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

City of God (Cidade de Deus)


City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

The American


The American

George Clooney takes aim at those exit poll guys.

(Focus) George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, Filippo Timi, Anna Foglietta, Irina Bjorklund, Giorgio Gobbi, Samuli Vauramo, Raffaele Serao, Sandro Dori, Antonio Rampino, Lars Hjelm, Silvana Bosi, Guido Palliggiano. Directed by Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn made his start as a still photographer, and he is quite frankly responsible for many wonderful album covers, mostly from European bands. He graduated into making music videos (mostly for Depeche Mode) before doing a full-fledged concert video (also for Depeche Mode) until making his feature film debut in 2008 for Control (which was about Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis, not Depeche Mode). Corbijn has a very recognizable style; what would he make of a spy thriller?

Well, the fact of the matter is that The American isn’t so much a spy thriller as it is a character study, and it certainly isn’t a Bourne-like action movie as it was marketed over here. That may have contributed to the truly horrendous word-of-mouth it got from people who saw it (it got a D- rating from the service that gauges audience reactions to movies they’ve just seen, an unusually low score). That may have frightened some people away from seeing it. That’s a shame because this is a pretty good movie.

Jack (Clooney) is canoodling in Sweden with a comely brunette before he is ambushed by armed hunters while taking a walk in the snow. It turns out that Jack not only carries a gun but he knows how to use it. The scene is shocking in its violence and we are treated to the sight of a stone cold killer, literally speaking.

Jack escapes Sweden and makes his way to Rome, where his handler Pavel (Leysen) advises him to get out of Rome and to a small town where nobody would think to look for him. Jack takes a Fiat into the mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy but he doesn’t like the vibe of the town that Pavel sends him to – too many nosy people. He instead makes his way for another charming little mountain village where he hopes to lay low and not attract any attention. “And above all,” Pavel warns him, “Don’t make any friends. You used to know that.”

So Jack – who is calling himself Edward here – takes the guise of a travel photographer and makes friends with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Bonacelli). So much for listening to good advice, it seems. In any case, Pavel gives him an assignment – to assemble a rifle with particular qualities for a contact named Mathilde (Reuten) who looks like she just stepped off of a Vespa in Fellini’s Rome – and maybe she did.

So Jack – or is it Edward? Or some other name entirely? – enlists the help of the good padre’s cousin Fabio (Timi), who runs a garage in the middle of nowhere which beggars the question; who on earth is going to drive a car that isn’t working right all the way out there? Anyway, Fabio gives Jack the run of the place, so Jack takes some tools and materials in order to make a noise suppresser for the rifle (a silencer wouldn’t work for the kind of range Mathilde is looking for). The weapon is obviously the weapon of an assassin, but Jack asks no questions so Mathilde tells him no lies.

Jack begins to utilize the services of Clara (Placido), a local prostitute. Quite improbably, the two of them begin to fall for each other – you can tell Clara has feelings for him because she stops charging him for sex. Now Jack is tired of running, tired of being chased, tired of dodging taciturn men with guns who mean to do him murder. He wants out, but this is the kind of business that is very hard to leave once you get in.  

There is actually very little action except at the very beginning and the very end, and some moments in between (such as when Jack is playing a cat and mouse game with a Swedish assassin out to make him pay for his antics in Sweden). Corbijn’s training as a still photographer serves him very well; every shot is meticulously set up and looks like it could be easily hanging in a European gallery. Corbijn forces you to look at what he wants you to see. For example, the opening credits run over a continuous shot of Clooney driving through a long tunnel; yellow mile markers flash by the vehicle in the artificial light of the tunnel. At the very end is a bright white light; will Clooney arrive at that destination? In a sense, this is emblematic of what the movie is all about – an escape from darkness into light for a soul that has dwelled in the darkness for far too long.

This is not your father’s George Clooney, or even Danny Ocean’s George Clooney. Jack/Edward is a very hard man; most of the time his face is rigid, his mouth set in a thin hard line of disapproval. There is no twinkle in this character’s eyes, only steel. This is not a role we’re used to seeing from Clooney.

Those who are offended by the nude female body should take into account that this is a very European movie in a lot of ways; the nudity doesn’t bother European audiences, nor does explicit sex. We even get a gratuitous shot of Clooney’s derriere as well, just to balance things out for the ladies.

There is very little dialogue in the movie and what dialogue there is comes out in terse, brusque staccato, like someone ordering a cappuccino at the local coffee house. There is also a good deal of existential philosophizing about the nature of souls, good and evil, particularly in dialogue between Father Benedetto and Jack. Most American audiences won’t have the patience for it, but there are at least some insights to be found if you choose to look for them.

Part of the problem with the movie is one of the strengths I mentioned earlier. Still photographers have a tendency to make their scenes very static, and so Corbijn does. There may be movement in the frame, but the camera itself does not. That contributes to an overall feeling of languor that can be off-putting at times, even though you tell yourself “Hey, this is about a guy cooling his heels in rural Italy; how exciting is it going to get?” The answer? Not much.

Still, this is as finely crafted a film as I’ve seen this year and I can appreciate it as a work of art if not a crisply told story. Clooney may not be the next Eastwood (and Leysen not the next Terrance Stamp, whom he resembles facially – if Stamp and Scott Glenn had a love child together, that is) but he does the brooding bit very well. Much of the movie is tight on Clooney’s face, and the world-weary demeanor is what draws you to him. Some have complained that Clooney doesn’t reveal much of the inner Jack/Edward but a man like that would have learned early on that revealing your emotions is tantamount to death itself, for it can be used against you in that line of work. This is a very different movie than we’re used to seeing, and for that alone I can commend it highly.

REASONS TO GO: The crafting of each shot, the composition of every frame is simply amazing. There’s a good deal of depth in the script.

REASONS TO STAY: This is not an action movie even though it was marketed as such; if you’re looking for a new Bourne, stay away. Clooney does the brooding, silent killer pretty well, but this isn’t one of his more compelling performances.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some explicit sex and nudity, some fairly violent and disturbing images and enough swearing in more than one language to make this very much for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clooney’s character prefers using a Walther PPK just like a certain British secret agent of our acquaintance.

HOME OR THEATER: I will admit some of the vistas worked very well on the big screen but by and large you can get away with seeing this at home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

Unknown White Male


Unknown White Male

Doug Bruce is haunted by the blank spot that is his past.

(Wellspring) Doug Bruce, Rupert Murray. Directed by Rupert Murray

We are a product of the things we remember. Our lives are shaped by our experiences, our book-learned knowledge and our relationships. All of this resides in our memory. Who would we be if our memory failed us?

That’s what happened to Doug Bruce, a handsome and successful British expatriate who had been raised in a well-to-do family, become a success in Paris as a stockbroker, then abruptly quit the financial business and moved to New York City to study photography. From what it seemed, he was in the process of reinventing himself already when he received the ultimate reinvention.

One July morning in 2003 he awoke to find himself on a subway train with no idea how he got there or where the train was going to. A few moments later, he had a far more chilling revelation; he didn’t have any idea who he was, where he lived or what his name was.

He got off the train at Coney Island and made his way to a police station and explained the situation. They sent him in turn to a hospital where doctors examined him while the police tried to find some clue about who he was. He was carrying no identification on him, no wallet but he did have a backpack in which a phone number was written on a book he was carrying.. The police called the number and had the woman on the other end speak to the amnesiac, but she didn’t recognize him. However when her daughter saw him on television, she knew immediately who he was.

This documentary is about Doug and his journey to in essence rediscover himself. The filmmaker, who also narrates the film, was friends with Doug before the amnesia. That works both for and against the film. He has knowledge about Doug both before and after the amnesia which makes him something of an expert. However, his friendship with the subject puts his objectivity in the wastebasket. Whether or not it’s a fair trade-off is really for the viewer to decide.

As the film progresses, Doug loses his immediate need to reconnect with his past and slowly begins forging his own personality, one which according to his friends differs significantly from his old one. In essence, he becomes an entirely new person, one who only shares a body with the old Doug Bruce. The ramifications of that are astounding when you think about it.

It should be noted that full retrograde amnesia of the sort that Doug is afflicted by is incredibly rare and is usually temporary – in fact, it is so rare that the condition becomes permanent that medical professionals have raised questions about whether Doug’s condition is a hoax. There has been additional speculation about that in the press.

I am not nearly qualified enough to render an opinion one way or the other and only bring it up in the interest of full disclosure. I will only say that we know so little about how the brain works that anything is, in my opinion, possible and those neurologists who say that Doug is faking because of some absolute belief that they understand how the brain works is arrogant and foolish. Let’s just say that it is theoretically possible that someone could suffer a complete and permanent retrograde amnesia and leave it at that.

What matters to me is the movie and from a standpoint of holding my interest it certainly does that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no memories of your past; it would be as if you had died and been reincarnated in your same body. The thought makes my skin crawl.

I would have like to have been given more background on the medical side; there is an indication that a severe physical trauma or emotional trauma is normally what triggers this kind of condition, but Doug showed no signs of either. Doctors are in fact puzzled at what might have caused his condition (although an unrelated pineal tumor is discovered later in the film); in fact, no cause has been pinpointed to date for Doug’s condition and his memory has yet to return.

So who is Doug Bruce and what is to become of him? These are the questions that Murray attempts to at least partially answer and in all honesty, these are questions that are ultimately unanswerable. It is hard enough to figure out who we are with the benefit of our experience and memories; to do so with a blank slate must be frightening indeed. I do not envy Doug Bruce in the slightest, but I will admit that his story raises some questions that will have me pondering for quite a while.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie raises fascinating questions about the role of our memories in determining who we are.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The possible causes for his condition aren’t adequately explored.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity and the subject matter is on the adult side, but all in all it’s suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce was raised in Nigeria.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on Bruce’s condition.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: O’Horten