Finders Keepers (2015)


An unusual confrontation.

An unusual confrontation.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood, Lisa Whisnant. Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, they’d be absolutely right. I can’t imagine anyone no matter how imaginative they are could make this story up.

Shannon Whisnant, a North Carolina junk dealer, had just purchased the contents of an auctioned storage unit. In that storage unit was a barbecue smoker, which was the prize item he had seen in the unit when he bought it. He put all his new items into his truck and drove it home, wheeled the smoker into his front yard and opened it – and just about had a heart attack.

In the smoker was the mummified remains of a human leg. Whisnant of course did the right thing – he notified the police who confiscated the leg as evidence and having nowhere to store it, left it with the local funeral home. Eventually they tracked down the owner of the storage unit who had defaulted on his monthly rental fee; John Wood.

Once the scion of a well-to-do family in Maiden, North Carolina, he’d fallen on hard times. But not hard enough to make him a killer – no, the leg was his. He’d lost it in a plane crash in which his father had lost his life. He’d asked for the leg back from the hospital once it had been amputated, intending to create a memorial to his father using the skeletal remains of his own leg but couldn’t find anyone to remove the flesh from the limb. He’d thrown it in the smoker and forgotten about it.

He wanted the leg back, however, still intending to eventually create that monument. However, Shannon wasn’t willing to give it back. After all, he’d bought and paid for the contents of the storage unit, including the smoker – and including the leg that was in the smoker. You wouldn’t ask for the grill back from the smoker after all; he’d paid for it fair and square.

So why would Whisnant want a human leg? Fame, pure and simple. He saw it as an opportunity to put his name on the map. At first he saw it as kind of a tourist attraction and being a fair man, he discussed going in with Wood on the deal Wood balked and the two geared up for a fight in the courtroom.

Some of you may remember the story when it hit all the tabloids a few years ago, but maybe you didn’t hear the whole story; how Wood had become addicted to painkillers while recuperating from his amputation, how he graduated to harder drugs, how he had been thrown out by his mother Peg recognizing that she was enabling his decline towards an overdose; how he had become homeless and alone.

Nor may you have heard how Whisnant had grown up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, how he had tried to gain his dad’s approval and never gotten it. How he was always a decent sort whose only aim was to make people happy around him.

This peculiar “only in the South” might induce giggles from some. They may look at these two men as ignorant hillbilly sorts that confirm the stereotype of Southern rednecks. And yeah, there are a few things here that head down that trail a bit, but as the movie unspools, you begin to see beyond the ridiculous and into the human story that is at the heart of the matter.

Both Wood and Whisnant are wounded human beings, and maybe they’re not likely to be employed by NASA anytime soon, but they are no less worthy of respect and empathy. These are both men who have gone through hard times; Wood, who was in attendance at the opening night screening at the Enzian, described Whisnant as “the yin to my yang.” They aren’t friends, not by any stretch of the imagination; Whisnant, who always saw Wood as uppity, described him as being “born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth.” They are inevitably linked by Wood’s leg and likely always will be. Maybe there is some comfort to be had in that.

One thing that is admirable is that as the movie goes on, we see Wood’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. An appearance on the Judge Mathis show (which resulted in Wood keeping the leg but having to pay Whisnant $5,000 for it) led to Wood receiving treatment at one of the nation’s premiere rehab centers. Since them, Wood has been sober and drug-free for nearly eight years and has also since gotten married. As important, Wood has gained wisdom; he has reconciled with his family and is slowly working to building back their trust after years of breaking their hearts. He recognizes that it is a slow and ongoing process but worth his effort. He understands what is important now and has put much of the sickness that led to his drug addiction behind him.

That’s a big deal; not all of us have the will to make that kind of turn-around and you have to respect the story of someone who has. Still, you will probably giggle fairly regularly, as Wood jokes about his leg, or Whisnant consistently mistakes “perspire” for “transpire.” But this is, as Peg Wood puts it in the movie, a funny story with its roots in tragedy. Fortunately, it’s a tragedy that looks like it will have a happy ending.

REASONS TO GO: Takes an unexpected turn. Oddball enough to keep your interest.
REASONS TO STAY: The pictures of the leg may be too stomach-turning for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some gruesome images, drug references and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whisnant once appeared on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Member
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

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Deathgasm


Kimberly Crossman sure can axe.

Kimberly Crossman sure can axe.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Dark Sky) Milo Cawthorne, Kimberly Crossman, James Blake, Sam Berkley, Daniel Cresswell, Delaney Tabron, Stephen Ure, Colin Moy, Jodie Rimmer, Nick Hoskins-Smith, Erroll Shand, Kate Elliott, Aaron McGregor, Andrew Laing, Tim Foley, Cameron Rhodes. Directed by Jason Lei Howden

There are some things that just shouldn’t be messed with. Horror movies have taught us that. The unknown can be pretty terrifying. Of course, teenage boys were born to mess with things that shouldn’t be messed with. Horror movies have also taught us that.

Brodie (Cawthorne) is a lonely outcast. His mom, a drug addict, is in rehab and he’s currently living in a small New Zealand town with his Uncle Albert (Moy) and cousin David (Hoskins-Smith) who likes nothing better than to bully Brodie. Brodie gets his solace through heavy metal, which makes him feel better because he believes that it’s proof that someone else feels his rage and pain. To the Christian household that Albert and his wife Mary (Rimmer) runs, this isn’t welcome news.

Brodie latches on to the two people in school who are even more pathetic than he – Giles (Cresswell) and Dion (Berkley) who are Dungeons and Dragons addicts. Brodie pines for the beautiful Medina (Crossman) but she seems to be taken – by David, so even breathing the same air as her will get him beat up. Even more lonely than ever, Brodie wanders into the only record store in town where he meets Zakk (Blake), the only other metalhead in town and who doubles as the town delinquent.

The only thing to do is to form a band, so together with Giles and Dion the metal band DEATHGASM is born (in exactly that punctuation because as Zakk puts it, “lower case is for pussies”). The two are delighted to discover that Rikki Daggers (Ure), frontman for the legendary Haxansword – a cult metal band they both worship – lives in that very town.

Zakk being Zakk, decides to see what he can steal from Rikki’s house. It turns out that Rikki is home and is holding on to a lost Haxansword album and inside the album is some sheet music. When a Satanist thug breaks into the house to steal the same thing, Rikki gives the album to the kids and tells them to guard it with their lives.

Of course, they ignore the satanic symbols all over the music and decide to play it and when they do, they unleash a horror as a demon called The Blind One is conjured and most of the town is clawing out their eyes to escape the dreadful visions and vomiting up blood. It will be up to the metalheads to save the world but how can they when Zakk and Brodie are flipping out because they both want the same girl, Medina, who has become a metalhead herself after Brodie introduced her to the music. Rock on.

New Zealand, which in the 80s gave us some pretty nifty horror flicks (some from the great Peter Jackson) is rapidly becoming the center for horror movies with a funny edge. What We Do in the Shadows and Housebound have been a couple of Kiwi scarefests that have impressed fans and critics alike in the last few years.

Add this one to the list. From WETA wizard and first-time director Howden comes this irreverent look at the symbiosis between metal and horror and it works. It helps that Cawthorne is a handsome, appealing lad who has a surprising screen presence that hints at a promising future. Yeah, Brodie can be a bit of a schlub now and again but as the movie wears on he becomes a pretty competent horror film hero. Not all of the cast is as successful as he is however; a few of the actors here are a bit wooden.

The music is for the most part not too bad; it’s not super-hardcore so non-metal fans won’t be put off although hardcore fans might find it a bit tame. The humor here is edgy and fun, and there’s enough gore to keep any horror freak happy as a pig in…well, you know.

In many ways, this is a throwback to the horror films of the 80s which is a good thing; it’s not afraid to be bloody, the humor and gore can be over-the-top (perhaps too much so for some) and you’re not required to think overly much. This is the kind of mindless fun that is typical for New Zealand horror; it doesn’t take itself too seriously but at the same time it takes itself seriously enough, if you get my drift. This isn’t breaking any new ground but to be honest, there’s no law requiring it to. It’s the kind of thing you can watch either in your local movie theater (check the website for locations) or on VOD on a cool autumn night and bliss out to the Halloween horror film goodness.

REASONS TO GO: Cheeky sense of humor. Metalhead gore fan nirvana.  Cawthorne an appealing lead.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a been there done that feel. Some of the performances not quite up to snuff. May be too over-the-top for some.
FAMILY VALUES: A pretty sizable amount of gore, plenty of foul language, some sexuality and drug use, some disturbing images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s theme song was performed by the New Zealand band Bulletbelt. Howden sang backing vocals on the track.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trick or Treat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Shout Gladi Gladi

Amy


Amy Winehouse belts one out.

Amy Winehouse belts one out.

(2015) Musical Documentary (A24) Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Tony Bennett, Mitchell Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Lauren Gilbert, Salaam Remi, Sam Beste, Andrew Morris, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Blake Wood, Janis Winehouse, Raye Cosbert, Guy Moot, Darcus Beese, Tyler James, Monte Lipman. Directed by Asif Kapadia

The music industry is a harsh, unforgiving world. It chews people up and spits them back out, rarely unscathed. Even those who reach the grail of commercial success don’t go untouched.

Amy Winehouse was a little girl with a big voice, singing with Britain’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We see her as a teen, singing happy birthday to and with her friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. A Jewish girl from working class London, Amy’s parents divorced when she was quite young.

She began writing songs in which she exorcised her demons. Deeply personal, her music was all about what was going on in her life at that particular moment. She preferred to work in a jazz idiom but her music would eventually turn more pop and once her song “Rehab” hit it big, there would be no stopping her. Except that the Back to Black album that her hit came from would be the last album she’d ever record.

Her brash personality hid a very fragile girl who was surrounded both by people who looked out for her – her friends Ashby and Gilbert, as well as Nick Shymansky, her first manager – and people who didn’t have her best interests at heart.

In fact, some of those around her were actually like poison to her, in particular her husband Blake Fielder-Civil who she was head over heels over, but who led her down a path that included addiction to hard drugs and binge eating and drinking (Winehouse suffered from bulimia dating back to her teenage days). Fielder-Civil comes off absolutely horribly in the movie; after doing a stint in jail, he sees video of his wife with another man; he divorces her for infidelity, smugly proclaiming that he was handsome and young, what was he doing with a skank like that? Yes, by that time the effects of her addiction were starting to show. I guess I wanted to take that silly hat he likes to wear and shove it where the sun don’t shine only after smashing that smug expression in. What a pretentious, self-centered waste of human flesh.

Her own father doesn’t come off unscathed. He appears unconcerned about the issues his daughter has, advising her not to go to rehab before the fame set in and seemingly more concerned about his own limelight and the gravy train his daughter provided him. The Winehouse family initially cooperated with the filmmakers, providing plenty of home video footage as well as granting on-camera interviews for the project but eventually rescinded that cooperation when it became clear that the filmmakers were not portraying them in a flattering light. Mitchell Winehouse has gone on to say that the movie doesn’t capture Amy the person very well and dwells overly much on the lurid tabloid events and in that he does have a point.

Truth be told, I was never much a fan of her music; her voice is a bit too brassy for my taste, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize talent when I hear it. The woman had a true gift, understanding phrasing like few modern singers do. Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded a duet shortly before she died, compared her to Ella Fitzgerald and I would think that he would know a thing or two about it.

Watching her transformation from a vibrant, promising performer into pop superstardom and from there to drug-addled tabloid fodder is simply painful. We see her besieged by paparazzi, flashbulbs going off like mortar explosions around her, blinding the poor woman so that she couldn’t see where she was walking. The tabloid press are drawn to bad boys and girls like the bottom feeders they are, and how horrible must it be to know that they are out there 24/7, awaiting a chance to catch you at your worst – because the people who read that drivel want to believe the worst about you.

At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse had a hand in her own demise – it is absolutely chilling to hear her tell her friend Juliette that the celebration for her Grammy win was “boring without drugs.” At that point, even had you not known what her fate was to be (found dead on July 13, 2011 of alcohol poisoning) you would have known that she was not long for this world. Her voice stilled, her muse gone, one can’t help but wonder what she might have accomplished had she lived.

But then, that’s the nature of the muse. It doesn’t always treat those who are inspired by it kindly. Amy Winehouse was an amazing talent who became the poster child for excess and addiction by the time she reached her mid-20s. She went from the Next Big Thing to the butt of all sorts of jokes and the sad part was that those who should have been watching out for her were instead feeding the flames that were consuming her. This documentary is chilling in that regard but as a cautionary tale, it is one that we have seen many times on the price of success. And it’s a story that is likely to be told again someday with yet another prodigy; that’s the real tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: Heartbreaking. Wonderful archival footage for fans. Even non-fans will appreciate.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage of her descent into drug-addled junkie status is hard to watch. Spends more time on the more lurid tabloid aspects of her life than on her music.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, drug references and usage, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winehouse is a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock stars who all died at the age of 27. Other members include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Was Not Made For This World
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Certified Copy

Maps to the Stars


Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

(2015) Thriller (Focus) Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Klara Glasco, Dawn Greenhaigh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand, Justin Kelly, Niamh Wilson, Clara Pasieka, Emilia McCarthy, Allegra Fulton, Dominic Ricci, Jayne Heitmeier, Carrie Fisher, Amanda Brugel. Directed by David Cronenberg

Hollywood is a seductive cocktail. You can hear it whispering “Drink me” in a throaty voice, promising fame, wealth, glamour and the opportunity to be beloved by minions. What you don’t hear it whisper is that it rarely bestows those things on anyone and when it does, the cost is unbearably high.

On a bus to Hollywood there is a young woman named Agatha (Wasikowska). She is, we find out later, hideously burned, wearing gloves and a body stocking to hide them, as well as long bangs to hide those on her face. She is coming at the behest of Carrie Fisher (whom she met on Twitter), she says (and it turns out to be true) to help her co-author a novel or maybe a project for HBO. She also has a bit of an obsession for the actress Clarice Taggart (Gadon), a beautiful and troubled soul who died tragically young in a house fire.

As it turns out, Clarice was the mother of Havana Segrand (Moore) who has had a lengthy career as an actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the good fortune to die young and beautiful in a fire and as she is getting older she is getting more and more invisible to casting agents. She is desperate to get a role in the remake of her mother’s most famous movie, Strange Waters  – and not just any role but the role her mother played. Alas, it seems destined for a younger actress named Azita Wachtel (Heitmeier). Nevertheless, Havana needs a new assistant and her close friend Carrie Fisher is happy to recommend the newcomer Agatha for the job.

Havana sees pop culture psychotherapist and self-help guru Dr. Stanford Weiss (Cusack) to help her deal with her mommy issues, which are severe. Havana has claimed to have been abused physically and sexually by her mom, a charge her mom vehemently denies – or rather the ghost of her mom who haunts Havana.

Dr. Weiss has issues of his own. His young son Benjie (Bird) is a child star whose career took a tumble when he went to rehab. Now clean and sober, he’s making a sequel to his best-known role, Bad News Babysitter with another young actor who seems to be stealing all the scenes, which irritates Benjie no end. Of course, everything irritates Benjie no end and he is bringing cruelty and all-around dickishness to a new art form. His mother Christina (Williams) is wrapped around his little finger but she’s been through a lot; a fire caused by Benjie’s sister took the life of a younger brother and caused the sister to be locked away in a mental institution.

As events begin to shift and roil, with Agatha striking up a relationship with a limo driver (Pattinson) who yearns to be an actor/writer and tragic circumstances awarding the coveted role to Havana, the tenuous connections between all these characters become much clearer and darker as things begin to move towards a horrifying conclusion. But then again, this is Hollywood, baby.

Cronenberg has had a career that is iconoclastic. While his output has been uneven, his films are generally interesting even if they haven’t always succeeded in resonating with audiences. This particular movie is as dark as they come with a cast of characters that is unlikable from top to bottom; from the self-centered therapist to the narcissistic child actor to the troubled assistant to the egotistic actress, this is the nightmare Hollywood in which self-serving lies are a kind of currency and kindness a mark of weakness – unless done very visibly in order to garner favorable publicity.

Moore, who recently was awarded the Oscar for her work in Still Alice is definitely on a role; she could easily have been nominated for this performance as well and may well have had the studio elected to release this last year. It may well be too early in the year for Academy voters to remember her work come the fall when ballots are mailed out but she deserves to have her name written down on at least a few of them.

Most of the rest of the cast does solid work as well, although special note should be made of Bird who is not well-known yet but may well be after his performance here. He makes Draco Malfoy look like a sweetheart, and made the character’s nastiness so palpable that Da Queen wanted to kick him in the genitals several times. My lovely wife doesn’t like spoiled brats overly much, particularly of the Hollywood sort.

There are a good number of insider references and those who are fascinated by that kind of thing will be in hog heaven here. However, this isn’t a movie that is going to have mass appeal; things get more and more twisted and perverse as the movie goes on with a dog getting shot (usually a deal killer for me) and even worse as things spiral towards their conclusion.

Cronenberg has always worked outside the Hollywood system which is a little bit easier when you’re Canadian (this movie marks the first time he’s even shot in the United States in a career approaching 50 years and that only for essentially a week) and this isn’t likely to get him any new invitations to parties, not that he would accept any. I will say that as bleak a characterization of Hollywood life as this is (and there is some truth to it), the reality is not quite so extreme as reality often is. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are genuine and kind but that kind of thing is less interesting; we’d rather see the rich and famous be absolute bastards because it makes us feel better about ourselves, as in “they got rich and famous but they had to sell their souls to get it which I’m not willing to do, hence the reason I’m not rich and famous.”

This isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty who will be put off by the pervasive self-worship and the skewed outlook on life by those who live the Hollywood dream. There’s nothing wholesome about it. However, I will point out that the trailers imply that this is something of a horror movie; yes there are apparitions and horrible things happen but this isn’t a horror movie per se, so be aware of that going in.

This isn’t Cronenberg’s best film, nor is it his most typical but this is a very good piece of filmmaking indeed. I was really drawn in, wondering what was going to happen next and that’s all you can ask of any movie. It may not have been a pleasant experience (and those looking for one can always go see McFarland) but it was an edifying one and that gets points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances by Moore and Bird. Lots of Hollywood insider goodness. Some moments of genuine pathos and genuine hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark. Intrinsically shallow with characters you’re not going to like very much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some unsettling violence and bloody images, graphic nudity, sexuality, foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore and Wasikowska previously appeared together in The Kids Are All Right in which they played mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day of the Locust
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Leviathan

Dolphin Tale 2


Life is a splash!

Life is a splash!

(2014) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton, Charles Martin Smith, Julia Winter, Austin Stowell, Austin Highsmith, Juliana Harkavy, Betty Landin, Denisea Wilson, Carlos Gomez, Julia Jordan, Tom Nowicki, Taylor Blackwell. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

The inspirational story of Dolphin Tale introduced us to Winter, a dolphin rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium whose tail had to be amputated after being caught in the wire from a crab trap. After being fitted with a prosthetic tail, she became an inspiration to disabled persons everywhere – and to a lot of non-disabled people as well.

Now Winter is in a different kind of trouble. Her long-time companion at the Aquarium has passed away and she has fallen into a deep depression, even lashing out and injuring her friend Sawyer (Gamble) who has been with her from the beginning. Sawyer is now a handsome high school teen whose relationship with Winter has not gone unnoticed by the marine biology community – he’s been invited on a semester at sea program normally limited to college students. It’s quite a big deal and everyone expects him to go but Sawyer is conflicted; he doesn’t want to leave with Winter in serious difficulties.

Winter has become a big attraction for the CMA which has embarked on an ambitious expansion program led by their new board head Philip Hordern (Nowicki)  who is concerned that the star attraction might be taken away. In fact, USDA inspector (Smith) has given the aquarium 30 days to pair Winter with another female dolphin or the government will force them to move her into an environment where she can be properly socialized.

It so happens that the CMA has a female dolphin that they’re taking care of, but Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) seems reluctant to pair the two. His reasons for it are correct though – the dolphin they have rescued is making a full recovery and there is no reason to keep the perfectly healthy dolphin at the aquarium whose mission has always been Rescue, Rehab, Release. Clay’s hot-headed daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff) is furious at her father whom she sees as abandoning Winter, but also disrespecting her for not soliciting her input. Because she has a PhD and everything, right?

So the dolphin will be released and Winter will be moved. Sawyer mopes around and despite the advice of his mom (Judd) and curmudgeonly Dr. McCarthy (Freeman) who designed Winter’s appendage still doesn’t know if he wants to seize the day. But the thing is, where there’s life, there’s Hope.

This isn’t quite as good as the first Tale. It’s a bit more convoluted and a bit more cliche, with the kids more or less running the show and the adults generally treating them as equals. In that sense, the movie doesn’t talk down to its audience although there’s not a lot of reality here – teens and tweens aren’t generally handed the reins of an operation the size of a CMA, particularly when the welfare of animals are concerned.

Gamble has matured into a handsome young man which is sure to set a lot of hormonal tween girl hearts a-flutter. Zuehlsdorff is a bit shrill in places but manages to capture the child-parent conflict pretty solidly and allows herself to come off as illogical and overly emotional in a situation when her father is thinking of the welfare of the animal above his own personal needs. It’s a good life lesson.

In fact, the movie is filled with them. There’s a whole lot of information on the various marine animals depicted here which in addition to the dolphins includes sea turtles and Roofus, the zany pelican from the first movie who is even more present here. In fact, Roofus gets more screen time than Judd or Freeman. Take from that what you will.

The adult cast is solid and the look of the film sparkles. Yes, there are some CGI dolphin moments and occasionally those moments are obvious but for the most part this is a good looking movie giving a very alluring quality to Florida in general. Being familiar with the Clearwater area, I can tell you that it captures the area nicely.

The movie can be a little bland in places. The filmmakers wanted the movie to be wholesome and for the most part it is to the point where it’s so inoffensive that there’s nothing to really hold onto. There are no antagonists to speak of; it’s just a bad situation which is the way life generally is. There are appearances by surfer Bethany Hamilton as herself – you might know her from Soul Surfer, an inspirational movie made on her own life – and whose presence on the current season of The Amazing Race is likely to boost up the box office here a little bit.

I honestly can’t fault the movie much. It doesn’t do anything truly wrong, it just doesn’t really excel either. For the most part, I can give it a mild thumbs up for family audiences. Those without kids may find it mildly diverting particularly if they love dolphins but adults may find the movie tedious. Watching the dolphins do their thing is definitely the best part of the movie. The humans around them – not so much.

REASONS TO GO: Some moments of grace, particularly when the actual dolphins are involved. Wholesome.
REASONS TO STAY: Ham-handed kids movie cliches. Lacks realism. Bland.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some mild dolphin peril but otherwise suitable for all family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dead Silence

Things We Lost in the Fire


Halle Berry sleeps one off.

Halle Berry sleeps one off.

(2007) Drama (DreamWorks) Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, VJ Foster, Patricia Harras. Directed by Susanne Bier

Loss is something we all deal with in our own way. Some of us turn inward and shut the world out. Some of us throw ourselves into work or family. Still others lash out in anger, frustration and/or grief. It’s a powerful emotion that all of us must face in one form or another sooner or later.

For Audrey Burke (Berry) that time is now. Her husband Brian (Duchovny) is dead, killed trying to get an abused woman from being beaten up. The day of the funeral she sends for Jerry Sunborne (del Toro), one of Brian’s closest friends. He had gone from being a promising lawyer to a junkie and the source of much contention between Audrey and Brian. Brian had continued to visit Jerry and support him – in many ways he was Jerry’s sole connection to the world. Audrey thought he was a hopeless cause who she wanted as far away from her family as possible.

Getting Jerry to the funeral proves to take some doing. He is homeless now, having lost everything to his addiction. However, once Jerry gets there Audrey impulsively and not without some reservations invites Jerry to stay in the family home. She realizes that Brian would have wanted that and convinces herself that’s why she’s doing it but truth be told she wants someone around the house; their son Dory (Berry) needs a strong father figure around the house, their daughter Harper (Llewellyn) needs some guidance and to be honest she herself needs someone to lean on.

Audrey isn’t an easy person to be around. Her grief makes her touchy and sometimes she lashes out for no real good reason. In the meantime, Jerry is flowering in this environment. He is finding a new sense of purpose and the drugs are, for the moment, receding. A family friend (Lynch) is even helping Jerry get a real estate license and back to being a productive member of society. However both grief and drugs can be mercurial and unpredictable and both Jerry and Audrey have yet to face a very dark night indeed in both of their souls.

This started life as a screenplay by Allan Loeb, appearing on the inaugural “Black List” of unproduced screenplays (the Black List is a survey of 250 producers of the best screenplays they’d seen that year that were as yet unproduced). It was picked up by DreamWorks and acclaimed Danish director Bier (who had directed the acclaimed Open Hearts up to that point and later won an Oscar for In a Better World since) was attached to it.

They also put together a pretty powerful cast in Oscar winner Berry who once again gives a powerful performance as a woman who is lost and hurting. Audrey isn’t always likable and she doesn’t always act the way we’d like her to act. That’s a credit to Loeb who creates a character who is flesh and blood rather than an ideal. She has good days but she also has some bad ones. Berry fleshes Audrey out, turns her into a person you’d find walking around the mall or sitting in the movie theater next to you. Of course, if someone who looked as good as Halle Berry were sitting in the theater next to me I’d notice it pretty quickly.

Del Toro is no less impressive. Jerry is as wounded in his own way as Audrey is and like Audrey, Jerry doesn’t always act the way we’d like him to. He is trying, however and is basically a good man deep down – he’s just also a weak man when it comes to narcotics. These two performances drive the movie and are the main reason to see it.

Bier has a thing about eyes and there are a lot of close-ups of the eyes throughout the movie which can be disconcerting. While I agree that the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also kind of boring when you keep seeing them over and over again. As an old-time Hollywood producer might have put it, Susanne baby, lose the eyes.

The movie has a European sensibility to it so the pacing might not be to the liking of an American audience; that is to say, it takes it’s time and gets to where it’s going at its own pace. There are some moments when the movie veers into soap opera territory but thankfully those moments are few and far between.

This is a movie that didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare when it was released and the general attitude of critics and moviegoers alike was a resounding “who cares” but the truth is that you should. This is a very strong and powerful film on taking control of your own life and learning to deal with pain. The performances of Berry and del Toro are worthy of your time alone, but for my money this is one of those gems that didn’t get the love it should have.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performances from del Toro and Berry; Duchovny, Lynch and Lohman excellent in supporting roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many extreme close-ups. Maudlin in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bier’s sole English-language film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.6M on a $16M production budget; the movie is considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster’s Ball

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Chasing Ice

Renee


Renee

Not your typical fairy godmother.

(2009) True Life Drama (Two Streets) Kat Dennings, Chad Michael Murray, Rupert Friend, Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy, Corbin Bleu, William Peltz, Brian Patrick Clark, Rus Blackwell, J. LaRose, Ylian Alfaro Snyder, Kristi Engelmann, Brad Benedict, Rachael Yamagata. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

Drug addiction, self-mutilation, sexual predators, clueless parents – all of these things are issues our teenage girls face in the war that growing up has become. Fortunately, they don’t have to necessarily go out into battle alone.

However, that’s exactly what Renee Yohe (Dennings) did. An independently-minded teen from a comfortably middle class family in suburban Orlando, she and her inseparable mates Dylan (Saul), a budding musician and her BFF Jessie (Harkavy) navigate the party scene with the courage and innocence that comes with being a teen.

Renee has always had a thing for fairy tales, seeing beautiful gardens when life got messy. No garden can save her however when she falls in among the wrong crowd. She is hooked on drugs and abandons her friends and family, living in a drug culture cared for only by downtown pedi-cab driver Mackey (Bleu) who can’t protect her from a sinister looking druggie who has designs on her body.

She escapes from the drug house that she was in and calls Dylan. He is working as an (unpaid) intern for an agent for musicians, David McKenna (Friend) who is a former addict himself and does motivational speeches at churches and schools throughout Central Florida. He agrees to help her get into a rehab program but the director tells him that since Renee still has drugs in her system, they can’t accept her since they don’t have the facilities to help her through detox. She’s going to have to wait five days for her system to cleanse itself of the drugs before she’ll be allowed in.

After a fruitless attempt to convince her parents to let her crash at home, McKenna reluctantly decides to take her in where Jessie and Dylan can keep an eye on her. This is news to his roommate Jamie Tworkowski (Murray) who is impressed by Renee’s straightforward nature and her courage to tackle sobriety. It’s no easy thing for Renee to get sober, particularly with all the temptations around her including a downtown music festival, ghosts from the past and David’s own fragile sobriety.

While Renee finally makes the recovery clinic, Jamie is inspired to write Renee’s story. This leads to him founding a non-profit organization to help kids like Renee. That organization is To Write Love on Her Arms, which would become a respected and acclaimed agency  that helps kids get the treatment they need to get through their drug addiction.

This is based on the true story of Renee and the agency that she helped inspire. Frankowski nicely accents the gritty realistic tone of the film with flights of fancy, many depicting the fairy tale quality of Renee’s imagination. That makes for a lovely juxtaposition which offers some relief from what would be a grim fairy tale indeed.

Dennings, known more for comic roles, shines here. Renee isn’t always the most reliable of people and she doesn’t do the right thing all the time. She can be far from sympathetic in her actions until you remember what she’s been through and as you watch the story unfold as a child from an essentially loving environment makes such horribly self-destructive choices. It’s heart-breaking at times and yet Renee isn’t one to apologize or feel sorry for herself. Those qualities shine through in Dennings’ portrayal of her and creates an unforgettable character who’ll stay with you long after the movie is over. I don’t know if the real Renee Yohe is anything like how Dennings portrays her but if she is, she’s someone I wouldn’t mind meeting someday.

Denning has some pretty good support here too. Friend brings out the torment in McKenna’s soul, making him a stand-up guy who is a lot less strong than he appears to be. It’s a spot-on perfect of a recovering addict that Dr. Drew would no doubt approve of.

In fact, there’s a lot about this movie that Dr. Drew might praise. For one, Renee’s release from rehab isn’t the end of her journey but more like the beginning. She realizes, even if those around her don’t, that she is far from recovered and is very much at risk. She also knows that this will be a lifelong fight for her. I don’t know if the real Renee has remained clean and sober – I’d like to think she has – but realistically speaking the odds are far greater that she’s relapsed at some time. This is true for any addict, not just her – kicking drugs isn’t the kind of thing that can be really covered in a 90 minute movie adequately. You don’t get the sense of how it is an insidious disease that rears its ugly head whenever it isn’t wanted or needed.

The power of this movie is very evident. The local Orlando filmmaking community can take a lot of pride that a movie of this quality has come out of it and hopefully it will pave the way for more movies this accomplished. As for Renee, you will leave as I did rooting for her to make it and find that elusive happiness that is hard enough to find when we’re sober. You would also do well to remember – as I’m sure she’d be the first to tell you – that she is just one of many such stories, and there are probably some being written a lot closer to you than you might think.

REASONS TO GO: Enormously emotional with some excellent performances from Dennings and Friend. Realistic and “non-Hollywood” view at addiction.

REASONS TO STAY: Choppy pacing at times. Rape scenes may be too intense for sensitive souls or survivors of the crime.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some graphic depictions of drug use, plenty of foul language, a little bit of violence and sexuality including rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the crew came from the primary film schools in Central Florida – the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University and Valencia College.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crutch

ORLANDO LOVERS: The movie was shot around downtown Orlando and features the parts of the city that people who just visit the theme parks never see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Eye of the Hurricane