them from our own experiences, but this is one movie that most people are going to find value in, even in its quietest moments.

REASONS TO GO: Incredibly authentic. Basically appeals to kids that age. A primer for what to expect when raising kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Long periods of “inactivity.”

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of swearing, some sexual references and teen sex, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Morgan and Samantha’s dad take them to an Astros game against the Brewers and tells everyone that the Astros won on a three-run homer by Jason Lane in the bottom of the ninth. In reality the game, filmed on August 18, 2005 was won by the Brewers and Lane’s homer was a solo shot in the second inning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 100/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Get On Up

What to Expect When You’re Expecting


What to Expect When You're Expecting

Elizabeth Banks and Brooklyn Decker do the Baby Belly Bump.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Lionsgate) Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Dennis Quaid, Chace Crawford, Chris Rock, Matthew Morrison, Rodrigo Santoro, Ben Falcone, Thomas Lennon, Joe Manganiello, Rob Huebel, Amir Talai, Rebel Wilson, Wendi McLendon-Covey. Directed by Kirk Jones

 

Childbirth is one of life’s miracles; where a new person is created from sperm and egg. Any mother will tell you that pregnancy is no picnic; there can be serious medical ramifications to the mother and while medical technology has improved, babies – and mothers – still die in the process. Giving birth then is a calculated risk.

On a “Dancing With the Stars”-like show, contestant Jules (Diaz), a Jillian Michaels-like trainer on a “Biggest Loser”-like show, captures the gold along with her dance partner Evan (Morrison). While the tabloids are speculating, the fact is that Alex is more than just a dance partner and it turns out that Jules is pregnant, which will force her to juggle her career as America’s favorite trainer with her pregnancy needs.

Watching the show where Jules triumphs is Rosie (Kendrick) and her roommates. Rosie works on a food truck that shows up in Atlanta parks and at events around town. Working for a rival truck is Marco (Crawford), an old high school classmate of hers. The two aren’t particularly friendly but they make a bet over whose specialty will sell more, they get to talking afterwards, one thing leads to another and she’s pregnant, without even having gone on a single date with him.

Also watching the show is Wendy (Banks), a children’s book author and an advocate for breast feeding. She and her husband Gary (Falcone) have been trying to get pregnant for months without any success. She desperately wants to experience all the things about pregnancy that she’s been writing about but hasn’t had the opportunity to feel for herself. So after a spontaneous tryst during an outdoor movie screening of Dirty Dancing, Wendy comes up pregnant. Gary can’t wait to share the news with his dad.

Her father in law is Ramsey (Quaid), a retired race car driver who is ultracompetitive as a father. He has remarried a trophy wife, Skyler (Decker) and makes no bones over his success as a driver and the money he has. Gary’s joy at announcing his wife’s delicate condition however is tempered when Skyler responds that she, too is pregnant and having twins – Gary is about to have siblings as well as a new child.

Finally, there’s Holly (Lopez), a photographer who loves kids but just can’t have any of her own. She and her husband Alex (Santoro) have decided to adopt an Ethiopian baby mainly because the wait times are shorter. Alex, however, is freaking out about the impending fatherhood thing so on the recommendation of Holly’s friend Kara (McLendon-Covey), Holly sends Alex to join the Dudes group, consisting of fellow dads Gabe (Huebel), Patel (Talai), Kara’s husband Craig (Lennon) and the leader Vic (Rock). To be honest, I’m not sure how helpful Alex found their advice but the camaraderie seems to be what he needs more.

Of course as the weeks and months go by and the due dates loom closer, there will be some issues. Some will find pregnancy nearly unbearable; others will breeze through it. Some will have issues with their partners, others with their own fitness as potential moms. One of them won’t make it to the delivery room. One may not make it out. All of them will find expecting not at all what they expected.

This is based on the best-selling pregnancy guide by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, which has been described as the “Bible of American pregnancy” which is a term I find amusing, as if there is a difference between American and Canadian pregnancies. USA Today named it one of the top 25 most influential books of the past 25 years.

Not having read the book, I can’t say for certain whether the movie has captured the spirit of the book. I can only judge it on its effectiveness as a movie. First of all, there are too many plot threads. Now I’m not against showing different aspects of pregnancy – as they do here, but what wound up happening is that we wound up not getting enough time with the characters to develop a whole lot of attachment to them.

It also doesn’t leave the actors a whole lot of time to make much of an impression. Diaz’ character comes off as pretty abrasive, while Banks gets to be something of a caricature. Decker actually seems to make the most headway as a genuinely sweet girl who understands a whole lot more about what’s going on around her than she lets on.

There are some genuine moments of pathos – one in which one of the prospective fathers is terrified that he might lose his wife, and breaks down, unable to even accept the awkward comfort of a fellow dad – and the movie abruptly switches to a scene of Lopez and Santoro in Ethiopia preparing to adopt a baby. It kills the momentum of the film and takes me right out of the emotional power of it, and I was unable to reconnect afterwards.

Admittedly this is going to appeal more to moms and mothers-to-be than those of us who don’t have the correct plumbing. That’s not to say that there isn’t going to be anything to appeal to those of us without wombs; Rock gets to deliver some of his best work in quite a few years and the whole Dude Group thing seems to have been inserted there to give boyfriends and husbands dragged along something to hang onto, although more likely to give their girlfriends and wives something to snigger at.

It’s not that I object to the movie on general principles – pregnancy is a part of life and there has yet to really be a movie that truly captures the pain, the joy, the fear – all of the emotions that go with it. There were moments that this movie did, particularly in the Rosie-Marco story. Unfortunately, too much fluff and padding smothered what could have been a really good movie and turned it into a mediocre one.

REASONS TO GO: At times captures the difficulties of pregnancy.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many storylines. Relies too much on cheap laughs.

FAMILY VALUES: While yes this is more about pregnancy than sex, there is some content that is a bit on the crude side. There is also some bad language which you would expect from someone who is in labor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the extras who appear to be pregnant (both in Atlanta and Ethiopia) actually were at the time of filming.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews are mostly negative..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

FOOD TRUCK LOVERS: Several of the food trucks seen in the movie are actual working food trucks around the Atlanta area.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Intouchables

A Beautiful Belly


A Beautiful Belly

Director Andrew Kenneth Gay (right) sets up a shot.

(2011) Dramedy (Candle Fish) Chris Worley, Lauren Brown, Michele Feren, John William Wright, Amy LoCicero, Peyton Lee, Raymond D. Sweet, Randy Molnar, Susan Morgan, Melissa Gruver. Directed by Andrew Kenneth Gay

One of the most important parts of the human experience is procreation. Our species requires it to survive, and in nearly every relationship the purpose of having children is at least an important aspect of why we get together.

Jason Ackhart (Worley) used to be a music teacher at a local elementary school until his position was eliminated. He yearns to be a children’s music performer, and has taken up the persona of Captain Jellyfish to perform at parties and such. He is married to Danny (Brown), a bartender and best friend of Rachel (Feren) who is married to Jason’s brother Will (Wright). Jason got Danny pregnant on their first date after a bible study class (Jason isn’t much of a believer but he had a thing for Danny so he went) and so the two decided to marry.

Will and Rachel have a preschool-age daughter that Jason dotes on but he is a little less sanguine about his own impending fatherhood. He hasn’t touched Danny in months and she is feeling unsexy, unwanted and a little unsure as to whether their marriage is going to survive. She decides to have some sexy pictures taken (or more to the point, Rachel decides for her) and she meets up with Nathan (Lee), a photographer who specializes such things. It becomes obvious that Nathan is attracted to Danny and she, to be honest, is quite taken with him as well.

In the meantime Jason has attracted the attention of Allison (LoCicero), an intern at a local TV station who is interested in building a show around Jason. She is also very attracted to him and is unaware that he is married, because Danny took his ring to get repaired. Even after he gets his ring back, he chooses not to wear it around Allison, possibly because he doesn’t want to lose his opportunity but also possibly because of his doubts around Danny.

Soon, their hidden secrets come out and the marriage reaches a crisis level. With the baby on its way soon, can the two of them resolve their differences? Can Jason get over his fears and doubts and learn to love the belly instead of fear it?

This is a first-time feature for a graduate student and teacher in the University of Central Florida Film Department and Andrew Gay has done a good job in turning a little into a lot. With a budget that wouldn’t cover lattes on a studio set, he puts together a good looking modern romantic drama that covers real world issues that while not necessarily sexy, have a good deal to do with what couples encounter every day.

He is fortunate to have some terrific actors at his disposal. Orlando doesn’t necessarily have a great reputation when it comes to turning out talent despite having a thriving film scene; however, this is the kind of project that can really showcase how talented the actors are around here. Worley, making his screen debut, is fine as the sad-sack Jason, lost in a set of circumstances that have overwhelmed him. Wright makes a fine big brother, wise and a bit of an asshole. In other words, just like most big brothers (I know because I am one).

Lauren Brown has a gorgeous smile; she plays the part of Danny well; I saw Danny as slightly inhibited – a product of her Christianity perhaps – but certainly one who enjoyed sex, and the pain and uncertainty Danny felt at being refused by her husband, that thought that she was not attractive, was palpable so kudos to Brown for that. LoCicero and Lee also did good jobs as the attractive distractions. They brought some humanity to parts that are usually fairly undefined.

As with most first films, there are some issues but few and far between. My biggest one is that the addition of the “other woman” and the “other man” seemed a bit like rom-com contrivances. I would have preferred to see them concentrate on the real issues in the marriage rather than the imagined ones – or else turn those imagined issues into real ones.

This is going to be a hard one to find; after making its debut at the Florida Film Festival. It’s likely to be seen on the film festival circuit over the next year or so and the filmmakers are planning on releasing a DVD, hopefully out in the late summer – check their website for information over the coming weeks.

However, finding it is worth your while, especially for aspiring filmmakers who want to see how to properly make a first film. Not only them, but for new couples thinking about having a baby. This won’t scare you off of the idea, but it can give you an idea of some of the pitfalls. Hormones are a bitch!

REASONS TO GO: Some insight into relationships and dealing with pregnancy. Solid acting and a decent story.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the story points were a bit too contrived. Ending seemed a bit rushed.

FAMILY VALUES: Most of the subject matter revolves around pregnancy and there’s some humor and themes around it. There’s some drinking and a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was based on an actual incident in feudal Japan, and was previously made into a black and white movie in 1963.

HOME OR THEATER: This is as intimate as it gets; it will work as effectively at home as it does on the film festival circuit. See it either way.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Your Highness

Catfish


Catfish

Nev Schulman wonders what's chasing him.

(Rogue) Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Pierce, Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Abby Pierce, Vince Pierce.  Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

Like it or not, social networks like Facebook have become a major part of our lives. We interact through them, make new friends and sometimes, romances bloom. As someone who met his own soulmate online, I can certainly relate, but there is a darker side to online romance as well.

Yaniv “Nev” Schulman is a photographer who lives in New York City and shares an office with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, who are both documentary filmmakers. All three specialize in taking images, moving and otherwise, of dancers. After one of Nev’s photos end up in the New York Sun, he is surprised to find that the image motivated an 8-year-old girl named Abby Pierce to make a painting based on his photograph.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly through Facebook. Nev is a sophisticated New Yorker, Abby lives in a rural Michigan town called Ish…Ishpem…it’s a town, okay? In any case, he begins to talk with the girl’s mother, Angela who tells him that the 8-year-old prodigy is already selling paintings to various collectors and is hoping to open up her own gallery.

As the friends and family of Angela and Abby begin to flock to Nev, one in particular gets his attention; Megan Faccio, Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister. Their relationship deepens into a full-on long-distance romance. Megan, a songwriter, begins to compose songs for her new flame. Abby sends painting after painting. Angela describes Sunday morning family breakfasts, and Megan talks about buying a horse farm, having been working for awhile in a veterinary office.

All this is being documented by Ariel and Henry, who are fascinated by the whole Facebook phenomenon which they are admittedly both a part of. However, as the trio venture out to Vail, Colorado to film a dance festival, cracks begin to appear in the facade of Nev’s new relationship. He begins to have qualms and doubts about the people he has lately become so fond of. He decides that he needs to visit them in person to try and get the skinny on who his new friends and would-be romance are, so the three of them fly to Chicago and drive roughly 500 miles to Ish…Ishpem…Ishpeming. Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, once they get there they discover something surprising.

The movie received a good deal of buzz at Sundance and has received some notoriety because of its trailer, which depicts the secret in a sinister light, on the order of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. First off, this is not a thriller by any means, so don’t go expecting to find the Manson family living in Michigan.

What this actually becomes is an examination of how we interact in 2010. We have become totally dependent on very impersonal means of communication – cell phones, instant messaging, e-mails and so on. Face-to-face interaction has become much more of a rare commodity. We develop close relationships with people that in truth we barely know.

For the first hour of the movie, we only see Angela, Abby and Megan as voices on a telephone, text messages, or as messages on Facebook. We see far more of Nev, Ariel and Henry and really, most of it is Nev. Nev seems to be a genuinely sweet guy with a nice smile and a charming lack of self-confidence. Nev wearies of the constant on-camera existence and wants to pull out, although Ariel eventually talks him back into it – some would call it bullying. Still, it’s a good thing he did because we would have been deprived of a good movie otherwise.

The last half-hour belongs to Angela, and she is the focal point in many ways of what the movie is trying to get across. I am purposely going to be vague about what that message is because it’s difficult to articulate it without giving away the twist, and the movie is far more effective if the twist isn’t spoiled. I did pat myself on the back on the way out of the theater for having figured it out in a way that I thought was clever (if you ask me nicely I’ll tell you what I did) and in all honesty, those who have extensive experience with online relationships and certain movies and novels (again I’m being deliberately vague) may also see through to the end before the twist arrives. 

Is this a cautionary tale? To a certain extent, yes. We have a tendency to see what we want to see when it comes to online relationships, and we don’t always know what’s real and what isn’t. In the end, successful relationships – both online and off – are built on truth and trust, and when either is missing, the relationship fails.

There are those who believe that this movie is entirely a put-on, a hoax although the filmmakers deny it. For my money, I think that this is completely real, although I suspect some scenes were filmed after the fact to make for more compelling drama. However, that is neither here nor there; the movie could be real and I believe that it is. Maybe Nev is a little bit too good to be true, but I understand he is still single which I’m sure won’t last long; his stock as an eligible bachelor has certainly increased with this movie.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the pitfalls of modern romance in the age of the social network. Nev is very likable and the use of Google Earth-like graphics is rather clever.

REASONS TO STAY: The twist doesn’t really live up to the billing in the trailer. Some have found the movie narcissistic and condescending, although I personally don’t agree with that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong language with some sexual references; while the subject matter is a bit adult, it should nevertheless be compelling viewing to any teenager or older, particularly if they are on Facebook.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the subject of a bidding war at Sundance after noted director Brett Ratner endorsed the film.

HOME OR THEATER: This movie isn’t on very many screens and may be hard to track down, but the intimate vibe makes it adequate home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Role Models