The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

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Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

Detachment


Just holding up the wall.

Just holding up the wall.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chris Papavasiliou, Kwoade Cross, David Hausen, Roslyn Ruff, Jerry Walsh, John Cenatiempo, Brenda Pressley, Tiffani Holland. Directed by Tony Kaye

We are challenged in the classroom like never before. Teachers must compete with all sorts of distractions – texts, phone calls, games, the kind of thing that other generations can’t even begin to understand. With shorter attention spans, kids don’t seem inclined to put any effort in to learning which puts other nations – China and India at the forefront – of educating their young people and putting themselves in a position to be the global power in this millennium.

Henry Barthes (Brody) is a teacher, or more to the point, a substitute teacher. He’s been sent to a month long stint in an inner city school where apathy is the word of the day. His predecessor essentially had a nervous breakdown and several other teachers seem to be on the verge of one of their own. Henry strikes up friendships with the acerbic Chuck Seaboldt (Caan) and the pretty but standoffish Sarah Madison (Hendricks).

In the meantime he is trying to inspire gifted artist Meredith (B. Kaye) as well as take teenage prostitute Erica (Gayle) under his wing. These are things that are meant well but still don’t look too good and Henry ends up facing the music for acts of kindness when all he wanted to do was inspire a few kids to achieve, to make something of themselves and to live a life that could have some meaning. Not too much to ask, eh?

Considering the caliber of the cast, the script had to be something spectacular because many of these fine actors get little more than a line or two and yet they are here because they believed in the project, which speaks highly of the original material. Certainly it seems to be an indictment of the public education system, a place in which the problem children are all dumped into the same building and educators are little more than glorified babysitters. Parents who can’t be bothered to show up on parents night are perfectly happy to march into the administrators office and tell the principal (Hardin) – who has already been told to seek employment elsewhere at the end of the year – that the parent is going to have her gang raped. Nice, right?

I’m not sure principals and teachers deal with parents threatening with sexual assault very often in reality, but the apathy of parents and students towards education today is a very real issue that very real teachers deal with on a daily basis. Unlike the movies – including this movie – it takes a lot more than one inspiring teacher to reverse the tide for an entire classroom. Students are people and like most people they react to the same things in different ways. In other words, what’s inspiring for one may come off as cheesy for someone else.

Brody works very hard here and why not? This is the kind of role that’s tailor-made for his talents. It doesn’t hurt that he has Oscar nominees and Emmy winners to work with. He gets plenty of support but make no mistake, this is Brody’s show and he runs with it.

Still, he is hampered by the cliches that show up in so many schoolroom dramas and that kind of offsets his performance. While the heart is in the right place here, there are very few movies that really give us a fly on the wall view in the modern classroom and this isn’t one of them, sadly. While worth checking out particularly if you’re into Adrien Brody, this doesn’t set any new standards in educating the masses about the state of education.

WHY RENT THIS: A uniformly excellent cast. This is right in Brody’s wheelhouse.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit cliche in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Betty Kaye, who plays Meredith in the film, is the director’s real-life daughter.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is premiere footage from the Tribeca Film Festival as well as studio interviews with Brody and Tony Kaye.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy), iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Taken 3

Listen Up Philip


Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

Elisabeth Moss consoles Jason Schwartman; her choice in projects is suspect too.

(2014) Dramedy (Tribeca) Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume, Jess Wexler, Eric Bogosian (voice), Dree Hemingway, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, Yusem Bulos, Maite Alina, Daniel London, Samantha Jacober, Lee Wilkof, Joanne Tucker, Steven Boyer, Teddy Bergman, Rachel Oyama, Babs Olusanmokun. Directed by Alex Ross Perry

Being a writer isn’t as easy as sitting before a word processor and typing away. It involves research and introspection. There are those who find some writers insufferable self-centered boors. There are those who also believe that all writers are insufferable self-centered boors. The reason for that is that some writers give the rest of the ink-stained wretch community a bad name.

Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman) is on the eve of the publication of his second novel. He has a beautiful girlfriend, photographer Ashley Kane (Moss) and a certain amount of acclaim in the literary community. You would think all of this would make him content; a career on the rise and all the things in place for a brilliant future.

The truth is that Philip Lewis Friedman is an utter prick. The only thing that matters to him is the acknowledgement that he is better than most people, that those who didn’t believe in his eventual success were fools beyond measure and traitors not just to him but society at large. At the very least those people were uncouth boobs.

But he meets his idol, best-selling author Ike Zimmerman (Pryce) who had a great run in the 70s and 80s but has written infrequently since then. He does have at least one genuine classic to his name and while he’s notoriously reclusive, he sees something in Philip’s writing that reminds him of himself. And so Philip goes up to Ike’s upstate New York “country retreat” leaving Ashley to hold the bag. A couple of weeks turns into the summer and then Philip takes a job teaching creative writing at a local college, a job arranged by Ike. A summer turns into a year.

Into Philip’s life comes Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie (Ritter) as well as a somewhat scheming faculty member at the same college Philip is working at, Yvette (de La Baume) and Holly Kane (Wexler), a student with a heavy crush on Philip. And yet, he views all his relationships by what they can do for him and his career. He can’t stop thinking about Ashley who is moving on. And the mentorship of Ike is turning into a friendship. Can Philip get his act together and be a well-adjusted writer or is he doomed to be an arsehole the rest of his life?

I know there are some critics who found this movie amazing. I can’t help but wonder if they got a different print than the one I saw. I have rarely seen a movie directed so badly. Generally, I’m pretty forgiving about directors who make poor choices in the name of trying something different but there are so many shots that are mis-framed, poorly focused and look for all the world like a home movie. It’s entirely possible that this was the effect that Perry was going for; if so, it doesn’t enhance the movie at all and ends up being annoying and detrimental to the audience’s focus. Of course, some directors may not want audiences being engrossed by their movie. I just wouldn’t want to see their films.

There is narration provided throughout, some of it droll. Bogosian who doesn’t appear onscreen gives that narration a bit more gravitas than it deserves. Which reminds me about the dialogue; it’s the sort of dialogue that people who distrust academics and intellectuals believe that they actually talk this way. I’ve known plenty of both sorts of people; trust me, nobody talks like this and if they do, academics and intellectuals will be right in line with the others making fun of them.

Some of the best parts of the movie are those that concentrate on Ashley. Moss is a pretty decent actress and you can tell she’s really trying to make it work, but at the end of the day her best efforts go for naught; her character is absent from most of the last third and her absence is keenly felt. Schwartzman is talented and has a delivery that could make droll comedy work, but his talents are utterly wasted here. He succeeds only in making us not want to spend another second with Philip, and yet we do. It’s a train wreck of a character.

Usually with indie films I am a little bit more forgiving and maybe it was because I saw it on the heels of watching the really miserable Inherent Vice but I found myself unable to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here. So many of the issues were just basic Filmmaking 101 stuff or Screenwriting 101 stuff that I sat through much of the film incredulous that supposed professionals made this. I kept looking for the YouTube logo in the corner.

I wish the very best for Alex Ross Perry, I really do. I hope his next film appeals to me much more than this one did, truly. But I honestly cannot in good conscience recommend that any reader who places any confidence in my opinion go see this. Watching this was an ordeal, and there are plenty of unpleasant ways to spend an hour and a half as it is that life throws at us whether we want to spend them that way or not to purposely plunk down money to go into a movie theater and be checking your watch every ten minutes and wonder when the ordeal is going to end.

REASONS TO GO: Bogosian’s narration is fun. Moss gives a game try.
REASONS TO STAY: Inept direction. Not funny enough to be a comedy and not deep enough to be a drama. Boring in long patches. Pretentious throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ike Zimmerman character is loosely based on author Philip Roth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robot & Frank
FINAL RATING: 3/19
NEXT: Fur

Beware the Gonzo


Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Jesse McCartney, Amy Sedaris, Campbell Scott, Judah Friedlander, Griffin Newman, Stefanie Hong, Edward Gelbinovich, James Urbaniak, Marc John Jefferies, Lucian Maisel, Jerry Grayson, Yul Vazquez, Steven Kaplan, Tyrone Brown, Noah Fleiss, Tyler Johnson, Lucy DeVito, Julia Weldon. Directed by Bryan Goluboff

High school is, contrary to what many folks think, not a microcosm of life, although there are some similarities. For example, those who are wealthy and good-looking tend to have advantages over those who are not. It is also very difficult to be noticed if you aren’t one of the aforementioned. Come to think of it, high school might very well be a microcosm of life.

Eddie Gilman (Miller) has aspirations. He longs to attend Columbia University and enter the undergraduate journalism program (note to screenwriter: they don’t have one). To that end he toils away on the school newspaper which is ruled with an iron fist by editor and jock Gavin Riley (McCartney) with the tacit support of Principal Roy (Urbaniak).

When Eddie’s hard-hitting expose on bullying in the school is brutally edited down to a single paragraph puff piece, he’s none too pleased and when he complains, Gavin fires him. Eddie’s future is suddenly in grave doubt.

But Eddie is a fighter. He decides to start his own newspaper and calls it the Gonzo Files. Gonzo journalism, as coined by Hunter S. Thompson, is a confrontational style of journalism and Eddie is certainly that. His mission is not only to get himself back on the track he was on but to write for the marginalized and the ignored.

The first issue is a sensation. Eddie and his team – rebellious school slut Evie Wallace (Kravitz) who harbors a dark secret but nonetheless becomes an item with Eddie, Horny Rob Becker (Newman) who goes after the less attractive girls because he figures that they’re easier to score with, Ming Na (Hong), an Asian-American with a chip on his shoulder and Schneeman (Gelbinovich) who is a very much picked-on smart kid – use a web presence with video to blow things wide open in school which neither Gavin nor Principal Roy are pleased about. However, when the second issue features an expose on the school cafeteria complete with pictures and videos of vermin in the storeroom, that garners attention on the school that the Principal is really unhappy about and so the nascent publication is ordered shut down.

Eddie has no intentions of doing that however – after all, he founded it because he felt it necessary to have a free press in school – but the fame and the high of being a celebrity in school has gone to his head. It could cost him everything – his future, his parents’ marriage, his friends and the girl.

This is one of those movies that have some glaring flaws but is offset by some really good writing. If the characters are a bit stereotypical – the sadistic jock, the rebel, the geek, the snobby cheerleaders, the bureaucratic administrator – they are at least talking and acting like real people (mostly). Miller, who is cornering the market on teen angst in movies like We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here his character isn’t quite as realized as fully as Kevin but there certainly is plenty of angst. Miller was electric in the former movie and although he’s merely good enough here, looks ready to be a breakout star.

Kravitz, the daughter of pop singer Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet, in some ways might relate more to the beautiful people clique of the school – she certainly has the beautiful part down (considering her genes, how could she not?). I admired her performance more than any in the movie; her character not coincidentally has the most depth to it in the script. Evie has some real suffering in her background and Kravitz brings it forward nicely; when she’s betrayed late in the movie you can see the hurt in her eyes. She’s another one to watch.

Veterans Sedaris and Scott are dependable actors but are wasted here, sadly. Most of the rest of the predominantly young cast do decent jobs here some in thankless stereotype roles. I have to admit that there are some cathartic moments where the very snooty and cruel upper crusters get their comeuppance. I’m not proud of it but sometimes it’s a good for the soul to see the privileged get theirs.

I thought this movie was about how acclaim and adoration corrupt everyone, no matter how well-intentioned although I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the reviews I read. The movie is told as a flashback and when Eddie intones at the start “All in all, I got off easy,” he’s right on target. This isn’t about the rise of the righteous or the fall of the affluent – it’s about the redemption of the ego, which can be the hardest place to come back from. As Eddie has to weigh getting the story against the effect that the story will have on people he cares about, the movie comes to grips with an ethical question that many journalists have had to face in their careers in one form or another. Like Eddie, there were no easy answers for them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever in places. A bit of a guilty pleasure.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Basic teen misbehavior and a bit of foul language as well as brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Goluboff is best known for writing the screenplay for The Basketball Diaries.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of a High School President

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shadow of the Vampire

Brother’s Justice


Dax Shepard can't believe himself as an action star either.

Dax Shepard can’t believe himself as an action star either.

(2010) Mockumentary (Tribeca) Dax Shepard, Nate Tuck, Tom Arnold, Ashton Kutcher, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, David Koechner, Seth Green, Michael Rosenbaum, Ryan Hansen, Jess Rowland, Steve Tisch, Andrew Panay, Greg Siegel, Josh Temple, James Feldman, Laura Labo, Jordan Morris, Chevonne Moore, Rome Shadanloo. Directed by David Palmer & Dax Shepard

I have to admit that there are times I’m not sure what a filmmaker is up to. Dax Shepard is a case in point here. This appears to be a satire on the moviemaking process, the culture of enabling star egos and of vanity projects in general. I mean, that seems to be the case. But I’m not 100% certain after seeing this.

Basically, it’s a mockumentary starring Shepard, who has appeared in dozens of movies as a comic actor in supporting roles (like the oafish boyfriend in Baby Mama) as well as on the acclaimed TV show Parenthood. Here, he’s made the decision that it would be more lucrative for him to be an action movie star rather than a comic actor mainly because the competition is less fierce. He writes a Chuck Norris-style movie complete with drug dealers, bikers, sibling warriors and a climactic fight going down a mountain.

His aim is to star in it himself, even though he has no action skills whatsoever. He goes into training in a dojo whose sensei is less sure of Shepard’s prospects (and abilities) than Shepard is himself. Shepard’s pal Nate Tuck is there as a producer and inevitably gets stuck with the tab for expenses Shepard is racking up.

Trying to see this turkey to the studios proves to be formidable but Shepard is undaunted. He approaches A-listers like Favreau and Cooper as well as Tom Arnold to help lend credibility to his movie. At last he realizes that he is going to have to do it himself.

There’s plenty of room for laughs here, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of them. Part of the problem is that Shepard makes himself so unlikable, so egotistical and so out of touch with reality that you’re rooting for him to get his ass kicked. That can work in certain situations but not here and not now.

The cameos are basically the best part of the movie which is kind of a damning fact in and of itself. The bottom line here is that if you like Dax Shepard’s work, you’re going to love this. If you don’t – and I’m one of those who finds him more obnoxious than funny – than you’re not. And I didn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty cameos. Some nice satire on the Hollywood system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If Shepard isn’t your cup of tea you’re really going to hate this one. Sometimes makes you feel more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few violent scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was an Audience Award winner at the 2010 Austin (TX) Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for Guffman

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Fast & Furious 6

Grave Encounters


Grave Encounters

The best thing about zombie sex is the cuddling afterwards.

(2011) Horror (Tribeca) Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Juan Riedinger, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray, Shawn Macdonald, Arthur Corber, Bob Rathie, Ben Wilkinson, Alex Sander, Fred Keating, Luis Javier, Michelle Cummins, Eva Gifford. Directed by The Vicious Brothers

Be careful when you go looking for something, you just might find it. If you’re the host of a paranormal activity television show, that could just be fatal.

We are told at the beginning that there once was a television show named Grave Encounters (think “Paranormal State” for those who are familiar with it) starring Lance Preston (Rogerson) as the host. Lance and his team – Matt (Riedinger) the tech guy, Sasha (Gryzko) the occult expert, Houston  (Gray) the psychic and T.C (Mondesir) the cameraman. They filmed five episodes and were working on a sixth when they mysteriously disappeared.

Later, this footage came to light. It shows the team at Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital in rural Maryland (with Vancouver subbing) where they are investigating rumors of paranormal phenomenon. It’s an old hospital with lots of tunnels and endless hallways. During its heyday, one Dr. Arthur Friedkin (Corber) had developed a sinister reputation or the excessive amount of lobotomies that were performed at Collingwood.

The hospital caretaker (Rathie) shows them around and gives the crew an interview about the things he’s experienced, but it turns out that he was urged by Lance to exaggerate and make up things in order for the hospital to seem more malevolent. In fact, in some candid “behind-the-scenes” footage, it becomes clear that the team doesn’t believe in the paranormal at all and are mainly a bunch of charlatans looking for a paycheck.

Of course, you can guess what happens next. They get themselves locked in for the night and set up cameras to “document” the unexplainable phenomena that occur, which they don’t expect to. Then things start to occur, harmless at first but soon growing more and more disturbing. They are quite thankful when the appointed hour comes for the caretaker to arrive and unlock the doors – except he doesn’t. Matt, out to retrieve the cameras, disappears. Thing start to get much more dire – their food supply rots away. They see gruesome apparitions with malevolent intent. And they start feuding among themselves. They try to break out – but the doorways out lead into hallways. There is no escape…can they find their way out of this nightmare?

Sure, I grant you that the found footage genre has probably outstayed its welcome but this film actually uses a pretty good backstory – if you’ve seen paranormal TV programs with smarmy hosts, you’ll get a lot of the in-jokes here.

More importantly, they deliver on the scares. The demons and ghouls that populate the eternally dark landscape of Collingwood are well done and the stuff of nightmares. Sure, some of the set-ups are of the been-there-done-that variety but they’re still effective. The last third of the movie is a definite express train to Hell.

Like a lot of these movies, the acting is pretty rudimentary. Rogerson gets most of the attention and as the puffed up host who thinks he’s all that, does pretty well. Still, you’re not seeing this for future appearances on In the Actors Studio with James Lipton. You want to be scared and shocked and thrilled and this delivers on all of that. I was pleasantly surprised; I thought it would be like a lot of tired found footage films we’ve been seeing of late. Yeah, I’m a little tired of the concept but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for good movies within the genre

WHY RENT THIS: Nice creepy vibe. Some real awesome scares. Like the TV show conceit.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of been-there done-that with the found footage.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty intense scares, a bit of bad language and some violent and terrifying images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Vicious Brothers are known to their parents as Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.4M on a $2M production budget; this movie was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paranormal Activity

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Day 5 of the Six Days of Darkness

Janie Jones


Janie Jones

Alessandro Nivola gives Abigail Breslin some lessons in rock star cool.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Abigail Breslin, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Shue, Brittany Snow, Peter Stormare, Joel David Moore, Frank Whaley, Frances Fisher, Rodney Eastman, David Lee Smith, Michael Panes, Guy van Swearingen, Jessica Joy. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

Reaping what we sow is an American pastime. It is easy when you’re young to go out and have a good time and think yourself consequence-free. Sooner or later though, those pesky repercussions come storming back into our lives, sometimes with devastating effect.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the rock star industry. Musicians tour from city to city, often with a groupie at every port. They party, they live for the moment and then their inspiration dries up. That’s exactly what’s happened to Ethan Brand (Nivola), once a promising talent who is on the downward slide of his career. Once a young lion of the alternative rock movement, Brand goes from one dump to another, each one getting progressively dump-ier.

At one such dump-o-rama a groupie named Mary Ann Jones (Shue) makes her way backstage where Ethan and his band – drummer Chuck (Whaley) and bassist Dave (Moore) are celebrating as bands do the end of another successful gig. Mary Ann has had some substance abuse problems and is going off to get clean. However, before she goes she wants to leave her precocious child Janie (Breslin) with her daddy. That would be Ethan.

Ethan and his bandmates react with guffaws. No way they can take it seriously, right? Wrong. While the band is loading out their equipment, Mary Ann moseys, disappearing into the sunset (were it not 2am) and leaving Janie with nowhere to go. Ethan just wants to dump the kid in whatever hellhole they can find but a friendly police officer (Smith) convinces Ethan that the best thing for him to get out of the state un-arrested would be to take the girl on tour with him.

At first Ethan doesn’t want the girl anywhere nearby – a rock tour isn’t anywhere for a 13-year-old girl to be. But a funny thing happens; the two begin to bond over music. Janie has a surprising amount of talent (surprising to Ethan anyway) not only at singing and playing guitar but writing some pretty nifty songs (which were written for the film by Dutch power pop legend Eef Barzalay) which interests Ethan’s manager (Stormare) and the two get closer which irritates Ethan’s girlfriend (Snow).

But Ethan’s got a streak of self-destruction a mile wide. He is often irritable and egotistical; even his bandmates are beginning to weary of his diva-esque attitudes. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, Ethan’s world is spinning into wreckage and the only thing that might save him is a 13-year-old girl.

Fans of films like Crazy Heart will find the territory familiar here. Fading star with demons galore on the rock and roll/country/blue road trying to reconnect with family and finding that connection after a series of disasters. It’s almost like an Afterschool Special version of rock and roll.

Nivola has been the star that wasn’t. He has plenty of charisma and acting chops but he tends to choose material that’s more cerebral than mainstream audiences tend to look into and he lacks the kind of blockbuster to build on that Viggo Mortensen has. You can see it here – not Oscar-winning material to work with necessarily but at least something with a bit of bite to it.

Breslin is simply put one of the greatest juvenile actresses of our time. The kind of depth she puts into Janie is rare in an actress twice her age. Janie is not merely some precocious child who is going to save her dad in spite of himself by the end credits, she is wounded and wary, having been stuck with parents who were far too busy indulging their own needs to worry about those of a young girl. Not many actresses could pull off a role like this without resorting to cliché tricks, let alone one not old enough to get a driver’s license (when it was filmed).

The music (with Breslin and Nivola both singing their own parts) is actually pretty outstanding. It’s a little bit on the folky-rootsy side of adult alternative – a helping heaping of Ryan Adams, a little more Tommy Keene and a dash of Howie Day. It’s got that singer-songwriter vibe that can be a little pretentious but let’s face it – Ethan’s a bit of a jerk and that vibes fits perfectly with his character.

Now, this is kind of a romanticized version of life on the road and quite frankly, it’s beginning to be a bit outdated given the realities of the music business. Still, the grin of a small time tour full of fleabag hotels and cheap fast food grabbed quickly and economically between point A and point B is all here in spirit if not onscreen.

While I’m not sure any self-respecting cop would allow a 13-year-old girl on a rock tour with musicians who may not necessarily be the best of role models stretches credibility a bit far even for a movie, for the most part the movie feels authentic. With some good music and fine performances starting with the two leads, this is really one of those dark horse movies that you wind up going in not knowing much about it and leaving it happy you saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: A cut above these sorts of movies; nice performances throughout. Breslin is outstanding. The music is surprisingly good

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there, done that. Stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drinking and drug usage, a whole lot o’ foul language and a teensy weensy bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer-Director Rosenthal based the movie on his own experiences learning at age 30 that he had a 13 year old daughter – in fact, the film is dedicated to her.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,840 on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was not a winner at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Somewhere

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2012

The Bleeding House


 

The Bleeding House

This isn’t the Fuller Brush man.

(2011) Horror (Tribeca) Alexandra Chando, Patrick Breen, Betsy Aidem, Charlie Hewson, Nina Lisandrello, Richard Bekin, Henderson Wade, Court Young, Victoria Dalpe. Directed by Phillip Gelatt

 

Your sins will generally find you out, and karma can come in an ice cream suit. Yeah, you’ve heard it before. Most of us do what we have to do to survive and occasionally we dodge what we perceive to be a bullet; but sometimes that lands us into a far worse situation.

The Smiths live on the outside of town, isolated and generally left to themselves. They are not really welcome in town; there was a fire which killed a family in town that the Smiths were pretty much credited with setting. However the father, Matt (Bekin) who is a crack lawyer, got his wife Marilyn (Aidem) off for the crime – she was the one accused. Ever since, the Smiths have been social pariahs.

Daughter Gloria (Chando) doesn’t really care. She’s a bit on the off side, prone to pinning insects to her wall and also to fits of rage. Quentin (Hewson) is the normal one in the family – the young son who yearns to leave this house and live somewhere where nobody knows who his family is or what they are accused of doing. His girlfriend Lynne (Lisandrello) urges him to leave and he finally, now that he’s turned 18, has the gumption to do just that.

Into this unnerving and volatile mix comes Nick (Breen), a sweet-talking stranger of excessive politeness wearing a white suit that Tom Wolfe might have owned. His car has broken down and a mechanic won’t be available until the morning. Would it be possible for him to spend the night as temperatures are expected to go down below freezing that evening? Matt is reluctant but Marilyn sees this as an opportunity to have an act of charity change the opinion of the townspeople regarding the Smiths. As Matt has just recently lost the position of running a high-profile case that would have turned around the family’s ailing fortunes, every bit of positive spin on the family is needed.

Of course, horror film veterans will know that Nick isn’t who he claims to be and that what happened the night of the fire is far different than what anybody in town has realized. The sins of the family are about to come to roost and who will be left standing at the end is anybody’s guess.

There is an air of Southern gothic here (although I think the film is set in the Northeast) mostly provided by Breen, who oozes silky, snaky charm. The theme of Biblical retribution adds to that feel, although the rest of the cast wisely stays away from acting in that style, a juxtaposition that adds to the movie’s allure.

Horror fans may find the movie a bit slow-moving, particularly in terms of the murders but fear not – when they do come, they are gruesome if not inventive. Gelatt prefers to let you know what’s coming and allows his characters to be aware that they are about to die. It adds to the psychological torture of the victims and of course that is transferred to the audience who squirm in their seats either hoping that the victims will get away or for certain sorts to hope that the murderer finishes the deeds.

There really isn’t much that is going to surprise veteran horror fans, which goes in the negative column; the secret that the Smiths are hiding isn’t really hard to figure out although there are some nice touches, such as Marilyn cutting the meat for the family (including the stranger Nick) because the knives are locked away where a certain member of the family can’t get at them (no points if you figure out which one).

While the story isn’t particularly new or told in a fashion that is fresh, it’s still a pretty fair tale and given how Breen carries the movie with slick Southern charm, you’ll be hooked in unless, of course, horror isn’t to your taste. If it is, this is one of those movies that kind of fell by the wayside that didn’t get the press coverage or fanboy love that it might have deserved. If you’re looking for something you didn’t see in the theaters to rent one dark night, this one might just be the movie you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-made and tautly paced. Breen is deliciously malevolent. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot points are telegraphed more than a little bit. Payoff twist is nice but not really surprising.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of graphic violence, a few bad words and some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chando was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for Best Younger Actress for her work in “As the World Turns.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Septien

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Ichimei)


 

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Why do Japanese swordfights look so much better in the snow?

(2011) Samurai (Tribeca) Koji Yakusho, Naoto Takenaka, Hikari Mitsushima, Eita, Ebizo Ichikawa, Kazuki Namioka, Hirofumi Arai, Munetaki Aoki, Ayumu Saito, Takashi Sasano, Takehiro Hira, Baijaku Nakamura, Goro Daimon, Yoshihisa Amano, Ippei Takahashi. Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Honor is a word whose meaning varies from culture to culture. For some, honor means keeping one’s word – when it suits them. For others, honor is all about the written word. If it’s on paper, the it’s binder. If not, a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.

For the Japanese honor has a much more stringent connotation, particularly among the samurai – their warrior class. Honor is the be-all and end-all to life for them; without it, they couldn’t exist, much less function. The samurai have always been an object of fascination, even to the modern Japanese. Of late, there has been a revival in the samurai film, the genre of film that is perhaps as uniquely Japanese, a signature to their entire national film identity as Bollywood is to India.

Hanshiro (Ichikawa), a ronin (masterless samurai) shows up at the castle of Lord Kageyu (Yakusho) asking leave to commit hara-kiri – ritual suicide by disembowling himself with his own sword – in the castle courtyard. Kageyu is willing but regales him with a story – of a young samurai who had recently come to his door asking the same thing. There had been a rash of false suicides – ronin who came to their door asking to commit hara-kiri but not intending to go through with it, instead using the ritual as a means of getting money or employment. The lord and his samurai made sure, however, that the young samurai followed through. He begged that three ryu be sent to his family to pay for treatment of his sick wife and son, then he committed the ritual disembowelment – although he only had a bamboo sword, adding to the agony of the act.

Hanshiro also has a tale to tell; one of his daughter Miho (Mitsushima)  who had fallen in love with the gentle, bookish Motome (Eita), her childhood friend. They got married and had a baby, but the clan both Motome and Hanshiro served had displeased the shogun. He ordered that their castle be dismantled so that a new clan might build their own, the samurai dispersed. Samurai have no skills other than those they’d been previously using; finding work was next to impossible for them.

They were getting desperate; Motome was selling off the few possessions he had to get food but Miho, who had always been sickly, is having trouble taking care of the home and the baby. As winter arrives, their struggle becomes life or death but Motome has a plan.

Miike is best known for his cult classic Ichi the Killer and more recently the samurai epic 13 Assassins. He has a reputation as a director who doesn’t let convention get in the way of telling a good story. He constantly pushes the edge, with varying degrees of success. He certainly is prolific; something like 54 films already under his belt and he’s just barely passed 50 and his pace is picking up. Most of his films don’t make it to America – about one in five do.

The ones that do are always interesting. They don’t always connect with me but they always have something that grabs my imagination. This one is no different and in many ways actually exceeds expectations. It’s not my favorite of his movies but it’s right up there.

The cinematography, like many Japanese movies, is superb. The landscapes lend itself to beautiful images. Even the impoverished village where Motome lives with his family has a kind of serene beauty. I think one of Miike’s conceits is that beneath the beautiful veneer are ugly things – like Motome dropping an egg he’d purchased with a book he’d sold and licking the yolk from the ground because he was starving.

The performances here are quite restrained. Ichikawa is at times the concerned father, the proud father-in-law, the wise sage and the fearsome warrior. Each co-exists within the other within Hanshiro and each appears as needed. Yakusho captures the essence of a powerful man; by his own rigid code of honor he has done nothing wrong and is convinced that he has acted properly. The conflict between Kageyu and Hanshiro is inevitable but also understandable. Hanshiro has learned through grim experience the fearsome cost of the rigid code of the samurai.

The hara-kiri scene is excruciating. The young samurai is forced to kill himself with a bamboo sword which bends and splinters while he is exhorted to twist the blade by a sadistic second. It is one of the few scenes in the movie that have any gore involved (Miike is well-known for showing realistic carnage in his films) and it is hard to watch at times. The more sensitive readers might want to give some thought before seeing the movie.

But the rest of the movie is much more character driven rather than action driven, which makes that scene all the more jarring – and all the more intense. I think by doing that, Miike made the scene far more powerful because it’s not just one stomach-turning scene among many. It’s unforgettable but again, I must stress that it’s not for the weak-stomached.

The nature of honor is a powerful question, but particularly in Japanese society so it’s no wonder that these sorts of film appeal to them as a nationality. For me, this is a compelling look into the samurai culture which shows the darker elements of the samurai code, which sets it apart from the many films that celebrate it.

REASONS TO GO: Subdued performances make for a subtle character study rather than a typical bloodbath. Well-choreographed action sequences as well.

REASONS TO STAY: The hara-kiri scene is brutal and hard to watch. The pacing is slow and it’s possible that the middle section could have been trimmed some.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore but when it’s there it’s quite intense. Definitely not for small children although teens who aren’t too squeamish might enjoy it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was another movie of that name from 1962 with a similar theme, this isn’t a direct remake.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are very good in general.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lone Wolf and Cub

SWORD LOVERS: The swords used in the film are modeled on genuine samurai swords of the period. Motome’s bamboo sword was not uncommon in the era either.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring