South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London

Jack of the Red Hearts


Famke Janssen prays for strength.

Famke Janssen prays for strength.

(2015) Drama (ARC Entertainment) AnnaSophia Robb, Famke Janssen, Scott Cohen, Taylor Richardson, Israel Broussard, John D’Leo, Sophia Anne Caruso, Drena De Niro, Chris Jarell, Tonye Patano, Maria Rivera, Preston Fritz Smith, Ana Maria Jomoica, Stephen Hill, Nan Lynn Nelson, Harry Sutton Jr., Drena De Niro, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Jenny Jaffe, Brianna Mann, Christine Toy Johnson. Directed by Janet Grillo

Autism is something that is often written about and occasionally depicted on the movie screen but rarely does it show what it means day to day to a family with an autistic child, particularly a low-functioning one. As the mom here snaps at an insensitive remark about her autistic daughter, “She’s not Rain Man.” Sadly, the movies give an image of autism as a kind of cute disease turning the folks that have it into happy idiots. That’s as far from the truth as can be.

Jack (Robb) is a street-smart, street-tough kid who has just turned 18. She and her sister Coke (Caruso) have been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention for years. Jack’s probation officer (Patano) is pretty much fed up with her and is ready to send her to adult jail this time, now that she’s old enough. Jack wants nothing more than to get Coke out of the system so the two can live together and take care of each other.

But Jack’s going to need money to get an apartment for them if that’s going to happen and something more stable – a real job that pays well, but Jack has no employment experience. With the help of a friend she connives her way as a caregiver into the household of Kay (Janssen), Mark (Cohen), Robert (Broussard) and autistic Glory (Richardson).

The bills have been piling up and they can no longer afford Kay staying home and caring for Glory, but the child needs full-time supervision and the family needs two incomes and quite frankly, Kay needs the break, worn down from caring for a child who is no easy task. Jack, a born hustler, convinces the actual applicant (Jaffe) to leave her resume and references with her and then Jack assumes the identity of Donna, a well-qualified caregiver. Of course, Jack knows nothing about caring for an autistic 11-year-old but she figures how hard can it be?

Well, any actual parent of an autistic child will tell you that it can be terrifyingly hard. Autistic kids, depending on the type of autism, can lash out, go into trance-like states, be stubborn as mules, obsess with odd items, require rigid conformity and/or act out in very violent and public ways, often when it is least convenient. The thing the movie gets right is that caring for a child who has difficulty functioning can break a parent down; this is their child whom they love and they can’t hold a conversation with them, or at least only a rudimentary one. It requires extreme patience and an amazing amount of love.

What it doesn’t require is a stock character from an Afterschool Special who is about as badass as Taylor Swift saving the day. The script is riddled with clichés and as predictable as the Cubs missing the playoffs. Robb is a talented actress but she is reduced to face-scrunching, high-level mugging and when called upon to smoke (which she does because, you know, street kid) she’s the most unconvincing smoker ever, clearly not inhaling. I’d much rather that Jack be a non-smoker than be an approximation of one.

I’ve met several autistic kids in my life, some more high functioning than others but Richardson is completely unconvincing in the role. Her smile is like she’s posing for a head shot and when she’s screaming and acting out, I don’t see in her performance how incredibly intense this acting out can be. The best way to think about it is that she’s pretending to smile rather than actually smiling. Now, I’m fully aware that every autistic kid is different and some may well smile like they’re in a toy commercial, but it comes off as non-genuine here and it is distracting overall to the movie. Richardson has a history of playing Annie onstage, so you know she’s got talent, but this was a definite misfire and I blame the director, who should know better.

I liked Janssen’s performance as the long-suffering mom. Janssen clearly gets how stressed out Kay is and how bone-weary she is. When Janssen gets the chance to act with silence, she is marvelous – conveying far more of the parental experience with her eyes and her facial expression than the script is doing. Sadly there is so much that the script does that stops the movie dead in its tracks, like a family sing-along that feels completely in-authentic and the denouement in which is exactly what you think it will be. Even the plot twists aren’t twists so much as lane changes.

I really give the filmmakers credit for wanting to make a film about how autism affects the entire family, and there is a great movie to be made on the subject, but this really isn’t it. Too many predictable plot points, unconvincing acting from the two actors who needed to be at their best and just pedestrian filmmaking torpedo what should have been a compelling film. Janssen’s performance is worth checking out but that only takes the movie so far; a very mild and disappointing recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Janssen is compelling as the mom. An inside look at the life of a family with an autistic child.
REASONS TO STAY: With a predictable movie-of-the-week plot, loses some of its credibility. Robb and Richardson give subpar performances.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of teen misbehavior, adult subject matter, teen smoking and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grillo in real life is the mother of an autism spectrum child.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Legendary

The Other Woman


 

The Other Woman

Lisa Kudrow teaches the art of the fake smile.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Charlie Tahan, Lauren Ambrose, Michael Cristofer, Debra Monk, Mona Lerche, Anthony Rapp, Kendra Kassebaum, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Joy, Maria Dizzia, Ira Hawkins. Directed by Don Roos

 

By its nature marital infidelity is a terrible and unforgivable thing. This is true of the married party who cheats on their partner but it is also true of the one they’re cheating with, especially when they know full well that they’re having an affair with a married person.

Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) is a Harvard grad who works in the law office of Jack (Cohen), a married partner in the firm. She knows of his marital status but she thinks he’s cute and attractive and that attraction only grows the longer she works there. One thing leads to another and soon the two are carrying on an affair.

When Emilia gets pregnant, Jack decides that he would rather be with her than with Carolyn (Kudrow), the driven but successful obstetrician. The two divorce with Jack unaccountably given custody of William (Tahan), their young son.

The baby is delivered and it’s a girl. A few days after coming home, tragically, the baby dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) leaving her parents disconsolate. Emilia particularly has a hard time dealing with the baby’s death, growing more distant and irritable. Her relationship with William has become a war, each side practicing little cruelties upon the other (she encourages the lactose-intolerant William to eat an ice cream sundae; he proposes she sell all the infant furniture and clothes on eBay). Carolyn in the meantime has instituted proceedings to take back custody of William. She has become shrewish and confrontational. Emilia’s parents (Cristofer and Monk), long-divorced after her father cheated on her mother as a result of a sex addiction, are trying to patch things up although Emilia has been unable to forgive him for abandoning her.

Emilia’s life is falling apart and so is she. Everything she touches seems to turn to ash; her close friend Mindy (Ambrose) and Simon (Rapp) are slowly being alienated and her marriage is close to over. Could this be karma finally catching up with the other woman?

Portman is showcased here in this film by veteran indie director Roos (The Opposite of Sex), based on the book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. This is a bit different than we’re used to from Roos who specializes in clever and light relationship comedies. The cinematography is strong here which makes for beautiful pictures telling a bleak story. That story is told mostly in flashback which requires a deft hand. It’s not a new method of storytelling but it is often botched, leaving the viewers confused and frustrated. That doesn’t happen here.

Portman is a gifted actress and she makes good use of her talents here. Emilia is far from being a saint – after all, she did initiate a relationship with a man that was already taken. She also shows a streak of arrogance and insensitivity, as well as a bit of temperamental cruelty that particularly surfaces after the baby’s death. This isn’t a character that invites audience identification and yet we wind up doing just that; Emilia’s deeds aren’t likable but Portman makes Emilia herself so.

Kudrow, who has appeared in several of Roos’ films, is usually a bit of a charming ditz in most of her roles but here she’s capable, a little cold and VERY pissed off. She’s justifiably angry too but as in the case of a fairly significant percentage of women whose husbands left them for the women they cheated with, saves her vitriol for the woman and not so much for her husband. One thinks Carolyn blames the entire affair on Emilia, even though it takes two to tango and Jack is quite the willing dance partner.

In fact, Cohen’s Jack seems a likable fellow and we don’t get any sense of why he felt compelled to cheat on his wife other than that the woman coming onto him is Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful and desirable women in Hollywood today. The movie never really examines too closely Jack’s culpability which I suppose is fitting since the title is The Other Woman, not The Cheating Husband.

I guess in a way the subject matter is a bit of a soap opera by nature, but it certainly feels as such in execution. There are some pretty adult subjects here, given the infidelity and the baby’s death and subsequent grieving of the mother but the handling is a bit heavy-handed whereas a more sensitive touch would have been appreciated.

This can be recommended for the performances of the lead women, although Tahan also turns in a good job. His byplay with Portman feels authentic and the strain between them is palpable. Those aspects of the movie work. What doesn’t is the apparent blameless nature of the man and the daytime drama approach of the screenplay, but it’s still worth seeing thanks to Portman and Kudrow.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Kudrow and Portman.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat soap opera-esque. Sensitive subject matter handled with an iron fist.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is fairly adult with a good deal of sexual content and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shelved for nearly two years during which time Portman won her Best Actress Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $452,191 on an unreported production budget. The movie might have broken even but I suspect that’s quite unlikely.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stepmom

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen