Raise Your Kids on Seltzer


Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

(2015) Drama (Public Shores) Penny Werner, Jeff Kao, Nancy Kimball, Barry Newman, Kris Caltagirone, Deniz Demirer, William Cully Allen, Alanna Blair, Mark Zucker, Daniel Kremer, Rob Nilsson, Josh Peterson, Pamela Ambler, Leoni Figueredo, Dana Lorena Leon, Natalie Echols, Solomon Zucker, Aaron Hollander, Maryelle Turner. Directed by Daniel Kremer

 

Sometimes we put things behind us for a reason. Maybe the events of the past are just too painful, but other times we’ve simply moved on. Either way, we never completely escape our past.

Terry (Kao) and Tessa (Werner) Wasserman-Wang are a middle-aged couple living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They make their living as corporate videographers which isn’t the most exciting gig in history. Nowhere near as exciting as what they used to do for a living – cult deprogrammers.

They get a letter out of the blue from a former client that tells them that the daughter they rescued from a cult has recently committed suicide, naming the Wasserman-Wangs as the reason for her drastic action in her suicide note. Terry won’t let Tessa read the entire letter, which upsets her even further. Terry seems to be unaffected, busy working on the book he is writing about their years together working in the lucrative but not quite legal trade of what they prefer to call “exit counseling.”

Tessa’s twin sister Willa (also Werner) is getting her son’s bar mitzvah planned and abruptly informs Tessa that Terry is “uninvited.” Tessa is understandably hurt but Terry’s reaction (or lack thereof) further bothers Tessa. She also objects to Terry’s increasing tendency to make decisions for her.

Terry is feeling increasingly constricted by their corporate videography work and the book is stalled by the overbearing daughter (Blair) of Terry’s co-author (Allen). When he is contacted by a friend who has a potential client willing to pay $50,000 to get young Chloe (Kimball) out of a cult, Terry is willing to jump at the chance, particularly since finances are tight. Tessa, on the other hand, is horrified – she thought they’d agreed to leave that life behind and the letter has further strengthened her resolve. The cracks in the facade of their marriage may be deepening into canyons that may not be able to be resolved.

This isn’t Kremer’s first rodeo and there is some self-assurance to the direction. The relationship between Terry and Tessa is strained and feels it, sometimes almost too well; one feels that awkward moment at a party when a couple snipe just a little too personally at one another. While that may make the viewer feel a little bit put off, that’s as it should be; if you’re going to make a movie about a relationship that is strained, the viewer should feel that strain as well.

Werner is mainly at the front and center as the emotional focus of the film. While Kao plays things close to the vest, Werner is outgoing and an open book in many ways. Her Tessa is the kind of Jewish woman that makes the world a better place; she’s funny, pretty and pragmatic. She knows how to have fun but she knows what’s right for her family too. I found myself relating more to Tessa than to Terry, who is very emotionally closed-off.

The script has a tendency to meander a bit and not always in a good way. There are periodic insertions of interviews with the lawyer (Newman) for a cult leader that do nothing for the story and just serve to pad the running time. There are also little bits, like an obsession with a Siamese pickle and the whole bar mitzvah subplot that really distract from what is the most compelling story in the film – the relationship between Terry and Tessa. That distraction really hurts the overall experience and is the one factor I think that damages the film the most.

I like the cult deprogramming angle and how it affects those who do the deprogramming but Kremer doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it surprisingly. Then again, that might be a different movie than the one Kremer wanted to make although I think that would be a fascinating movie as well. Still, one can look at the relationship between Tessa and Terry and find a lot that is fascinating, and a lot that is insightful about long-term relationships. I just wish there had been less distracting the audience from finding those insights.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is intriguing. The dialogue between Terry and Tessa is completely authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-written. The performances can be stiff at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Tessa is watching on TV is A Cool Sound from Hell by director Sidney J. Furie, whom Kremer has written a biography on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Nocturnal Animals

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Miss Potter


Miss Potter

Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter inspect a proof of her first book.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber. Directed by Chris Noonan

Most of us are aware of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail – they are indelible parts of our childhood. Some of us might even be aware of Beatrix Potter, the 19th century author and creator of those wonderful characters. Most of us, however, know nearly nothing of her, which considering she is the best-selling children’s author of all time – she has sold more books than both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling – is a bit of a shame.

Zellweger means to change that. A fan of the famed author, the biopic of Beatrix Potter was something of a labor of love for the star. She plays Potter as an un-lovely but imaginative spinster, living in the home of her wealthy parents who despair of ever marrying her off as she rejects suitor after suitor, most of them brought before her because of their titles or bloodline. Beatrix, however, will have none of that. She’ll marry for love or not at all.

She also is a talented artist, a skill encouraged by her father (Paterson) who was something of an artist himself before his family forced him to take up a more respectable vocation – the law, which ironically he rarely practiced. She also has a talent at making up stories, one which kept her and her brother entertained as children. Now, she means to entertain other children with her tales, but she goes from publishing house to publishing house only to meet rejection and scorn. She finally finds one, Warne House, which is willing to publish her but only believes she’ll make a marginal profit. They fob her off on Norman (McGregor), youngest son of the family and thought to be something of a foul-up.

Norman, however, proves to be almost as enthusiastic about the project as Miss Potter herself, and the two engage in a marvelous simpatico that results in some of the classic children’s books of all times. Norman introduces Beatrix to his sister Millie (Watson) and the two become fast friends, a friendship that deepens as Beatrix falls in love with her editor. The two propose to marry, but Beatrix’s parents are aghast. Firstly, Norman is a tradesman – why, the very thing is beneath them. Secondly, by Victorian standards, they’ve barely met. The overbearing mother (Flynn) and the somewhat more sympathetic father finally arrange a truce with their distraught daughter – if she still feels the same way at the end of the summer, then the marriage will receive their blessing. Reluctantly, Beatrix agrees, expecting to hear wedding bells at the conclusion of her time at their house in the English Lake Country. Tragically, it is not wedding bells but a funeral dirge that she will hear as Norman sickens and dies in her absence.

Devastated, she moves to a home in her beloved Lake Country in a charming farm house (which still exists today, by the way). There, she finds solace in a new vocation – as an activist in preserving the Lake Country from over-development, and in the arms of a realtor (Owen) that she first met when he was a young man.

Fantasy segments bring the drawings of Beatrix Potter to life, and while unfortunately Zellweger’s performance is a bit bland (but to be fare, Miss Potter in reality was a bit bland), nonetheless you feel as if you’ve gotten some insight into the woman at the film’s conclusion, a very satisfactory outcome for any biopic. I enjoyed McGregor’s performance and the English supporting cast is first-rate, although not well-known.

I love the recreation of the period, which feels authentic and allows a glimpse at the daily lives of the well-to-do, not to mention the psyche of the nouveau riche of the time. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales of Beatrix Potter; watching her creations come to life in her head was revisiting beloved old friends for me. This is truly a charming movie that isn’t overwhelming, but a solid effort nonetheless.

REASONS TO RENT: Charming fantasy sequences. Solid performances by McGregor and support cast. Nice recreation of the period.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Zellweger a bit bland. Story drags a bit in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mildly naughty words but really nothing your kids haven’t already heard.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Hilltop” house that Beatrix Potter retreats to in the Lake District is actually Yew Tree Farm in the town of Coniston in the Lake District, not far from where Potter actually lived.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature on the real Beatrix Potter and the marketing of her books which was one of the first books to market the characters to children and made Potter one of the wealthiest authors of her time.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on an unreported production budget; I’d hazard a guess that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Two Lovers

Starting Out in the Evening


Starting Out in the Evening

Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella out for an evening stroll.

(Roadside Attractions) Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor, Karl Bury, Anitha Gandhi, Sean T. Krishnan, Jessica Hecht, Adrian Lester, Michael Cumpsty. Directed by Andrew Wagner

All of us want to leave a legacy of one sort or another and nowhere is this desire keener than with writers. The older we get, the more urgent that need becomes.

Leonard Schiller (Langella) has had his share of artistic triumph. In his career he has written four books, all of which have received acclaim and notice, particularly the first two. However, as the 21st century begins all of his books are out of print and he has been relegated as something of a literary footnote. He has been working on his fifth novel for a decade now and has come to realize that it will be his last.

Into his New York milieu comes comely graduate student Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) who is eager to do her master’s thesis on the notoriously reclusive Schiller. That would mean giving the young woman access to his life in ways Schiller doesn’t feel comfortable with. While Heather promises that her thesis will re-ignite interest in Schiller’s books, Schiller himself is less concerned with interest in books he’s already written and more interested in getting his final work written and published, so he declines politely but firmly.

Browsing in a bookstore later with his daughter Ariel (Taylor), Schiller is bemused to see that Heather’s claims of being a published writer herself are correct and that her previous essay on another writer did in fact result in that writer’s works going back into print again. He also is disturbed to discover that there is little interest in the publishing world in putting the final work of an aging and more-or-less forgotten novelist whose best work was forty years behind him into print. Given all of this, Leonard changes his mind.

Ariel is also going through a difficult period in her life. She had dreamed of being a dancer but is reduced to teaching Pilates and yoga classes. As she is approaching forty, she very much wants to have a child, but seems to have the unerring ability to choose men who don’t. Her latest boyfriend, Victor (Cumpsty) is busy with his legal career. When Ariel stops using her birth control without telling him, the relationship comes to an end, much to Leonard’s disappointment. He’d liked the latest boyfriend, unlike his feelings for Casey (Lester), Ariel’s previous beau who had coincidentally just returned to New York. They had broken up because she wanted to have children and he didn’t, but nonetheless they get back together, falling into the same patterns, living the same lies.

As time goes on, Heather’s motivations for choosing Schiller become more obvious and the attention of a much younger, beautiful woman becomes flattering. What skeletons will emerge from Schiller’s closet and will he find the legacy he so painfully wants?

Based on a novel by Brian Norton, director Wagner (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a world in which authors are revered, good literature is worth saving and people still care about reading. That’s a world which is shrinking in a day and age where people are more willing to vote for the next American Idol than for the next American President. Wagner isn’t necessarily pointing the finger of condemnation at our shallow modern society, but he does so simply by displaying this one. There is depth and layers to each and every character in this film, even the minor ones.

Langella is a force onscreen. He has the gravitas of a Morgan Freeman and the gentility and intelligence of Laurence Olivier. His Leonard Schiller is a complex man, one whose life was altered forever when his wife died in a tragic car accident. From that point, everything about him changed – his art, his relationship with his daughter, his perception of the world. He is discovering that he no longer wants to live the solitary life of a literary icon and recluse, but needs human company, even human love.

Lauren Ambrose, best known as Claire in “Six Feet Under,” has a very difficult role and she carries it off surprisingly well. Heather is driven, ambitious and charming on the surface, but below the surface she is conflicted and not nearly as self-confident. She has a tough veneer but she can be wounded and Leonard finds a way to do just that. There is some sexuality in her performance, but it isn’t just sex.

In some ways, we all hear the clock ticking. Perhaps it’s our biological clock, urging us to bear progeny. Perhaps it’s our life clock, counting down the end of our days. Perhaps it’s our career clock, compelling us to take advantage of opportunities while they still exist. Those opportunities, whether for children, success or creating a legacy exist within an all-too-brief period of time. Take the opportunity to see this movie as soon as you can.

WHY RENT THIS: Langella is becoming one of the most distinguished actors in America today, and he demonstrates his skills here. A very literate movie with some fine moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat talky in places and a bit high-falutin’ in others.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief nude posterior in view as well as some sexuality and language concerns. Okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Brian Morton novel this is based on was a PenFaulkner Book Award nominee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 17 Again