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.

Let’s Talk About The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (dir by Anthony C. Ferrante)


Yesterday was Sharknado Day.

What is Sharknado Day?  If you have to ask, you’ll never understand.  Sharknado Day is the day that the latest chapter in The Asylum’s Sharknado franchise premieres on SyFy.  That’s the day when people like me cause twitter to go over capacity tweeting about the film.  That’s the day good people all across America try to count the number of celebrity cameos while also trying to keep track of all of the homages and references to past movies that are always waiting to be found in every Sharknado Film.  Yesterday was the sixth Sharknado Day since 2013 and, if we’re to believe our friends at The Asylum, it was also the last Sharknado Day.

Is it true?  Was The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time truly the final Sharknado?  Perhaps.  But somehow, I have a feeling that the flying sharks will return someday.  Critics have always underestimated the production savvy of The Asylum and I wouldn’t be shocked if, after a year or two of nostalgia, we saw Sharknado 7: A New Beginning.

But if The Last Sharknado was truly the final Sharknado, then it can be said that the franchise truly went out on a high note.

The plot — well, usually, the conventional wisdom is that the plot of a Sharknado movie really doesn’t matter.  Usually, it’s assumed that all a Sharknado film needs is a lot of shark mayhem and snarky humor.  And that’s true, to an extent.  And yet, I still found myself getting caught up in The Last Sharknado‘s storyline.  It all deals with Fin (Ian Ziering), April (Tara Reid), the head of a robot version of April (again, Tara Reid), Nova (Cassandra Scerbo), and Skye (Vivica A. Fox) traveling through time, hopping from period to period.  Fin and April’s goal is to stop the first Sharknado and to save the life of their son, Gil.  Nova wants to save the life of her grandfather, even though that might change history to the extent that she would never become a great shark hunter.  As for the robot head … well, she develops an agenda of her own, one that really has to be seen to be believed.

The film has a lot of time travel and, of course, the journey from period to period allows for several celebrity cameos.  When Fin ends up in Arthurian Britain, Neil deGrasse Tyson pops up as Merlin.  During the Revolutionary War, a somewhat sarcastic General Washington is played by Darrell Hammond.  Dee Snider plays a sheriff in the old west.  Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott show on the beach in the 60s.  Touchingly, the film even finds a way to include the late John Heard in the action.  (Heard played a key supporting role in the first Sharknado.)  I’m a history nerd, so I enjoyed all of the time travel.  I especially enjoyed the film’s portrayal of Benjamin Franklin as a rather bitchy eccentric, largely because it’s often forgotten that Franklin was, in real life, a bit of a bitchy eccentric.

(Add to that, how can you resist a film the features both dinosaurs and flying sharks?)

The film takes a surprisingly dark turn during the second hour, as Fin and Skye spend some time in a dystopian future and Nova tries to change history by saving her grandfather’s life.  When Fin points out that doing so will change history and that, for Nova to become a great shark hunter, her grandfather has to die, Nova calls him out for being self-centered.  To their credit, both Cassie Scerbo and Ian Ziering play the argument totally straight and both give heartfelt performances.  Amid all of the comedy and the shark-related mayhem, the film develops a real heart.

That heart is at the center of The Last Sharknado.  To a large extent, the sharks are superfluous.  They’re carnivorous MacGuffins.  Instead, the film is about celebrating not only the bonds between Fin, April, Nova, and all of their friends but also the bond that’s been developed between the characters and those of us who have watched them over the course of six films.  Towards the end of the film, when Fin talks about what his friends and family mean to him, it’s clear that he’s also speaking for the filmmakers.  Just as Fin thanks his friends for sticking with him, the filmmakers take the time to thank the audience for sticking with them.  It was a heartfelt scene and it was the perfect way to end The Last Sharknado.

To those who do not celebrate Sharknado Day, it may seem strange to say that I got emotional while watching the final scene of The Last Sharknado on Sunday night.  Then again, is it any stranger than the idea of a franchise about a bunch of sharks flying through the air, spinning around in a funnel, becoming a major pop cultural milestone?

It’s a strange world and we’re all the better for it.

Cleaning Out The DVR: O (dir by Tim Blake Nelson)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  This could take a while.  She recorded the 2001 high school film O off of Cinemax on July 6th.)

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

O (Mekhi Phifer) is one of the only black students attending an exclusive high school in South Carolina.  Despite a past that involves petty crime and drugs, O appears to have his life on the right track.  As the captain of school’s basketball team, O is the most popular student at his school.  Everyone looks up to him.  Everyone wants to be him.  He’s even dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the very white daughter of the school’s very white headmaster (John Heard).  At a school assembly, Coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) describes O as being like a son to him.  When O is awarded the MVP trophy, he shares it with his teammate, Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan).

Watching all of this with seething jealousy is Hugo Gaumont (Josh Hartnett).  Hugo is a teammate of O’s.  In fact, he even thought that he was O’s best friend.  That was before O shared his award with Michael.  Making Hugo even more jealous is that he happens to be the son of the coach.  For every kind word that Duke has for O, he has a hundred petty criticisms for Hugo.  Whereas O has overcome drug addiction and is proclaimed as a hero for doing so, Hugo is secretly doing steroids, trying to do anything to improve himself as a player and hopefully win everyone’s love.

So, Hugo decides to get revenge.  Working with a nerdy outcast named Roger Calhoun (Elden Hansen), he manipulates O into thinking that Desi is cheating on him with Cassio.  He also tricks Cassio into getting into a fight with Roger, leading to Cassio getting suspended from the team.  To top it all off, Hugo gets O hooked on drugs, once again.  Finding himself consumed by a violent rage that he thought he had under control, O starts to obsess on determining whether or not Desi has been faithful to him…

If that sounds familiar, that’s because O is basically Othello, transported to modern times and involving privileged teenagers.  Even though the whole modernized Shakespeare thing has become a bit of a cliché, it actually works pretty well in O.  Hugo’s obsessive jealousy of the “cool kids” feels right at home in a high school setting and director Tim Blake Nelson and writer Brad Kaaya do a fairly good job of transporting Shakespeare’s Elizabethan melodrama to the early aughts.

(Actually, O was filmed in 1999 but it sat on the shelf for two years.  After a spate of school shootings, distributors were weary about releasing a film about high school students trying to destroy each other.)

Admittedly, O has its share of uneven moments.  Martin Sheen, playing the type of role that always seems to bring out his worst instincts as an actor, goes so overboard as the coach that he threatens to sink almost every scene in which he appears and Rain Phoenix is miscast as Hugo’s girlfriend.  Even Julia Stiles struggles a bit in the role of Desi.  However, both Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett are perfectly cast as O and Hugo.  Phifer brings just the right amount of arrogant swagger to the role while Hartnett is a sociopathic marvel as Hugo.  Tim Blake Nelson’s direction is occasionally overwrought, relying a bit too heavily on a groan-inducing metaphor about taking flight and claiming the spotlight.  However, both Nelson and the film deserve some credit for not shying away from directly confronting and portraying the source material’s cultural and racial subtext.

O is hardly perfect but it is always watchable and, at its best, thought-provoking.

Film Review: Cutter’s Way (dir by Ivan Passer)


Yesterday, after it was announced that actor John Heard had been found dead in a Palo Alto hotel room, I lost track of how many people declared that Cutter’s Way, a 1981 film in which Heard co-starred with Jeff Bridges, was one of their favorite movies of all time.  (That includes quite a few people who write for this very site.)  In fact, people were so enthusiastic about Cutter’s Way that I quickly decided that this was a film that I needed to watch for myself.  So, last night, after watching All About Eve on TCM and My Science Project with the Late Night Movie Gang, I curled up on the couch and I watched Cutter’s Way.

Technically, Cutter’s Way is a murder mystery but it’s actually a lot more.  In the grand noir tradition, the mystery is less important than the milieu in which it occurs.  Cutter’s Way takes place in Santa Barbara, California, which the film presents as being a microcosm of America.  It’s place where the rich are extremely rich and the poor are pushed to the side and expected not to complain.  The Santa Barbara of Cutter’s Way is controlled by new money and haunted by old sins.  It’s a world that is perfectly captured, by director Ivan Passer and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, in the film’s haunting opening scene:

John Heard plays Alex Cutter.  Years ago, Cutter served in Vietnam and returned with one less eye, one less arm, and one less leg.  An angry alcoholic, the type who always looks like he’s in desperate need of a shower and a shave, Cutter exists on the fringes of society.  Like many alcoholics, Cutter is a master manipulator.  When he has to, he can turn on the charm.  When the police are called after a drunken Cutter purposefully destroys his neighbor’s car, we suddenly see a totally different Alex Cutter.  He’s polite and apologetic, explaining that he was merely swerving to avoid something in the road and, by the way, he served his country in Vietnam.  As soon as the police leave, the real Cutter comes out.  He gets his bottle and starts to rant about how much the world owes him.  Watching the film, you find yourself understanding why some people might want to push this one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed veteran down a flight of stairs, that’s how obnoxious Alex Cutter can be.

And yet, there are people who love Alex Cutter.  There’s his long-suffering wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn).  Mo lives in squalor with Cutter, taking care of him and putting up with his bitterness.  There’s the local bar owner, who could probably put his kids through college on Cutter’s bar tab.  (He even drives Cutter home in the morning, after everyone else has deserted him.)  And finally, there’s Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges).

Bone is Cutter’s best friend.  Whereas Cutter is perpetually pissed off, Bone is almost always laid back.  Whereas Cutter feels that everything is his business, Bone prefers to remain detached from the world.  Mention is made of Bone being a graduate of the Ivy League but he spends most of his time giving tennis lessons and sleeping with wealthy women.  Bone takes care of Cutter, though their friendship is occasionally hard to figure out.  Why does Bone stick with Cutter despite all of Cutter’s abuse?  Perhaps Bone feels guilty because he avoided being drafted while Cutter lost half of his limbs in Vietnam.  Or maybe it’s because Bone is in love with Mo.

One night, when Bone is leaving a hotel, he sees a man in an alley.  The man appears to be hiding something in a dumpster.  Later, when the body of a woman is found in that same dumpster, Bone realizes that he probably saw the murderer.  Even more so, Bone thinks that the man resembled J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott), one of the richest men in Santa Barbara.

Bone, however, isn’t sure that Cord’s the murderer.  Even more so, even if Cord was the murderer, Bone prefers to not get involved.  However, Cutter is sure that Cord’s the killer.  To Cutter, it makes perfect sense.  If men like Cord were willing to send boys to Vietnam and then refuse to take care of them when they returned both physically and mentally maimed by the experience, then why wouldn’t they also think that they could get away with murdering some hitchhiker?

Soon, Cutter has met the dead girl’s sister, Valerie (Ann Dusenberry).  Cutter says that his plan is to blackmail Cord.  He badgers the reluctant Bone into working with him.  It quickly becomes obvious, however, that Cutter is after more than money.  He is obsessed with proving that this rich and powerful man is a murderer.  And he’s not going to let anyone stand in his way.  Not even a stuffed animal:

As I said, Cutter’s Way is about much more than just a murder.  It’s a film about class differences, with even the otherwise slick Bone discovering how difficult it is to infiltrate Cord’s wealthy world.  It’s a film about disillusionment, cynicism, and the fleeting promise of happiness.  As angry as Cutter is, he still ultimately possesses the idealism that both Bone and Mo have lost.  He still believes in right and wrong.  While that angry idealism may make Cutter a pain in the ass, it’s also his redeeming feature.  As the youngest of them, Valerie is still an optimist but she is also the least prepared to deal with the sordid reality of the world around her.  Bone and Mo, meanwhile, both appear to have surrendered their belief that the world can be and should be a better place.  Ultimately, Cutter’s Way is a film that forces you to consider what you would do if you were in the same situation.  Cutter’s Way is not a great title, largely because it makes the film sound like a CW western, but it’s an appropriate one.  The entire film is about Cutter’s way of viewing the world and whether or not Bone will follow Cutter or if he’ll continue to refuse to get involved.

(The novel that the film’s based on was called Cutter and Bone.  According to Wikipedia, the title was changed because audiences thought the movie was a comedy about surgeons.)

I have to agree with those who have called Cutter’s Way a great film.  Not only is it gorgeous to look at but it’s one of the best acted films that I’ve ever seen, from the stars all the way down to the most minor of roles.  John Heard dominates the film, giving a performance of almost demonic energy but he’s perfectly matched by Jeff Bridges.  Bridges, back in his incredibly handsome younger days, gives a subtle and powerful performance as a man struggling with his conscience.  In the role of J.J. Cord, Stephen Elliott doesn’t get much screen time but he makes the most of it.  When he first see him, he’s riding a white horse and rather haughtily looking down on the world around him.  When he last see him, he delivers a line of such incredible arrogance that it literally left me stunned.  Though, when compared to Bridges and Heard, their roles are underwritten, both Lisa Eichhorn and Ann Dusenberry more than hold their own, providing able and poignant support.

Cutter’s Way is a great film and one that everyone should watch if they haven’t.

 

A Movie A Day #195: Best Revenge (1984, directed by John Trent)


Damn … John Heard died.

I know that almost everyone knows John Heard as either the father from Home Alone or as the detective on The Sopranos or maybe even the executive in Big.  Over the course of his long career, John Heard played a lot of neglectful fathers, greedy businessmen, and corrupt politicians.  Heard was good in all of those roles but he was capable of so much more.  Though he did not get many chances to do so, he could play heroes just as well as villains.

One of his best performances is also one of his least seen.  In Best Revenge, he plays Charlie.  Charlie is a laid back drug dealer, someone who would probably hate and be hated by most of the authority figures that Heard was best known for playing.  Charlie is the ultimate mellow dude, without a care in the world.  All he wants to do is play his harmonica and spend time with his girlfriend (Alberta Watson).  However, an old friend (Stephen McHattie) wants Charlie to help smuggle 500 keys of hash from Tangiers to America.  Charlie wants nothing to do with it but then he finds out that the Mafia will kill his friend unless the drugs make it across the ocean.  Charlie and his friend Bo (Levon Helm of The Band) fly over to Morocco but are betrayed.  Charlie ends up in a prison cell, from which he has to escape so that he can rescue Bo, smuggle the drugs, and get revenge on those who betrayed him.

Because of the prison aspect and the fact that Charlie wears a fedora, Best Revenge was sold as being a combination of Midnight Express and Raiders of the Lost Ark but actually it is a character study disguised as an action film.  Despite the title, Best Revenge is more interested in the real-life logistics and hassles of being an international drug dealer than in any sort of revenge.  Though it is a role far different from the ones he may be best known for, John Heard was perfectly cast as a small-time drug dealer who suddenly finds himself in over his head.  Heard gives such a good  and sympathetic performance that this film, along with his work in Cutter’s Way and Chilly Scenes of Winter, shows what a mistake was made when Heard became typecast as the bad guy.

Best Revenge was filmed in 1980 but not released until four years later.  Along with appreciating Heard’s performance, keep an eye out for Michael Ironside in an early, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role.

4 Shots From 4 Films (John Heard): Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979), Cutter’s Way (1981), After Hours (1985), Big (1988)


I know everyone knew John Heard from the Home Alone series, but he did others things as well. Early on he was even given lead roles. I tried to pick a mixture of his early stuff, and when he was moved to largely playing character and supporting roles.

Rest in peace, John Heard.

Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979, dir. Joan Micklin Silver)

Cutter’s Way (1981, dir. Ivan Passer)

After Hours (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Big (1988, dir. Penny Marshall)

A Movie A Day #96: Gladiator (1992, directed by Rowdy Herrington)


What ever happened to James Marshall?

Whenever the subject of Twin Peaks comes up, that question gets asked a lot.  Marshall played the sensitive (and oft-ridiculed) motorcycle-riding rebel James Hurley on Twin Peaks and, after the show’s cancellation, he went on to play a key supporting role in A Few Good Men.  Marshall’s role may not have been huge but he managed to hold his own against actors like Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Kevin Bacon.

And then after A Few Good Men, nothing.

Why did James Marshall disappear?

He starred in a movie called Gladiator.

No, not the Russell Crowe movie that won all the Oscars.  This Gladiator is about Tommy Riley (played by James Marshall), a teenager who moves to Chicago from Massachusetts.  As one of the only white kids in his new neighborhood, Tommy finds himself being harassed by the local gangs.  One night, he gets into a fight in a parking lot.  (Fortunately, none of the neighborhood gangs carry guns or knives.  They settle everything with fists.)  Pappy Jack (Robert Loggia) is so impressed with Tommy’s fighting skills that he recruits Tommy to fight in illegal, underground boxing matches. Normally, Tommy would say no but he needs the money to help his father (John Heard) pay off his gambling debts.

Once recruited, Tommy is trained by the wise Noah (Ossie Davis) and works for boxing promoter, Jimmy Horn.  Horn is played by all-purpose bad guy Brian Dennehy, who gives such a villainous performance that even Lance Henriksen would say, “Dude, dial it down a notch.”  Tommy befriends two other boxers, Romano (Jon Seda) and Lincoln (Cuba Gooding, Jr.).  At the time that Gladiator was filmed, Marshall was hot off of Twin Peaks and Gooding was hot off of Boyz ‘n The Hood.  Fortunately, Gooding’s role is actually pretty small so he survived Gladiator and was able to go on to win an Oscar for Jerry Maguire and play O.J. Simpson in American Crime Story.  Marshall was less lucky.

At one time, I thought that no one could be a least convincing boxer than Damon Wayans was in The Great White Hype.  Then I watched Gladiator and saw James Marshall dancing around the ring and throwing punches.  Normally, good editing can be used to disguise a lack of athletic ability but both Marshall and Gooding are so miscast as boxers that all the editing in the world can’t help.  Jon Seda, who actually was an amateur boxer before getting into acting, is more convincing in the ring but his character is so saintly that anyone watching will know better than to get too attached to him.

A still notorious flop at the box office, Gladiator was directed by Rowdy Herrington but it’s no Roadhouse.