Homeless (2015)


This ain't Oshkosh, B'Gosh!

This ain’t Oshkosh, B’Gosh!

(2015) Drama (Wet Paint) Michael McDowell, Julie Dunagan, Lance Megginson, Hosanna Gourley, J.W. Buriss, Parker Townsend, Carole Midura, Michael Francis Paolucci, Alec VanOwen Nance, Carlise Dixon, Tammy Bason, Jeffrey Fetts, Deborah Keller, Dena Bleu, Samuel Hoggs, Bruce Florence, Melissa Stuckey, Karen Reynolds, Mara McCaffray. Directed by Clay Riley Hassler

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of homeless people – assuming we think of them at all – we tend to view them with distaste; dirty, smelly, drug-addicted drunks who are colossal failures at life. They are in the predicament they are in because they’ve made terrible choices, or have been massive screw-ups. We rarely feel sympathy and if anything, we would rather sweep them out of sight, out of mind.

Gosh (McDowell) – pronounced “Josh” –  is not like that. He’s a teen who has fallen through the cracks. His father is in jail, his mother out of the picture. He has been raised by his grandmother (Midura) since his father was jailed but now his granny is dead and gone; he has nowhere to go, nobody to take him in.

He goes to a homeless shelter whose rules are overly restrictive. He spends his days trying to apply for jobs that he can never get without a place of residence. He hangs out in places where he can hang out without being thrown out on his ear. Being that it’s Christmas time, indoors is preferable as the weather outside is frightful. Being inside though is not so delightful.

It is inevitable that the shelter throws him out on his ear. He goes to a mall for shelter and while sitting in a food court is approached by Tina (Dunagan) who is handing out free samples of bourbon chicken at the Chinese food kiosk in the food court. She takes the time to talk to him and helps him get a job standing outside the mall in a sandwich board pimping the eatery. She also puts him up in her home when she finds out he doesn’t have anywhere to go. There he befriends her son and begins a relationship with Krystal (Gourley), a local waitress. He’s amassing a good deal of cash. Things are looking up.

But Tina has financial problems of her own and having an extra mouth to feed, particularly a teenage one, is putting an unbearable strain on her. She makes a choice that will have terrible consequences on Gosh.

At this year’s Florida Film Festival, two films dealt with homelessness in America. While the first movie (see below) dealt with the issue in an urban, African-American environment, this takes a look at the problem in a smaller city (Winston-Salem) and while some of the Catch-22 issues of the first film are present in the second, they are different movies entirely.

Like in Imperial Dreams, the lead performance is strong. While John Boyega is a superstar in the making, McDowell doesn’t quite have the same screen presence – yet. However, he does deliver a compelling performance that grabs the attention of the viewer from beginning to end. Gosh isn’t always the most likable of characters. He is, after all, a teenager and sometimes he does things that make you want to bang your head against the nearest stone wall. However, he’s caught in a situation that few of us will be able to relate to and likely would handle less well than he does. There’s some awkwardness in his personal relationships, which is to be expected in someone his age. He has his hopes and dreams but his dreams are quite basic; for shelter, love, acceptance, food…things we take for granted.

Hassler captures the boredom of homelessness. There isn’t much to do all day but wait around, read a newspaper perhaps and wait for calls from potential employers that never come. The loneliness that Gosh undergoes is easily discernible, and heartbreaking. At one point he is so heartsick he can barely respond to those who are trying to communicate with him; it’s absolutely gut-wrenching to watch.

The score reminds me somewhat of the music of Peter Gabriel which is a very good thing. While I thought the movie could have used a bit of trimming, it takes on an important social issue that deserves further imagination and does it well. Some might find it to be too much of a downer, and to be honest the introduction of Tina’s son into the mix is unnecessary and adds nothing to the story. Still, this is a solid movie that deserves to be seen, one of many such at this year’s Florida Film Festival. Hopefully it will catch some sort of distribution and either make it to home video, broadcast or even a theatrical release. If so, find a way to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Fine performance by McDowell. Terrific score. Tackles an important social issue.
REASONS TO STAY: Relentlessly grim. Feels too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was entirely filmed in the Winston-Salem area over 25 days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: I Am Thor

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I Believe in Unicorns


This is what every Disney princess longs for.

This is what every Disney princess longs for.

(2014) Drama (Animals on Parade) Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff, Justin Hall, Sam O’Gotti, Johnny Sequoyah, Eric A. H. Watson. Directed by Leah Meyerhoff

Florida Film Festival 2014

I am not a teenage girl. I have never been a teenage girl. I will never be a teenage girl. On the surface, I’m exactly the wrong guy to review this movie. However, I do have the benefit of having a wife who was once a teenage girl and her insights have been very helpful in writing this.

Davina (Dyer) is not your typical teenage girl – if there is such a thing. Her mom (T. Meyerhoff) is confined to a wheelchair. She’d been diagnosed with a debilitating disease and with her marriage on the rocks, she hoped a baby might make her husband stay. It didn’t.

So Davina is her mom’s caregiver on top of having to deal with normal teenage stuff – boy craziness, needing to find herself in a world that doesn’t necessarily want you to do anything more than conform, the fear that nobody will find you attractive, the fear that somebody will. On top of that she cooks and cleans and takes care of her mom’s needs. To escape her life, she has an active imagination in which unicorns exist and do battle with monsters, but she needs more than a fantasy life. Something has to give.

In a local park, Davina observes a skater boy named Sterling (Vack). He’s really cute. A hunk, even. She envies his free spirit. He admires her beauty. She’s a virgin but doesn’t necessarily want to stay that way. A tipping point is reached. She and Sterling run away, destination anywhere but there.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that in many ways the female teen audience has been underserved. Hollywood seems content to give them Twilight clones and while that might be plentiful box office, it doesn’t really give them any insight into themselves, into the things they are going through. You know, life. Sure there are occasional movies with bitchy cheerleader cliques and high school angst but those movies have a tendency to lack any sort of reality, or even empathy.

So you’d think I’d be breaking out the champagne and party hats for a movie like this and to an extent, but that isn’t the case. I’d really, really like to, because I think the movie can be valuable to parents and their daughters, but I have a few issues with it. I will be the first to tell you that some of them might be a little unfair.

Seeing as many films as I do, you get a sense of some of the cliches that independent films are rife with. One of them is the confusion between child-like and childish. Now your definitions may vary but I define the former as possession of the wonder that a child experiences and the latter as doing whatever occurs to you without thought of consequence. While I get that the characters here are little more than children, their behavior is completely childish. It can get grating, particularly when they get all indie-cute and start running around fields like maniacs, laughing and acting childish. I wouldn’t mind so much if I hadn’t seen the same kind of scene in dozens of indie films in the past couple of years alone. I found these scenes distracting and annoying and veteran filmgoers probably will too.

I do think that the unicorn sequences which are mainly stop-motion animation are clever and imaginative and they are likely some of the most memorable things about the film. Vack plays Sterling a little bit too much with dude-ness which may irritate anybody outside the California state lines, but Dyer does a bang-up job as Davina and even though she too got on my nerves with her actions sometimes, so would any teenager I hung out with for more than an hour.

So it will come as no shock to you, dear reader, that my wife loved this movie much more than I did. I fully intended to give this a much more scathing review but she prevailed upon me with some fairly logical points and said in her gentle but firm way that just because I’m not the audience this film is meant for doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid experience for someone else. Fair enough, but that then leads to the conclusion that this movie isn’t for everybody and I honestly think it could have been. I’m not saying have the young kids act like responsible adults – that wouldn’t be realistic – but make them less cliche indie film characters. Then maybe it becomes less of a film for a certain age and gender bracket but one we can all share – and perhaps learn from. Even so, this should be mandatory viewing for teenage girls and those who love them.

REASONS TO GO: Teen girls will find this compelling. Some interesting images. Unicorn animations are fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on indie sass. The immaturity of the leads may be grating on some. More childish than child-like.

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasional swearing, teen drinking and partying as well as some frank teen sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Meyerhoff, who plays Davina’s mother, is actually the director’s mother and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before her birth. She has been in a wheelchair ever since and the director’s experiences growing up as her mother’s caretaker was the inspiration for this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Yellow

Paranormal Activity 2


Paranormal Activity 2

Has this franchise already gone to the dogs?

(2010) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Sprague Grayden, Seth Ginsberg, Vivis, William Juan Prieto, Jackson Xenia Prieto, David Bierend.  Directed by Tod Williams

If at first you succeed, goes the Hollywood logic, make a sequel and if possible, put as little variation into the formula that made the first movie a success as possible. Sometimes that works out nicely and other times, well…

Daniel Rey (Boland), his wife Kristi (Grayden) and their teenage daughter Ali (Ephraim) have a new addition to the family; newborn son Hunter (the Prieto twins) who’s just come home for the first time. Unfortunately, their house gets trashed by apparent vandals who take nothing but the incident is sufficiently disturbing enough for Daniel to install a system of security cameras in the house.

Flash-forward a bit. Hunter is crawling and able to stand, although he’s not walking yet. Things are beginning to go bump in the night and clang in the day; a frying pan falls from its place, seemingly without provocation. A pool cleaner rises up out of the pool without explanation. Cabinet doors fly open by themselves.

Most of the activity seems centered around Hunter. Further explanation comes from Ali’s internet research, and the fact that Kristi is sister to Katie (Featherston), who along with Micah (Sloat) were the protagonists of the Paranormal Activity. This takes place in the two months before the activities in Paranormal Activity and in case you didn’t figure it out, a graphic reading “60 Days before Micah Sloan’s death” should fill in the blanks. Portentous ain’t it?

What worked really well in the first movie was the sense that you had no clue what was going to happen next. Things were done with light and shadow that made even ordinary vistas creepier; you looked long and hard at the footage, trying to determine what was moving all by itself or was about to. You were thrown off-guard in nearly every frame.

This time that doesn’t happen so much. The trouble with sequels is that you do have a clue what’s going to happen next and let’s face it, the sequel follows the original here pretty faithfully in terms of structure. Of course as a studio film the new one has a budget which while miniscule by Hollywood standards is still quite a bit more than the first movie.

Featherston and Sloat (who are top-billed in the credits) make only cameo appearances. The new family may have more dynamics because there are more members (including the nanny Martina (Vivis) who dabbles in Hispanic spiritualism on the side. However, there just isn’t as much realism in the relationship as with the first couple, who bickered and flirted and kidded each other so naturally they felt like a real couple. Here, this is more of a typical Hollywood family who  act the way Hollywood thinks families act.

I don’t have a problem with that, but in a case where you’re trying to give the movie a documentary you-are-there kind of feel, it makes it more difficult to achieve that feeling. The first movie did it; the second movie doesn’t and that is really where the crux of the differences between them lies. There are scares, sure – plenty of them, mostly of the gotcha variety but the atmosphere of absolute dread, the feeling of being trapped in an inevitable spiral that was going to end badly just isn’t there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of reasons to rent this movie, none the least of which is that it is competently made, it gives you some background about events in the first movie and lays down the seeds for the next one which hopefully might give the series closure, or at least this chapter of it (the beauty of the concept is that it can be set to different houses and different families easily). I suppose that the movie already has a strike against it in that if you’ve already seen the first, this might not feel as new and refreshing. I imagine if you watch this one first you’ll wind up being fonder of it than the original. Still in all, it doesn’t really sour you on the franchise and while it doesn’t measure up in terms of impact, it still packs plenty of wallop of its own.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice scares and a bit of explanation behind the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too formulaic. The relationship between Daniel and Kristi is far less convincing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the father’s character – Daniel Rey – came from an indie rock producer who among others produced albums for the Ramones and the Misfits, posters for each can be seen in Ali’s room.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.7M on a $3M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: X-Men: First Class