Sundance Film Review: The Tale (dir by Jennifer Fox)


With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundances.  Today, I’m taking a look at 2018’s The Tale.

The Tale is all about memory.

Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) is, as her mother (Ellen Burstyn) often reminds her, nearly fifty years old and childless.  She’s been engaged to the sensitive Martin (Common) for three years but she’s in no hurry to get married.  As for children — well, she decided a long time ago that she didn’t want to have children.  Jennifer is a documentarian and a teacher.  She not only records real life but she also teaches others how to do the same thing.  She makes films that, in the decades to come, will be used by future students of history who want to know what it was like to live in the late 20th and early 21st Century.  And yet, it’s her own history that Jennifer has never come to terms with.

When her mother comes across a school essay that a 13 year-old Jennifer once wrote about her relationship with her riding instructor, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), and her running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter), Jennifer dismisses her concerns.  As Jennifer explains it to Martin, her mother is just upset because Jennifer once had a boyfriend who was “older.”  Of course, that older boyfriend was in his 40s.  What’s obvious to everyone but Jennifer is that her coach took advantage of and raped her.  Jennifer, however, refuses to accept that.  She refers to the coach as being her “lover” and, more than a few times, she attempts to dismiss the whole topic by shrugging and saying, “It was the 70s.”

It’s not that Jennifer doesn’t realize the truth about what actually happened.  Laura Dern gives a fiercely intelligent performance as Jennifer, one that slowly and deliberately peels away at the layers of defensive protection that Jennifer has spent the past 35 years developing.  Jennifer knows what happened but she’s allowed her memory to cloud the reality of it, largely because that’s the only way that she could deal with the aftereffects of Bill’s sexual abuse.  When Jennifer thinks back to the summer that she spent with Mrs. G and Bill, she first sees herself as she was when she was 15 years old, curious and headstrong.  It’s only when Jennifer looks at a photograph that was taken that summer that she sees starts to see herself as she really was, an introverted and vulnerable 13 year-old (played by Isabelle Nelisse) who was groomed and abused by two predators.

As Jennifer investigates her past and finally begins to understand what really happened over the course of that summer, her memories begin to change.  Hazily-remembered conversations take on new meaning and she begins to understand that terrible truth between the looks that were often exchanged between Bill and Mrs. G.  At times, the older Jennifer finds herself interrogating her memories of Bill, Mrs. G, and even her younger self.  She demands to know how they could have done what they did and their answers leave you wondering whether you’re hearing what they would really say or if your just hearing what Jennifer would hope they would say.  When Jennifer talks to others who were around that summer, she’s shocked to learn that she wasn’t the only one who Bill abused and her insistence that she was Bill’s lover (as opposed to his victim) sounds more and more hollow.  When Jennifer finally does track down some of her abusers, you wonder if their somewhat confused reactions are due to guilt or if it’s possible that there were so many victims that they don’t even remember what they did to Jenny Fox.  And if they do remember, they seem to be either horrifically ignorant or curelly unconcerned about the consequences of their actions.

It’s a brave and powerful film, one that is made all the more disturbing by the fact that director and screenwriter Jennifer Fox is telling her own story.   At least year’s Sundance Film Festival, it premiered to acclaim and controversy.  There was also some surprise when, instead of securing a theatrical release, the film was instead sold to HBO.  At the time, there was a lot of concern that the film’s power would somehow be diluted as a result of playing on television as opposed to a big screen.  However, in hindsight, the small screen — with its unavoidable vulnerability — was the perfect place for this uncompromising and emotionally raw film.

The Tale is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one.  It’s a film for anyone who has ever struggled to come to terms with the past.  It’s both a reminder that you’re not alone and a warning to not ignore or laugh off your suspicions.  It’s also a good example of the type of film that probably would never have been discovered if not for Sundance.  There’s a lot of legitimate criticism that one can direct towards the Sundance Film Festival but occasionally, it does do what it’s supposed to do.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Deceiver (dir by Jonas Pate and Josh Pate)


I have long contended that the most annoying serial killer of all time was Paul Michael Stephani, a resident of Minneapolis who killed three women in 1980.

Stephani was known as The Weepy-Voiced Killer.  (Even his nickname was annoying.)  Whenever Stephani committed a murder, he would promptly call 911 and confess while sobbing.  As you might expect would happen to someone who was enough of a dumbass to call the police right after murdering someone, Stephani was eventually captured and convicted.  Sentenced to 40 years, Stephani died of cancer while in prison and nobody misses him.

Unfortunately, because all of Stephani’s 911 calls were recorded, he’s recently become a very popular subject for true crime shows.  It’s not there’s anything particularly interesting about Stephani’s crimes.  It’s just that it’s easy (and cheap) to build a show around the sound of him whining on the phone.  As someone who probably spends too much time watching true crime realty television, I’ve had to listen to Stephani’s voice more than anyone should ever have to.  Making it even worse, there’s currently a show called Evil Calls, which uses a recording of Stephani in its commercials.  I’ve actually stopped watching Investigation Discovery just because I’ve gotten so sick of hearing that loser whining, “Please don’t talk, just listen… I’m sorry I killed that girl. I stabbed her 40 times…”

However, the Stephani tapes do provide one valuable service.  The sound of Stephani’s pathetic voice reminds us that most serial killers are not the urbanely witty and intelligent figures that we’ve gotten used to seeing in the movies.  Most real-life killers are whiny losers who kill for very basic reasons and who are stupid enough to call 911 and confess.  Movie killers are a different breed all together.

Take the 1997 mystery Deceiver, for instance.

In Deceiver, Renee Zellweger plays a world weary prostitute.  We only see her in flashbacks, largely because she was murdered before the film’s opening scene.  Her name was Elizabeth, which brings to mind Elizabeth Short, the legendary Los Angeles murder victim who is better known as the Black Dahlia.  Much like the real-life Black Dahlia, Elizabeth’s body was cut into two pieces and left in a park.  (According to the film’s imdb trivia section, Elizabeth was also named after Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who pioneered the study of false memories.)

Suspicion immediately falls on James Walter Wayland (Tim Roth).  The youngest son of a wealthy and powerful South Carolina family, Wayland is an infamous alcoholic.  Wayland admits that he knew Elizabeth.  He even took Elizabeth with him to a fancy party, all the better to offend his parents.  Wayland may be a black-out drunk with a history of erratic behavior but he also swears that he didn’t kill Elizabeth.

Two detectives are determined to trick Wayland into confessing.  Detective Edward Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) is a respected veteran, the type of detective who can get a confession out of almost anyone.  His partner is Detective Philip Braxton (Chris Penn), who is a bit less impressive.  As we’re informed early in the film, Braxton graduated at the bottom of his high school class and has been waiting for a promotion for quite some time.

From the minute that Kennesaw and Braxton start to interrogate Wayland, it becomes obvious that Wayland is hardly your typical murder suspect.  He’s certainly more impressive than the Weepy-Voiced Killer.  He’s witty.  He’s smart.  He’s cocky.  He admits to being an alcoholic and to suffering from black outs and seizures but he also claims that, unlike every other man who Elizabeth dealt with, he actually cared about her.  Wayland also reveals that he knows some details about Kennesaw and Braxton.  He knows about Kennesaw’s troubled marriage to a woman (Rosanna Arquette) who has a history of cheating on him.  He knows that Braxton is in debt to a local bookie (Ellen Burstyn).  And, as the interrogation continues, Wayland starts to suggest that one of the interrogators is hiding an even darker secret.

Deceiver‘s a frequently fascinating film to watch, even if it’s not always easy to follow.  If there’s any film that would seem to demand multiple viewings, it’s this one.  The majority of the movie takes place in one darkened room and directors Joan and Josh Pate do a wonderful job capturing the claustrophobia of that setting.  (Fortunately, there’s enough flashbacks to keep the film from getting too stagey.)  Roth, Rooker, and Penn all give intensely stylized performances.  They may not feel realistic but they fit in perfectly with the fever dream atmosphere of the film.  Roth, in particular, gives a performance that is both mannered and intriguing.  It even feel appropriate that his Southern accent is in no way convincing.  It just makes sense that Wayland wouldn’t sound like anyone else in the world.

It’s a heavily stylized film, full of odd dialogue and skewed camera angles.  It’s a film that often feels like a journey right to the center of an extremely twisted mind.  (Of course, the movie is designed so that you’re never quite sure whose mind you’ve entered.)  There’s nothing realistic about it but that’s okay.  It’s certainly preferable to watching a movie about The Weepy-Voiced Killer.

A Movie A Day #239: Act of Vengeance (1986, directed by John Mackenzie)


Act of Vengeance is an uncompromising look at union corruption and how it hurts the workers while benefitting the bosses.

The year is 1969 and the United Mine Workers of America is one of the biggest and most powerful labor unions in the country.  The UMWA was founded to protect the rights of miners but the current union president, Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley), is more concerned with enriching himself and consolidating his own power.  Despised by the workers that he represents, Boyle has managed to stay in power through fixed elections and his own fearsome reputation.  When 80 West Virginia miners are killed in an accident, Boyle defends the owners.  That is the last straw for Jock Yablonski (Charlies Bronson), a lifelong miner and proud union man.  Yablonski runs against Boyle for the UMWA presidency and, when the election is stolen from him, Yablonski challenges the results.

Boyle’s solution?  Working through one of his supporters (played by Hoyt Axton), Boyle hires three assassins (Robert Schenkkan, Maury Chaykin, and a young Keanu Reeves) and orders them to kill not only Yablonski but his entire family too.

With a name like Act of Vengeance and a star like Charles Bronson, it would be understandable to assume that this is another Cannon action film where Bronson gets vengeance by blowing away the bad guys.  That’s not the case, though.  Made for HBO, Act of Vengeance is based on a true story of union corruption and murder.  There is violence but very little of it comes from Bronson.  Instead, this is a well-made docudrama about what happens when workers are betrayed by the very people who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Bronson grew up working in the mines and he never forgot the poverty of his youth.  He knew men like the men depicted in this movie and Bronson gives one of his most naturalistic performances as Yablonski.  Brimley is at his gruffest as Boyle and the performances of the actors playing the three hapless but deadly assassins also feel authentic.  Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Barkin are also well-cast as, respectively, Yablonski’s wife and the wife of the main assassin.

Film Review: Custody (dir by James Lapine)


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Last night’s Lifetime movie premiere, Custody, didn’t really feel like a Lifetime film.

This was largely because it really wasn’t.  Custody was written and directed by the acclaimed theatrical director, James Lapine.  The cast features not only Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub and Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno but also two Oscar winners, Viola Davis and Ellen Burstyn.  Unlike most Lifetime films, Custody was not filmed in Canada.  There were no Toronto landmarks in the background.  (You never realize how much you miss Canada until it’s gone.)  Custody played at Tribeca last year.  Much like Stockholm, Pennsylvania, Custody was made for a theatrical release but it ended up premiering on television instead.  As a result, Custody did not follow the usual Lifetime 8 act pattern.  The commercial breaks felt awkward.  With a 150 minutes running time, this film tested my four-minute attention span.

The other thing that set Custody apart from most other Lifetime films was that it wasn’t much fun to watch.  The great thing about Lifetime movies is that they are almost always fun.  It doesn’t matter what serious subject is being examined.  It doesn’t matter how dramatic things may get.  Lifetime movies are always fun.  To use one of my favorite terms, Lifetime movies embrace the melodrama.  Lifetime films push the limits.  Lifetime films say, “You think we won’t introduce a crazy twin halfway through the movie?  JUST WATCH US!  You think we won’t toss in a sudden case of amnesia or a cheating husband or a psychotic au pair in lingerie?  YOU DON’T KNOW LIFETIME!”

Custody, on the other hand, was a very serious movie about a very serious topic and therefore, it wasn’t much fun to watch.  In fact, Custody was a bit of a well-intentioned mess.  It followed one case as it worked its way through the family court system.  Sara Diaz (Moreno) has been wrongly accused of being an unfit mother.  Her attorney is Ally Fisher (Hayden Panettiere), who has just graduated from law school and who comes from a rich family.  Ally’s grandmother is played by Ellen Burstyn, largely because everyone’s rich grandmother is played by Ellen Burstyn.  Representing the state is Keith (Dan Fogler), who has absolutely horrid taste in ties.  The judge is played by Viola Davis and she’s going through a messy divorce from Tony Shalhoub.

I could see what Lapine was going for.  Custody juggles several plotlines, showing how everyone involved in the case has their own individual biases and problems to deal with.  Will the judge’s dissolving marriage make her more or less sympathetic to Sara?  Will the white and privileged Ally ever be able to truly understand Sara’s situation?  Will Keith ever learn how to properly select a tie?  These issues may seem petty when taken on their own but, when crammed together, they form one big human drama.

Or, at least, that seems to have been the plan.  Lapine gets some good performances from his cast but Custody never quite comes together.  This is one of those heavy-handed films where characterization is more likely to be advanced by a lengthy monologue than by action.  Add to that, Custody is ultimately far too enamored of the family court system.  Everyone means only the best and the bureaucracy is your friend.

I will say this.  Based on my own experience working as an administrative assistant in a law office, Custody does get one thing very right.  Male lawyers are always the worst dressed people at any courthouse.  On this count, Dan Fogler played one of the most realistic attorneys ever seen on TV.

 

2014 in Review: The Best of Lifetime and SyFy


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Hello there and welcome to January!

This is the time of year that the Shattered Lens usually takes one final look back at the best and worst of the previous year’s offerings in cinema, television, literature, and music!  Last year, I kicked things off by taking a look at the best that the SyFy network had to offer.

Unfortunately, SyFy didn’t produce as many original films in 2014 as they did in 2013.

However, my beloved Lifetime network remained a consistent showcase for some of the best and worst melodrama that one could hope for.

With that in mind, here are my nominees for the best films and performances that were featured on either the SyFy or the Lifetime network last year!  As always, winners are listed in bold.

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Best Film

Battle of the Damned

Flowers in the Attic

Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

*Lizzie Borden Took An Axe*

Sharknado 2

Starving in Suburbia

Best Actress

Kate Beckinsale in The Trials of Cate McCall

Maria Bello in Big Driver

Annie Heise in The Good Mistress

Tara Reid in Sharknado 2

*Christina Ricci in Lizzie Borden Took An Axe*

Kierna Shipka in Flowers in the Attic

Best Supporting Actress

Kendra Anderson in The Good Mistress

*Ellen Burstyn in Flowers in the Attic*

Clea DuVall in Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

Heather Graham in Petals on the Wind

Tina Ivlev in Death Clique

Izabella Miko in Starving in Suburbia

Best Actor

Trevor Donavon in Bermuda Tentacles

Mason Dye in Flowers in the Attic

Michael Keaton in Blindsided

Dolph Lundgren in Battle of the Damned

Patrick Muldoon in Finders Keepers

*Ian Ziering in Sharknado 2*

Best Supporting Actor

James Cromwell in The Trials of Cate McCall

David Field in Battle of the Damned

*Griff Furst in Status Unknown*

Judd Hirsch in Sharknado 2

Mark McGrath in Sharknado 2

John Savage in Bermuda Tentacles

Best Director

Doug Campbell for Death Clique

Deborah Chow for Flowers in the Attic

Anthony C. Ferrante for Sharknado 2

*Nick Gomez for Lizzie Borden Got An Axe*

Christopher Hutton for Battle of the Damned

Tara Miele for Starving in Suburbia

Best Screenplay

Kayla Alpert for Flowers in the Attic

Tim Hill and Jeff Morris for Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever

Stephen Kay for Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

Thunder Levin for Sharknado 2

*Tara Miele for Starving in Suburbia*

Griff Furst and Marcy Holland for Status Unknown

Flowers in the Attic

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my look back at 2014 by revealing my picks for the 16 worst films of 2014!

Previous Entries in Our Look Back At 2014:

Things That I Dug In 2014 Off The Top Of My Head

 

 

Trailer: Interstellar (3rd Official)


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Will Interstellar be as  much a game changer as Kubrick’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey? Some are already hyping that it may just be on that very level.

Now, let’s not crown Christopher Nolan upcoming film (his first since concluding his Dark Knight trilogy) as an instant classic when we haven’t seen anything outside of the trailers released. Yet, the teases and brief explanation of the film’s plot hints at something that may just turn out to be incredible.

I know at least one person here at Through the Shattered Lens who is bursting at the seams at trying not to overhype the film for himself. It may just be a losing battle if his reactions to this latest Interstellar trailer is any indication.

Interstellar is set for a limited release on November 5, 2014 (70mm and 35mm film formats) then wide on November 7, 2014 on digital format.

Back To School #11: The Last Picture Show (dir by Peter Bogdanovich)


Monday is the first day of school down here in Dallas so it seems only appropriate that this latest entry in our Back to School series should be a look at one of those most quintessential Texas films ever made, the 1971 best picture nominee, The Last Picture Show.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show takes place in 1951 and tells the story of two high school seniors, best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges, reminding us once again why everbody loves him).  Sonny and Duane live in the rural town of Anarene, Texas.  With little to look forward to in the future, beyond perhaps getting a job working in the oil fields, Sonny and Duane are both intent on enjoying their final year of high school.  Sometimes, that means driving down to Mexico for the weekend.  Sometimes, it means going to the only theater in town and seeing a movie.  Most of the time, however, it means hanging out in a pool hall owned by the strict but fatherly Sam (Oscar winner Ben Johnson).  Often times they are accompanied by the intellectually disabled Billy (Sam Bottoms), who responds to everything with a blank smile and spends most of his spare time wandering around with a broom, futilely trying to sweep the dusty streets.

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The charismatic and impetuous Sonny is dating the beautiful and self-centered Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd), who is the daughter of the wealthiest woman in town.  Jacy knows that her cynical mother (Ellen Burstyn) is having an affair with an oil worker named Abilene (Clu Gulager) but she’s more concerned with her own future.  Even though she’s dating Sonny, Jacy still accepts an invitation from the awkward Lester Marlow (played by a memorably goofy Randy Quaid) to attend a naked indoor pool party.  At the party, she meets Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), who is rich and will be able to provide her with the future that Duane never will.  However, Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in her because she’s a virgin.  If nothing else, this gives Jacy a reason to stay with Duane, at least until after they have sex.

Meanwhile, the far more sensitive Sonny ends up having an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her performance in this film), the wife of the high school football coach.  It appears that Sonny truly cares about Ruth but then he finds himself being tempted by none other than his best friend’s girlfriend…

Sonny and Ruth

At heart, The Last Picture Show really is basically a small town soap opera, a Texas version of Peyton Place.  The difference between the two films — beyond the fact that The Last Picture Show just happens to be a 1oo times better than Peyton Place — is that The Last Picture Show doesn’t take place in a beautiful, idealized small town.  Instead, the town of Anarene is a believably bleak location, one that will be familiar to anyone who, like me, grew up in the American southwest.  A good deal of the success of The Last Picture Show is due to the fact that it was actually filmed on location in Archer City, Texas.

(Nothing annoys me more than when I see the mountains of California in the background of a movie that’s supposed to be taking place in North Texas.  We don’t have mountains up here.  For the most part, we don’t even have hills.  The land is flat.  You can see forever, if you know where to look.)

Of course, you can’t talk about The Last Picture Show without talking about Robert Surtees’s stunning black-and-white cinematography.  Not only does the black-and-white remind us that this is a film about a fading way of life but it drives home the fact that Sonny and Duane don’t have much to look forward to.  Growing up in Anarene means they are destined for lives without color or excitement.  In the end, can you really blame them for occasionally acting before they think?

Ben Johnson

Ultimately, the success of The Last Picture Show is due to a lot of things.  This was Peter Bogdanovich’s second film as a director and he did such an excellent job here that he’s basically spent the rest of his career trying to live up to this one film.  (That said, Bodganovich also left his wife for Cybill Shepherd — despite the fact that his wife was the one who suggested that he make this film and cast Cybill in the first place!  Don’t worry though — Polly Platt got her revenge by having a far more successful career than her ex-husband and she even produced Say Anything, a film that we will soon be looking at.)  The screenplay, by McMurtry and Bogdanovich, is full of sharp dialogue and memorable characters.  As for the performers, this is probably one of the best acted films ever made.  Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms play off each other well, Cybill Shepherd is the epitome of casual destructiveness, and Ben Johnson is brilliantly cast as the film’s moral center.  My favorite performance comes from Ellen Burstyn, who delivers every line with just the right combination of contempt and ennui.

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show

If you’re a Texan, The Last Picture Show is one of those films that you simply have to see.  And if you don’t enjoy it and if you don’t relate to at least a few of the characters (I related to Jacy, though I like to think that I’m a lot nicer in the way I treat people), then you’re not a real Texan.

It’s as simple as that.

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