Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker

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Coming to My Senses


This is the look of a man who lives life on his own terms.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Aaron Baker, Laquita Dian, Arielle Baker, Taylor Kevin Isaacs, Dan Baker, Katie Devine, Igor Fineman, Adam Rice, Adam Zerbe, Pat McMahon, Dominic Gill, Rick Bobbington, Hollyn Thompson. Directed by Dominic Gill

Aaron Baker had his whole life ahead of him. He was one of the up-and-coming stars on the motocross circuit and the sky was the limit.Then in 1999 he suffered a horrific injury during a race, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

The prognosis was grim. Doctors told him that he had a one in a million shot of feeding himself ever again. Walking was just about out of the question. Plenty of people who have the kind of injuries Baker had suffered essentially sit back and wait to die but Aaron Baker wasn’t that kind of person.

He took the negativity as a challenge and swore to himself that he would walk again someday. Through physical therapy and an innovative concept – his sister painted each of his toenails a different color and he visualized his muscles moving to each colored toe. He began to show signs of movement.

Then the rug was literally pulled out from under him; his insurance company refused to continue to pay for physical therapy, essentially telling him that they weren’t willing to throw money into a situation that was medically hopeless. Aaron grew depressed and even his mother Laquita sank into alcoholism to cope with her son’s pain.

But the funny thing was that this only shored up Aaron’s determination. His mother, infected by that determination, found a kinesiologist that not only Aaron could afford but who proposed a radical program of exercise. Soon he indeed was able to walk again but that wasn’t enough for Aaron. An athlete his entire life, he decided to take up bike riding, riding a tandem bike across country and then later a specially built three wheel bicycle. Recently, he decided to walk 19.6 miles from Death Valley to Baker, California to call attention to the hope that all good things are possible even to those with the direst of injuries.

Gill and maybe Baker as well have an affinity with the desert; it seems to be the landscape in nearly every shot. Some of the cinematography (which Gill also provided) is breathtaking but not as much as the story is. You can’t help but admire Aaron Baker’s determination. He is living proof that doctors aren’t always right and that the human spirit can be more powerful even than modern medicine. These are not lessons we should ignore.

At times this feels a bit heavy on the bro-ness. Maybe extreme sports bring out that reaction in me but the guys and gals who practice these types of sports have a surfeit of testosterone running through their veins. Maybe it’s because they drink far more Mountain Dew than human beings should be allowed to but I found it off-putting in places

That aside, the inter-cutting of Baker’s desert journey with his rehabilitation is mostly effective although there isn’t always a lot of context provided; things like this cost money and while sponsors are vaguely alluded to, we don’t really get a sense of how fundraising was accomplished. There’s also almost no comments from any of Aaron’s peers in motocross or among the paraplegic community. We really see this almost entirely out of Aaron’s and Gill’s eyes and that gives the movie a bit of a hagiographic feel that it would have done better without.

REASONS TO GO: This is an inspiring journey, literally and figuratively.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the movie feels a bit heavy on the “bro.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing there are more than 1.46 million Americans afflicted with spinal cord injuries of varying degrees.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

Love & Saucers


David Huggins does his best Nosferatu impression.

(2017) Documentary (Curator/The Orchard) David Huggins, Michael Huggins, Harold Egeln, Anthony Lisa, Nitten Patel, Doug Auld, Jeffrey Kripel, Andrzej Nowicki.  Directed by Brad Abrahams

 

There are those who insist that we are not alone in the universe. Certainly the law of averages agrees with them; there are so many habitable planets in this galaxy alone that the odds are that life has evolved on at least some of them and of those that life evolved on, the odds are that intelligent life has evolved on at least some of those. Some perhaps even intelligent enough to invent faster-than-light space travel; some perhaps curious enough to explore this big blue marble.

David Huggins at first glance seems like an ordinary 72-year-old man in Hoboken, New Jersey. He works part time at a deli; he’s quiet but personable and radiates a grandfatherly kindness. He spends most of his time painting, a passion of his that at one time he wanted to turn into a career but that never materialized, alas.

David has a strange story to tell; as an 8-year-old living in rural Georgia he began to receive visits from creatures not of this world. As a 17-year-old, he lost his virginity to an alien woman he called Crescent; for six years she would be what he termed his “girlfriend” and they had regular…er, conjugal visits.

He largely forgot about his bizarre past until the episodes began showing up as paintings that he felt compelled to create. He had gone on to marry a fellow artist and had a son (Michael) by her but Michael was apparently not his only child. David recalls a hybrid alien child who Crescent informed him was his child and it was dying. Clearly he was distraught about the situation but it eventually ends with the child surviving; and as it turns out, the hybrid had many brothers and sisters.

Skeptics are going to have a field day with this; Abraham doesn’t do much to argue with any of David’s claims. I can understand why; David certainly seems pretty sincere in his beliefs and while there may be alternate explanations for what David has experienced, they aren’t explored and one gets the sense that Abrahams is giving David the benefit of the doubt and accepting his story at face value. Not every filmmaker would have the objectivity to do that.

One of the things that annoyed me about the documentary was the music. Derk Reneman alternates between Korla Pandit-like organ noodling to electronic burbling. It’s very repetitive and very noticeable which is not what you want out of your soundtrack. However, it’s offset by the visuals of the paintings themselves which Huggins himself admits are heavily influenced by impressionism but aren’t quite in that genre. They are quite interesting albeit a little on the fantastic side. Some won’t connect to them much but art is always – always – in the eye of the beholder.

There aren’t a lot of talking heads in this (other than David himself) until the end of the barely an hour long film and for the most part they all agree that David is a very nice guy and sincere in his beliefs. His son Michael appears and is very diplomatic; one suspects that while he loves his dad he finds his beliefs somewhat eccentric. In any case, Michael has moved to Thailand with his family and seems well-adjusted enough. Conspicuous by her absence is David’s wife Janice who declined to be interviewed for the film. One wonders if the marriage itself is on stable ground or if Janice just finds her husband’s stories annoying. I can imagine it’s a very different experience living with someone who has these tales to tell.

This isn’t an essential movie by any means but it is entertaining and while it is unlikely to change your mind about the existence of extra-terrestrials, it will at least fill up your hour with an unusual take on them. The movie is widely available on VOD (see below) and if you enjoy biographical documentaries about unusual people or if you’re just reasonably interested in alien abductions, this might be something new for you to consider.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer gets the sense that Huggins is absolutely truthful or at least believes himself to be. The paintings have their own strange beauty.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is often annoying and cheesy. The narrative bounces all over the place without a lot of flow to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much sexuality and some nudity in paintings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Abrahams’ first feature-length documentary as a solo director (he also co-directed last year’s On the Back of a Tiger.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Boss Baby

The Hero


Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott are most definitely amused.

(2017) Dramedy (The Orchard) Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katherine Ross, Doug Cox, Max Gail, Jackie Joyner, Patrika Darbo, Frank Collison, Andy Alio, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Linda Lee McBride, Christopher May, Demetrios Sailes, Sherwin Ace Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Todd Glieberhain, Norman De Buck, Barbara Scolaro. Directed by Brett Haley

In many ways, we use the term “hero” a bit too loosely in our society. A hero can be a first responder rushing into a burning building to rescue those trapped inside, or it can be a dad willing to play catch with his son. It’s a matter of perspective. One person’s hero is another person’s non-entity.

Lee Hayden (Elliott) was once upon a time an actor of Westerns who was one of the best of his time. His film The Hero remains an iconic look at the Old West. However, he didn’t know that was to be his career highlight. Now in his 70s, the actor smokes pot, hangs out with a former co-star and child actor now turned pot dealer Jeremy (Offerman) who ends up introducing him to another client, stand-up comedian Charlotte Dylan (Prepon). Lee’s agent isn’t exactly what you’d call a go-getter; his career has been stalled for some time, having only a barbecue sauce radio commercial to fall back on and a Lifetime Achievement award for a small-time Western Film Appreciation Society. We all know Lifetime Achievement awards are code for “I didn’t know he was still alive.”

This is all taking place about the time that Lee learns he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Lee copes with the news by snapping at his friends and smoking all the pot he can get his hands on. A chance encounter with Charlotte at a taco truck leads to an endearingly awkward invitation to be his date at the award ceremony.

His acceptance speech in which he pays a somewhat heartfelt but molly-addled thanks to his fans goes viral and suddenly he has offers and opportunities that he hasn’t had in decades. His relationship with Charlotte though is going through some rocky patches, his daughter Lucy (Ritter) doesn’t want to see him and Lee is terrified at what his future holds. What truly makes a hero?

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room – Sam Elliott is an iconic actor with a voice that sounds as timeless as the Grand Canyon and a face twice as lined. This folks is arguably the best performance of his storied career. While I admit it’s a bit strange watching Elliott as a pot head, this is as nuanced and as versatile a performance as I can recall him giving. He has moments when he’s funny as hell (as when he tells an adoring fan who loves his moustache “It loves you too, honey” and gives her a sweet peck on the cheek) and others that are pure pathos. My favorite moment in the movie is when he tells his ex-wife (played by his actual real life wife Katherine Ross) that he has cancer. The scene is shot in long shot and we don’t hear what’s actually said. We just see the ex break down and Lee move to comfort her. It’s an amazing moment by two pros who I wouldn’t mind seeing much more of on the silver screen.

And now for the other elephant in the room (this room sure holds a lot of elephants); the cancer-centric plot. It’s not that we haven’t been through hordes of movies that are about aging parents with limited time left trying to reconcile with their angry children and yes, that’s exactly what’s going on here. However, it never feels maudlin under the sure direction of Brett Haley and Elliott and his fine supporting cast make sure that the characters always feel real; never do we feel like Hayden is almost superhuman in his stoic acceptance of his oncoming date with death. Hayden shows moments of terror and at last realizing he can’t do it on his own reaches out to those closest to him.

The movie was a big hit at Sundance and was selected as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. That’s a high bar to live up to but The Hero easily reaches its lofty expectations and exceeds them. While some may think of the movie as being too sugary sweet on paper (and I admit it looks that way but only on paper) the reality is that the emotions felt genuine to me and Elliott’s performance transcends a lot of the fears I’d normally have with a movie like this. You may need a few tissues here and there but in reality this is the portrait of a truly heroic man, the kind of man who has become increasingly rare these days – a man’s man. With the scarcity of that particular species, it makes all sorts of sense to me that a woman Prepon’s age would fall for a man of Elliott’s. As hoary as the Hollywood May/December romance is, it works here. That’s a minor miracle in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this may be the best performance of Elliott’s career. There are some real nice visuals. The film is an interesting take on the nature of heroism.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more drug use than you’d expect as well as a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elliott and Ross are married in real life (they play exes here); this is the first cinematic appearance by Ross in ten years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Fall, Winter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Gangster’s Daughter

The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal

Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

Ghost Team


Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

(2016) Horror Comedy (The Orchard) Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Justin Long, Melonie Diaz, Amy Sedaris, Paul W. Downs, Tom Schiller, Joel Marsh Garland, Doug Drucker, Rob DeRosa, Martin Barabas, Clem McIntosh, Shane Velez, Vincenzo Vaccaro, Veronika Dash. Directed by Oliver Irving

 

For the most part, we’re all fascinated by the paranormal. Who doesn’t want to see proof of life after we pass on? The existence of ghosts certainly is one of those things that have fascinated us for centuries, and yet for the most part, ghosts still remain essentially mythical figures. That doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped searching for definitive proof of their existence.

Plenty of television programs have documented the search of paranormal investigation teams. One of the most well-known is Ghost Getters which copy store clerk Louis (Heder) watches religiously. When the team puts out the call for a new member, Louis is psyched to apply, but he wants to stand out – by conducting his own investigation.

It’s hard to do when one’s day is mostly spent printing Lost Dog fliers. However when a curmudgeonly old man looking to get some laminated No Trespassing signs printed up lets slip that the barn on his property is “probably haunted,” Louis realizes this is the break he’s been waiting for. He ropes in his sad-sack best friend Stan (Krumholtz) who was left at the altar and thinks the only explanation for it was that his bride-to-be was kidnapped by aliens. They need a computer whiz and happen to know one who works at Micro World, Zak (Downs). When a late night run to “borrow” some equipment from Micro World ends up in a confrontation with gung-ho security guard Ross (Long), the team has their security chief. They enlist phony baloney TV psychic Victoria (Sedaris) and to round out the team, Ellie (Diaz) who works as a beautician in the shop next door to Louis and whose job is to….well, crap, I’m not really sure.

The intrepid erstwhile paranormal investigators who have christened themselves the Ghost Team head out to the barn to conduct their audition but when they arrive, they realize they’ve stumbled onto something that they simply weren’t prepared for. Will the Ghost Team’s first case also be their last?

The field of paranormal investigation shows has been ripe for a comedy to be based on it (although some would say that the original Ghostbusters was kind of a preemptive strike in that general direction). Certainly the movie takes aim at shows like SyFy’s venerable Ghost Hunters, which the fictional Ghost Getters is essentially based on as are many other like-minded shows all over cable television.

But sadly, the movie devolves into a kind of live action Scooby Doo minus the talking dog although it does have a van not unlike the Mystery Machine. How it does that I will not tell you, but suffice to say that those who grew up on that show will undoubtedly make that connection. I don’t have an objection per se only that the tonal shift doesn’t work here; they needed a better transition.

Heder has always been a bit too laid-back for my taste as an actor but the more he moves away from his Napoleon Dynamite past the better I like him and this is certainly a step in that direction. Like most of the characters here, Louis isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he certainly means well and that’s the kind of thing that’s right in Heder’s wheelhouse. He gets some superb support from Sedaris as the fake psychic who can’t believe that anybody buys her particular brand of B.S. and Diaz as an atypical damsel in distress. Long is terribly miscast as a security guy who seems to be suffering from Roid Rage.

Inexplicably, the movie uses Gary Wright’s 70s synthpop hit “Dream Weaver” to almost annoying extent. It was one of my favorite songs growing up but let’s face it; it’s not the kind of song you need to hear more than once on any movie soundtrack. The most genuinely scary moment in the film is when the Ghost Team sings along to the music.

And therein lies the rub; for a horror film, there aren’t any scares; for a comedy there aren’t many laughs. It tries to be both and ends up being neither. Part of the problem is that the writer doesn’t appear to be sure just what he wants this movie to be and what it ends up feeling like is a bunch of zombies wandering around aimlessly, calling pathetically for brains and this is not a movie that has (or should have) a lot of them. All the right ingredients are here for a good little film, but sadly, it ends up tasting rather bland.

REASONS TO GO: A cross between Ghost Hunters and Scooby-Doo. Heder is at his most likable here.
REASONS TO STAY: Official overuse of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” on the soundtrack. It gets overly juvenile in places. The action sequences are unconvincing. There aren’t enough laughs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug material as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was available for streaming free on Google Play before it’s limited theatrical run. It will continue on Google until the end of August after which it will be available on other streaming sites.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team One
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Star Trek Beyond