Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

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The Commune (Kollektivet)


A communal meal isn’t always a peaceful one.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm, Lars Ranthe, Julie Agnete Vang, Helene Reingaard Newmann, Ole Dupont, Lise Koefoed, Magnus Millang, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, Mads Reuther, Anne Gay Henningsen, Jytte Kvinesdal, Morten Rose, Rasmus Lind Rubin, Adam Fischer, Ida Maria Vinterberg. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

When we think of the 70s, what comes to mind is recreational drug use, long hair, bell bottoms, anti-war protests and free love. Although communes still exist, they are more like co-ops these days rather than all of the inhabitants sleeping with each other, although there are some like that to be sure.

Erik (Thomsen) is a somewhat stuffy professor of architecture at a University in Copenhagen. His wife Anna (Dyrholm) is a beautiful news reader working for the national broadcast network. When Erik inherits what is essentially a mansion from his father in a rural suburb of Copenhagen, he initially wants to sell it; their daughter Freja (Hansen) wants to move into it but it is Anna who comes up with the idea they eventually adopt – to invite friends and strangers to move in and create their own commune.

You see, Anna has become somewhat bored in her marriage and wants variety, but as they say, be careful what you wish for. She and Erik invite friends at first like Ole (Ranthe) who has a bit of a temper but soon they are inviting fascinating strangers and before too long there are a dozen or so adults and children living in the commune.

Things go pretty well at first but things begin to lose cohesion. One of the children who has a heart condition (and quite the crush on Freja) is taken to the hospital, scaring the whole community on Christmas Eve. But to make matters worse, Erik falls in love with Emma (Newmann), one of his students and invites her to join the Commune. At first, Anna is pretty sanguine about the whole situation but she begins to crack and soon the tension in the Commune becomes nearly unbearable.

I’m not so sure this is an indictment of free love and the sexual politics of the 70s as it is more or less simply presenting the pros and cons. In all honesty most of the couples in the commune stay fairly faithful to one another with the exception of Erik – and it must be said that Anna paved the way for that in many ways. Judging Erik by standards that are 40 years after the period depicted here isn’t really fair but by our standards he’s quite the jerk.

The performances here are top-notch; most of the actors are not well-known in the U.S. with the exception of Fares and to a lesser extent Thomsen. The prize though goes to Dyrholm who goes from a strong and confident woman to an absolute mess by the end of the film. Badly shaken not so much by Erik’s infidelity – I think she could have handled an affair so long as Erik still loved her but once it became a case where Erik loved Emma and not Anna she was absolutely destroyed.

The director manages to get the era right between the colloquialisms, the products and the overall attitude. The cinematography is a little bit on the washed out side for exterior day shots (and underlit for night shots both inside and out) which also gives the film a look of a film made in that era.

Despite the pathos and drama (and there’s a lot of the latter) there is some comedy as well that comes up at unexpected times. The Danish have a very quirky sense of humor and it shows here when its needed. What’s not needed is some of the pretentious dialogue – and I realize back in that decade people tended to talk like walking manifestos – and especially the soap opera aspects of the film which are also many. That detracts from a film which most of the rest of the way is serious and fascinating.

Still, human relationships are tricky things whether you’re talking about the 70s or the 2010s. We are complicated little monkeys and we do things sometimes that make no logical sense. It is said that being alone is perfection – you make all your decisions and do as you please when you please. Two is a compromise and three is a disaster. The more people you put at the same table, the more complex things get.

Vinterberg has some really great films to his credit including one of my all time Florida Film Festival favorites The Hunt. This is another strong movie on his filmography and he continues to be a director who hasn’t yet really gotten the credit he deserves here in the States. Then again, he hasn’t done a lot of English language films yet and I’m not sure he needs to. Still, he’s one of those directors whose name on the credits means I’m instantly interested in seeing his film. There are not many about whom I can say that.

REASONS TO GO: The sexual politics are captured nicely. The film is very evocative of its era. Thought-provoking, the movie manages to get in a little bit of comedy as well. The performances are strong all around.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, the movie sinks into soap opera a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you’ll find nudity, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a play Vinterberg wrote about his own experiences as a child growing up in a commune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Overnight
>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lady Macbeth

God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?

One More Time with Feeling


Nick Cave in his element.

Nick Cave in his element.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Picturehouse) Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Susie Bick, Thomas Wydler, Earl Cave, Else Torp, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, George Vjestica. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Nick Cave is one of those artists who people either never heard of or fall in love with. His sonorous voice isn’t the kind you associate with pop music and while his songs are beautiful and haunting, they generally have a darkness to them that some find uncomfortable. It isn’t an accident that one of his best albums is entitled Murder Ballads.

Cave had begun the recording of his sixteenth album with his band the Bad Seeds when tragedy struck; his 15-year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff near his Brighton home and died of the injuries he sustained. Cave and his wife Susie Bick were devastated as you can imagine and work on the album stopped for a time.

Now the songs of the album are infused with the presence of the son who is gone. The lyrics are dark and bitter, like a coffee infused with burnt chicory. The tragedy becomes the elephant in the room and in order to keep from answering endless questions about it, Cave enlisted Dominik, whose film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was scored by Cave and his usual partner-in-crime Warren Ellis.

Most of the film is in black and white (there are a couple of color sequences, one involving Cave’s surviving son Earl and a sequence in which Danish soprano Else Torp lends her voice to one of the songs on the album) and that seems perfect for the somber situation, and for Cave’s catalog in general. That’s not to say that this is all ashes and sackcloth however; there is some teasing that goes on, particularly from Ellis who claims that Cave’s hair “never looked better.”

The music is at the center of the film and quite frankly, I was motivated to buy Skeleton Tree almost immediately after arriving home (thank you, eMusic) and I haven’t regretted it since. The music is haunting and beautiful and sad – sad can be intensely beautiful – and will stick with you for a long while. I’m still listening to the tracks from the album in almost constant rotation.

Speaking of constant rotation, one of the annoying things about the movie is that for nearly every song Dominik has his camera circling on a dolly around the piano Cave is playing or the microphone Cave is singing into. There are some lighting effects that go with some of the songs but Dominik could have changed things up a little more from song to song. Frankly I ended up closing my eyes and just letting Cave’s voice wash over me for most of it and maybe that’s the intent. Cave’s voice is raw and real; reading the lyrics on the page are fine and they reveal his anguish and grief, but to really get the truth of his pain one must hear his voice. There are few singers who are as emotionally communicative as Cave is.

Another issue I have with the film is the interviews with Cave, particularly early on in the movie. Often Dominik (I assume it is Dominik doing the interviewing; it could be someone else) interrupts Cave and finishes his sentences. Sometimes Cave says “Yeah, right” but other times he says “No, not really…” as Dominik tries to express what Cave is feeling. A cardinal rule of interviewing on-camera is to let the subject do as much of the talking as possible; you never interrupt them nor put words in their mouth. Your function is to ask a few questions and the occasional follow-up but to keep your mouth shut as much as possible, particularly when you have someone like Cave who is intelligent and thoughtful. I would have preferred to hear more of Cave and less of Dominik.

Dominik is, however, a gifted visual director and some of the images here are amazing and poignant, particularly as the film goes on. Dominik chooses not to say anything specific about the tragedy that clearly haunts Cave so if you were initially unaware of his son’s passing you may end up getting snippets of some sort of unexpressed trauma but it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie that Cave and his wife speak openly about the death of their son and they never tell you specifically what happened. The film’s final image – of the cliff where Arthur Cave spent his final moments – is a haunting one and will stay with you nearly as much as the music that precedes it.

This does make a fine companion piece to the album although I don’t know how much it is going to enhance the listening experience of sitting down in a nice quiet place, turning on the headphones and letting the music of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s expressive voice wash over you. If Dominick’s direction had been less intrusive this easily could have been a contender for best movie of the year. As it is it will certainly merit a certain amount of contention for my top ten list, although likely the second half. Skeleton Tree is more likely to vie for my favorite album of 2016 however, and you might feel the same after seeing this and more importantly, hearing the album.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely amazing. Cave is a thoughtful interview subject. A fascinating look at the creative process for what will be a landmark album. At times, the film is emotionally wrenching.
REASONS TO STAY: Dominik is too intrusive a director. The interviews are poorly conducted.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Other than a screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film debuted on September 8, the day before Skeleton Tree – the band’s sixteenth album – was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listening to Skeleton Tree in a nice quiet place.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Max Rose

The Huntsman: Winter’s War


Sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Amelia Crouch, Fred Tatasciore, Lynne Wilmot, Colin Morgan, Liam Neeson (voice), Kara Lily Hayworth. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

When making a successful cinematic fairy tale, remember the cardinal rule – always leave room for a sequel. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman didn’t really go that route, although there was certainly a possibility for a sequel. What they did was an oddball mix of prequel and sequel – a pre-sequel, if you will.

Ravenna (Theron), the beautiful but evil queen from the first movie, has a sister named Freya (Blunt) who is married and happy. When a tragedy turns Freya’s life upside down, Freya finds that she has magical powers as well – an ability to control the cold. She turns her kingdom into ice, and forbids love of any sort to exist. She ravages the towns of her kingdom, murdering the parents and stealing kids to be groomed into medieval ninja assassins, whom she calls Huntsmen.

Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) are the best of these; no others can stand against them. They become leaders of an organization that strikes fear throughout the land but then they break the most sacred law of the kingdom by falling in love and they end up paying a terrible price for it. One, I’m sure, you can see coming.

Fast forward seven years and the events of Snow White and the Huntsman are no longer taking place in the future but in the past – raise your hands if you find that confusing. The audience certainly did. In any case, Ravenna is dead but Freya has figured a way to bring her back to life – by acquiring the Magic Mirror of the first film. Eric is not about to let that happen. Aided by a quartet of comic relief dwarves, he heads out to stop Freya at all costs – but he doesn’t count on the one card Freya has to play that he could never have possibly expected.

Like a lot of the fairy tale films produced by Joe Roth, this movie is effects-laden and often sacrifices story for imagery. That’s OK, when the images are as scintillating as they are here; this is a beautiful film to watch. The problem here is that the movie feels like the pacing has gone by the wayside. It’s slow and turgid, and while the actors do credible work, they are given characters who lack much in the way of personality.

Hemsworth is one of only four actors who return from the first film, and as there he shows here that he has all he needs to be a strong leading man. He has that “one of the boys” feel that serves him well as a certain Marvel superhero, but he also commands the screen with confidence as befits a big star. Theron, in addition to being absolutely knock-down drag-out gorgeous, is an actress of considerable range and ability; she does the villain role as well as anybody, including Christoph Waltz.

Emily Blunt is one of those actresses whose name isn’t well known, but who delivers a strong performance every time out. She’s been impressive in such films as Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow and she gives the most emotional performance of any here. Freya is a tortured soul and we get to see glimpses of it; her experiences have hardened her heart (or frozen it) but not completely. From time to time we see flashes of the pain she bears.

Chastain has become one of those actresses who appears in a lot of movies, nearly all of them good. This one is a bit of an exception (more on that later) but she still carries herself off as a warrior struggling with her emotions and her feelings of betrayal. Now while these sound like characters who should have loads of personality, they aren’t allowed to really express them through action or even dialogue. The body language and eyes of the actors gets across most of the characters’ inner feelings. You can tell the actors are trying hard and quite frankly they could have been excused if they’d just phoned it in once they’d cashed the paycheck.

But this movie feels ponderous and not in the sense that it ponders – more like a bloated elephant stomping its way through the underbrush. There’s little finesse here and a little bit too much reliance on the effects to give the movie a sense of wonder. The sequences in the fairy forest of the first film were truly magical; nothing here equals that. In fact, given the somewhat jarring move from prequel to sequel (which in itself was a promising idea) it feels like the filmmakers at times were distracted by things not even going on in the movie.

This is reasonably entertaining with some fine performances, but as other critics have deftly pointed out, there are a lot of good elements here that don’t add up to a good film. Winter’s War is mediocre at best and given that there are so many really good movies out there just waiting for you to check out, it makes no sense to throw your money away when you could be seeing something that really does have plenty of movie magic to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects. Theron makes a delicious villain.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels a bit too bloated. Overall, lacks focus.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence of the swords and sorcery variety as well as a little bit of sensuality..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the popularity of the first film, Kristen Stewart who played Snow White was not asked to reprise her role, the producers electing to go the prequel route. Some say that her notorious affair with director Rupert Sanders was the reason both were made absent from this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Jungle Book

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

How to Train Your Dragon 2


Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kieron Elliott, Philip McGrade, Andrew Ableson, Gideon Emery, Simon Kassianides, Randy Thom. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Becoming who we are is no easy proposition. It’s a search of discovery and the answers can be elusive, particularly when we’re not especially sure who we want to be.

The movie takes place five years after the first one. Hiccup (Baruchel) has been successful in integrating dragons into the daily life of Berk which has become a much happier place as Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony. Dragon riders show their stuff in highly contested dragon races (a kind of combination between Quidditch and Rollerball). While his father Stoick (Butler) is eager for his son to take over the family business and become chief, Hiccup spends much of his time making maps of the surrounding islands, expanding the world the Vikings have lived in into a much larger place. He is also continuing to invent things, in this case a flying suit so that he can soar with his best friend Toothless (Thom) as they explore.

Unfortunately, finding out what else is out there in that wider world can be a good and bad thing. For Hiccup, the good is in finding a Dragon Rider whose ice-riddled island hides many secrets including more dragons than anyone has ever seen in one place – and their human protector, Valka (Blanchett) who turns out to be Hiccup’s mother. This is something of a surprise since Hiccup had heard all his life that Valka had died protecting him from dragons when he was a baby but it turns out that Valka, who had always defended dragons to a Stoick who was deaf to her pleas had left in order to protect her family from the dragons – and vice versa.

On the bad side, Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) as well as their buddies Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller) and Ruffnut (Wiig) have also discovered a tracker named Erit (Harrington) who captures dragons for the villainous Drago (Hounsou) who wishes to create a powerful dragon army under the control of his gigantic Leviathan dragon who can control the dragons – and whom Drago controls through torture and violence. This is a challenge the likes of which Hiccup has never had to face and when a tragedy strikes Hiccup closer than he could have possibly imagined, he will have to find the strength to lead his people to overcome this threat – or else lose their dragons and their freedom forever.

In many ways, this isn’t a typical summer animated feature, although it appears to be the most likely to be the kidflick hit of the summer at first glance. The tone here is much darker with a main character being killed and the abuse of animals being a central theme. That may have made some parents wary to bring their kids to the multiplex for this one, which has underperformed at the box office although it seems likely to be profitable enough to warrant further sequels. I’m sure DreamWorks Animation executives were expecting windfall profits considering that there would be no animation competition this summer essentially other than from the sequel to Disney’s Planes which although a surprise hit didn’t look especially promising as a blockbuster.

Baruchel’s nasal, deadpan delivery is perfect for the character of Hiccup and while he isn’t nearly as awkward as he was in the first movie, continues to have a kind of gawky, outsider quality that is endearing. Butler endows Stoick with plenty of proud papa and – when he discovers that Valka is alive after all – tender love and caring. Craig Ferguson also returns as Gobber, mainly as comic relief.

While I thought the first film was really meant for smaller kids, this one isn’t so much. I get the sense that they wanted to grow up along with their core audience and while younger kids will still be delighted with the variety of dragons and their often goofy behavior as well as the cartoonish depiction of humans (this isn’t photorealistic CGI animation by any stretch), the kids who fell in love with the original will have matured some and the movie gives them credit for that and treats them accordingly. That’s a pretty refreshing point of view for a genre which often reads as a giant advertisement for toys and merchandise geared at kids.

I’m giving this a rating just a smidge under the first film because I think that parents may want to be wary about letting the more sensitive and immature young ‘uns in their brood see this – at least one little tyke at the screening we went to had a very adverse reaction to one of the darker scenes in the movie. I also thought the plot could have used a little more originality but essentially those who really like the first one will really like this one and those who didn’t care for the original will feel the same about the sequel. They’re essentially interchangeable in many ways but I will admit that I am much more intrigued to see How to Train Your Dragon 3 than I was to see this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some really beautiful moments.  Treats kids with respect.

REASONS TO STAY: The dragons are often too cartoonish. May be too dark for the impressionable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of animated cartoon action and some rude (but not offensively so) humor. There is a moment in which a young man deals with an event that might be upsetting for really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBlois, who co-directed the original, accepted the sequel on the condition that he be allowed to direct a third film to make up a trilogy. The third film is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle for Terra

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes