The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

Searching for Sugar Man


Just chillin', Detroit-style.

Just chillin’, Detroit-style.

(2012) Music Documentary (Sony Classics) Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Clarence Avant, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Möller, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

documented

Fame in the music business is a very fickle thing. Some have it who don’t deserve it. Some deserve it who don’t have it. Some work hard to get it while others couldn’t care less if they have it. Fame isn’t the be-all and end-all for a musician, but it is a measure of how much their music gets heard, which is after all what being a musician is all about.

Rodriguez was a young folk singer in the late 1960s working in the Detroit area. A construction worker by day, he’d play in seedy bars at night, wowing crowds with his direct songwriting style and his plaintive voice. A pair of executives for a subsidiary of Motown records saw him perform and thinking they’d discovered the next big thing, signed the young troubadour to a contract, knowing Motown wanted to make inroads in the rock market.

His first album, Cold Fact (1970) was a legendary flop, barely selling enough to make up the cost of catering for the project. The follow-up Coming From Reality (1971) also bombed. The label dropped Rodriguez and he faded from view, doomed to the obscurity of failed rock and roll careers.

Except a funny thing happened. In apartheid-era South Africa, his music struck a chord. Anti-apartheid activists used its direct appeal for unity as a rallying point. Although the repressive South African government banned the music on their government-owned radio or from being imported into their country, bootlegged copies sold like wildfire. In fact, Rodriguez outsold Elvis in South Africa.

Segerman, an enterprising record store owner, and Strydom, a rock journalist, decided to see if they could find Rodriguez for the purpose of bringing him to South Africa to perform. That proved to be very difficult; there was little information about him available and rumors even had it that he had even committed suicide, either shooting himself in the head or dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire depending on who you talked to. There was no evidence of either version having happened definitively but the rumors were persistent.

So were the two men however and their journey was followed by Bendjelloul, a Swedish actor/filmmaker. It was no easy task finding a man who didn’t know anyone was looking for him, a man who had left fame and its trappings behind. The men weren’t even sure they would find a living legend, or a dead rumor. Even in the era of the Internet their search was frustrating and often fruitless, until it took an unexpected turn.

Bendjelloul treats this not just as a documentary but as a mystery as well and we watch the step by step search. Therefore we feel like we’re searching for Rodriguez as well, and the information so tantalizing, so compelling that we get caught up in it. Part of the reason is that they make liberal use of his music as a soundtrack and yes, everything you’ve heard is right – the music is amazing. It is almost incomprehensible to me why this man never made it. His music is as good as anything you have heard from that era or since, but even now there are those who say that because he just used his own last name that people figured he was a Mexican singing Mexican folk. This is nothing of the sort, my friends, other than the penchant of Mexican folk music to be about social justice.

There isn’t a ton of archival footage of Rodriguez so it’s augmented by animation and contemporary interviews with those involved in his career. The movie never gets boring a Bendjelloul takes us through every twist and turn the investigators take. I won’t tell you what the results of their investigations are, only that you will feel inspired once the closing credits start rolling.

This won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013 and it was against some pretty stiff competition, including The Gatekeepers and The Invisible War but that would turn out to be sadly not enough. Bendjelloul, about a year later, committed suicide after battling depression all his life in an irony that can’t be escaped, considering the subject of his documentary was rumored to have committed suicide himself. It is a bittersweet coda to what is otherwise an amazing, wonderful movie that at the very least stands as an enduring legacy not only to Rodriguez but to Bendjelloul, his talent as a filmmaker and his obvious humanity.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing story well-told. A soundtrack that will stay in your memory for a long time. Uplifting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally looks like it was shot on an iPhone – which some of it was.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intent was for Bendjelloul to do 3D animations to augment the film but he couldn’t afford them so the oven paper drawings he did to illustrate what he intended to do were used in the film instead.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with the director and star of the documentary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Documented continues

Little Accidents


Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

(2014) Drama (Archer Gray) Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas, Jacob Lofland, Chloe Sevigny, Beau Wright, Randy Springer, Louie Lawless, Joseph Longo, Travis Tope, Alexia Rasmussen, Kate DeLuca, Tim Gooch, Mike Bizzarri, Peter Herrick, Steven St. Gelais, James DeForest Parker, Mike Seely, Kimberly Shrewsbury. Directed by Sara Colangelo

There are those who say that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t discern what those reasons are. However, there are those who think that life is a series of accidents great and small, that things happen entirely through random chance. I guess your point of view depends on whether or not you believe in luck or that you make your own luck.

Amos (Holbrook) is a quiet, single young man living in the small town of Beckley, West Virginia. He doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary except for one thing; he was the sole survivor of a mining accident that took the lives of ten of his fellow miners. After having been out of town recuperating and undergoing physical therapy, he has finally returned home, still unable to use all of his limbs fully. The town waits with baited breath to see how he testifies about the accident. Should he say it was company negligence, the families of the dead (and Amos himself) would get an enormous payday. However the rest of the miners know that if that happens, the company will close its doors and they’ll all be out of a job. Both sides are putting a great deal of pressure on Amos.

Bill Doyle (Lucas) is the manager of the mine that collapsed. The company is already putting distance between him and them, telling him to get his own legal representation and putting him on suspension. But he has far more on his mind – his son JT (Tope) has disappeared and there has been no trace of him for days. His wife Diane (Banks) is beginning to suspect her husband had something to do with the disaster – certainly the town thinks so. Despite her grief, the town is turning their backs on her and her husband, shunning them.

Owen (Lofland) is going through a difficult time. His father was one of the miners killed in the accident. His mother (Sevigny) is showering him and his Downs-afflicted brother James (Wright) with gifts of video games and iPods. Owen, a high school freshman, wants desperately to fit in among the older kids, even bribing them with beer but they tend to make fun of him and think of him as beneath them. He carries a terrible secret – he alone knows what happened to JT.

The power of the secrets carried within begins to tell upon all of the main characters who start to unravel. Diane begins an ill-advised affair while Amos dithers between telling the truth about the accident and lying about it. Owen, wracked with guilt and pain, strikes up friendships with both Amos and Diane, one representing the father he lost and the other representing the friend he might have had.

First-time director Colangelo chose to film in a small West Virginia coal mining town and that gives the film the right atmosphere of authenticity but the real authenticity comes from the emotional reactions of the players involved. Owen, in particular, acts like a child unequipped to deal with a terrible situation, acting out and behaving out of panic.

The one exception to this is the relationship between Diane and Amos, which doesn’t ring quite so true and doesn’t have the feel of a relationship motivated out of sex nor one out of emotional need. It’s like they’re together because they don’t have anything else better to do and I felt zero sparks between the two of them.

That said, I think Holbrook has huge potential. The former model and poet is electric here, showing the quiet dignity of a Gary Cooper mixed in with the warm humanity of a Tom Hanks. While he has gotten some buzz in previous appearances, here he shows not only that he can carry a film emotionally but he has the screen presence to hold our attention every moment he’s on the screen.

Lofland, who was impressive in Mud, is just as good here. He carries the look of a boy haunted by demons larger than he can bear and still he has time to be protective of his younger brother. He does lash out at his mom who attributes it to missing his dad, and then he sort of adopts Diane as a surrogate mom, the mom he wished he had perhaps. It’s a terrific performance and when you consider Lofland’s age, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he may turn out to have the kind of talent that we’ve seen from Abigail Breslin, Haley Joel Osment, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Hutcherson and Dakota Fanning.  He may end up being better than any of them.

All in all, this is a wrenching movie about the choices we make, the consequences of those choices and the secrets we choose to keep and how they affect us. It’s a slice of life movie sure, but there is something almost epic about this particular slice even though the film itself is very intimate and low-key. It is the subjects of this movie that are greater than the sum of its parts. This may end up like Winter’s Bone in the sense that it brings a huge star to public notice – world, meet Boyd Holbrook. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Fine performances by Holbrook, Lofland and Lucas. Excellent emotional realism.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Relationship between Amos and Diana is unconvincing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language, some sexuality and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were torn between two locations, one in Northern Kentucky before settling on Beckley, West Virginia only a week before pre-production began.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/14: Since the movie is not yet in general or limited release, there are no scores as yet on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Skies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice