LIGHT FROM LIGHT (2019)

June 12, 2019

2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Festivals are often programmed with many films that will never be screened outside of a festival environment … low-budget passion projects to be viewed only by those with an appreciation (bordering on obsession) of deep cut and one-off films. Writer-Director Paul Harrill (SOMETHING, ANYTHING) has possibly bridged the gap with a film that capitalizes on grief, while excelling in quietness and stillness.

Marin Ireland (“Homeland”) stars as Sheila, a single mom who plods through each day at her dead-end job as a rental car agent. We learn from a radio interview that Sheila may also have a connection to the afterlife, and she sometimes works as a ghost hunter or paranormal investigator – although, she has somehow lost her crew. Still, this doesn’t stop a Priest from reaching out to her in hopes that she can help Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a distraught widower who has reported strange occurrences in his farmhouse – occurrences that may or may not be related to his dead wife, and occurrences that he may or may not be imagining.

Sheila takes the job (even though she’s no Zelda Rubinstein) and recruits her teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins, so good in HELLION, 2014) and his friend-study partner-would be girlfriend Lucy (Athena Frizzell) to help set up cameras and recording devices at Richard’s house. It’s at this point where it should be noted that this is not a horror film. It’s not even a thriller. And even though Gaffigan co-stars, it’s certainly not a comedy. It’s not even really a ghost story or a romantic tale, although those elements do exist.

The intrigue is derived from these four characters. These are not special or extraordinary people – just normal folks trying to figure out life. We learn the inner struggles of each, and as viewers we are joined at the hip with them. It’s been a year since Richard’s wife died in the crash, and he’s still coming to terms with her death, and even more so, the affair she confessed.  Sheila is wondering where she fits in the world, and her advice to Owen proves the level of overprotectiveness she has for emotion. Owen likes Lucy, but doesn’t see the point in starting a relationship that will end when she heads off to school, and Lucy is confused by his reaction to her strong attraction to him.

Ms. Ireland and Mr. Gaffigan are both excellent here, and having recently seen the latter in THEM THAT FOLLOW, I’m not the least bit surprised that he can pull off such a dramatic turn. The film reaches a different level in their scenes together – especially a hike to the crash site located within the Great Smoky Mountains. Not much is said, and there is little action, but the scene solidifies all the emotions hinted at in the preceding scenes.

A film that might be characterized by some as slow and dull, may just strike a chord with enough folks to gain some momentum for an audience. David Lowery, the director of A GHOST STORY, 2017) is an executive producer, so he has a track record of success with stories that are understated and quiet. Are there ghosts among us – possibly even the living? Richard and Sheila come pretty close. Additionally, special recognition goes out for a practical effect that is the film’s crescendo … and it involves Tolstoy! So rather than view this as a bit of a downer, as the title suggests, we should let there be light.

(I couldn’t find an online trailer)

 

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GLASS CHIN (2015)

June 24, 2015

glass chin Greetings again from the darkness. “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by” is a familiar line sung by Bruce Springsteen, and writer/director Noah Buschel brings that New Jersey sentiment to his latest film. We follow the travails of a former boxer struggling with the faded spotlight and his perceived lack of respect, while also seemingly oblivious to the maintenance his personal relationship requires.

Corey Stoll (familiar to “House of Cards” fans) plays Bud “The Saint” Gordon, a retired boxer whose self-named local neighborhood hangout recently closed its doors. Bud is trying to figure out how to reclaim the good life afforded by his boxing winnings, and is opposed to his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) taking a waitress job to help out. He agrees to train a young up-and-coming boxer prepare for a fight, while also agreeing to work with a shady shyster named J.J. (Billy Crudup). Bud and J.J. have a history, and it’s soon pretty clear that J.J. is some type of offbeat (he owns a snow leopard) kingpin or mobster, who finds a financial and psychological edge in all dealings.

Yul Vazquez plays J.J.’s lead henchman and has the “flashiest” (his character name is Flash) role in the film, although Crudup’s character could have been even more fun if allotted more screen time. Also making brief appearances are Kelly Lynch, Katherine Waterston, and David Johansen. Of course, Mr. Johansen is a former member of The New York Dolls, and their song “Trash” plays a key role in one of Bud’s earliest scenes working with Flash.

There is an unmistakable class theme – the have’s vs the have-nots. The two sides are clear in Manhattan vs. New Jersey, and J.J. vs. Bud. The most interesting part of the story is with Bud’s attempt to figure out the harsh ways of life, even as we viewers recognize he requires no shades for his future. Although both themes are pretty familiar in the movie world, Mr. Buschel opts to only scratch the surface on both the faded hero and the mob world. Instead, it’s more of a dialogue-driven drama that questions where the line in the morality sand is drawn.

watch the trailer:

 

 


HOPE SRINGS (2012)

August 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I often give extra credit to filmmakers for trying something challenging and different, even if the final product might fall a bit short. What I refuse to do is ignore the opposite … a lazy attempt by a filmmaker who thinks they can skate by simply because they picked a interesting topic. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) takes the screenplay from Vanessa Taylor and then seems to sit back and bank on the strength of three lead actors to make a statement.

Meryl Streep is the greatest living actress and maybe the greatest of all-time. She can turn any character into a subject of interest and doesn’t disappoint here as Kay, the disenchanted wife of Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones (himself an excellent actor). In an effort to save a marriage gone stale after 31 years, she books a week of intensive marriage counseling with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Grumpy Arnold reluctantly agrees to attend despite his belief that all is “fine” with their marriage for the singular reason that it’s lasted 31 years.  Besides that, he has golf to watch on TV … well, “watch” with his eyes closed.

What follows is not the laugh-fest promised by the trailer, but rather a semi-serious look at marriage for the over-60 generation. I say semi-serious because intense and thoughtful topics are raised, but the film continually makes U-Turns at each fork in the road so as to avoid coming up with any real solution or digging deeper into cause/effect. Instead, some prime opportunity is wasted for this to be either a riotous look at marital frustration or an intriguing dive into what makes men and women of this generation unable to communicate.

My contention is that just because this is a movie about marriage for 60-somethings, we shouldn’t give the filmmakers a gold star for effort. The great John Wooden said, “Never mistake effort for results“. There are some humorous moments … some laugh out-loud moments, but not very many. There are some serious topics broached, but only by skimming the surface. Mostly, the scenes are obvious and predictable and Streep and Jones carry the burden of lifting the material.  As a movie lover, I demand more.

 The three leads are excellent. Mr. Carell does a nice job of playing the understated counselor role. He is smart enough to know that this film belongs to Streep and Jones. There is also minor support work from Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Mimi Rogers and Elisabeth Shue. All of these characters seem tossed in for variety only. None really drive the story. though it seems either one more or one less scene with with Shue in the bar would have made sense. The first 20 minutes of the film has three songs that just overpower the scenes.  I guess this is to ensure that every viewer recognizes the mood of the characters.  It’s as if the director recognized the material was lightweight.

I have labeled this genre Gray Cinema, and have previously stated that I expect we are on the front end of this trend as baby boomers demand more movies about themselves. The trend is commendable, but again I say, we should demand more and better.  Showing up is half the battle … now let’s see the other half.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy watching the great Meryl Streep brilliantly craft another of her cinematic characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find the raising of issues to be a starting point, not a finish line for a story

watch the trailer: