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A random quote for a random image.

(2018) Drama (Gravitas) Lindsey Shaw, Judd Nelson, Dendrie Taylor, James P. Engel, Leland Alexander Wheeler, Danna Maret, Veronnica Avila, John E. Tremba, F. Robert McMurray, Troy Bogdan, Mary Agnes Shearon. Directed by Jeremy Phillips

 

There is a difference between Art and art; art illuminates, Art condescends. Art calls attention to itself; art comes by your attention honestly. Art is pretentious; art is genuine. Art appeals to a limited “in” group; art is for everybody. I love art; I find it nearly impossible to personally connect to Art.

Lissa (Shaw) lives in a small rural Pennsylvania town where there isn’t much to do. Predictably, she’s bored. 20 years old and employed as a waitress, she is sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to find out if her life is going to change radically or not. While she waits, she reads her diary and the events of the last two years begin to flit through her mind. Her relationships with her boyfriend Daniel (Wheeler), her mother Joan (Taylor) and her father (Robert) are at the forefront of how she got to where she is at this very moment.

Phillips decides to tell his story in an unconventional way, using a barrage of visuals that employ all sorts of techniques from over-saturated colors to grainy home movie-like interludes to still photographs, soft focus and occasionally footage that doesn’t make sense. We see Lissa over time as somewhat manipulative and often difficult. Like many women her age, she makes plenty of bad choices (and occasionally some good ones). There is enough angst in her to fill one of the Great Lakes and then some; Phillips has stated that he wanted to essentially create a John Hughes coming of age movie for the 2010s. Molly Ringwald was obviously not available.

The images are jarring and distracting; there’s actually a pretty good story to be told here and maybe even some insight to be had but it gets drowned out by Phillips’ need to call attention to himself as a director. Shaw actually delivers a fairly compelling performance but it gets lost amid all the white noise. The electronic soundtrack also contributes to the chaos.

I really can’t recommend this at all. I spent most of the film wanting to be anywhere else but where I was and when the final credits started running, I felt relief more than anything else. I hate being snarky like this; I will allow that the movie didn’t connect with me in the least and that it’s quite possible – and maybe even likely – that it will connect with others. I hope that those folks find this movie. For my part, I really hope that Phillips takes to heart this advice; it’s not the singer, it’s the song. In other words, it’s not about the direction; it’s about the movie. The sad thing is that there was a decent story in here; it’s just too much effort to pluck it out from all the distractions going on.

REASONS TO GO: Shaw gives an effective performance.
REASONS TO STAY: I had a lot of trouble connecting with the film. Too many images become too distracting. One gets the sense that Phillips is trying to reinvent the wheel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack is by the Aussie-American indie rock group Liars and is their last recorded work after breaking up amicably in 2017.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Collected Works of Lars von Trier
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT:
Men on the Dragon

For Ahkeem


Attitude is everything.

(2017) Documentary (Transient) Daje Shelton, Antonio, Judge Jimmie Edwards, Tammy Shelton. Directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest

There are those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that All Lives Matter, not just black ones. Of course they do. The issue is that sometimes white America, particularly the institutions of law enforcement and education treat the African-American community with such contempt that reminders are necessary.

This documentary follows young African-American teen Daje “Boonie” Shelton. She’s a typical young girl in North St. Louis; she has friends she hangs out with, she likes boys and as far as school goes, meh! But Daje has some anger issues; she gets into fights at school and now she’s being expelled. She stands in front of Judge Jimmie Edwards, her mother Tammy at her side and Judge Edwards essentially tells the two of them that despite mom’s pleas for one more chance, Daje has run out of them. She has one option and one option only: to enroll in the alternative school that he helped found, the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA) which specializes in helping at-risk youths transition from the criminal justice system into the education system and break the endless cycle of jail, release, jail, release that besets so many African-American teens.

Daje is extremely reluctant to go but her mom and Judge Edwards impress upon her that her only other choice is to drop out and find a job and this Tammy is adamant that Daje avoid. Daje is a bright girl who has a shot at going to college and Tammy is encouraging her to go. Little by little, Daje begins to blossom at ICA and become more self-confident and even as she struggles with math, she has a good chance at graduating and getting into college. With the help of counselors and teachers who believe in her, Daje learns to shine.

She also meets a boy named Antonio and from the moment they lock eyes they’re joined at the hip. Antonio has even more difficulty handling school than Daje and eventually drops out. Shortly thereafter Daje discovers she’s pregnant. The odds just got a little tougher but she perseveres, taking care of her pregnancy as well as school. Once she gives birth, she’s all about her baby boy Ahkeem. Everything she does is for him.

The baby daddy though is making a lot of bad decisions that put him in jail and on probation for a variety of crimes. Even though he professes when Ahkeem is born that he will get  a job and support his son so that he has the opportunities he himself didn’t have, he fails to follow through and instead gets arrested for being involved with a stolen vehicle and then caught with enough marijuana while on probation for the first crime to get arrested again.

Daje has a whole lot of attitude and not very much in the way of accountability when the documentary begins. The problems she has, according to Daje, are not her fault and yet Daje makes a lot of very poor decisions. The a-ha moment for me though was when I considered raising my own son at her age; he was also prone to making some pretty poor decisions. Unlike Daje and Antonio, he had far more opportunities to get his act together. He didn’t have the police breathing down his neck treating him like a criminal just for ambling around the neighborhood. When you treat someone like a criminal, they are far more likely to become one.

The filmmakers remain unobtrusive (although I’m sure that they made quite a stir at ICA) and nonjudgmental throughout. They present Daje’s life as it happens. They had no way of knowing that she would get pregnant (although statistics say that the potential was relatively high) and no way of knowing that she would graduate (which statistics said was far less likely). What happens to Daje happens to a lot of African-American women – her mother relates a very similar story which is why she is so adamant that Daje go to college. The filmmakers simply document and that is the essence of a documentary. My hat is off to them.

Daje in many ways is the face of African-American teen girls. She faces the same challenges, has the same hopes and dreams and survives the same environment. Despite the presence of Barack Obama in the White House when this was filmed, she knew very well that she was part of a system that was broken and yet there wasn’t much will in the corridors of power to do anything to fix that system. Now, with a new President and control of the legislature and the Supreme Court in the hands of men who seem to have little or no incentive to fix things in the African-American community, the outlook is even bleaker.

Leaving the screening for this film, I found myself wondering what sort of chance Ahkeem has at all. It took some time and reflection to consider that the problem isn’t just Ahkeem’s parents; it’s the environment that he lives in. During the course of filming, a young man named Michael J. Brown was shot in nearby Ferguson, sparking nationwide protests and giving rise to Black Lives Matter. Daje has a notebook which is littered with “R.I.P.” notices for fallen friends, most victims of gang and drug violence and she herself carries the scar of a bullet wound. The life expectancy of a young African-American man is not very long and the opportunities for escaping the cycle of poverty and crime not very many. For those opportunities to arise, white America will need to learn to perceive African-Americans differently. Documentaries like this one will help in doing that.

REASONS TO GO: A true slice of life of the issues African-American teens are facing today. Filmmakers take a nonjudgmental approach and are unobtrusive throughout. We get to watch Daje grow and blossom over the course of the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the choices Daje and Antonio make will frustrate you. May be uncomfortably grim for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers, both white, followed Daje around for her Junior and Senior years of high school.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Girl Flu

Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

The Woman


This is the new Goth look.

This is the new Goth look.

(2011) Horror (Bloody Disgusting) Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Marcia Bennett, Sean Bridgers, Carlee Baker, Tommy Nelson, Lauren Ashley Carter, Shyla Molhusen, Vincent Gordon, Zach Rand, Shelby Mailloux, Laura Petre, Lauren Schroeder, Alexa Marcigliano. Directed by Lucky McKee

Take the animal out of the person and, so the way of thinking goes, you are left with a civilized human being. Often however that civilization is only a veneer and when you strip it away you find the inner animal.

Chris Cleek (Bridgers) is a lawyer and a family man, well-respected around town. He likes to go hunting now and again and on one such trip he spies a woman (McIntosh) with a fishing knife in the river spearing it and eating it raw on the end of her knife. He is fascinated by this obviously feral woman and decides to take her home and civilize her. He captures her with a net and knocks her out.

When she awakens, she is chained in his garage on his rural, isolated property. Cleek turns out to be a monster, abusing his wife Belle (Bettis) and oldest daughter Peggy (Carter) who is becoming withdrawn at school, her grades plummeting. His son Brian (Rand) is developing a sadistic streak of his own. The youngest, Darlin (Molhusen) is just a toddler.

Chris begins enlisting his family in “civilizing” the woman, using a pressure hose to wash her, and subjecting her to all sorts of torment. Brian participates enthusiastically while Belle and Peggy are much more reluctant. In the meantime Mrs. Raton (Baker) has become suspicious of Peggy’s change in behavior and decides to pay the home a visit.

There she’ll find a house of horrors that she (and we) didn’t expect. Survival of the fittest is what nature teaches us and the woman will have to be very fit indeed to make it out of the garage alive.

This movie debuted at Sundance  in 2011 to a great deal of controversy. A significant portion of the audience walked out on the film and those that stayed accused it of being misogynistic trash. This is where you can tell the difference between a critic who understands film and those who don’t – there is a difference between a misogynistic film and one in which misogynistic acts are displayed. On the one hand, the agenda is to describe women as inferior who deserve the treatment that they’re receiving; clearly in this movie the men are the monsters, perpetrating all manner of horrors on women. However, it is these men who are woman-haters – these characters. We are able to identify them as such by their behavior. Calling this movie misogynistic is like calling the makers of the Bond films megalomaniacs because their villains behave in that manner.

A superior performance is demanded of McIntosh and, fortunately, received. She doesn’t utter a word of dialogue other than grunts, snorts, screams and screeches. Much of her acting is done through body language and through her eyes. An Oscar-winning performance this ain’t but it does show a great deal of physical talent. I’m not sure she’ll get a lot of opportunities out of this but she should – there’s a real deal actress under all the grime.

There is a good deal of gore and violence, including the (inevitable) sexual assault of the woman by Chris. This is definitely not for the squeamish or those who find violence and sex distasteful. Then, this isn’t the sort of movie that was really made for that sort of person. It is a movie about the savage inside us, one that often has a civilized veneer. Which one was truly the monster – the Woman or Chris? I think you’ll find that question easy enough to answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Brutal but not meant to be taken seriously. McIntosh lets it all hang out in her portrayal of a feral woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some might find it misogynistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Warning, this is a pretty shocking film by any standards. Let’s see, there’s some pretty graphic violence and gore, misogynistic  behavior, a fairly brutal rape, graphic nudity, foul language and torture. Louise May Alcott this ain’t.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word anophthalmia which is used repeatedly during the film by Chris refers to the congenital absence of an eye or both eyes and teases one of the aspects of the film’s climax.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an animated short and a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Promised Land

Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls