Hunt for the Wilderpeople


An odder couple you will not find.

An odder couple you will not find.

(2016) Comedy (The Orchard) Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Rhys Darby, Troy Kingi, Taika Waititi, Hamish Parkinson, Stu Giles, Lloyd Scott, Selina Woulfe, Mabelle Dennison, Timothy Herbert, Sonia Spyve. Directed by Taika Waititi

Florida Film Festival 2016

Kids aren’t always easy fits. They aren’t always little darlings. Some have had a tough go of things and they don’t always behave like angels. They act out. They lash out. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad kids though.

Ricky Baker (Dennison) is a kid just like that. After his mom gave him away, he has been shuttled from foster home to foster home. Each time he ends up back in the hands of child services and Paula (House), his exasperated case officer. Ricky has one more shot – out in the sticks with Bella (Wiata), a kind-hearted woman living on the edge of the bush with her husband, curmudgeon Hec (Neill) who clearly wants nothing to do with Ricky – and for whom the feeling is mutual.

Circumstances arise that force Ricky and Hec to go fleeing into the bush with the incorrect assumption that Hec has somehow abused Ricky (mainly due to the surprisingly naive Ricky himself) and that due to circumstances, Ricky will be remanded to juvenile jail until he turns 18 as he has used up all of his foster care opportunities. The two become the object of a massive manhunt, becoming a major news story in New Zealand and the two become folk heroes.

With the relentless Paula chasing them and bounty hunters on their tail, it will take all of Hec’s bush knowledge to keep the city-bred hip-hop loving Ricky safe. And all of New Zealand seems hell bent on capturing the two and sending them both to their respective jails.

From the co-director of the wonderful What We Do in the Shadows, this is one of those movies that either the humor will appeal to you or it won’t. For me and Da Queen, it definitely did. There’s a scene early on of Bella killing a wild boar which won’t sound funny on paper, but had me in stitches. Comedy gold, I tell you.

Sam Neill, who has been around for quite awhile, puts in what just might be his best performance ever here. It’s not that Hec is just grouchy; he has to deal with all sorts of emotions, including some tender ones, during the course of the film. I’ve always liked Neill, going back to his turn as an adult Damian in The Omen III to his work in Jurassic Park and one of my favorites, The Hunt for Red October. This is the movie that fans of this actor should make a point of seeing.

Also, mention must be made of Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker. This is a young actor who has amazing comedy chops. He is blessed with a script that doesn’t descend into chintz or shtick, nor does it unduly play off of Dennison’s size (he’s overweight as you can see from the picture). Yet they don’t make him a laughingstock, as the movies often do with portly kids. That’s a good thing to see, but as well, Dennison nails his role and makes Ricky Baker a memorable character. That’s not an easy thing to do in a film like this.

The scenery is beautiful – New Zealand came by its reputation as one of the most beautiful places on Earth honestly. The soundtrack is also chock full of some terrific Kiwi pop songs that will keep your toes tapping throughout. There literally is nothing not to like about this movie.

Okay, maybe one thing. Some of the humor might be a little more over the top than some American audiences are used to. There’s a character played by @Midnight favorite Rhys Darby named Psycho Sam who lives up to his name. His presence derails the movie a little bit even though Darby does a fine job. It just feels like the character came in from another movie.

Otherwise, this movie rocks from beginning to end. It’s funny, sweet and like Ricky himself has a heart of gold under all the bluster. Definitely one of the finer movies to be screened at the Florida Film Festival this year. It’s out and about the country right now, doing a walkabout of its on in American theaters. Catch it at one while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Much funnier than I was led to believe it was. The soundtrack is abso-bloody-lutely terrific. Majestical scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too out there for some.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the birthday scene, ten takes were filmed of the cast singing “Happy Birthday” to Ricky until someone realized that they didn’t have the rights to use the song. Therefore, the actors made up a new song on the spot, the one which appears in the film (and also partially in the trailer).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buddymoon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience begins!

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble


The joy of music.

The joy of music.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Yo-Yo Ma, Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Wu Man, Jeffrey Kipperman, Edward Arron, Leo Suzuki, Shaw Pong Liu, Camille Zamora, Carlos Castro, Siamak Aghaei, Claude Chaloub, Son de San Diego, Doug Mattocks, Long Yu, Roberto Comesana, Lee Knight, Paco Charlin. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

Leonard Bernstein famously said that music is a shared language between all people. We are all united by it, whether we listen to country and western, J-pop or Chinese opera. Music transcends and defines cultures, bringing us closer to understanding each other when we hear the music of other cultures. Language may be a barrier but great music unites us all.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most celebrated musicians of our time, founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 1998. His goal was to use music as a unifying force to promote cross-cultural understanding. Many of the musicians, some of whom are profiled in the film, live in areas torn by civil war and political upheaval.

Some of their stories truly tug at the heartstrings. Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian, plays a traditional Iranian stringed instrument called a kamancheh, a kind of spiked fiddle. He has been critical of the current regime which has put a stranglehold on what art and music is acceptable to the state and which isn’t. He hasn’t been allowed to perform in his own country and the government refuses to issue a travel visa to his wife. In order to make a living, he must leave Iran and so he spends a great deal of time alone and without the stability of the one who loves him most (and incidentally she’s absolutely gorgeous in the way that Middle Eastern women are).

Kinan Azmeh comes from Syria, whose civil war and repressive despotic regime have sent vast numbers of refugees fleeing its borders, including Azmeh. He plays for refugees and teaches the young people in those camps the history of their culture through traditional songs of their people, songs that are being robbed from them by their displacement.

Not all the stories are like that though. Cristina Pato is from the Galician region of Spain and has become a huge pop star there, playing a traditional bagpipe-like instrument. She comes to understand the criticisms that have been leveled against her and seeks to find a middle ground in terms of traditional music versus personal evolution. There is in fact a common ground, showing respect for what comes before while still expressing your own muse.

Ma, on the other hand, is a figure whose joy and smile are positively infectious. You can’t look at him, grinning with an almost otherworldly delight, and not feel that joy. In fact, you can see that expression on the faces of all the musicians when they play together. It is transcendent; the music takes them to another place and the collaboration between musicians allows them to share it in a way that defies borders, stereotypes and labels. The things we use to divide each other are torn down by the shared experience of beautiful music well-played.

Neville excels at musical documentaries as he showed in the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom which he directed. His strength as a filmmaker is being able to get us into the thoughts and hearts of the musicians he profiles, allowing us a glimpse into their lives and motivations. He personalizes these people and makes them stand out rather than being names on an album cover or images on YouTube. You will identify with these musicians, sympathize with them but most of all, admire them as artists and as people. When Wu Man, a Chinese musician, demurely says “There’s no East and no West; there’s just a globe,” her sincerity is not only charming but right on the money.

There are lots of interviews of the talking head variety and the film takes a little time in getting going. It initially feels more like an academic venture and those who don’t like the more cerebral documentary may have a hard time getting into this one initially. My advice is to stick with it; by the time the end credits roll, you will find  the impact of the film is resoundingly straight to the heart and less to the head, although there is plenty of that. Besides, you don’t want to cheat yourself of the amazing music that these musicians make. I only wish there had been more of it.

REASONS TO GO: Life-affirming in the best possible way. Some of the stories are truly heartbreaking. Ma’s joy is infectious and transformative.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too talking head for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ma in his career has played on more than 90 albums, 18 of them Grammy winners.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Bodyguard (2015)

Louder Than Bombs


Father and son.

Father and son.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Amy Ryan, Ruby Jerins, Megan Ketch, David Strathairn, Rachel Brosnahan, Russell Posner, Maryann Urbano, Donna Mitchell, Harry Ford, Leslie Lyles, Luke Robertson, Peter Mark Kendall, Paul C. Kelly, Sean Cullen, Charlie Rose, Marielle Holland, Bridget McGarry. Directed by Joachim Trier

Florida Film Festival 2016

We sometimes underestimate the effects we have on our children as parents. Our presence can be destructive if we do or say the wrong thing – but not nearly so destructive as not being there at all.

Isabelle Reed (Huppert) was one of the most decorated war photographers on the planet. However her job took her away from her husband Gene (Byrne) – an actor – and her two sons Jonah (Eisenberg) and Conrad (Druid). Gene left his career in order to raise the kids while mom was away, which was often. However, she finally announced her intention to give up the life of a war correspondent and spend more time at home with her family. Shortly after that, she died in a tragic car wreck.

Now four years later a prestigious New York art gallery/museum is doing a retrospective on her work and Gene enlists the help of Jonah – who is now married and expecting his own first child in the near future – to help sort through her last photographs, which Gene has never been able to look at. He also needs help with Conrad, who has become combative with his father, blaming him for his mother’s death or at least using him as a target for his blame. Conrad spends a lot of time playing Skyrim and wandering the streets aimlessly and alone; his father has taken to following his son discretely. Or maybe not as discretely as he thinks.

As we find out through flashback footage, Isabelle had secrets of her own and as Gene finds out that one of them is about to be revealed in the pages of the New York Times which will devastate Conrad even further, Gene doesn’t know how to soften the blow, which is the worst thing he could possibly do is continue to keep secrets from his son. As all this comes to a head, the dysfunction of all three of the members of this family will start spinning wheels that will change their lives forever.

This is the first English language feature (and third overall) by up-and-coming Norwegian director Trier. Like many of his films, the undertones here are grim for the most part, dealing with abandonment issues, the pain of betrayal and the dysfunction of a family that has had one member torn from it.

Gabriel Byrne is one of the most reliable actors out there. He’s never flashy, but he always brings dignity and gravitas to his roles. Here he plays a very nice man who has lost his rock and his having trouble finding his own spine because of it. He avoids and avoids and avoids but at the end of the day, that does nothing good. He loves his sons with a passion and misses his wife with an ache that never goes away. The portrait of Gene is heartbreaking to say the least.

No less so is Huppert’s portrayal of Isabelle, a driven woman who finds fulfillment through her muse and less through her family, which makes for a certain amount of resentment and guilt. The dead are no angels in life; Isabelle does some things that will make a few people recoil. And that’s what happens from time to time in life; people who seem decent and good do things that are not. And sometimes it is others that pay the price, but more often, the price the transgressor pays is much higher than one could imagine.

Druid plays the angry teen a little too well – there are times you want to scream at him “You selfish PIG! Do you not understand that you aren’t the only one who’s grieving? That you’re not the only one who’s hurting?” But the truth of the matter is that kids that age often can’t see beyond their own pain. They haven’t the tools to. Time gives us that, and time can be a cruel teacher. Be that as it may, Conrad is so thoroughly unlikable that I had trouble watching him. I probably hated the character more than he deserved. Maybe not, though.

There are some real moments of poetry here but this is mostly an examination of pain, and that can be…um, painful. It’s not always an easy thing to watch people dealing with the absence of a loved one and trying to find the answers to questions that may not be answerable. We can only know those around us so well, but sometimes it turns out that we don’t even know them at all. Louder Than Bombs (not to be confused with the Smiths album) turns out to be a very fine film that is often hard to watch but is worth the effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances by Byrne and Huppert. Heartrending subject.
REASONS TO STAY: The teenage character is accurately portrayed – and thoroughly unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, violent images and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Conrad and Jonah watch together with their dad is Hello Again which actually starred Byrne and Shelly Long.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Midnight Special

Lamb


A road trip like none you've ever seen.

A road trip like none you’ve ever seen.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Wexler, Tom Bower, Scoot McNairy, Lindsay Pulsipher, Jennifer Lafleur, Joel Murray, Ron Burkhardt, Mark Kelly, Robert Longstreet, Matt Oberg, Amirah Griffin, Iris Elliott, Drew Langer, Mackenzie Paige, Erin Kennedy Portress, Maggie Raymond, Kathleen Vernon, Jennifer Spriggs . Directed by Ross Partridge

As a society, we tend to be protective – some would say over-protective – of our kids. We try to insure that no harm comes to them, but there are predators out there, particularly those who get their sexual jollies by violating children. Those are the worst kinds of scum, the vilest kind of human being that we can imagine. But do we really imagine what a 47-year-old man can see in an 11-year-old girl?

David Lamb (Partridge) is just such a man. He’s reeling from the death of his father (Burkhardt) and is on the ragged edge of losing his job but also his girlfriend Linny (Wexler) who is getting fed up with David’s passive-aggressive behavior. Depressed and lonely, David finds a place to sit and think on a Chicago street corner in a dodgy neighborhood when he’s approached by Tommie (Laurence), a precocious 11-year-old girl who is trying to bum a cigarette. David reacts by trying to convince her to play a trick on the friends of hers who put her up to the cigarette dodge by pretending to be kidnapped by David. He drags her into his SUV and admonishes her for getting in with him in the first place; “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells he as they drive away, “But I could have been.”

The two begin a fast friendship. Tommie is being raised by her uncaring mom (Pulsipher) and her mom’s even less-caring boyfriend (McNairy). Like David, Tommie is lonely and prone to depression. She needs guidance and David might just be the man to provide it. She agrees to go with him when he proposes a road trip to the cabin his late father once owned. As the two drive to Wyoming through landscapes both desolate and rural, the two will discover that love takes all sorts of forms – and not all of them are what we expect.

Just reading the summary of the plot makes me a little bit squeamish and I’m sure it does most of you as well. This is a bit of a spoiler alert but a necessary one – the movie never goes where you think it’s heading, but that creepiness factor is always there. Partridge, who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, has a very thin line to straddle. David is a man who makes a lot of bad choices and there is some evidence that deep down he has a really good heart but holy crap! This is not a good idea and hopefully no 47-year-old men who see this will think this kind of behavior is okay.

Laurence has a difficult role to play and I’m not sure how old she is (IMDb doesn’t specify) but she handles this part with a maturity and self-awareness that is beyond the capability of most juvenile actors. She is never sexual although the situations that she is in have that undertone; she and Partridge dance around the obvious inappropriateness of the situation without crossing any lines, leading the audience to make their own decisions. Other critics have admired that about the movie.

And I can see their point. This is going to make audiences feel massively uncomfortable. We’re really treading in taboo waters here and there are those who are going to excoriate this movie because of it. No matter how you slice it, the relationship is an inappropriate one and even if you say “well, they clearly are good for each other” you have to wonder what a 47-year-old man gets out of a relationship with a child who is too young to be a Girl Scout. It just isn’t healthy.

Wexler is also outstanding in a tiny role that she makes the most of. McNairy and Pulsipher have even briefer roles in thankless parts but they both get the job done nicely. The cinematography is terrific and the score works nicely. The one drawback here is that some people are going to have a problem with the situation, a BIG problem. You’re going to have to decide for yourself how willing you are to endure a film that depicts a situation that is not only likely to make the viewer feel uncomfortable but might make them feel downright hostile…or even squeamish.

REASONS TO GO: Laurence delivers a surprisingly mature performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A very creepy situation that only gets creepier as the movie goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult situations and thematic material as well as adult language; there is nothing overtly sexual but there is certainly an underlying tone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lolita
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

Finders Keepers (2015)


An unusual confrontation.

An unusual confrontation.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood, Lisa Whisnant. Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, they’d be absolutely right. I can’t imagine anyone no matter how imaginative they are could make this story up.

Shannon Whisnant, a North Carolina junk dealer, had just purchased the contents of an auctioned storage unit. In that storage unit was a barbecue smoker, which was the prize item he had seen in the unit when he bought it. He put all his new items into his truck and drove it home, wheeled the smoker into his front yard and opened it – and just about had a heart attack.

In the smoker was the mummified remains of a human leg. Whisnant of course did the right thing – he notified the police who confiscated the leg as evidence and having nowhere to store it, left it with the local funeral home. Eventually they tracked down the owner of the storage unit who had defaulted on his monthly rental fee; John Wood.

Once the scion of a well-to-do family in Maiden, North Carolina, he’d fallen on hard times. But not hard enough to make him a killer – no, the leg was his. He’d lost it in a plane crash in which his father had lost his life. He’d asked for the leg back from the hospital once it had been amputated, intending to create a memorial to his father using the skeletal remains of his own leg but couldn’t find anyone to remove the flesh from the limb. He’d thrown it in the smoker and forgotten about it.

He wanted the leg back, however, still intending to eventually create that monument. However, Shannon wasn’t willing to give it back. After all, he’d bought and paid for the contents of the storage unit, including the smoker – and including the leg that was in the smoker. You wouldn’t ask for the grill back from the smoker after all; he’d paid for it fair and square.

So why would Whisnant want a human leg? Fame, pure and simple. He saw it as an opportunity to put his name on the map. At first he saw it as kind of a tourist attraction and being a fair man, he discussed going in with Wood on the deal Wood balked and the two geared up for a fight in the courtroom.

Some of you may remember the story when it hit all the tabloids a few years ago, but maybe you didn’t hear the whole story; how Wood had become addicted to painkillers while recuperating from his amputation, how he graduated to harder drugs, how he had been thrown out by his mother Peg recognizing that she was enabling his decline towards an overdose; how he had become homeless and alone.

Nor may you have heard how Whisnant had grown up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, how he had tried to gain his dad’s approval and never gotten it. How he was always a decent sort whose only aim was to make people happy around him.

This peculiar “only in the South” might induce giggles from some. They may look at these two men as ignorant hillbilly sorts that confirm the stereotype of Southern rednecks. And yeah, there are a few things here that head down that trail a bit, but as the movie unspools, you begin to see beyond the ridiculous and into the human story that is at the heart of the matter.

Both Wood and Whisnant are wounded human beings, and maybe they’re not likely to be employed by NASA anytime soon, but they are no less worthy of respect and empathy. These are both men who have gone through hard times; Wood, who was in attendance at the opening night screening at the Enzian, described Whisnant as “the yin to my yang.” They aren’t friends, not by any stretch of the imagination; Whisnant, who always saw Wood as uppity, described him as being “born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth.” They are inevitably linked by Wood’s leg and likely always will be. Maybe there is some comfort to be had in that.

One thing that is admirable is that as the movie goes on, we see Wood’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. An appearance on the Judge Mathis show (which resulted in Wood keeping the leg but having to pay Whisnant $5,000 for it) led to Wood receiving treatment at one of the nation’s premiere rehab centers. Since them, Wood has been sober and drug-free for nearly eight years and has also since gotten married. As important, Wood has gained wisdom; he has reconciled with his family and is slowly working to building back their trust after years of breaking their hearts. He recognizes that it is a slow and ongoing process but worth his effort. He understands what is important now and has put much of the sickness that led to his drug addiction behind him.

That’s a big deal; not all of us have the will to make that kind of turn-around and you have to respect the story of someone who has. Still, you will probably giggle fairly regularly, as Wood jokes about his leg, or Whisnant consistently mistakes “perspire” for “transpire.” But this is, as Peg Wood puts it in the movie, a funny story with its roots in tragedy. Fortunately, it’s a tragedy that looks like it will have a happy ending.

REASONS TO GO: Takes an unexpected turn. Oddball enough to keep your interest.
REASONS TO STAY: The pictures of the leg may be too stomach-turning for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some gruesome images, drug references and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whisnant once appeared on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Member
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Digging For Fire


A bunch of bros hanging out.

A bunch of bros hanging out.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Jeff Baena, Timothy Simons, Padraic Cassidy, Steve Berg, David Siskind, Jude Swanberg. Directed by Joe Swanberg

Relationships are impossible. I mean, making them work is – first of all, you have to find someone with whom you can co-exist. Someone whose idiosyncrasies won’t drive you bonkers. Second, you have to find someone whose ideals, goals and philosophy is compatible with yours. Finally, you have to find someone with all that with whom you will grow in the same direction. What’s the secret to making all that happen?

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are housesitting for some Hollywood types out shooting on location. They’re treating it like a bit of a vacation since the home they’re watching is up in the Hills and has all the amenities you could possibly imagine. However, as of late, the two have been having problems. Tim has been feeling emasculated and when Lee’s mom (Light) and dad (Elliott) want to foot the bill to send their son Jude (Swanberg) to an exclusive pre-school that they can’t afford, that sensation only gets worse. Of course, if Sam Elliott were my father-in-law, I’d feel emasculated too.

For Lee’s part she’s tired of putting up with Tim’s childish behavior and his lack of inertia. He seems to be stuck in a rut and she’s frustrated – in more ways than one. To put it bluntly, she has been reading a book called The Passionate Marriage and it isn’t about fruit. When one of Lee’s friends (Lynskey) organizes a girl’s night out for her, Lee jumps at the chance, and agrees to take Jude to visit her parents, giving Tim some time to do the taxes which he has been putting off for too long. Tim found a bone and a rusted gun buried in the yard and he’s been obsessing over that.

Of course, Tim decides to chuck the taxes aside and brings a battery of bros over, including the somewhat over-the-top Ray (Rockwell) as well as Billy T. (Messina), Phil (Birbiglia) and Paul (Berg). Much alcohol and recreational substances are ingested, and Ray brings over a couple of girls including Max (Larson), with whom Tim begins to flirt.

When Lee’s friend is forced to cancel, Lee decides to just have a night out on her own. When a drunk obnoxious guy tries to hit on her, she is rescued by bar owner Ben (Bloom) who gets hurt when the drunk gets belligerent. Lee accompanies him home on the back of his motorcycle so she can give him some first aid; it becomes apparent that the two are attracted to one another. Can the two stay true to one another or are things that far gone?

Swanberg, one of the originators of the mumblecore movement, has retained some of the elements of those films here, although I would hesitate to classify it as true mumblecore. Swanberg tends to allow his actors to improvise their dialogue so the conversations sound real. He also has a tendency to examine relationships from a distance, a means I think of giving the audience some perspective which takes a little bit more work than making them feel invested or part of the relationship onscreen. Rather than rooting for Lee and Tim, we’re more observers of Lee and Tim. We’re not invested as to whether they stay together or not and so regardless of which way it goes, we don’t feel like it’s a monumental situation. As in life, there are reasons for them to stay together and reasons for them to drift apart and there really is no way to know which one would be best for them and just like in life, the decision has resonance in both directions.

The cast is extraordinary for a Swanberg film, and there really isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The humor here is bone dry (no pun intended) which is typical for Swanberg and it shows up in unexpected but appropriate places. Swanberg has a deft touch as a director and it really shows here to nice effect.

Some of the movie is a bit disjointed and some of the scenes feel like they were either added on as an afterthought, or were stranded when other scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I would have liked a little bit more flow. The movie’s denouement is on the quiet side and some may find that the payoff isn’t what they wanted.

I must say that I’ve been liking Swanberg’s work more and more with each passing film. He is certainly a rising talent with a lengthy filmography already to his credit (Swanberg regularly churns out two to four movies a year). While it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he might be behind the camera for a big budget franchise movie someday, I kind of hope he doesn’t. He seems to excel at movies that take a moment in time or a slice of life and let us examine it thoroughly. Through that lens, we end up examining our own lives, particularly who we are, where we are, what we want to be and what we want out of life and love. Heady questions to be sure.

To answer the question, there is no secret to making a relationship work. It takes dedication, focus, hard work and willpower. In other words, it takes the same things to make any sort of worthwhile pursuit work. Which makes sense, when you think about it.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty cast. Dry sense of humor. Nicely captures inner workings of couples.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed in places. Payoff might not be enough for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references, some foul language and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell, Adams and DeWitt all co-starred in this summer’s remake of Poltergeist while Larson and Birbiglia also starred in Amy Schumer’s hit comedy Trainwreck this summer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Air

Meet Me in Montenegro


Taking that leap of faith.

Taking that leap of faith.

(2014) Romance (The Orchard) Alex Holdridge, Linnea Saasen, Rupert Friend, Jennifer Ulrich, Stuart Manashil, Mia Jacob, Ben Braun, Lena Ehlers, Kate Mackeson, Mathieu van den Berk, Deborah Ann Woll, Rod Ben Zeev, Ty Hodges, Reza Sixo Safai, Wayne Nickel, Victoria Johnston, Tomoko Nakasato, Max Pierangeli, Natalie Gelman, Brent Florence, Jules Amana, Twink Caplan. Directed by Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen

Romance in the age of social media is no easy proposition. Millennials have something of a cocoon around them; the anonymity of the Internet, the constant presence of electronic connection via cell phones and tablets, the somewhat impersonal mode of online dating – it’s a wonder that anyone hooks up at all.

Anderson (Holdridge) is an American screenwriter who has seen through the facade of traditional courtship and has declared that romance is dead, and from his own perspective he’s not wrong. He continues to obsess about Lina (Saasen), a Norwegian dancer he met on a trip to the Balkans with whom he had a torrid love affair, only to have her leave him a note “Let’s leave on a high note” on the beach without further explanation and thus she pirouettes out of his life.

Racking his brain as to what he might have done wrong to drive her away from him like that, his budding film career has stalled and he’s deep in credit card debt. He’s taking one last shot, this time making a science fiction film called Supercollider (an excellent name for a film by the way) and is meeting with an actor in Berlin who might be able to give him the cache needed to get the project made. He’s staying with friends Stephen (Friend), an English ex-pat whose attempt to start up a coffee shop ended up in failure, and his girlfriend Friederike (Ulrich) who is growing frustrated at Stephen’s chronic unemployment. Still, Stephen’s offhand suggestion that the two of them go to a sex club and have a four-some with another couple hasn’t fallen on deaf ears; to his horror, Friederike has called his bluff and is planning to take him up on the offer that very weekend, leaving an awkward shopping trip for Stephen and Anderson to find proper sexy attire for Stephen for the club.

While in Berlin, Anderson bumps into Lina who has been dancing in Berlin since the two broke up. He’s only there for a few days and she’s leaving herself to take up an artist residency in Budapest. They decide to spend some time together and in doing so, some of the old sparks begin to resurface. Anderson has a streak of self-sabotage in him and delivers one of the most unusual script pitches ever seen on film to the astonished actor; the rest of the weekend in Berlin would be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Will Anderson be able to rescue himself from crushing credit card debt and resurrect his career? More importantly, will his romance with Lina work out or is romance truly dead?

This isn’t your typical romance, which is definitely a good thing. Holdridge and Saasen have a natural chemistry together which makes their onscreen romance believable, job one for any romance, comedy or otherwise. I hesitated to label this a romantic comedy; while there are definitely some funny moments, this is more of a romantic dramedy slice of life thing, a glimpse into the inner workings of a relationship without getting either too cloying or too clinical. This is real love folks, circa 2015.

Holdridge has got the anti-romantic sad-sack writer role down pat. His smile is a bit wistful, revealing some of his inner torment and uncertainty; yet confronted with the perpetrator of his self-doubt he is perfectly willing to take the plunge once again (literally). At the opening of the film, we see him doing a cliff dive into the Baltic in the title town as he narrates “This was the last time I felt truly alive.” That’s some powerful motivation right there and it feels pretty natural as romance films go.

Berlin plays a central role in the film and it is a different side of the city that we get to see. Mostly we here in the States only see Berlin in spy thrillers; we’re used to the alleyways and abandoned buildings but this is a city where people actually live and we get a chance to peek in on their lives as well. Robert Murphy delivers some gorgeous cinematography, giving the city character but also the film as well; he’s a talent to keep an eye on definitely.

The movie’s ending is a bit cheesy, which is a shame because the rest of the story is actually mature as hell, a refreshing change from normal Hollywood romances in which the emotional range is somewhat limited and the story contrived. For most of the movie, this feels like lives truly lived in and that gives us more insight into the relationship than those that feel manufactured. Even certain indie romances suffer from an over-abundance of twee cliches but thankfully that’s not the case here.

I jotted down in my notebook that this is a bit of an anti-romance in many ways. There is some speechifyin’ about the nature of romance and the philosophy of love which gives what is in essence a rather simple and charming movie an occasionally unwelcome gloss. However, the good news is that this is a solid movie that occasionally rises above the tropes of its predecessors and gives us more real insight into modern love than many other movies with bigger budgets and better-known faces. If you’re looking for a nice romantic evening with that certain indie-loving someone, this might just be a meeting you’ll want to take.

REASONS TO GO: Holdridge has the sad-sack romantic down pat. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Ending a bit hokey. Some pretentious pontificating.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild language and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Copenhagen
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Terminator: Genisys

Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

The Overnight


Peep show.

Peep show.

(2015) Sex Comedy (The Orchard) Jason Schwartzman, Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godreche, Max Moritt, R.J. Hermes, Kyle Field, Sarah DeVincentis. Directed by Patrick Brice

Florida Film Festival 2015

Moving to a new city can be a daunting experience, particularly when you don’t know anyone there. We all need a social outlet and finding one in a new place can be something of a priority.

That’s the situation that Alex (Scott) and Emily (Schilling) find themselves in when they relocate from Seattle to the trendy Silver Lake section of L.A. She’s the breadwinner and he works from home and watches their young son R.J. (Hermes). He needs some adult conversation. While at a party for another kid, R.J. hits it off with Max (Moritt). Max’s dad, Kurt (Schwartzman) comes on a little strong at first but he seems to think that the two of them should be friends with he and his wife Charlotte (Godreche). He invites them over for a casual pizza dinner and some playtime for the kids. Alex and Emily readily agree.

It turns out that Kurt has quite the McMansion, more or less tastefully furnished. Everything starts out pretty mellow with plenty of pizza and wine, with Kurt turning out to have a pretty natural rapport with kids. It’s after the kids go to bed that things start to get weird. Turns out that Kurt, who fancies himself something of a renaissance man, has a talent for painting anuses. No, you read that right. He’s got dozens of paintings of bungholes (mostly Charlotte’s) in his studio.

And as Emily discovers, Charlotte is quite the free spirit. She dabbles in massage, but not the kind you find in your local spa – the kind with happy endings, as Emily is shocked to discover. While Emily and Alex aren’t necessarily prudes, they’re both a little bit on the uptight side. Alex is fairly sensitive about the size of his junk, and is especially intimidated when he discovers that in addition to everything else, Kurt is also hung like a horse.

Still with enough pot and champagne swimming in their bloodstreams, Emily and Alex are able to let loose a bit. Then a bit more. And then things get really strange.

Sex comedies have a tendency these days to be focused on horny teens trying to get laid (generally for the first time) so it’s kind of refreshing to have a sex comedy aimed for adults with adult sensibilities.  Writer/director Brice does get a bit into Apatow territory when he goes the penis size route but that’s really not the bulk of the material here. There’s a fish out of water element – the newcomers in hedonistic L.A. – but mainly this is a romp between the sheets.

What works here is the chemistry between the leads. In particular, Schwartzman does some of the best work of his career as the somewhat pompous and out there Kurt who is basically a decent guy who has kind of bought into the whole L.A. thing – it’s an easy temptation, I can tell you – and is kind of a douchebag because of it, but he’s not really a douchebag deep down. That’s fairly complex, but Schwartzman pulls it off.

Scott is becoming a very reliable comic actor with big things ahead of him. I liked him a lot in A.C.O.D. and I like him a lot here as well. He is pleasant enough even when the situation around him is crazy as can be but he seems nonplussed by the insanity. He also makes a very attractive couple with Schilling, who is a versatile actress who is mainly the straight woman here but she has her comedic moments as well.

This is definitely L.A.-centric and those who delight in dissing the City of Angels will have a field day here. Those who love the city as I do will be reminded of summer nights in the City, which can be among the nicest things you can experience in life. Still, the movie is anything but laid-back.

Much of the humor comes from awkward situations which can be…awkward. Still you have to admire a movie in which characters utter the lines “giant horse cock” and “I have an abnormally small cock” in the same scene. You just can’t get that anywhere else but here.

Like most movies, this one knows that the world’s most dangerous question is “Do you find me attractive” and that there’s no answer that doesn’t end badly once it is asked. Not all of the humor works here but when it does it is big laughs. On the balance, this is a rare breed of movie that walks the tightrope that is adult sex comedies. It occasionally falls off the wire but to its credit it gets back on and starts walking forward again, and that’s worthy of respect. This is solidly entertaining, rather funny and likely to be one of those movies that people will look at when Schwartzman, Scott and Schilling become A-list stars.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry among four leads. Very funny when it’s funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the humor works. Definitely awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sexual situations and foul language..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place over a mere 15 days, very quick for a feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ex-Machina