Deidra and Laney Rob a Train


Deidra and Laney are on top of the train situation.

(2017) Young Adult Comedy (Netflix) Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, Missi Pyle, Sharon Laurence, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Myko Olivier, Sasheer Zamata, Arturo Castro, Kinna McInroe, Brooke Markham, Cj Strong, Deborah Lee Douglas, Tua Kealoha, Lance Gray, Chad Wright, Gerry Garcia, Nick Moceri, Kami Christiansen, Monica Moore Smith. Directed by Sydney Freeland

 

When you’re a single parent, making ends meet can be no easy task, especially if your employment options are limited and your ex isn’t paying the child support they owe. It’s a difficult situation, one which can go from precarious to catastrophic in a single moment.

Deidra (Murray) is the class valedictorian in a small Idaho town where she is the oldest of three children, including her middle sister Laney (Crow) and her youngest brother Jet (Gray) who likes to play with action figures. They live on the wrong side of the tracks (literally; the train tracks border their back yard) with their mom Marigold (Nicolet) who works at a Best Buy-type electronics store.

One afternoon she unexpectedly loses it at work and goes on a rampage, smashing a big screen TV to pieces. Her erstwhile employer not only presses charges, they insist on making her out to be a domestic terrorist, raising her bail to unaffordable heights. There are bills to pay and Deidra realizes that not only can they not afford to keep food on the table or the electricity turned on, a social welfare worker (McInroe) is threatening to move Jet into a foster home if they can’t demonstrate that the environment is suitable.

In desperation, Deidra visits her ex-con dad Chet (Sullivan) who works as a technician for the railroad. He only has $13 to give them but he gives Deidra something much more valuable; an idea for a way out. He offhandedly mentions that there have been a spate of train robberies lately that have gone unsolved and the railroad brass has sent a security specialist named Truman (Nelson) to investigate. Vaping incessantly, he also has a checkered past in which he’d been drummed out of law enforcement for excessive use of force. He is clearly not a man to be trifled with.

Nonetheless Deidra figures out that she can hop aboard a freight car, break the lock and take whatever she can find in them. She knows she can’t do this alone so she enlists her sister Laney – who is embroiled in the Miss Teen Idaho pageant which she had only entered to support her “friend” Claire (Markham) who immediately turned her back on Laney when Laney was also selected as a finalist . Laney is at first reluctant but when things start to get desperate she agrees to help.

Deidra also enlists her ex-boyfriend Jerry (Olivier), who she dumped for selling pot, to sell the stolen merchandise on E-Bay. She’s set a goal of $12,000 which would be sufficient to catch them up on their bills and get their mom out on bail. She’s also pressured by the guidance counselor Ms. Spencer (Zamata) who believes that if she can get just one student out of town on a scholarship she’ll get promoted and Deidra is her best shot at it. With all this going on, the social worker and the railroad dick both sniffing around their lives and her dad trying to make up years of neglect to his kids, can this high school senior and her sister pull off the larceny they need to get their family whole again?

Those who have paid attention to my reviews over the years should by now realize that I’m not a big fan of the programming on the Freeform cable network. This movie positively reeks of the things that really make me frown about the cable network’s offerings. The script is absolutely ludicrous; for one thing, can you imagine a mother, particularly one who realizes she is the sole support for her kids, melting down like that and then treating her jail time as a vacation? None but the most irresponsible of parents would react that way and even then if they were of that nature they likely would have had their kids taken away from them long before. For some reason (and this goes back a long ways before Freeform was a gleam in Disney’s eye) kids movie/TV show writers delight in making adults be absolutely incompetent so that they can show how kids can solve their own problems.

Of course, normally Freeform and other Disney outlets don’t approve of using crime to solve the problems that their heroes and heroines are grappling with, but these are interesting times. For the working class, these types of conditions are reality and while the mom being hauled off to jail would in reality have ALL the kids taken to foster care, life for the working class particularly in rural towns is bleak and hopeless in a lot of ways – you can see why they chose to vote for the maverick outsider when it seemed like neither political party gave a rat’s behind about their situation. The movie reflects that frustration.

Murray, who also starred in the CW series Riverdale this spring, is a find. She plays Deidra as smart without being condescending and compassionate while being fierce. She avoids the clichés that so many young adult actresses fall into. Sadly, the material she has to work with here isn’t really up to her performance.

While the movie is entertaining for the main part, it’s clearly meant for a young adult audience and will offer little for audiences with a “two” or more as the first number in their age. I’m of the perhaps misguided belief that you can write terrific material for young adults without talking down to them as this movie does; it creates a world where the right thing to do is the wrong thing to do also. While empowering the girls in the movie, it also empowers them without consequences to their actions, something that really doesn’t happen often in the real world, even for adults. I applaud the filmmakers for making this an inclusive film that looks at the real economic situations faced by working class families everywhere; I just wish they could have presented real solutions and real information that kids who find themselves needing to be empowered can do so without fear of being jailed for it.

REASONS TO GO: Murray avoids young adult actress clichés. There is a decent entertainment value here.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a Freeform/Afterschool Special vibe (not necessarily a good thing). The ludicrous plot is clearly meant for youngsters, not adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some just as mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The high school scenes were filmed at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meghan Leavey

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Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang

Angels Crest


Here's an angel that Charlie missed.

Here’s an angel that Charlie missed.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Dekker, Lynn Collins, Jeremy Piven, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth McGovern, Emma Macgillivray, Joseph Morgan, Greg Lawson, Chris Ippolito, Dave Brown, Colin A. Campbell, Marty Antonini, Ameko Eks Mass Carroll, Jonathan Lachlan Stewart, Julian Domingues, Aedan Tomney, Wally Houn, Lindsay Burns, Barbara Williams, Christianne Hirt, Kate Walsh. Directed by Gaby Dellal

Bad things happen, sometimes to good people and sometimes to bad. Even the worst of events that occur have nothing to do with a person’s goodness or lack thereof. What the true measure of a person is depends on how they deal with the truly awful things that life throws at us.

Ethan (Dekker) is a 21-year-old young man who works at an auto shop in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Angels Crest. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else, where rugged individualism is the expectation and where the bleak winters often mirror the bleak outlook for many, who have no hope of escaping the lives they lead.

Ethan is the father to 3-year-old Nate (Carroll) and his sole caregiver, mainly because Nate’s mommy Cindy (Collins) is a mess, a raging alcoholic who can barely care for herself with a side order of promiscuity. One bright afternoon, Ethan takes Nate for a boy’s trip into the woods. On the way back, an exhausted Nate falls asleep and as Ethan drives towards town, he sees some deer. For whatever reason, he gets out of his truck, makes sure Nate is strapped in to his child’s seat, and leaving the heater running, follows the deer out into the woods.

You can guess that wasn’t a very smart idea. When Ethan returns to the truck, Nate is gone. He searches through the woods fruitlessly, then races back to town, returning with a search party but Nate is nowhere to be found. It takes a little while but little Nate is eventually found, frozen to death. Of course, Ethan is devastated and the hot mess that is Cindy blames Ethan for her little boy’s demise.

The town is sharply divided by the event, some joining Cindy in blaming Ethan and calling for his arrest for negligence (a feeling that the prosecutor (Piven) shares) while others believe Ethan when he says he was gone for just a few minutes and that this was just one of those horrible things that could have happened to anyone.

Like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the film examines the effects of a tragedy on a small town but the similarities end there. In the Egoyan film, the school bus accident that took the lives of a fair amount of children touched nearly every family in town; here, the directly affected are few. Still, the howls of Ethan’s grief are no less heart-wrenching no matter the number of children lost; in some ways the grief of a single person is more relatable than the grief of multiple people.

But the movie goes off the rails because of the excessive number of subplots which for the most part have no real bearing on the matter of hand. There is a lesbian couple (McGovern and Walsh) struggling for acceptance, with McGovern trying to win the affections of her own son (Domingues) who is also a horror show. The prosecutor has some deep dark secret that is motivating him to obsessively pursue an investigation that is tearing the town apart. A diner waitress (Sorvino) struggles to raise her own son on her own and happens to be Cindy’s best friend. Ethan’s best friend (Lawson) feels guilt over having been banging Cindy at the time of the incident.

All of these little subplots are enacted by characters whose only reason to be in the movie is to be involved in these subplots. They add no insight and don’t really enhance the story any. While the movie is beautifully shot with plenty of picturesque snow-covered vistas, the whole thing feels a bit like a soap opera more than a drama. While some of the scenes carry a good deal of emotional resonance, an equal number of scenes fall flat. This is as inconsistent a film as you’re likely to see.

Still, there is enough here that the movie is worth a casual glance if the opportunity presents itself although I wouldn’t put a whole lot of effort into seeking it out. The deficiencies in the film’s story and script nearly (but don’t quite) exceed the movie’s emotional impact.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the scenes work. Evocative. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes don’t. Heavy-handed and plodding. Soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, strong language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was titled Abandoned in the UK.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with Dekker and Sorvino.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $832 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Baby Gone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Creed

Black Sea


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2014) Adventure (Focus) Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Karl Davies, Jodie Whittaker, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Bobby Schofield, Daniel Ryan, Branwell Donaghey, Sergey Puskepalis, Paul Terry, Sergey Kolesnikov, Sergey Veksler, Yuri Klimov, David Threlfall, Gus Barry, Paulina Boneva, June Smith. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

For ratcheting up the suspense, few venues rival that of a submarine. A handful of submariners, trapped in a metal tube below the sea where one tiny mistake, one critical bad break can quickly turn things into a bad day for those aboard.

Captain Robinson (Law) has been cashiered for the underwater salvage company he has worked for nearly 20 years, a victim of robotics. As it turns out, sending unmanned drone subs to the bottom is far less dangerous and far more practical – and economical – than sending humans to investigate wrecks. For his service, they give him a parting sum of 8,000 pounds. That’s just over $12,000 U.S. That isn’t a whole lot of gratitude.

Robinson has no family; they left him because he essentially was never home. His ex-wife Chrissy (Whittaker) and his son Martin (Barry) have lives much better than the one he could have provided them. He misses them both terribly.

So he does what any good red-blooded Scottish man would do; he finds the nearest pub and drags a couple of his fellow unemployed mates to drown their sorrows in a pint or six. And then, he hears something interesting from one of his fellow captains (Ryan): that shortly before being terminated, he located the wreck of a World War II Nazi U-Boat in the Black Sea in Georgian waters. That wreck is very likely the one that sank in 1940 carrying an enormous amount of Nazi gold that Hitler had been sending to Stalin to keep his then-ally in the fight. Because of certain geo-political realities, the salvage company hasn’t been given permission to bring the treasure up yet, but if it is what they think it is the prize is worth many millions of dollars.

So Robinson hits on the nutty scheme of salvaging the wreck himself with a crew of others. Daniels (McNairy), an accounting sort who was also let go from the salvage company, thinks that he can get financing from the mysterious Mr. Lewis (Menzies) so that they can rent and refit an old Soviet attack sub and go grab the treasure waiting on the bottom.

Aiding him are some of his mates as well as a few Russian submariners who know how to run the Russian sub; there’s also the son of a friend, Tobin (Schofield) who Robinson takes a fatherly interest in and the unstable Aussie diver Fraser (Mendelsohn) who is like a loaded gun in a crowded room but the best when it comes to salvage.

Taking the rickety boat down to the bottom is dangerous in and of itself but with the Russian fleet above due to the dubious legality of what they’re doing, things are a lot more dicey. What’s worse that as things start to get more real, some of the men begin to crack. They will have to work together just to make it back home, let alone get the gold which if they do find it, well, you can add greed to the equation that no matter how you write it means that not everyone is going to get out of this alive.

This is a reasonably taut and well-made thriller. Law makes for a pretty solid lead here, making Robinson a believable leader that would inspire most anyone to have confidence in him – when he’s not taking insane risks to get all the gold to the surface. Law has been making some interesting choices of late in the roles he’s been choosing, and this is a very good thing. He’s been challenging himself, playing a Cockney safe cracker, a manic Internet blogger, an ethically challenged doctor and an officious Russian military man along with this somewhat angry sub captain with a “Screw the Man” attitude and an access from deepest darkest Aberdeen.

Macdonald, who has directed such fine films as The Last King of Scotland shows he knows how to keep the tension nice and high. Once the sub sets sail, the movie really hits its stride although there are a few too many scenes of sailors sitting around and reminiscing about their lives. I don’t have a problem with character development which these sorts of scenes often provide but it needs to be more concise given the very tense atmosphere. Some of the information that you get about the background of the characters isn’t really germane to the plot and quite frankly, not all of it is all that interesting. We get that sailor A is lonely, or having financial difficulties, or loves the sea. We just don’t need to have a ten minute conversation about it.

There are a lot of twists and turns and while the plot twist isn’t necessarily innovative, it is nonetheless a big game changer and very welcome when it kicks in near the end of the movie. The script is well-written, giving very logical reasons to why certain things happen the way they do without having totally random events occur, or turn the captain into Superman. This is an example of a good sub thriller that is intelligent, well-written and still tense as all get out. This hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention or support but it is certainly worth checking out. It’s no Das Boot – then again, what is? – but it is a satisfactory new entry into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice tension. Doesn’t always go the way you expect it will.
REASONS TO STAY: Should have trimmed about 20 minutes. Too many conversations about personal lives that add little value to the plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some fairly gruesome images and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sub used in the film is an authentic Soviet-era submarine which is normally moored in the river Medway in Kent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: U-571
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Paddington

Out of the Furnace


Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

Woody Harrelson is perfectly willing to take off his shirt for Christian Bale.

(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper

Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing  jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.

Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his  brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.

And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.

When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).

Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.

First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.

Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.

Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.

Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.

There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.

For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.

REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!

City Island


City Island

The cast realizes the catering truck is serving Tuna Surprise again.

(2009) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Steven Strait, Emily Mortimer, Alan Arkin, Dominick Garcia-Lorido, Ezra Miller, Carrie Baker Reynolds, Hope Glendon-Ross, Louis Mustillo, Jee Young Han, Sarah Saltzberg. Directed by Raymond de Felitta

Families have dynamics that are often much more complicated than you think they are – or than they have to be. You’d think the dynamics are simple with the people who know you best, but often family members conceal things from other members and before long, you find that they are living lives much different than they let on to their own flesh and blood.

Vince Rizzo (Garcia) is a prison guard who dreams of being an actor. He and his family live on City Island, a spit of land jutting out from the Bronx that has more in common with a New England fishing village than the Big Apple. Embarrassed by his dream, he takes acting lessons in the City at night, telling his wife Joyce (Margulies) that he’s out playing poker with the boys. She’s convinced he’s having an affair.

Vivian (Garcia-Lorido) is the pride and joy of Vince and Joyce, a college girl with a bright future ahead of her. At least, that’s what they think; in reality Vivian has dropped out and is stripping in clubs to make enough cash to pay her own way through school when she’s ready to re-apply. Her brother Vinnie (Miller) has a thing for Internet porn, particularly watching overweight women eat. Yes, a chubby chaser – deal with it.

Vince sees one of the parole candidates where he works is a young man named Tony (Strait) whose last name sounds familiar. When he looks into his file more thoroughly he is shocked to discover that Tony is the son he had with a woman other than Joyce. Tony has no place to go so Vince volunteers to put him up when Tony gets out.

Joyce of course has no clue about Tony’s paternity, nor does Tony for that matter. She’s predictably unhappy about having an ex-con in the house and lets all and sundry know about it. However her frustration at Vince’s secretive behavior is beginning to blow over. Vince’s acting coach (Arkin) has assigned the class into pairs to work on a scene together. Molly (Mortimer), Vince’s partner and he begin to meet up after class – strictly platonically – and Joyce stumbles into their relationship accidentally, believing the worst. Feeling hurt, she comes on to the hunky ex-con in an effort to get revenge. Things are spiraling out of control, especially when Vince is called in for an audition for a role in a Scorsese movie.

This is a movie with a lot of heart, and a lot of soul. Yes, dysfunctional families with lots of idiosyncrasies are staples of comedies but here they aren’t quirks for the sake of quirkiness. These are genuine people, who genuinely care about one another even if they aren’t always able to display it properly. Their bickering sounds like any family and they capture the cadences of a Northeastern Italian-American family perfectly.

Garcia has always been an actor I’ve liked ever since The Untouchables and he’s at his best here. He plays blue collar as well as anybody (his role as the Casino king in the Oceans movies notwithstanding) and he brings Vince’s hopes and dreams to life as well as his failings. Margulies has never been sexier than she is here. This is a role a bit out of her comfort zone, particularly when she’s attempting to seduce Tony but that scene is one of the highlights of the movie and gives you a great deal of insight into Joyce and her bitterness – only a consummate actress like Margulies could have pulled it off.

Mortimer is another actress who has quietly built up a reputation for terrific performances and although she’s not utilized extensively here, she shines in every scene she’s in. She acts as a kind of outsider’s view, not quite part of the community but understanding it.

The filmmakers are successful at establishing a place and time. City Island, which is a real place by the way, comes to life as do the people who live there. Their lives aren’t particularly less or more wonderful than yours or mine, but the way that de Felitta presents them, I think most people wouldn’t mind the life they find onscreen here.

WHY RENT THIS: There is an authentic feeling here that gives you a sense of place and family. The family interacts less like a sitcom family and more like a real one. Garcia, Mortimer and Margulies give fine performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many revelations near the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content (including a bit on the fetish-y side) and some inappropriate language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dominick Garcia-Lorido, who plays Andy Garcia’s daughter in the movie, is…Andy Garcia’s actual daughter.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.9M on a $6M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham.  Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.

Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.

The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.

He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.

Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.

At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.

As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.

As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?

Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.

Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.

Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.

As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.

We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.

Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.

It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.

REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead