Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

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Fences


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

(2016) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, Benjamin Donlow, John W. Iwononkiw, Cecily Lewis, Tra’Waan Coles, Theresa Cook, Cara Clark, Connie Kincer, Teri Middleton, Kelly L. Moran. Directed by Denzel Washington

 

“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” muses a character in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” There’s truth to that but Fences actually posits a third option; some people build fences to barricade themselves against a life that has done nothing but disappoint them.

Troy Maxson (Washington) was once upon a time a great baseball player. Unfortunately for him, he was a great baseball player during a time when only white men were allowed to play in the major league. By the time Jackie Robinson opened that door, Troy was already forty years old and that ship had sailed. Now in his fifties, he lives in Pittsburgh working for the sanitation department, riding on the back of a garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Henderson). The truck drivers are all white and Troy is trying to become a sort of Jackie Robinson of garbage truck drivers, although truth be told he never thought much of ol’ Jackie.

He does have a home of his own, a castle with a tiny yard around which he’s fixing to build a fence. His wife Rose (Davis) is a heroic partner; she manages to smooth her husband’s rough edges and endures his petty rage with the patience of a saint. Much of his rage is directed at their son Cory (Adepo) who is a fine athlete in his own right, attracting attention of college football coaches for his prowess on the gridiron.

This does not sit well at all with Troy, no sir. He creates obstacles for his son to keep him from finding that success in sports that he himself was denied. Rose tries to keep the peace between the two men but the tensions are escalating. Troy’s musician son Lyons (Hornsby) from a different mother – back before Rose and Troy were a thing – also has Troy’s scorn, but Lyons has managed to get away. It seems that Troy’s tender side is reserved only for his wife, Bono and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Williamson) who fought in the war and ended up with brain damage.

Troy can be a charming storyteller but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. We discover things about Troy that are less than savory, things even Troy won’t talk about and Troy often talks about his days as a young criminal going down the wrong path until Rose straightened him out. Rose endures everything, all the stories, all the tantrums, all the frustration but there comes a time when Troy does something that Rose cannot endure and all of a sudden those fences seem much taller and insurmountable than they ever have before.

The late playwright August Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, the sixth in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle. Wilson had ambitions of taking the play to Hollywood and in fact wrote a screenplay based on his own work but unfortunately passed away before it made it to the big screen. Once Washington got the rights to film this, he utilized the script (with a touch-up from producer Tony Kushner) which stays fairly faithful to Wilson’s original work.

That’s a double-edged sword. Some of the monologues don’t sound like real people speaking and give the movie a kind of stage-like feel. The claustrophobic feel of the yard and the house are functions of the pressing frustrations of Troy’s life but they also contribute to that feeling of watching a stage play rather than a movie. Really though that’s the film’s only flaw.

The movie is well-acted from top to bottom with Oscar-level performances by Washington and Davis, both of whom are almost shoo-ins to get nominations when they are announced tomorrow morning (as of this writing). Washington’s Troy is cocky, angry, sexy, engaging and equal parts bully and provider. He has given up some of his less savory ways but not all of them and he ends up threatening everything he built for himself because of it.

As good as Washington is, Davis is even better. Her performance has been called a supporting role and I suppose in some ways it is, but if we’re going to be honest Rose is one third of the focus here and in that sense she is part of an ensemble. There’s a confrontation between Rose and Troy, some of which is seen in the trailer, that is as riveting a scene as you’ll see this year or any other. Her frustrations of enduring her husband’s endless posturing, his anger and his refusal to take any accountability for his own shortcomings boils over and her anger is so palpable she is literally shaking as tears stream down her face.

It should be mentioned that Williamson’s performance here is very reminiscent of his work in Forrest Gump and may be even better. Gabriel is a damaged soul but child-like. Troy is his protector and Gabriel looks up to him with faith that is touching if misplaced. Williamson should get at least some consideration for a Supporting Actor Oscar although that might not happen in a very strong field in that category this year.

This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year. The source material is extremely powerful, examining family dynamics, rivalry between father and son and the frustrations of a life that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. The setting brings racial inequality into the story but it is more of a background issue; this is about a family that is relatable to any who had a stern taskmaster for a father, or a mother who held things together. Those kinds of archetypes are very common in the African American community but they are also universal. My own father had some of Troy’s characteristics; a frustration that the life he envisioned for himself didn’t happen and there was a rivalry between us that at times made me believe that he would rather see me fail so that his own failures were somehow less painful. The thing that separated my father from Troy Maxson however was that he very clearly loved his children and would do anything for them, including work himself to death for them, and he was also able to express that love although perhaps not in ways that would be found acceptable today. He did the best he could in the times and culture he lived in and sometimes that’s all we are really able to get. The fences that keep the demons out are also the fences that can keep families together…or tear them apart. This is one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Washington and Davis are electrifying. A middle class African-American family of the 1950s is nicely captured. Wilson justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this; it is a play/film that truly makes you think.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit stage-y.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language, some domestic violence, a little bit of suggestive sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The five adult actors from the 2010 revival of the August Wilson play reprise their roles here; it went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Strad Style

Won’t Back Down


There's no cause so great that matching t-shirts won't solve.

There’s no cause so great that matching t-shirts won’t solve.

(2012) True Life Drama (20th Century Fox) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Oscar Isaac, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Lance Reddick, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Nancy Bach, Keith Flippen, Robert Haley, Lucia Forte, Sarab Kamoo, Teri Clark Linden, Joe Coyle, Jennifer Massey. Directed by Daniel Barnz

When it comes to our kids, we are all agreed on one thing; a good education is important. Sadly, not all kids receive one. Areas which are economically under-advantaged tend to receive shoddy educations in crumbling facilities from disinterested teachers.

But some parents won’t take that situation lying down. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal) works at a car dealership and tends bar at night to make ends meet. Her daughter Malia (Lind) is dyslexic and gets bullied at her Pittsburgh school, all under the eyes of teachers who don’t care and a principal (Nunn) hamstrung by union regulations and a venal school board. Fed up, Jamie tries to get her daughter into a charter school, but her number isn’t picked in the lottery.

There’s another parent there that Jamie is surprised to see – Nona Alberts (Davis), a teacher at Jamie’s school. Why doesn’t Nona try to make things better at her own school for her own daughter? Of course she’s tried to, but has hit stone wall after stone wall from the Union and the Board and she’s tired of fighting.

&But there’s a ray of hope; there’s a law on the books that will allow parents to take over a school that is underachieving (as Malia’s school is) but parents so inclined have to jump through an awful lot of hoops in order to do it. That doesn’t dissuade Nona and Jamie as they take on the Union, who try to intimidate the teachers with potential job loss (which is a very real possibility) and the School Board, who don’t want to cede control of one of their schools to parents lest it spark a district-wide revolt.

In the midst of this, single Jamie finds a boyfriend in math teacher Michael Perry (Isaac) who gets a bit miffed whenever Jamie expresses her frustration with the Union but he ends up being a staunch ally and Jamie and Nona slowly begin to win the parents to their side, giving them all matching T-shirts for a rally (was there ever a cause that didn’t benefit from matching t-shirts?) that will take on those who stand against their kids having a fighting chance at a future.

If this sounds a bit strident and political, it’s because it is. I won’t say that the film is outright anti-Union, but it does paint the Union as villainous, more concerned about protecting bad teachers than about educating the children of their communities. The School Board doesn’t come off much better, painted as a group that plays politics when it comes to funding and personnel. I suppose your reaction to the film is going to depend on your point of view; those who are very much pro-Union are going to have issues with it, those who think that privatizing education is the way to go will love it.

That set aside let’s look at the filmmaking itself. Technically, the film is decent – nothing to write home about on the one hand but on the other competently done. It’s hard to make the less prosperous end of Pittsburgh look glamorous but Barnz at least makes it look like a nice community to live in for the most part.

The cast is terrific, with five Oscar nominees (past and future) and/or winners (Hunter, who plays the smug Union head here, won for The Piano in 1987). Gyllenhaal is marvelous and for Davis who was just beginning to cement her reputation as a talented actress when this was made also is memorable as the teacher who goes from zombie to ace during the course of the movie. Isaac, essentially an unknown when he made this, also is fine as the love interest.

While I don’t necessary agree with the filmmakers’ point of view – the Teachers Union isn’t the sole reason for problems with American education; one has to also look at the decline of parental involvement, poverty, the rise of distractions like videogames and the Internet and also the high cost of higher education for the reason why education has fallen so drastically. Adding new charter schools, vouchers and other solutions advanced from the right aren’t necessarily the only things needed but don’t address other conditions that are obstacles to every child receiving a proper education.

This is a complicated issue and while I think that the hearts of the cast and crew are in the right place, the execution takes a kind of Hollywood “happy ending in 90 minutes guaranteed” point of view. Nevertheless I don’t necessarily think that it’s a bad thing to call attention to issues that affect all of us – and the education of our children certainly does. Innovation has to come from somewhere and if our population is lagging behind the rest of the world in know-how and let’s face it, desire to innovate, we could find ourselves a third world nation sooner than we think.

WHY RENT THIS: Attempts to tackle real issues facing modern education. Fine performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little smug and simplistic. Pro-union viewers will be outraged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based (very loosely based) on actual events in Sunland-Tujunga, California in 2010.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of featurettes here, The Importance of Education and the somewhat disingenuous Tribute to Teachers considering how much teacher-bashing the film does.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Time That Remains

Homemakers


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Dramedy (Factory25/FilmBuff) Rachel McKeon, Jack Culbertson, Molly Carlisle, Dan Derks, Sheila McKenna, Harry O’Toole, Matt Bryan, Luke Johanson, Devin Bonnée, Daniel Hershberger, Clifford Lynch, Dianna Ifft, Jeff Monahan, LeJon Woods, John Shepard, Nathan Hollabaugh, Pete Bush, Joel Brown, Sarah Jannett Parish, Adrienne Wehr. Directed by Colin Healey

Some movies come along that try to push the boundaries of filmmaking and films. Some even succeed at it. Others are noble efforts. And others…well, they can try a viewer’s patience.

Irene (McKeon) is a singer in a punk band in Austin who has severe impulse control. She is unlikable, unpleasant to be around and her “charm” can be grating. Her bandmates, particularly her ex-girlfriend Kicky (Carlisle) are getting weary of her antics. Then when she has a meltdown onstage during one of their sparsely attended performances – although a well known music blogger is in attendance – and destroys some of her bandmates instruments, the last straw has been reached. They are in the midst of voting whether or not to kick her out of the band when Irene gets a phone call; her grandfather has died and left her a ramshackle house in Pittsburgh.

The house, which hasn’t been inhabited in a decade since her grandpa was unceremoniously shoved into an assisted living home, sits in a working class neighborhood with a cantankerous neighbor (O’Toole) next door. Irene wants a quick payday but the house is in no shape to be sold; knowing nothing about home improvement, she enlists Cam (Culbertson), the cousin she didn’t know she had until the phone call, to help her fix up the place. Unfortunately, he knows nothing about home improvement either. What they do know about is drinking and drugs and so they spend as much time getting plowed as they do channeling Tye Pennington.

Along the way something mysterious, strange and wonderful occurs – Irene, who had committed to nothing in her life except chaos, begins to like the idea of settling down in a home of her own. She begins to get serious about making something of her home – with an eye on keeping it. That’s going to require a good deal of personal improvement to go along with the home improvement though.

Healey in his feature length directorial debut makes the most out of a microscopic budget in putting together a good-looking, well-shot film. I will give him props for going the “different” route. But there are a lot of things here that won’t go over well with general audiences.

Irene is essentially a spoiled, unlikable brat who acts out like a five year old. Watching adults act like children, particularly like venal, mean children, has little appeal to me at this stage of the game. I don’t have anything against child-like behavior but there’s a difference between that and childish behavior, which is what we get here. Don’t get me wrong; McKeon is a force of nature in this role and shows exceptional promise. It takes a lot of guts to take on a part in which the character has virtually nothing redeeming about her until near the end of the film.

The house itself looks like a house that nobody has lived in for ten years. When your mom tells you to clean up your room, it looks like a pigsty, show her this movie and tell her that at least your room isn’t like this. Once you regain consciousness, I’m sure she’ll agree with you. As the house slowly gets renovated, the predictable kitsch takes over as we get garage sale chic going on in the furnishings. Not everything works but at least an effort is made.

Some people are going to find this unwatchable; certainly my wife did. This might end up being a future candidate for Joshua David Martin’s popular monthly Uncomfortable Brunch series at Will’s Pub here  in Orlando, a series that celebrates films that are challenging. Like many of the films that are shown in that series, this is a movie that requires a great deal of forbearance to view. Whether that patience is rewarded at the end of the movie is really your call to make. In my case, I have to say it was not.

REASONS TO GO: Outside the box.
REASONS TO STAY: Irene is extremely unlikable. Lots of indie pretensions. Overdoes the grit.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Audience Award at the Independent Film Festival Boston this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Having a Healthy Tooth Extracted Without Novocain
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT: The Martian

Aspie Seeks Love


Dave Matthews - not the guy with the band.

Dave Matthews – not the guy with the band.

(2015) Documentary (Animal) David Matthews, Diana Dugina, Zo Weslowski, Wayne Wise, Aaron Schall, Ryan Dugina, Elizabeth Kaske, Dina Matthews, Heather Conroy, Chuck Kinder, Diane Cecily, Nikki Trader, Erika Mikkalo, Phil Gorrow, David Cherry, Rebecca Klaw. Directed by Julie Sokolow

Florida Film Festival 2015

One thing that nearly all of us have in common regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender or any other defining statistic is the need to be loved. We all want it; to be in the company of someone whose emotional connection to us is as deep as ours to them. To live out our lives with the one person we feel safest with, who accepts us as we are and who makes our hearts beat just that much faster when they walk in the room.

Those with Asperger’s Syndrome are no different. Asperger’s is a mental disorder in the autism spectrum, although it is high-functioning; often you won’t know from talking to them that they have any disorders at all. Asperger’s affects the ability to read nonverbal communication and makes social interaction much more different and frustrating. So much of courtship has to do with non-verbal cues; an Asperger’s sufferer won’t be able to pick up on any of them.

David V. Matthews lives in Pittsburgh and has his own style which some may write off as quirky. He’s a gifted writer, an artist and a bit of a bon vivant in the sense that he can captivate a room with his personality. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the tender age of 41, which came as a bit of a relief – his mental tics and eccentricities now had an explanation beyond “that’s just something David does.” There was a reason for the way he behaved and the difficulties he had relating to others.

At the same time, it also meant – to his mind – that there was something broken with him, which can be a scary thing. Suffering from clinical depression myself, I know that feeling, alone in the dark when once you’ve discovered that you have this issue, you wonder “What else is broken in me too?” Asperger’s is not something you can take a pill and are then able to deal with social situations normally any more than someone with depression can take a pill and be happy.

David has tried a lot of different things to find love, including going to mixers that his support group throws, leaving quirky fliers around Pittsburgh essentially advertising himself as a romantic possibility for lonely ladies, to online dating through the service OKCupid. He is a handsome enough man although now pushing 50, most of the women available are single moms, divorcees or women who have either not had the time for a personal life or the inclination for one.

Sokolow divides the movie by holidays which is an interesting way of organizing the footage, but effective. She doesn’t pull punches here; watching David sometimes flounder in social situations makes you want to yell out advice to the screen. Then it hits you.

None of us are born with a manual that tells us how to attract the opposite sex. Mostly what we go through is a system of trial and error, emphasis on the latter. All of us, myself included, can recall painful episodes of wasted opportunities, catastrophic mistakes and missed chances when it comes to romance. We all have had painful experiences that have (hopefully) taught us for the next time around. We can all relate to what David is going through, but whereas those without Asperger’s can learn from their experiences, so too can David and others with Asperger’s but only in a limited sense; if they miss non-verbal cues the first time around, they’ll miss the same cues the second.

David, like many Asperger’s patients, has an atypical speech pattern; in David’s case, it is clipped and hyper-precise. This sometimes makes him sound condescending when I don’t think that’s really what his intention is at all. He also has a sense of humor that runs to the surreal and absurd; not everyone will connect with David as a person for these reasons. Some will find him to be overbearing but some will also find him to be the coolest person in the room and judging from what I saw over admittedly just over an hour of footage I would tend to characterize him as the latter. Of course, that’s all instinct on my end; your results may vary.

We can all see ourselves a little in David for the most part. Trying hard, sometimes too hard to connect with others only to be faced with disappointment and rejection time and time again, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and launch ourselves back into the fray. Not all of us find the right one, at least not right away, but we keep on trying. You admire that about David; he knows that he is playing the game of love at a disadvantage but he perseveres. To use a sports metaphor, he’s the Muggsy Bogues (a 5’3″ point guard for the Charlotte Hornets who was the shortest player in NBA history) of romance.

The movie has a sweet ending that will put a grin on your face when you leave the theater which is priceless; it will also teach you something about Asperger’s and the everyday lives of those who live with it or have loved ones who do. Although the movie feels slow-paced at times, the short running time makes that a bit more tolerable than it might ordinarily. Still with all that, Aspie Seeks Love will get a favorable reaction from you solely depending on how you react to Matthews, and how you react to him says a lot more about you than it does about him.

Incidentally, you can connect further to Matthews at his blogsite where you can read excerpts from his forthcoming novel. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet ending. A real warts-and-all look at a real world issue. Educational about Asperger’s Syndrome for those unfamiliar with it.
REASONS TO STAY: Matthews’ personality may take some getting used to by some. Laid-back feel and pacing may not appeal to everybody.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sokolow began as an indie rock performer with a critically acclaimed album Something About Violins to her credit; this is her first feature-length film after directing several shorts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Keeping Room

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


We can be heroes.

We can be heroes.

(2012) Drama (Summit) Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Jonny Simmons, Nina Dobrev, Nicholas Braun, Julia Garner, Tom Savini, Melanie Lynskey, Mae Whitman, Adam Hagenbuch, Erin Wilhelmi, Reece Thompson, Zane Holtz, Joan Cusack, Landon Pigg, Emily Callaway, Jennifer Enskat. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

Our Film Library

It is somewhat ironic that while as we grow older we look back upon our high school years with more affection than any other era of our lives, while we are living those years they are often the most painful of our lives as well. We are so desperate to fit in, our self-confidence so low that we doubt even the most basic facts about ourselves. We often wonder if we are good enough and throughout our high school years we’re pretty much sure that we are not.

Charlie Kelmeckis (Lerman) is a freshman in high school. His older brother Chris (Holtz) has just graduated from the same school, a football scholarship to Penn State under his belt. His older sister Candace (Dobrev) is a senior who is dating Ponytail Derek (Braun), so named for his hippie-like appearance. Charlie discovers that Derek has been physically abusive with Candace but she tells him that it was a one-time occurrence and swears him to secrecy. His parents (McDermott, Walsh) are fairly clueless to what’s going on with him.

Charlie has a lot of problems. His best friend committed suicide the year before and he still has flashbacks to the death of his Aunt Helen (Lynskey) who died in a car accident on his seventh birthday. He finds himself unable to make friends, although he manages to make a friend of Mr. Anderson (Rudd), a sympathetic English teacher.

Two misfit seniors, Patrick (Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Watson) take him under their wings after a football game and the three become fast friends. Charlie is admitted into their inner circle, attending screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater in Pittsburgh in which Sam gets up on stage and dances provocatively. Charlie also discovers that Patrick is gay and having a relationship with a football hero (Simmons) but keeps that to himself as well.

Things are going well for Charlie overall. While he carries a torch for Sam, she has a boyfriend in college. Still, she gives him a Christmas present of a vintage typewriter, recognizing his skills as a writer and bestows upon him his first kiss – because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him unlike her own.

Charlie gets asked out to the Sadie Hawkins dance by Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) who takes him to her home and kisses him, declaring him to be her boyfriend. The relationship continues, dominated by the strong-willed Mary Elizabeth in which Charlie gets more and more uncomfortable although they have been having sex which he doesn’t mind at all.

However, in a thoughtless moment during a game of Truth or Dare, he is dared to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room and plants one on Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth. That puts him on the outs with his friends and creates a rift with the people he cares about most. Charlie’s past is beginning to catch up with him as his memories begin to resurface and old feelings begin to drag him down like an anchor into the depths. Charlie needs his friends more than ever but without a support system around him, will he be able to make it through to his sophomore year?

This is based on a book Chbosky himself wrote and adapted for the screen, becoming the rare occasion when  an author not only adapts his own work for the screen but directs it as well. The source material has been praised for its accurate portrayal of teenagers and while it is set in the early 1990s, it nonetheless resonates timelessly.

Part of the success of the adaptation comes from an amazing cast. Watson, best known as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films is simply fantastic. Sam is a very vulnerable character who is nonetheless loyal to those she loves. Watson shows that vulnerability without making it Sam’s defining characteristic.  Miller also is wonderful as Patrick. Catty and arch without becoming a gay stereotype, Miller turns Patrick into just a regular kid who happens to be gay. In doing so he does a lot for breaking those stereotypes.

Lerman is the center of the film and he does a terrific job here. While he has had his share of less than stellar performances, here he shows that he can and should be a major star. Charlie is one of the most complex characters that you’ll see in films, and Lerman imbues Charlie with all of that complexity – his angst, his self-doubt, his kindness, his neediness, his pride, his love, his cruelty – Charlie is far from perfect and while he may have more issues than most teenage kids, he certainly can’t be called unusual.

Chbosky wisely shot the film in Pittsburgh where he grew up and as the movie is said to be fairly autobiographical using familiar territory to set his film in works marvelously. Although I’m 30 plus years removed from my high school days, I felt immediate kinship with Charlie and his friends and the film resonated deeply with me, a feat indeed for a film that is clearly meant for younger viewers.

The movie has gotten its share of (deserved) praise and is one of those movies which may not necessarily be one that appeals to older audiences at first glance but the emotions and the feelings here are universal; younger audiences will relate completely to the movie and older audiences will find it resonant as well. It doesn’t hurt that it has an awesome soundtrack – any movie that contains the Smiths’ “Asleep” and David Bowie’s “Heroes” as major thematic songs is bound to be a good one.

WHY RENT THIS: Resonates with older and younger audiences alike. Amazing performances by the young cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overdoses with angst.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly mature thematic elements, depictions of teen drug and alcohol use, teen sexuality and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theater in which the movie filmed the Rocky Horror sequences was the same theater in Pittsburgh that Chbosky used to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when he was a teen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $33.4M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Day 3 of Our Film Library!

Out of the Furnace


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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