Blood Stripe


Kate Nowlin canoe, can you?

(2016) Drama (Tandem Pictures) Kate Nowlin, Rusty Schwimmer, Chris Sullivan, Rene Auberjonois, Ashlie Atkinson, Tom Lipinski, Taliesin Cox, Ken Marks, Greta Oglesby, Sunde Auberjonois, Mason Jennings, Jeremy Johnson, Louis Jenkins, Reed Sigmund, Emily Zimmer, David Clay, Scotty Nelson, Benson Ramsey, Kristen Gregerson. Directed by Remy Auberjonois

 

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing to slog on with no end in sight, Hollywood as well as independent filmmakers have seized upon the return home of combat veterans as a theme with varying degrees of quality. In all honesty, the question I ask myself when viewing one of these is “What, if anything, new does this film bring to the subject?”

A nameless Marine, referred to in the credits only as Our Sergeant (Nowlin) – I suppose in an attempt to make her something of an everywoman – returns home to Northern Minnesota. Picked up by an in-law from the airport, she receives a somewhat muted welcome home from her husband Rusty (Sullivan). It is clear from the get-go that she has got a lot of issues, from an overreaction when she gets an overenthusiastic hug from a drunken male guest at her welcome home party to her constant insistence that she’s fine when she clearly isn’t, she eats little, sleeps hardly at all and drinks heavily. She runs obsessively and mows her lawn in the middle of the night. When Rusty hesitantly asks if she shouldn’t see someone, she says tersely “There’s a wait.” As it turns out, there’s a 129 day wait at the local VA, a situation which has fallen off the radar of late.

She acquires a job working on a highway repair crew but is given little to do. One fine day, she just seems to snap; she stares off into the distance while a co-worker talks to her, a haunted expression on her face and without a word turns and walks off the job, climbs into her husband’s truck and just drives away.

Where she winds up driving to is a summer camp that she attended as a kid. It’s off-season now and the tranquil waters of the lake shore are quiet, the sounds of children vanished with the heat of the summer. The caretaker, Dot (Schwimmer) has a load of work to do and only an aging handyman with a bad back to help her. She takes on the Marine giving her room and board in exchange for her efforts lugging and lifting. When Dot compliments her on her work ethic, the Sergeant says “Nobody ever drowned from sweat,” attributing the quote to a drill sergeant.

The hard work and lovely scenery seems to bring some solace to the tortured soul of the Sergeant and when a small church group led by elderly pastor Art (Rene Auberjonois, the director’s father) she finds further solace with one of the younger parishioners (Lipinski) who acts as their fishing guide. He also has a troubled past of his own.

Still, she can’t outrun her demons; a pair of hunters who blare Metallica from their car stereo everywhere they go trigger a defensive reaction in her and she ends up reconnoitering their home to see what they might be up to. Attempts at intimacy with the fisherman end up disastrously and calls to her frantic husband range from cold to crisis. Can this woman ever find peace?

The movie, co-written by Remy Auberjonois and Nowlin (who are husband and wife in real life), doesn’t give us a lot of background into Our Sergeant which is both maddening and admirable. We don’t know what trauma caused her breakdown and there aren’t the obligatory flashbacks to show us definitively what put her into that state. We surmise that she was either tortured or sexually assaulted (or both) from the scars on her back and her general reaction to men but there are no absolute answers which lead us to make up our own narrative as to her past.

Nowlin is a real talent and she captures the bearing and posture of a Marine minus the swagger. We can absolutely believe she’s been to war and acquitted herself with honor. We can also believe that she’s been through hell and is haunted by demons that we civilians can’t even imagine. Her expression during the breakdown scenes tell us everything we need to know.

Cinematographer Radium Cheung also acquits himself well, giving us some beautiful vistas of the northern Minnesota lake country as well as some interesting shots during the final third of the movie that help us see inside the protagonist’s head. This is a lovely movie to see visually.

The subplot about the Metallica boys seemed unnecessary and contrived; the writers had already established that Our Sergeant had a touch of paranoia about her. It seems to inject elements of a thriller into what was already a fine drama; they should have left it with the drama which seemed to be much more in their wheelhouse.

The character of Our Sergeant is central to the film in any case and she’s a fascinating if enigmatic character indeed. Schwimmer and the elder Auberjonois both deliver solid supporting performances as does Lipinski even though the romantic chemistry seems a bit forced and again feels like it was a tangent that the filmmakers should have avoided. What we’re more interested in is Nowlin’s character and whenever the focus came off of her the movie suffered.

This was an award-winning entry at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival and only last month did it get a brief theatrical release. It will likely show up on some streaming service or another at some point; it is worth seeking out when it does because movies like this one which fly even a little bit out of the box should always be supported and in any case there is enough quality here to recommend it.

REASONS TO GO: There is some lovely cinematography. Nowlin does a bang-up job.
REASONS TO STAY: I’m not sure the metal-head hunters’ subplot was absolutely necessary. The romance doesn’t work very well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, some violence, disturbing adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blood Stripe refers to the red stripe on the trouser leg of the dress uniform of the United States Marine Corps.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lucky Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
All Eyez on Me

The Belko Experiment


Things are getting a little heated back at the office.

(2016) Horror (BH Tilt/High Top/Orion) John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Valentine Miele, Steven Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Silvia de Dios. Directed by Greg McLean

 

There’s no doubt that the corporate environment in 2017 is as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Ambitious office drones plot their way to promotions that bring them out of the environment of living paycheck to paycheck and into management where they can make some real money; others plot to preserve their place in the pecking order. Either way, the office is no place for the faint of heart.

Belko Corporation is described as a non-profit that helps large companies recruit American workers to South American locations. They have a large tower located outside of Bogota, Colombia – well outside of Bogota. Mike Milch (Gallagher) is a fairly humdrum middle management type who is involved in a clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra Florez (Arjona) as that sort of thing is discouraged by Belko, who somewhat appropriately incorporate the figure of an eye into their corporate logo. It is not stretching things to say that most of the people who work in the building have no clue what they do for the company.

One unremarkable morning Mike drives into work to discover an increased security presence and that all the local Colombian workers are being turned away from work. He thinks nothing of it – until a disembodied voice comes on the PA system to announce that the 80 or so workers remaining in the building must select two among their number to murder – or else double that number would be selected at random. Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke in poor taste – until the heads of four people suddenly explode.

At first believing the carnage to be the work of a random sniper, there is panic as people try to get under cover. That’s when large blowtorch-proof metal doors and shutters encase the building in a steel cocoon. There is no leaving and as the voice informs them that they’ll need to find 20 workers to dispatch to the choir invisible or once again double that number would be random victims.

Quickly the social order begins to devolve. The company’s COO Barry Norris (Goldwyn) tries to preach calm and order until he becomes convinced that the only way to buy time is to do what the voice commands, especially when it becomes apparent that every move they make is being observed (remember the eye?) by the disembodied voice. Joining him are a number of management types who want to maintain control of the situation, including Wendell Dukes (McGinley), the kind of manager nobody ever wants to work under. Mike is trying to keep from having anyone die but his voice is not getting heard in the increasing panic. Before too long things fall completely apart and everyone starts looking out for their own ass if they are to survive the worst workday ever.

The movie was penned by current fan favorite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as a bit of a passion project but it has languished on the shelf while Gunn has been shepherding the two Marvel space operas to money-printing status. He left the property however in the capable hands of Aussie director McLean (Wolf Creek) who does a yeoman job bringing the script to life.

Most of the actors are better known by face than by name and while there is a black comedy element to the proceedings it never gets to the point of silliness which often happens with horror comedies. Of course, this is as allegorical as it gets to what corporate culture has become in terms of treating employees as disposable resources in which salary and benefits are necessary evils and when the need for those workers dissipates, so do the workers.

Rooker, who has become one of Gunn’s go-to guys, excels as a building engineer as does Goldwyn as a boss who is friendly and supportive on the outside but loses any semblance of concern for his employees when the rubber hits the road. Gallagher and Arjona are okay in the lead roles but aren’t particularly memorable. James’ brother Sean is memorable as a stoner and Schwimmer as the office mother hen is strong.

There are a lot of heads exploding here (having to do with a tracking chip that American workers receive in countries where kidnappings are common) and many gruesome deaths by axe to the face or stapler to the skull. I might have wished for a little more variety to the murders – I would imagine in an office environment there would be plenty of supplies that could do some real damage. A little more imagination in this department would have been welcome. It also should be said that those sensitive to gore and carnage will likely have a rough time with The Belko Experiment.

The movie loses momentum in the second half which is basically a survivalist epic and the denouement is a bit disappointing although there are some pop culture references of the blink and you’ll miss them variety that add some richness to the last moments of the movie. I was hoping for a little bit more from the film but to be honest it is solidly entertaining and horror fans looking for something a little bit different could do a lot worse than to look in this direction.

REASONS TO GO: The film is clever, particularly in the first half. Some fine actors turn in strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore might be a little bit too extreme for some. The film loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my, there’s plenty of gore and violence, profanity, some drug use and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Gunn was originally set to direct this from his own screenplay but felt that the violence was not what he needed in his life as he was going through a painful divorce, plus he was also hard at work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle Royale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: New Chefs on the Block

The Perfect Storm


Cowabunga!

Cowabunga!

(2000) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, Michael Ironside, William Fichtner, John Hawkes, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, Bob Gunton, Karen Allen, Allen Payne, Cherry Jones, Rusty Schwimmer, Janet Wright, Christopher McDonald, Dash Mihok, Josh Hopkins, Todd Kimsey, Chris Palermo, Wiley Pickett, Hayden Tank, Merle Kennedy, Jennifer Sommerfield. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

There is a certain romance that we landlubbers assign to the life of a fisherman. It is not an easy life, one of hard labor, patience and more often than not, frustration. Men leave their families and the comforts of home for days and weeks at a time, hoping to make a big catch that will keep them and their families heads above water when storm season makes deep sea fishing too dangerous.

The romance comes from the uncertainty of the ocean. She may be calm and give freely of her riches on one trip; the next she may give nothing but death. For the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, it’s the life they’ve known and loved since 1623. In that time, more than 10,000 men and women of Gloucester have lost their lives in the great, unmarked grave of the North Atlantic.

The skipper of the F.V. Andrea Gail, Billy Tyne (Clooney) knows the ocean and her fickle nature. One of the most respected captains in the Gloucester fishing fleet, he is in the middle of a horrible run of luck that has begun to get his crew doubting his abilities. Bob Brown (Ironside), the boat’s owner, is a bottom-line kind of guy who is thinking of replacing Tyne if he can’t get the boat to pay. Under this kind of pressure, Tyne decides to take the Andrea Gail for one last run on the Grand Banks even though it is October, and the Banks are no joke in October.

His crew, including the young, starry-eyed-in-love Bobby Shatford (Wahlberg) and the teddy bear-ish divorcee Murph (Reilly) know the risks, but are willing to follow the captain if it will mean a fat paycheck. However, as the voyage continues and the scarcity of a catch has begun to weigh heavily on their minds, Tyne decides to push for the Flemish Cap, east of the Banks and on the edge of the Andrea Gail’s range. There, they finally begin to have the kind of trip they’ve been dreaming of.

What they don’t know is that three weather fronts — a cold front from Canada, an embryonic Atlantic storm just waiting for enough energy to turn it into a monster, and Hurricane Grace, a category five storm moving north from Bermuda — are about to collide and turn the North Atlantic into a buzzsaw. And, because their radio antenna was destroyed (one of a series of mishaps that have plagued the trip), they don’t know they are headed straight into the maw of the mother of all storms.

Of course, this is the kind of script that even Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t dream up without a little help. The events of The Perfect Storm actually happened, with waves verified at over 100 feet (think of a wall of water the size of a seven-story building coming your way and you’ll get the idea).

Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One) captures the harshness of a fisherman’s life, as well as the courage that all fishermen must possess to brave the sometimes deadly seas. He also captures the agony of those who love them and must wait for their safe return. The people here are not wealthy or famous; they are ordinary, blue-collar folks who work hard to make ends meet (barely). They are heroic in the ways that we are heroic, struggling to make something better for our families.

The cast, which includes a nearly-skeletal Mastrantonio (how did she get so gaunt?), a too-rarely-seen Allen, Gunton and the lustrous Lane (one of my very favorite leading ladies), all give solid performances as people whose lives are changed forever because of the storm. The effects by Industrial Light and Magic are terrifying to watch as the sea’s fury grows and multiplies.

The real star of the movie is the Atlantic herself. Changeable in mood, eternal in her allure, she beckons the folk of Gloucester with a saucy wink and gentle, caressing whispers of wealth and wonder. And, like a woman, for all her beauty and charm, sooner or later she shows her volatile side. Still, I believe that not one of the 10,000 souls who went to their rest at the bottom of the sea would have traded their lives, even knowing their end, for any other. Perhaps that is the greatest mystery of all.

Da Queen lost count of her hankies for this one, so you can draw your own conclusions. The movie drags a bit during the fishing portion of the movie (think of “The Deadliest Catch” and you’ll get the drift) while the storm develops, but once it gets rolling, the tension doesn’t let up a bit. The Perfect Storm falls just short of being the perfect movie, but only JUST short.

WHY RENT THIS: Awe-inspiring effects. Gripping story. Terrific performances by Clooney and Wahlberg but in support by Lane, Reilly, Fichtner and Hawkes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you’re terrified of storms this will put you into the nut house for sure.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of salty language (they’re sailors after all) and some disturbing scenes of peril.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD and Blu-Ray have an HBO special on the making of the film as well as interviews with actual survivors of the storm, and a very moving photo montage. as well as a brief featurette on Horner’s scoring on the film.  There are also collectors editions and signature editions which include lobby cards and other non-disc extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $328.7M on a $140M production budget; the movie was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day After Tomorrow

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Mama

The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend

The Informant!


The Informant!

All superspy Matt Damon needs is a shoe phone and the cone of silence.

 

 

(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Eddie Jemison, Rusty Schwimmer, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Clancy Brown. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. However, capturing truth can be a lot like trying to grab a minnow with your bare hands; it has a tendency to slip through your fingers.

 

Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a young, rising executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company based in Decatur, Illinois who simply put, handle food and food additives. Chances are, something you ate today came from them. Whitacre is a trained biochemist who suspects that a new additive his team is working on that they haven’t gotten to work quite right is being sabotaged by Japanese corporate interests, who are working on a competing substance. The FBI is called in to investigate and although they find no evidence of espionage, Whitacre calls Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) aside.

 

It seems Whitacre has evidence that ADM has been engaged in price-fixing on a corn derivative called Lysine that is used in just about everything, from breakfast cereals to sodas. In doing this, ADM has defrauded consumers out of literally billions of dollars, and done it invisibly. Shepard and his partner, the stern and suspicious Bob Herndon (McHale) are incredulous but intrigued; if Whitacre is telling the truth, this could turn out to be one of the most important corporate crimes in history.

 

Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and get evidence of ADM executives agreeing to price-fixing with their competitors. In the meantime, Shepard begins to get uneasy as Whitacre begins to act erratically. That gets overshadowed as Whitacre gets the evidence they need, but more comes out than Whitacre bargained for.

 

This is a true story although it has been embellished for dramatic purposes. The essential facts, however, are the same. Soderbergh is at his best here, utilizing Damon’s voice-over narration as a mood-setter rather than a story-advancer. Marvin Hamlisch’s lounge lizard score sounds like it came straight out of a 60s spy movie, which is exactly the right metaphor for the movie. Whitacre fancies himself as James Bond, only twice as smart. He’s not quite as urbane or witty, unfortunately.

 

Damon was an inspired casting choice and he delivers a performance that will surely go down as one of the best of his career. He gained 30 pounds for the role, wears a toupee that is frankly embarrassing and a moustache that is pure 70s porn star, all the while fidgeting and lumbering about, perhaps the most feckless hero to come onscreen in decades.

 

He is supported by Lynskey as his long-suffering wife Ginger, who is mousy yet manipulative, but in her own curious way very supportive and loving. The two have lovely chemistry that makes the relationship realistic. Bakula, whose career has flourished in television sci-fi fare such as “Quantum Leap” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” plays his supporting role note perfectly. His performance is often overlooked because Damon’s is so good, but Bakula creates a character who is often confused by the behavior of his informant, but not only learns to appreciate his courage but becomes his biggest defender when things go south.

 

Mark Whitacre is definitely a product of the Midwest. He’s straight-forward, a little bit quirky and ultimately somewhat enigmatic. There’s no doubt he is an American hero, the highest-ranking executive to ever blow the whistle on an American company, but he is also an American tragedy. The twist in the movie’s final reel is heartbreaking but inevitable. No good deed goes unpunished, after all.

 

This is ostensibly a comedy but it’s certainly as dry as a cornfield in October. Not everyone will appreciate the dry wit that Soderbergh evinces here. Yes, this is a very cleverly written and insightful script, but I’ve noticed that some folks just don’t get humor that isn’t in their face and over-the-top. Still, I laughed as hard at this as I had any one of Judd Apatow’s comedies, which is saying something.

 

WHY RENT THIS: An intelligent, well-written script bolsters a career highlight performance by Damon.  

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The comedy is so dry that some may wind up scratching their heads with the definite feeling that they are somehow the butt of an even bigger joke.

 

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of foul language which may give some parents pause; frankly it’s probably no worse than most teens hear every day at school, so I wouldn’t have a problem letting older teens see this.

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Smothers Brothers appear in separate but equally memorable cameos.  

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.7M on a $22M production budget; the movie broke even.

 

FINAL RATING: 7/10

 

TOMORROW: The Rocker

Mozart and the Whale


Mozart and the Whale

Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell are taken for a ride.

(Millennium) Josh Hartnett, Radha Mitchell, Gary Cole, John Carroll Lynch, Rusty Schwimmer, Erica Leerhsen, Nate Mooney, Sheila Kelly, Robert Wisdom. Directed by Petter Naess

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism in which the patients are high-functioning, with a difficulty in socializing but an amazing ability to lock in on something that fascinates them, whether it is mathematics, trivia or molecular structure. They are often misunderstood as social misfits when in reality they just don’t have the mechanism to cope with social situations that the rest of us take for granted.

Jerry (Hartnett) is a New York cab driver who is afflicted with Asperger’s. He can add numbers in his head like a human calculator, but he has trouble carrying on a conversation without turning it into a non-stop soliloquy filled with random facts. He loves birds to the extent that many fly free in his terminally cluttered apartment, and he often takes one with him to work driving his cab (which begs the question; wouldn’t it fly out the door whenever someone got in or out?) much to the discomfort of his passengers.

Like many Asperger’s patients, he needs routine and structure and when things break out of the routine, he has difficulty coping. When he accidentally runs into a parked car, he gathers his things and walks away, leaving a group of angry people.

He belongs to a group of fellow Asperger’s patients, and he takes comfort in the presence of people he can relate to, even though some of them like Gregory (Lynch) can be a bit on the curmudgeonly side.

Into this group comes Isabelle (Mitchell) who has been referred to it by her therapist. She is the diametric opposite of Donald; where he is introverted and shy, she is straightforward and without fear. She is direct where he is not. She comes into his life much like a cannonball would come into a group of Civil War-era infantrymen and she has much the same effect. She invites him to a Halloween party and dresses up like Mozart; he puts on a rather disheveled whale costume and almost doesn’t show up because he is so obsessive about time.

Despite all the obstacles, the two form a romantic partnership that brings a brand new dimension into their lives. When Isabelle cleans up Donald’s apartment, he freaks out but eventually he begins to learn how to accept her presence into his life. When he realizes that they can’t afford the house she wants and the lifestyle they both want, he takes a job at a university in statistics where he excels. When he invites his boss over for dinner, it turns into a disaster largely in part to Isabelle’s inability to cope with the situation.

There is obviously a deep emotional connection between the two, but it becomes just as clear that their Asperger’s is getting in the way of their relationship. Will they be able to overcome something so deeply ingrained in them?

This is based loosely on real life couple Jerry and Mary Newport. Norwegian director Naess, whose resume includes the Oscar-nominated Elling, does a magnificent job in portraying the disease, so much so that the movie is often screened at legitimate autism conferences as an illustration of the social consequences of the disease.

Hartnett, who was reportedly unhappy with the final version of the film and consequently did little or no promotion of the movie, does some of the best work of his career here. He gives Donald depth that one wouldn’t expect, making him seem real and authentic. Much of this is due to Ronald Bass’ script but Hartnett pulls out some nuances that I didn’t think he had in him based on previous performances. This is the kind of movie that could get him more challenging roles if he wants to pursue that kind of work.

Mitchell, who has become a steady leading actress since first attracting notice in Pitch Black, also does a great job, making Isabelle entirely non-stereotypical and giving her the kind of spunk and fullness of life that make her in many ways the most memorable aspect of the movie. While Hartnett’s performance is more subtle, Mitchell gets to go over the top here and she does it nicely without descending into parody. Her and Hartnett make an attractive couple and while the chemistry is non-traditional, it works all the same.

The supporting cast of veteran character actors does well in their roles, particularly Lynch and Schwimmer. At no time do you get the feeling that anyone is looking down on their characters; these are all real people with real problems and while they may have different challenges than we do, that makes them no less fascinating.

This is director Naess’ first American film, and he does pretty well although the pacing gets a little choppy. Then again, that may be due to the nature of the characters that can lose interest in something and simply stop. That makes it occasionally difficult on the viewer who feels like the movie is veering off unexpectedly. It’s a kind of cinematic vertigo. While he never descends into movie of the week treacle, there are a few moments that are overly sentimental to me but thankfully they are few and far between.

While most look at Rain Man as their view into autism, in many ways this is a much more authentic look (although some groups have criticized the movie for playing into the perception that all autism patients have savant-like skills, which is actually much more rare than Hollywood would lead you to believe) at the disease. As a society, we tend to marginalize these people or worse, ignore them altogether. Hopefully, a viewing of Mozart and the Whale will give you a fresh perspective on a disease that affects real people and is in nearly every community in one form or another.

WHY RENT THIS: A very authentic-feeling look at the lives of those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hartnett and Mitchell have some quirky chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s pacing can be a bit abrupt. There are moments that are a bit mawkish.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some allusions to sexual subjects and a little bit of foul language but otherwise nothing too disturbing. However, the subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The screenplay was written by Ronald Bass who also wrote Rain Man, another movie about autism. He was inspired in this case by a 1995 article on Jerry and Mary Newport.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tony Manero