The Devil’s Knot – Atom Egoyan (2014)

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If you don’t know the story of the West Memphis Three by now, I’m not sure where you’ve been living. Even rock-dwellers have heard it. There have been four documentaries, a handful of books, news stories and countless rallies with musicians as diverse as Metallica, Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam lending their names to the cause of three misfit teenagers from rural Arkansas who were convicted of the murder of three pre-teens in the early 1990s.

Whether they were wrongfully convicted or not has been contested in the court of law and of public opinion for much of the last two decades, since the first documentary, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO in 1996, three years after the murder and two years after their conviction.

If, by chance, you’ve somehow never heard of it, this film – a “based on a true story” feature, not a documentary – re-creates the story of the murder of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in May 1993. The nature of the murders – the boys were found in the woods naked and hog-tied with their own shoelaces – led investigators to believe this was an occult murder, and they eventually set their sights on three local misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

At the center of the film is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who is suspicious of the style of justice meted out by the local police. Overwhelmed, the police let the pressure of the case, and of the media interest in it, lead them down a rabbit hole of bungles and fabrications in order to send the boys to trial as quickly as possible in a kangaroo court.

It’s unclear what the director, Atom Egoyan, intended to do here. The film has no personality or authorship. There is no arc or drama, only scenes lined up one after another. Egoyan gets so bogged down in the facts of the case that he sidesteps telling the story at all. It has no point of view.

That leaves Colin Firth largely wasted as the film’s conscience, and Witherspoon has not exactly found her comeback as the emotionally erratic mother of Stevie Branch; but it’s Egoyan who has failed the story, not their performances.

What might end up being the most interesting thing about this film is that it was eventually the wedge that drove two of the suspects, Baldwin and Echols, apart. Echols, who was an executive producer on the documentary West of Memphis, objected to how he was portrayed in the script for Devil’s Knot, for which Baldwin was an executive producer. Being too close and too protective of their own stories and their own personas may be the downfall of both films, but that’s especially the case with Devil’s Knot, which not only has no suspense to speak of, but also has no closure, art or direction. If you’ve come to expect more from Egoyan over the years, he’s failed you as well.

The Top Five Documentaries of 2013

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One of the biggest topics of discussion in film circles in 2013 was the dearth of women directors and leads, especially in mainstream films. It’s absolutely the right time to have that conversation (it’s way past due, honestly), but just because there weren’t enough women represented in the industry doesn’t mean there weren’t any worth noting. It just so happens that some of the best docs made in 2013 involved women as subjects or directors. Here is my pick for the best documentaries made in 2013 – and all of them featured women, either on screen or behind the camera.

Blackfish
directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, available on VOD

Easily the most important documentary of the year for Central Florida, Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the largest orca living in captivity, at Orlando’s SeaWorld. Tilikum has been involved in three human deaths, the last of which was in 2010, when trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by the giant whale after a show. The power of this film comes from Cowperthwaite’s ability to make the case that, although Tilikum has killed, he is also a victim. She interviews former SeaWorld trainers, employees and a former orca poacher who calls the capture of Tilikum as a young, wild whale one of the worst things he’s ever done.

The Act of Killing
directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, available Jan. 7

There is no real precedent for processing this stunning film about a 1960s death squad leader, Anwar Congo, who agrees (quite proudly) to film re-enactments of his murders. By his own count, Congo has killed 1,000 Indonesian “communists” (read: anyone unwilling or unable to pay bribes; or not behind the military dictatorship; or Chinese) in his lifetime. The re-enactments are so calmly done that the film feels like a surrealist nightmare.

Cutie and the Boxer 
directed by Zachary Heinzerling, available on VOD

Love is a dumb emotion. It’s not a stupid emotion to have, it’s just dumb. And deaf. And blind. Love doesn’t care what’s best for you. This is a general truth, not a universal truth, but it’s certainly true for artist Noriko Shinohara, who is madly in love with her husband and fellow artist, Ushio, who is dubbed Bullie in Noriko’s “Cutie” graphic stories. The story of this dynamic pair unfolds at a natural pace as she struggles to find her artistic voice and he struggles to get someone to pay him for his talents so they can keep the lights on.

Manhunt
directed by Greg Barker, available on VOD

If you saw Zero Dark Thirty, you’ll recognize a lot in this documentary about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s told primarily from the point of view of the crew of women at the CIA who assembled the secrets of al-Qaida from disparate pieces of information, sometimes discovered years and countries apart. Through interviews with the analysts, in-country agents and reporters, this engrossing film proves to be one of the most important documents of 9/11, its extremist roots and its aftermath.

Stories We Tell
directed by Sarah Polley, available on VOD/DVD

Polley emerges as a brilliant storyteller in this personal film about her mother, and whether or not her father is really her father. The film is occasionally too self-aware, but it’s emotionally compelling and intelligently constructed.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 IV: The Stragglers

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Good Ol’ Freda –  Ryan White (Available on Netflix)

The world is running out of original Beatles stories; in fact, this may be the last one, as the Beatles and their contemporaries enter their 70s and, as Freda Kelly notes at one point, many of them are already gone. The story is one of a young girl who won the social lottery, happening upon the Beatles in the Cavern Club before they made it big and becoming tight enough with the band that they eventually asked her to work for them as secretary. Kelly also served as president of the bands’ fan club, hounding each member for autographs and locks of hair for adoring fans who wrote in because she knew exactly what it was to be one. Kelly is remarkable for her service, but more still for not taking advantage of it, cashing in with a tell all book or selling any of her incredibly rare memorabilia picked up from her time with the band. It is at once frustrating and enamoring that Kelly still holds to her Beatles secrets to this day, even with a camera in her face.

No Place on Earth – Janet Tobias (Available on Netflix)

If it came to it, if Nazis were coming, could you survive in a cave for nearly two years? What a question, but that’s what it came to for a handful of Jewish families in rural Ukraine as the Nazis arrived during World War II. The film focuses on the Stermer family in particular in this recreation of the 511 days of fear, hunger and darkness the endured that was brought back to life after a man from New York came across shoes, keys and buttons while caving in the Ukraine. It took him a decade to suss out any part of the story before finally coming upon the diary of Esther Stermer, the matriarch of one of the families who survived life in the cave.

Ip Man: The Final Fight – Herman Yau (Available on Netfix)

By now, you must all know who Ip Man is, the legendary Chinese martial artist and teacher of the Wing Chung school whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. He is the new Wong Fei Hong right now, and your choices are almost limitless if you want to watch a movie about them. The Final Fight is more of a traditional biopic version of the story, condensing much of his life into two hours. There are plenty of fight scenes though, and the film won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival last year. This is the version of the story that brings its lunchpail to work with it.

Touchy Feely – Lynn Shelton (Available on Netflix)

It’s kind of hard to believe Josh Pais is the same actor who, vocally at least, brought the ball of rage that is Rafael to life in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first and best one, not this new bullshit). In Touchy Feely he plays a timid, conservative dentist. He is a comic foil for his wild, hippy massage therapist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) until their fates interchange: he finds that his hands can heal, while she loses the ability she’s been honing and comes to loath the touch of another person’s skin. The cast of this bright, unassuming comedy is filled out by Allison Janney and Ellen Page. Lynn Shelton continues to be a voice to pay attention to in independent film.

Which Way Is the Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington – Sebastian Junger (Available to stream on HBOGO)

Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who came to wide prominence for the Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo, is lovingly profiled here by his friend (and fellow Oscar nominee) Sebastian Junger following his tragic death in Libya, where he was covering the uprising. Featuring interviews from family, friends and fellow journalists, it is a compelling, no bullshit account of Hetherington’s too-short life. He was a brilliant photographer, seemingly because he didn’t care about photography — he cared about the people he was photographing. Borrow someone’s HBOGO password if you have to, but see this.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 III: The Animes

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We’re fans of all types of film around these parts, and some of the best films of 2013 were feature length anime. I can’t pretend that Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises even comes close to fitting the “underrated” banner, but it led a particularly strong pack of films this year (it opens in Orlando at the end of February, but has already played NY and LA for Oscar qualification), films worth highlighting as much as any others — and that’s without having seen Mardock Scramble, One Piece Film Z or Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.

Wolf Children – Mamoru Hosoda (DVD/Blu out now)

I always viewed Mamoru Hosoda as more of an art director than a storyteller, but he fully brushed that bias off of his shoulder with Wolf Children, a coming-of-age story about two half-human/half-wolf children and the trouble their human mother goes through in raising them after their shape shifting wolfman father is killed while out hunting to feed his new family. Before long the childrens’ wolf instincts get them from their Tokyo apartment and their mother decides to move them to a rural town to keep their secret safe. But once there, the secret becomes more explosive. It’s a touching story, and Hosoda’s comedic instincts are both well measured and well timed, something he didn’t manage to do in Summer Wars.

Colorful – Keiichi Hara (DVD/Blu out now)

Though it was originally released in Japan in 2010, it wasn’t until 2013 that Colorful became available in North America. It’s the story of a recently deceased boy who arrives to the afterlife and finds out he’s being given a second chance at life, albeit in the body of a 14 year old boy who has just committed suicide. He is tasked with discovering his own greatest sin in life, as well as discovering the secret of his host’s suicide. I had some problems with this film initially — the characters are very hard to like in the moment — but it’s grown in my mind in the months since seeing it and I find I appreciate the film the more I think about it and its maddening plot twists. Life and death are maddening ideas on their own, ones that you can’t shut yourself off to just because you don’t like the idea of it.

From Up on Poppy Hill – Goro Miyazaki (DVD/Blu out now)

From Up on Poppy Hill, a high school melodrama set right before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is somewhat of a departure from the norm for Studio Ghibli. Though co-written by Hayao Miyazaki with Ghibli regular Keiko Niwa, there are no flying pigs, wolf girls or floating cities. Instead, there is young love – and only young love.  It’s a sweet film, almost an idealized film of youth and zeitgeist. The analogies and metaphor might come from the manga that the film is based on, but the soft, measured feel of youth seems to come directly from Hayao Miyazaki’s memory, more like reminiscence than anything else. I do feel a little badly for Goro Miyazaki though, being stuck with that name and forever living under the eclipsing shadow of his legendary father. If he were Goro Suzuki, say, he might be regarded better, a good director but not a great director; at least he would be regarded without a qualifier.

The Garden of Words – Makoto Shinkai (DVD/Blu out now)

Makoto Shinkai and his team are simply the greatest and most detailed artists currently making features. The attention they give the photographic quality of art and the animation in their films is just staggering and worth any price to watch for by itself. Unfortunately the storytelling is a weak point in The Garden of Words, which is about a 15 year old boy who dreams of becoming a shoemaker who meets a mysterious older woman in the park on rainy days. While they bond over poetry and he makes a pair of shoes for her as a gift, the relationship is a little removed from reality. It’s too reserved to handle the burst of emotion in the climax.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 II: The Revenge

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For the most part, I say good riddance to 2013. For me and my memory bank, it won’t be a good vintage. But my charge here is to write about movies, and 2013 did see its fair share of good ones. Like I’ve done the last couple of years, I’m going to piggyback the Underrated piece I had in the paper and empty my brain of more under-loved films that I didn’t have room to write about in print.

It wasn’t necessarily a great vintage for the top end of the spectrum of the moviegoing experience either, neither in arthouse nor mainstream films. There were certainly enough films to be satisfied by, but to look over the various top 10 lists is to be slightly disappointed. But what the top lacked, the middle had in abundance. Here are five more to keep an eye out for.

Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener (VOD out now, DVD 1/14)

Enough Said was probably not underrated upon its release as much as it was sent into the spotlight for the wrong reason, the unfortunate death of James Gandolfini. The bright side of this film is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus just keeps getting better and better in a way that’s completely unfair to other comedic actresses, but the downside is that the farther removed from Gandolfini’s death, the clearer it becomes that he will be perhaps one of the most missed actors ever. The two share such an easy on-screen chemistry that the film is a joy to watch even when they are fighting. Holofcener branches out too. Always one to make well observed dramas, this is a well observed drama with an earthy layer of comedy set upon it.

The Past – Asghar Farhadi (Coming Soon)

The twisting and turning of Farhadi’s The Past starts out so slow that you might be tempted to give up on it, but it’s a rewarding drama once the momentum is built up (about 40 minutes in, in my opinion). The story unfolds in a torrent of lies and omissions (still a sin, right?) that are not as fulfilling as guesswork as much as they lead to fulfilling dramatic scenes between Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and the family of his ex-wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), and her new fiance, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Melodrama is almost a lost artform but when it’s done right it’s so good.

Mud – Jeff Nichols (DVD/VOD out now)

Where has this Matthew McConaughey been all these years? Since The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past flopped in 2009 he’s done nothing but make risky, amazing films, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer through to his three films this year: Mud, The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Wolf of Wall Street. Let his career be a light for others because we’re all better off because of it.

The Kings of Summer – Jordan Vogt-Roberts (DVD/VOD out now)

This is about as solid a coming-of-age film as you’re ever likely to find. It’s wish-fulfilling — who hasn’t wanted to run away and live in the woods after a particularly bad fight with their parents? But that’s a heat of the moment decision, not a well thought out plan for a life. The film shows both sides with equal care and weight, and it comes with bonus Ron Swanson rage.

Blue Caprice – Alexandre Moors (DVD 1/14)

This story about the Beltway snipers is told with a quality of paranoia that made New Hollywood such a vital experience. Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond are so good together in the first half of the film, while they are bonding, they make it so hard to look away once the film turns into a horror story.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013

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Over the last few weeks, every paper, blog, magazine and friend on Facebook has probably offered you their list of the top 10 movies of 2013. Probably with some combination of Her, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis at the top. Probably, you’ve thought about beating the next person who offers a top 10 list to death with their own shoe. So with that in mind, we offer another kind of list. Not the top 10, but of the films that got lost in the cracks and crevices of critical and social appreciation. Films that deserve so much more.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terrence Nance

Told in flurry of live action, hand drawn animation and stop motion animation, the film is a half art piece/half documentary soap bubble of complexities, encapsulating the emotions and self-sabotage a young man of a certain lovesick, melancholy demeanor tends to put himself through, spilling the secrets of young men the same way Girls has for young women.

Boy – Taika Waititi

Though the film never takes anything about itself seriously, there is nothing frivolous about Boy. It’s a serious work that happens to be swaddled in a gauzy wrapping of oddball quirkiness like bubblegum flavored medicine, but there is a heartbreakingly relatable story of fathers and sons and disappointment underneath the bedrock of 80s jokes and the lyrical mix of tall tales and inventive cursing.

Short Term 12 – Destin Daniel Creton

It’s a tough thing these days to make a film about child abuse that doesn’t end up on the Lifetime movie of the week side of the ledger. The thematic pitfalls of the genre are many and hard to escape, but Creton embraces them here, even manipulates them to his will. He asks much of Brie Larson, but she delivers everything he asks for and then some as the counselor to broken kids who once was — and in too many ways still is — a broken kid herself.

The Broken Circle Breakdown – Felix Van Groeningen

This may be the greatest hillbilly film since Rip Torn starred in Payday, but there is a twist: it’s from Belgium. Didier is an America-obsessed bluegrass band leader, and Elise is a tattoo-obsessed artist who discovers a killer voice when she sits in with the band. They fall in love and have a child while the band flourishes. In the great tradition of country songs, you can probably guess where all of that happiness goes. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are electric on screen together.

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino

Jep Gambardella is a novelist who has given up his search for something new to write about 40 years after his modest hit of a novel, instead floating in his existential apathy through the labyrinthine Roman night life. But now he’s turn 65 and the returns on the night life are diminishing. Sorrentino’s sprawling and beautiful, but devilishly backhanded ode to Rome is the kind of love/hate letter that inherits the spirit and dismay Fellini imbued La Dolce Vita with.

The We and the I – Michel Gondry

If you ever took the bus home from school as a teenager, this film may be an unwanted kick in the head that brings back old horror stories and panic attacks. It’s every high school aged social nightmare stuffed into one slow moving, zit-filled bus. But it’s also brilliant and uncannily observed. The teenage actors are uneven, as you might expect, but the wit and horror make it easy to overlook. Gondry has made a true film that can sit aside The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine.

Twixt – Francis Ford Coppola

Saddled with a terrible trailer and dumped onto VOD after a year of trying to attract a distributor, Twixt was destined to fail. But it’s an injustice, even if the film is campy as hell. Val Kilmer returns from a long vacation as the charming, chill Val Kilmer we used to know (albeit fatter), while  Elle Fanning continues to pad an already incredible resume as the little deal girl who haunts him.

The Grandmaster – Wong Kar Wai

So much was written about the alternate U.S. cut controversy that the film itself seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Having seen both versions of the film, I’m struck by the silliness of the controversy. They work so well together as companion pieces, telling the same story from slightly different vantage points. Scenes excised from each shed light on the other to the point that they feel like sibling films, though the U.S. cut is visually marred with an unfortunate amount of style-less screen text.

In Your Queue: Cutie and the Assassin (“Cutie and the Boxer”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)

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Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling (2013)

Cutie loves Bullie. Bullie loves liquor. Typical. But nothing is really that easy or straight forward in this sober documentary about the artist couple, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. In its telling, it’s about the art — Ushio’s boxing art and cardboard motorcycle sculptures, and Noriko’s Cutie graphic stories —  but really, its another love story, but a little bit more complicated than most love stories. Cutie and Bullie are Noriko’s creation, one that is loosely based on her own struggles with falling in love with Ushio. Ushio is a dominating presence, both in their marriage and in their art lives and it’s easy to see how much better off she might have been if she had fallen for anyone but Ushio, but sometimes life doesn’t let you make that decision. It just happens and leaves you paint splattered. Heinzerling is mostly hands off, letting the story unfold at a natural pace as Noriko struggles to find her artistic voice and Ushio struggles to get someone to pay him for his so the couple can keep the lights on. They are a dynamic pair, both as opposites and as artists, one you root for without quite understanding how or why it all works, but it does.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – George Clooney (2002)

After producer Arnon Milchan outed himself as an Israeli spy last week, I made a joke about how he could start up a club with Chuck Barris, the creator of The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show and, as he claims, a CIA assassin. This joke immediately got me thinking about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the 2002 biopic of Barris written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney. It was a slick directorial debut for Clooney, who must have taken copious notes from David O. Russell and director of photography Newton Thomas Segal while he was working on Three Kings. Segal joined him as DP on Confessions as well, bringing his bag of photographic tricks along with him. If nothing else, it’s a very pretty film to look at. Much too pretty and slick for Kaufman’s tastes it turns out, and the writer eventually disowned the film. But the film is more than a pretty thing to look at. Whether you believe Barris’s claims or not, it makes for a great story with a high body count and Clooney and Sam Rockwell (and Rutger Hauer of course) really brought out the best, adding a cockeyed layer of black humor that settles down the more ridiculous elements of the producer-hitman story. It’s damn funny, and a great film whether Kaufman wants to admit it or not.

In Your Queue: Idiots All Around Us (“Frances Ha”, “Dealin’ With Idiots”)

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Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach

At certain age benchmarks we tend to change, usually rapidly. Thirteen, eighteen, twenty one, thirty — they are times in our lives where we might change our clothes or the kind of music we listen to, the kind of people we want to be when we grow up. Sometimes we change friends, sometimes best friends at that. Frances Ha is about just that, slow dissolution of a best friendship between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as they come frighteningly close to reaching 30. They are the kind of friends who describe each other as “the same person with different hair”, roomates with no boundaries but with no boundary issues either. They are the new Oscar and Felix, until Sophie decides to leave Frances and move in with her boyfriend.

After a certain age making new friends is a difficult thing. You’re used to being you without a filter. That you can be too much for a new person, but the filter makes you boring. Frances’s new reality is full of people, but none of whom she really connects to, with or without a filter. The idea of two ships passing in the night comes to mind, but Frances Ha is more like two ships passing in the daytime. It’s a stark and funny, a well observed portrait of friendship and moving on, but a little bit painful to watch if you’re around 30, as one ship sails so smoothly from port while the other —  the graceful dancer — sputters in circles helplessly with no life jacket to rely on. 

Dealin’ With Idiots – Jeff Garlin

This is probably the strangest recommendation for a movie that I’ll ever write. It is, essentially a giant spoiler, but for an improv comedy feature, the trailer ruins more than what I’m about to say, which is: this movie is not that good. If they made an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm about psycho baseball parents, but did it without Larry David, this is what it might be like. It’s flat and only occasionally funny. Often, in fact, it is brutally unfunny, and even JB Smoove and Bob Odenkirk fall on their faces a little in this movie — that’s the big risk with improv — but it is 100% worth watching because the ending absolutely pays off on the promise that the film’s core idea is about. The ending is actually kind of genius, the way everything falls apart so perfectly and idiocy is so well confronted. So that’s my strange recommendation, to stick with this film through the ending. Fast forward through scenes if you need to, but stick with it because it’s so, so worth it.

Ender’s Aftermath: “Ender’s Game” Comes Out to Little Fanfare

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So the Ender’s Game opening weekend came and went with little fanfare or trouble from the Orson Scott Card boycott. It also came and went with little money for the prospective franchise opener, bringing in less than $30m in North America.

The boycott had been proposed on social media earlier this summer as fans became aware of the Mormon author’s staunch and vocal opposition to gay marriage.

Boycotts never seem to work at anything but calling more attention to the thing you wish people would ignore. But with Ender’s Game, it was always going to be a hard sell even before Card’s words got them into trouble.

It’s a boycott I have plenty of sympathy for because Card’s anti-gay stance is repellent and harmful, but it’s not one I followed through on. I plunked my $14 down, but I did it for writer-director Gavin Hood and for Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford and Hailee Steinfeld (and, by the way, for the bit-part actor who had the fortune to be named Han Soto in a Harrison Ford movie).

(After writing this post, I finally saw this piece on The Wrap that claims Card only earned the $1.5m option fee with no box office backend, meaning the boycott was pointless — but no one said anything until the day before it opened for some incredibly dumb reason.)

A while back in Vision Thing, Steve made this point:

…the commercial success or failure of Ender’s Game will still be a verdict on the viability of [Orson Scott Card’s] name as a brand. If the film tanks, Hollywood will learn the lesson that anti-gay rhetoric has passed into the realm of box-office poison. If the picture does OK-to-strong business, the moral will be that the general public really doesn’t mind a little beating up on the sissies – meaning that Card (and other content providers who share his noxious ideology) will continue to be considered for future paydays.

So now that we have part of the verdict — the film was not John Carter-level box-office poison but was not strong either — we may be even farther away from an answer than we were before we began. This is an unknowable middle: was this a repudiation of Orson Scott Card, or was it just lousy word of mouth for a big budget film with little-to-no direct action set pieces? How many casual movie goers even know Card’s name, let alone his stance? (And the more awful question: how many people still agree with him?) Continue reading…

Short Term 12 – Destin Cretton (2013)

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At this point, when it comes to making a film about child abuse, it’s difficult to find a new and interesting mode to tell the story. It’s a loaded proposition because it’s such a raw idea to so many people that it’s hard to not do it badly. There are so many pitfalls, and it seems like every TV movie version of the story falls into all of them at the same time. But in Short Term 12, writer-director Destin Cretton manages to skillfully step over all of them, delivering a delicate, quietly explosive new take.

Short Term 12 takes place in a dormitory-style temporary foster home for teenagers, where the counselors are short staffed and under-funded but deeply attuned to the kids’ needs — especially their emotional needs. The small band of counselors is led by Grace (Brie Larson), whose even-keeled exterior belies a past where she was one of these kids, and Mason (John Gallagher jr), who uses his breezy, older brother-like charm to make things feel as much like a family as possible. The film is full of determination to not let these kids fall through the cracks, but everything is against them, sometimes even the kids themselves, who mostly come from a place where they’ve just about given up.

In stepping over some of the thematic pitfalls, Cretton actually engages the biggest offender: the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we pregnancy. If the worst kept secret in the home is that Grace and Mason are dating, the best kept secret is Grace’s pregnancy. Even Mason doesn’t know.

In that sense, this is wholly Brie Larson’s picture. Everything hinges on her state of mind. Every actor that appears in the film is supporting her performance, but never once does she let them down. Going in, I’d really only seen Larson in her Emma Stone-esque turn in the 21 Jump Street reboot. I was skeptical that she could carry the whole film on her back, but it was unwarranted. She is another actor entirely in Short Term 12. She is vulnerable yet shut off, entirely relatable but distant. It would be difficult to know her, but you can’t help having that feeling you do.

It’s an easy thing to use babies in film as a melodramatic thrust to gloss over the flaws in a story, but Cretton has sneakily thrown his middle finger in the air made the entire film about this decision. In a twist, he leverages Grace’s fear of her abusive childhood — and seeing all of the hurt in her kids’ eyes ever day at the home — against her in this decision. In a way, the film is set up as a test of Grace’s faith in humanity, even in herself. It’s more of a question if she will even look for not, not whether she will find it. It is, basically, a feature length trust fall. Mason will be there, but will she fall?