IN SEARCH OF FELLINI (2017)

April 30, 2017

USA Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even In this age of “helicopter parenting” it’s disconcerting to see such flagrant over-protectiveness as that perpetuated by Maria Bello’s character on her daughter Lucy. For film lovers, it’s even more disheartening to see how the mother uses “happy ending” movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life to create the social bubble that results in 20 year old Lucy having never been kissed, and having no concept of reality (outside of what she has seen in movies).

Contrary to what that set-up would have us believe, director Taron Lexton’s film is actually less Coming-of-Age and more ‘Welcome to the Universe’, and Lucy’s journey of self-discovery is quite enjoyable to behold. Co-written by Nancy Cartwright and Peter Kjenaas, it’s the ‘based on a true story’ of Ms. Cartwright’s own personal journey prior to her nearly 30 year run as the voice of Bart Simpson.

Lucy (Ksenia Solo, Black Swan) is off on an interview-gone-wrong when she stumbles into a Fellini film festival. She is immediately entranced by the obscure imagery and often less-than-happy endings. In fact, she connects with the films in such a manner that she is inspired to travel to Italy and meet with the Maestro himself. Ms. Cartwright’s real life motivation stemmed from watching Fellini’s La Strada (1954), and she instantly saw herself in Gelsomina (played by the spirited Giuletta Masina).

Her travels through Italy are filled with ups and downs, and Lucy crosses paths with good people and bad. It’s her first true life experience and we are along for the ride. The structure of the story is such that as Lucy is discovering life, her mother (Bello) is back home in Ohio slowly losing her battle with cancer while being nursed by her straight-talking sister (Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chloe from “24”). Such contrasting elements would fit right in to a Fellini film.

At some point, most movie lovers experience the awakening that occurs when graduating from pleasant, feel good family movies to more esoteric and philosophical cinema. Fortunately, this awakening typically occurs before age 20 and does not require an international trip or dying mother to allow us to grow as a person. Ms. Cartwright’s willingness to share her story makes for interesting filmmaking and one of the more unusual coming-of-age (or Welcome to the Universe) twists that we’ve seen on screen.

**I couldn’t find a trailer to post

 

 


BRAVETOWN (2015)

May 7, 2015

bravetown Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a coming of age film. Nope, it’s small town Americana film. Wait … it’s a high school dance film. Hold on, it’s an anti-war film. Sorry about that, it’s a film about families struggling with grief.  Not that a film has to be any one type – the best rarely are – but writer Oscar Orlando Torres and first time director Daniel Duron are all over the place with this one.

Josh (Lucas Til, Havoc from the “X-Men” films) is a troubled young man with dazzling DJ skills beloved in the NYC club scene. An unfortunate turn leads to his mother (Maria Bello) and a Judge banishing him to live with his long lost father (Tom Everett Scott) in a small, idyllic place that could be AnyTown USA … or more appropriately, NoPlace USA.  Josh is required to go to regular counseling for one year, and of course his therapist (Josh Duhamel) is as unstable as most any patient (as noted by his passion for soccer).

As with any new high school student, Josh is quickly befriended by Tony the nerdy little brother of the beautiful dance team captain Mary (Kherington Payne, Fame 2009). Tony is played by Jae Head, who you will remember as the sharp-but-still-goofy little brother in The Blind Side. It’s pretty obvious where this is headed when we first see the lame dance routines. In the blink of an eye, Josh’s music has elevated the dance team to elite status while he also stumbles into a romantic situation with Mary.

We soon learn that this town is hiding something. No, it’s not like The Stepford Wives, but in case we can’t figure it out on our own, Mary illuminates the War Memorial Tree – filled with military medals awarded to those the town has lost to war. See, the whole town has been touched war casualties, but no one will deal. Laura Dern plays mom to Tony and Mary, but she is so disoriented by grief, that she often thinks her oldest son is still returning home someday.

With elements of Footloose and Step Up, the story is continually brought crashing back around us with clips from Platoon – a film Josh so loves that it plays a central role in the film’s climax and redemption for all involved. The best parts of the film revolve around grief and pain, but those elements are constantly chopped up with the abbreviated dance contests. Some script doctoring would have helped rescue a film that seems to have too much to say, yet underserves a solid cast (though Til and Payne are too old to play high schoolers).

watch the trailer:

 

 


McFARLAND USA

February 18, 2015

mcfarland Greetings again from the darkness. “A Disney movie” was once synonymous with good-hearted family fare. Even though the lure of big box office has caused the studio to expand their film boundaries a bit, no one does it better when the material is a heart-warming, inspiring story … especially if based on a true story. This latest has less in common with The Mighty Ducks, and more with Miracle, The Rookie, and Dreamer.

Based on a true story that began in 1987, Kevin Costner plays high school coach Jim White, who after a couple of unfortunate incidents, finds himself with a not so desirable teaching/coaching gig in the San Joaquin Valley in central California – specifically the poverty stricken farming community of McFarland. To say that life is hard in McFarland is a bit of an understatement. The families are mostly Hispanic and heavily dependent on crop picking. Once the kids are age 10, they are put to work in the fields before and after school.

Toting their prejudices, Coach White and his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters (one whom you will recognize from TV’s “Homeland“) arrive as outsiders, but quickly discover their neighbors are very proud people who value family and community. Coach also discovers that the area boys have developed a natural ability to run distances in the heat, so he forms a school cross country team, and the rest is literally history. The runners dominate the California state meet by winning 9 of the next 14 years, and many of the boys go off to college – something previously not even a remote dream for most.

Since this is Disney, most of the jagged edges are rounded off. Crime, discrimination, politics, racism, and poverty are present, but do not receive much attention. Director Niko Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) does nice work in keeping the story grounded and focused on the individuals. We get a feel for the skepticism and family obstacles faced by this first group of runners. More importantly, we witness the pride and involvement as the boys begin to have some success, and the sense of belonging that sneaks up on White and his family.

Costner does get a shot at a motivational speech, but it’s small in scope and wonderfully centered on what the boys have accomplished, rather than some unrelatable shot at changing the world. Seeing him on a “Barbie” bike brings a laugh, as does some of the high school boy chatter directed at their duck-out-of-water coach. We don’t really get to know the individual boys too much (some are actors, some are actual McFarland students), but the end credit video recap of where they are now (27 years later) really hits home as to the importance of guidance and mentorship for youngsters.

The film is extremely pleasant and the story’s roots in the real world lend credence to the inspirational message and underdog-overcoming-obstacles story. It’s also a reminder that opportunity to make a difference is all around us. Just look what Jim White and runners have accomplished!

**NOTE – for Bull Durham fans, Visalia is just up the road from McFarland (bringing Costner full circle).

watch the trailer:

 


PRISONERS (2013)

September 23, 2013

prisoners1 Greetings again from the darkness. This film is one of those goldmines for discussion and debate. Each successive scene begs the viewer to judge the actions of those involved, but even beyond that, the movie is screaming to be picked apart by those of us prone to do so. It’s actually the best of both worlds for film lovers … it challenges us on a personal and moral basis, and also as one who analyzes scripts, acting choices, and filmmaking techniques.

Having seen the trailer, I was very much aware of the foundation of the film … two young girls are kidnapped and, frustrated with the lack of progress by the police, one of the dads seeks his own form of justice. So I couldn’t help but cringe with the obvious metaphor opening scene where Hugh Jackman’s character (Keller Dover) experiences one of those life-bonding moments with his teenage son Ralph (played by Dylan Minnette). Once past that, the set-up is expertly handled … two middle class families sharing friendship and Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and his prisoners4wife Holly (Maria Bello) have two kids: Dylan and their young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimokovich). Their neighborhood friends Franklin and Nancy are played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). Perfect families and perfect friends shattered by a horrific ordeal when the young girls go missing. The main suspect is a simplistic man-child who drives a ratty RV. Alex Jones is played by Paul Dano in the most uncompromising manner possible.  He lives a simple existence with his aunt, played by Melissa Leo.

prisoners3 Enter Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). Loki is an odd bird who never lets a case go unsolved. His quirky personality and facial ticks and buttoned-up shirt provide us with enough backstory that we understand his dogged pursuit and need to work alone. As the story unfolds, we are overwhelmed with an abundance of terrific story lines. In fact, there are so many that we feel downright cheated at all the deadends and dropped-cold sub-plots.

As a father, I certainly could relate to Keller’s relentless, stop-at-nothing pursuit of the first and only lead. Exactly where would I draw the line for my own actions? I can’t answer that other than to say that I totally understood his approach. That’s not to say I condone such actions, only that I fully empathize. Holly’s reaction to the ordeal is to curl up in bed with prisoners2meds. That too is understandable. Loki’s frustration with his own department and the false leads is also understandable. So while each character’s actions make sense, the viewer’s frustration is palpable, not just because of these things, but in the mis-use of such fine actors as Mr. Howard, Ms. Davis, and Ms. Leo. Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Dano dominate through much different methods, yet we viewers constantly find ourselves wanting to know more about the teenage kids, the priest played by Len Cariou, and of course, the Howard and Davis characters.

You will pick up on some thematic similarites to films such as The Lovely Bones, Primal Fear, Ransom, and Mystic River.  The film’s message is not vague; it’s even overly obvious. Keller is a survivalist … the kind of guy who is prepared for any disaster. No matter how prepared one is, the loss of a child will test your morals, faith and inner-strength. What would you do? How far would you go? Is there a line you won’t cross to protect your family? Those questions are much simpler until real life forces you to answer.

One thing you will quickly notice is just how stunningly beautiful this film is. The credits provide the answer in Director of Cinematographer Roger Deakins, probably the best in the business. French-Canadian Director Denis Villenueve gave us the exceptional Incendies, and while this one has plenty to offer, I believe some fine-tuning with writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) could have elevated this one to Oscar worthy material. So take your friends and be prepared for post-movie discussion. Everyone will have their own thoughts and opinions. That doesn’t make this a great movie, but it serves the purpose of getting us to question our faith and beliefs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are willing to question your own moral bounds when the safety of your family is at stake OR you enjoy personal thrillers in the whodunnit mode.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer taut thrillers with few loose ends and easy puzzle pieces to assemble along the way

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpXfcTF6iVk