THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES (2017)

November 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since there is always “trouble in paradise”, perhaps living in paradise shouldn’t even be a life goal. There are certainly less expensive ways to enjoy a nice view than relocating the family from the frozen Midwestern leisure of Michigan to the ultra-rich, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses hypocrisy of Palos Verdes. Joy Nicholson’s 1997 book has been adapted for the screen by writer Karen Croner. Brothers Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy co-direct in what appears to be their feature film debut after 15 plus years of music-related videos, shorts and documentaries.

The Masons move into a cliff-side mansion in Palos Verdes. The breathtaking Pacific Ocean view is supposed to offset the homogenized exclusive suburbia punctuated with manicured lawns, freshly painted homes, and close-minded wealthy folks. That works for Phil (Justin Kirk), the cardiologist who does see this as paradise and hopes his family will feel the same. His wife Sandy (Jennifer Garner) is struggling with depression, and their twin 16 year old kids Medina (Maika Monroe) and Jim (Cody Fern) are personality opposites … he being the popular kid, while she is a loner.

Since we all know new curtains don’t fix a broken window, the fractured family is soon on full display. The dysfunction came along as part of their relocation and much of this can be traced to Sandy’s manic-depressive state. The stress-related fallout is ugly. Phil finds comfort in the arms of their Realtor (Alicia Silverstone), who scores a doctor to go along with her commission. This sends Sandy spiraling down the rabbit hole, as Jim starts experimenting with drugs, and Medina seeks peace on a surfboard that she procured through a most unusual negotiation.

Most of the story is told from Medina’s perspective, and Ms. Monroe excels. Her breakout role was a couple of years ago in IT FOLLOWS, and though she’s a bit too old to play a 16 year old, she is so talented and relatable that to whatever extent the movie works for you, it’s likely to be because of her. The way she handles the cold distance between she and her mother is heartbreaking, yet her sadness and frustration at being the only one recognizing the fall of brother Jim is truly devastating.

The ultra-angst is sometimes a bit too heavy, as is the over-use of slow-motion and the overbearing indie music (as you might expect from music video directors). Many will hail Jennifer Garner’s performance since it is so far removed from her usual grinning and lovable type, but I found her a bit too extreme and trying too hard. Despite these issues, the mystic draw of the sea makes perfect sense as Medina literally surfs the choppy waves of life. A threat of disaster is always on the cusp, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the contrasting beautiful setting. Finding our tribe is a key to life and we are privileged to follow along with rising star Maika Monroe’s fabulous performance.

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WALKING OUT (2017)

October 5, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Man vs Nature movies tend to remind us of both our tenacity when things go badly, and our lack of control or overall insignificance in the big picture of life. This tends to be true in the mountains, on the water, under the ocean, in caves and in space. Twin brothers Alex Smith and Andrew J Smith have adapted and co-directed this film from a short story by David Quammen. The filmmakers were raised in Montana, and have an inherent feel for the stunning and often treacherous landscape.

Matt Bomer, in a sharp left-turn from his usual pretty-boy roles, plays Cal, a live-off-the-land mountain man with seemingly few needs outside of food, water and a desire to connect with his teenage son through a hunting trip. Josh Wiggins (who exploded on the scene in 2014’s HELLION) plays David, a suburban Texas boy who is out of his element without his cell phone. The opening panoramic view of snow-covered mountains is contrasted with David’s engrossed concentration on his hand-held video game as the plane approaches the landing zone. “How was your year?” is David’s greeting from Cal, instantly elucidating their relationship.

Cal excitedly reports to David that he has been tracking a bull moose for 11 weeks, and wants this to be David’s first big game kill. We are constantly reminded that this isn’t trophy hunting, and that this single moose will provide Cal enough meat for a year. David has no real interest in killing a moose, but longs to connect with his father … and “longs” is interpreted through the teenager’s shrugs, glances and body language. Wiggins plays David with the subtle authenticity of the teenagers most of us have known, raised, and at one time, been.

As Cal explains the history of the mountains, he also works in stories of his youth when his father (David’s grandfather) was teaching him the ethics of nature. Numerous flashbacks feature Bill Pullman and Alex Neustaedter (as young Cal). The flashbacks are a bit artsy, and sometimes intrusive, but in the end, form a parallel story structure that works.

A couple of poor decisions lead to an accident that could be straight out of the Dick Cheney’s field guide to hunting. Cal and David are both injured – Cal severely so. It’s at this point where David must grow up quickly. The skills he has learned, or at least absorbed, are now necessary if he expects to save his father’s life. What was a story of two polar opposite blood relatives trying to connect, transitions instantaneously into one of survival, maturity, persistence, and love.

Movies such as THE REVENANT and THE EDGE come to mind, but this one is short on thrills, and is instead a trudging struggle to survive – taking a quiet approach, rather than a showy one. Lily Gladstone, fresh off her terrific work in CERTAIN WOMEN, has a brief sequence near the film’s end. The beautiful landscape and terrain is captured by cinematographer Todd McMullen, while Ernst Reijseger’s score effectively complements the odd mixture of slow pacing and non-stop danger. Whether you are trying to live a reclusive life off the land, or simply one of the many parents attempting to connect with their kids, keep in mind that regardless of the beauty of the mountains, “snow is not our friend”.

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ITHACA (2016)

September 21, 2016

ithaca Greetings again from the darkness. The source material is the 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” from Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan; and it’s the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the one-time ‘America’s Sweetheart’ who reunites with her Sleepless in Seattle co-star Tom Hanks (in a ghostly cameo). Due to these juicy ingredients, we can be excused if our expectations are a bit high.

As a viewer, it’s easy to relate to the emotions of young Homer McCauley (Alex Neustaedter) as his messenger job expedites the disillusionment that often accompanies adulthood. While Homer becomes more disenchanted the more he learns, we feel let down with each successive sequence. The adapted screenplay from Eric Jendresen never picks a direction, and instead teases us with numerous pieces from the novel with little follow through on any.

Homer’s dad (a very brief Tom Hanks apparition) has recently passed, and with his older brother Marcus (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) off at war, Homer takes it upon himself to secure a job to help support his saintly and melancholy mother (Meg Ryan), his older sister Bess (Christine Nelson) and his little brother Ulysses (an energetic Spencer Howell). He pledges to be the best bicycle messenger ever when hired at the local telegraph company run by Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and old-timer (grumpy and frequently inebriated) Willie (Sam Shepard).

Being that it’s war time, some of the telegraphs Homer must deliver are the worst possible news for the parents on the receiving end. As the film progresses, we see the light slowly go out of Homer’s once bright eyes. The accelerated coming-of-age aspect is at its best when his father-figure Willie brusquely tells him “You are 14 years old and you’re a man! I don’t know who made you that way.” It’s the most poignant moment of the film and the closest we get to a real theme.

The letters Homer receives from older brother Marcus contribute to his understanding of the world and the reading of the letters serves the purpose of story narration. The film is nostalgic and idealistic, but so unfocused that we are never able to fully connect with any of the characters. We are caught off guard when Homer proclaims his mother as the nicest person ever, although she has offered even less guidance than Forrest Gump’s mom. Ithaca, Ulysses, and Homer … we can’t miss the mythology ties, as well as the importance of home, but it always feels like something is missing.

In 1943, six time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown made a movie based on this same novel, and the cast included Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, Donna Reid and Van Johnson. In this new version, John Mellencamp provides the musical score, and Ms. Ryan has stated that the novel helped her work through a difficult time in her personal life. She’s likely to get more opportunities to direct; her first outing is easy enough to watch, but just as easy to forget.

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