As High as the Sky

August 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2012; Written and Directed by: Nikki Braendlin; With: Caroline Fogarty, Bonnie McNeil, Laurel Porter, Dee Wallace, Jenny O’Hara, Lainee Gram

As High as the Sky is a heartwarming tale about estranged sisters, one of whom which suffers from a nasty case of OCD, while the other is a nomadic single mother.  Josephine (Bonnie McNeil) shows up on Margaret’s Cali doorstep one day, her daughter Hannah (Laurel Porter) in tow, and a big smile on her friendly face.  Margaret (Caroline Fogarty), a professional party-planner, responds to the surprise visit by straightening the hell out of her pillows.  And smiling awkwardly.  As the narrative grows in complexity, so do the relationships, making this a truly enjoyable emotional celluloid ride. 

McNeil and Fogarty have great chemistry.  Fogarty is given a really meaty sandwich of a role to chew on here and she does a lot with it.  It could be hard not to allow these roles to become too precious, but both McNeil and Fogarty succeed admirably in fighting that and this movie only benefits from it.  Porter is a delight as Josephine’s daughter.  She strikes a lovely balance between overly mature prepubescent and krazy kid.

Technically this movie is cleanly shot, in a fantastic parallel to Margaret’s affliction.  All the camera work is even, sharp, and focused.  Fogarty is as riveting physically as she is emotionally, moving deliberately, even bringing her water tumbler to her mouth with purpose.  She folds and stretches her limbs with an objective in mind.  It’s truly fascinating to watch.

This bittersweet movie tells a fragile story about familial relationships and needs.  It’s a really strong narrative and, while it seems delicate in its presentation, like its actresses and the strength of their performances, it packs a wallop. 

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

My Sister’s Quinceanera

August 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written and Directed by: Aaron Douglas Johnston; With: Silas Garcia, Elizabeth Agapito, Becky Garcia, Samantha Garcia, Tanner McCulley, Nicole Streat, Josefina Garcia

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My Sister’s Quinceanera falls together like summer vacation.  The days sort of float by, full of heat and fountains, fighting with siblings, homemade lunches, and beautifully wasted time.  Oldest brother Silas spends his days corralling his younger brothers and sisters, washing cars, and wooing Nicole, the sweet girl he’s had his eye on.  He’s also trying to make amends with trying to make a decision to leave both his family and his hometown for something just a little bit more thrilling.

The titular quinceanera belongs to Silas’ sister, Elizabeth.  His mother, Becky, painstakingly plans the event for the entire summer and it coaxes the movie to a moment of excitement (and decision, for Silas) among otherwise thick, lazy, Iowa summer days.

MSQ is set in Muscatine, Iowa, and features non-actors against a backdrop of small-town grocery stores, flat concrete fountains, Tastee Freeze’s, and homemade skateboard ramps.  In a really familiar and intimate move, Johnston creates a well-defined sense of place, scouring the streets of Muscatine for displays of functional reality graced with personal accessory: a stuffed monkey hanging from a tree in someone’s yard, a parade of children exiting someone’s house, leaving a scuffed door and a cluttered counter in their wake.  We may not be sure where Silas will end up by movie’s end, but we have no doubt where he’s come from.  

The group of non-actors in this film are beautifully representative of the picture Johnston has developed.  Silas Garcia is, not to put too fine a point on it, perfect.  His Silas is conflicted, provoked, and simultaneously frustrated by his family and guilt-ridden at the thought of leaving them.  His relationship with his sister, Samantha, is full of pure ambivalence. 

Halfway through the movie, in a moment of youthful spontaneity, Silas asks Nicole out.  He teaches her to bowl and they watch children skateboard while awkwardly holding hands.  When he finally kisses her, it’s ache-worthy, graceless and eager with shaking hands and mismatched rhythm.  When he tells Samantha about it later, it’s chuckle-worthy, sweet and fully representative of the conversations siblings share when there’s no one else to share them with, and when they’d rather not share them with anyone else.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I loved this movie.  It’s a fantastic visual work and the performances are so familiar, you’ll swear you know these lives.   It was a true joy to watch, and I think you might just love it too.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Reverse Runner

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written by: Lachlan Ryan, Jarrod Theodore, and Dan Cannon; Directed by: Lachlan Ryan and Jarrod Theodore; With: Dan Cannon, Rosco Brauer, Julian Shaw, Bianca Linton, Helen Bongers, Daryl Cannon

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Like all good sports movies, Reverse Runner begins with a dreamer and his dream.  Kid Campbell (Dan Cannon) has wanted to be an award-winning reverse runner (folks, it’s exactly like it sounds; you run backward) since he saw the legendary John Jones win his fifth reverse running title when Kid was, well, just a kid.  Kid’s been working hard and putting in long hours with his trainer, Leroy (Rosco Brauer) in order to bring home the same title himself as a young adult.  His only obstacles are his father’s (Daryl Cannon) refusal to believe in the legitimacy of his dream, an accidental rule-breaking snafu in the qualifying race, a feud with current title-holder, mousy, vapid Steven James (Julian Shaw), and feelings for a girl (Bianca Linton) so intense they cause him to regularly forget the his task-at-hand.

I will readily admit that, although I am fond of saying that Australian cinema has quite the hold on me, this particular film did not bring the expected brand of humor to the table.  I was expecting pure quirk.  What I got was pure goof.  While a bit surprising, it was executed brilliantly.  RR is a darling slip of a movie, complete with some hilarious (and well-timed) predictable training montages.  Cannon and Brauer have wonderful chemistry and Julian Shaw is delightfully irritating.  Bianca Linton is perfect here as the soft-spoken, clever, true prize.

The only real suffering here is the movie’s attempt to throw every conceivable sports movie cliché into one big Rocky Balboa-sized pot.  Admittedly, this is a sports movie parody, so it’s amusing as all get-out to watch this film “wrap up,” but I did find it a little confusing from time-to-time.

There are a couple of really clever scenes in this movie, not the least of which is a first-date conversation between Cannon and Linton over a romantic dinner.  While scenes like this present some “mixing” within the genre, I did really enjoy it and wished for more like it.

At its heart, RR is a fun film.  It’s warm-hearted and I invite you to wholly embrace the goof.

–Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Genrevolt

August 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2012; Written and Directed by: Casey Dillard and Glenn Payne; With: Casey Dillard, Glenn Payne, Todd Barnett, Davis Manning

Genrevolt is clever from its title to its toes.  In this nine-minute gem, a couple of lovebirds named Shannon and Ben (Casey Dillard and Glenn Payne) bounce from scene to scene, experiencing a date in a sequence of moments from different genres of film.

They begin, in a fantastic technical parallel to any first date, in a horror movie.  Shannon brings Ben to an abandoned cabin in the woods, and just as things start to heat up, they begin hearing noises in the bushes.  They leave, in order to stay ahead of the machete-wielding maniac who’s coming their way.  Right before they leave, though, they make sure to indicate that they’ve left a group of their friends in order to get down, Shannon removes her impractical shoes, wondering aloud why she wore them into the woods in the first place, and Ben makes mention of a flight of stairs they might use as an escape route.  We then cut to the couple in a scene from a period drama, which gives us every cliché in the Jane Austen-penned book, right down to Ben’s ruffled collar.  As they jump from scene to scene, instead of staying ahead of the maniac they’re staying ahead of the genres, and a realistic and palpable objective is born.

This is a short film and the concept is novel, but the real strength here, outside of the performers’ obvious good senses of humor (and plain good senses) is that they’ve built a true momentum in to the film.  It would be easy to get hung up on keeping things witty and adroit, which might risk leaving the likable couple in one genre for too long.  But the desire to keep moving so that they might actually get to the light (and to the down-getting) at the end of the tunnel is a wonderfully fun way to drive this movie forward.

Dillard and Payne are sweet, and have solid chemistry and timing.  I think their real talent here, though, lies in the conceptualization and writing of this film.  It’s a really cohesive piece, while still allowing for laughter and finger-pointing at the flaws in each genre.  I think we often give shorter films less credit simply because they are shorter, but there’s a true art in knowing when a shorter piece is the most appropriate medium and executing that really well.  So I say, really well-done.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Gwyndor

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written by: Nathalie Antonia and Dixie Perkinson; Directed by: David Crabtree; With: Nathalie Antonia, Dixie Perkinson, Jim Dowd, K.C. Sterling, Jessica Borden, Tara Redfield, Steve Fite, Shawnda Thomas, Vijaya Kumari, and Chad Strawn.

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Contrary to what you may think, Gwyndor is not a magical, mystical character.  There are no wands or dragons or castles in this movie.  Gwyndor is, in fact, Ellie’s (Nathalie Antonia) drunk, estranged father who shows up on her doorstep for her birthday (and for her birthday party, which is occurring just as he appears).  Thus begins the several hundred moments of discomfort through which Ellie must muddle in order to come to a final conclusion regarding her relationship with her dad.

Over the course of the movie, we learn that Gwyndor is crass, charming, brutish, bumbling, and, for better or for worse, Ellie’s relation.  Ellie recounts his past hurtful words and deeds; he gives heartfelt speeches about the brevity of life.  Ellie invites Gwyndor to stay; he delights and then offends her friends.  She gives him water; he is a sot.  The real beauty of Gwyndor is voyeuristic, as it lies in watching him self-destruct with an audience.

The cast is a true ensemble, both in terms of performance and in terms of their narrative purpose.  The guests at Ellie’s party are there to characterize her actual family, the one she’s counted on for everything over the course of her adult life.  They are a colorful (“vibrant”) and varied group whose talents surface as Ellie goes round after round with Gwyndor.

The movie is a slice of real life.  It’s not terribly melodramatic or sensational.  It’s simply about an uncultivated relationship, which means it’s terribly realistic and quietly moving.  Even its humorous moments happen within the scope of the story.  They are neither obviously scripted, nor scripted obviously.

My favorite moment is when Gwyndor lights up his first cigarette in Ellie’s house.  She quietly indicates to him that, “We don’t do smoking inside.”  He responds with an incredulous “Really?” just before pulling two more lengthy drags from the cigarette and putting it out in a full bowl of popcorn.   Ellie is visibly upset by this as it’s a simple, lovely moment representative of all of Gwyndor’s acts in life.  He does something uncouth, he’s asked to cease, and he does, but only after a few extra pulls for good measure.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Savannah

August 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written by: Ken Carter, Annette Haywood-Carter, John Eugene Cay, Jr.; Directed by: Annette Haywood-Carter; With: Jim Caviezel, Jaimie Alexander, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jack McBrayer, Bradley Whitford, Sam Shepard, Hal Holbrook.

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Based on a true story, Savannah is the story of Ward Allen (Jim Caviezel), an antagonistic, bombastic, son of the South who eschews his lineage, which may well have afforded him quite the pile of dough and plantation digs.  Instead Ward chooses the land and his relationship to it, aided by a close friendship with a freed slave named Christmas Moultrie (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his loyal pooch.  He hunts duck to make his living and spends his days on the water admiring his surroundings.

The story is told, in flashback, by Christmas as he lives out his days with friend and caretaker, Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford).  Jack grew up at Christmas’ side, hearing the tales of Ward Allen, and treating him like a fantastical legend.  The real beauty of the movie is that, although Allen is a bit of a Paul Bunyan-esque figure in tale, he is a very real man who fought, pretty regularly, with society, the law, and his wife and, occasionally, lost.

Allen’s greatest weaknesses are drink, duck hunting, his dog, and his wife.  In that order.  Some of the most wonderful colorful moments in the film are those depicting Allen’s propensity for booze, but they are also the saddest as they allow for his submission.  In the most telling moment (and the moment which truly pin-points Allen’s philosophy) Allen’s wife, Lucy (Jaimie Alexander) finds him in the bar, fall-down drunk, and drags him home.  Once there, he attempts to prove to her that he will do as he wishes and, in the heat of the moment, shoots the eyes clean out of a painted portrait of her hanging on the wall.  She presses charges and he’s jailed.  While in jail, he writes a commentary for the local paper lamenting the way the world has gone.  He is a man of the earth and has no desire to further explore “restless industry” as the rest of the population does.  He expresses his respect for the life cycle of creatures and that he would prefer it not be slowed.  The true star of this tale is the land.  Savannah is a sweeping and sometimes melancholy backdrop for the story of Allen’s life and this movie is a love story to Allen’s life theories and the spaces in which he developed them.

Caviezel and Ejiofor are, predictably fantastic in this movie, weaving and developing a friendship which requires very little definition or proof.  They love each other, they love the land, and they live as such.  Whitford is, sadly, underused, but as they teller of the tale (and not the subject), it’s understandable.  Alexander beautifully holds her own with Caviezel and refrains from allowing Lucy to become a broken record, constantly nagging at Ward to quit drinking, come home, and “civilize” himself.  She allows for a lovely vulnerability and pilfers a bit of empathy from the viewer (which is a real task, as Caviezel is a charming animal).  Lucy’s fate is a true tragedy and the movie (and the cast) let it be what it is: life, minus the infiltration of society and industry.

The movie is driven by Allen’s life cycle; the narrative line is based on his existence’s ebb and flow.  There isn’t any cleverness here, and sometimes, like Allen, the movie just wants to admire Savannah.  Luckily for us, Allen is fascinating and Savannah, especially through this lens, is enchanting.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

Thursday’s Speaker

August 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Released: 2013; Written and Directed by: Gary Hebert; With: Del Zamora, Ashley Ledbetter, Andrew Shea, Ali Mullin, J. Anthony, McCarthy, Talbot Perry Simons, Kristin Lorenz

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Rodrigo (Del Zamora) would like everyone to stay sober and keep comin’ back.  Rodrigo is “Thursday’s Speaker,” the guy they bring into the AA meetings to keep everyone feeling fresh, alive, and motivated.  He’s the guy who’s been sober for 15 years and who is the success story against which all other addicts should measure themselves.  Rodrigo is also most-likely wasted.

Conceptually, Thursday’s Speaker is tremendous.  The idea is that Rodrigo is barely hanging on by a booze-soaked thread.  He’s got a job selling cars for a tyrannical junk-hawker (Talbot Perry Simons) who suspects Rodrigo’s secret, but who needs him to keep pushing his death traps to unsuspecting customers.  He’s got a kid he doesn’t know, a woman who cares but who’s got her own baggage with which to deal, and a really big secret to keep, especially for an AA legend.  Regardless, though, of all of the weight he’s dragging around, Rodrigo, himself, keeps coming back.  He keeps showing at the AA meetings, giving his inspirational speeches, and bedding all manner of young recoverers.  And he’s living his life in a cloud.

Del Zamora, as Rodrigo, is likable, earnest, and not without his own brand of long-haired, Dude-esque charm.  My favorite scenes in the movie are the ones during which he bonds with Sam (Andrew Shea), the son he’s never known.  I like them because they’re effortless.  Shea doesn’t try too hard, and Zamora waves his mane around in wide-albeit wrinkly-eyed enjoyment.

In fact, the film’s most enjoyable moments are when the three leads (Zamora, Shea, and Ashley Ledbetter as Sam’s mom April) don’t try too hard.  Everything about this film’s narrative is “rough.”  Everyone’s got a tough road to hoe, and the humor and relaxation lie in scenes like the one wherein Sam asks his mom for some cash.  April leaps to give him some, reaching for her purse, and unceremoniously pulling out several wrinkled, sweaty one-dollar bills, which she’s earned stripping.

TS is shot through the lens of tanked eyes and it’s a fun take on the relatively serious subject matter.  Most of Rodrigo’s conversations are fish-eyed, and time flows in fast-tracked traffic sequences.  Most of the characters seen through Rodrigo’s POV are close-up and mildly distorted, if only simply because of their proximity to the camera.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the performance of J. Anthony McCarthy as Rodrigo’s buddy-cum-savior Nigel.  His is a performance worth noting; he’s warm, genuine, sentimental, and a little bonkers toward the end.  The cherry on his interventive sundae is a fantastic laugh which allows for a little perspective (and levity) at the end of TS, which is precisely when the viewer (and Rodrigo) needs it most.

– Leah Gehlsen Morlan

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