Sunday Brunch–What Could Go Wrong? (Everything)

It’s a Disaster begins with Glen and Tracy (David Cross and Julia Stiles) arriving at her sister’s suburban home for a couples’ brunch, to be shared by five couples. One pair are habitually late to such events, but the others have arrived. Glen is new to the group (he and Tracy are newly dating), but the others know one another well. There are greetings and good wishes, but also bickering (some of it comical) and dismay as the Internet and cable seem to be out. Then a neighbor in a hazmat suit arrives with news of dirty bombs being exploded in the city. Has some terrible catastrophe befallen civilization?

This is where the comedy darkens, as each responds in his or her own way to the crisis: catatonia, disbelief, paranoia–or indulging in end-of-the-world drug experimentation or sex. The fewer details divulged, the better, except to say that the ending of the film is splendid.

It’s a Disaster (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Todd Berger
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: June 4, 2013

* * *

Faults is an interesting little film, but it has its … difficulties. Ansel (Leland Orser) is an expert on cults, but his star is on a steep decline. After a disastrous sales presentation of his self-published book, he is approached by a couple who want him to rescue their adult daughter, who is beholden to a cult called Faults. When he points out that he is on his last dollar and will only take on the task to make money to pay off his manager, the couple stick with him. They find the daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and hustle her off to a motel room for deprogramming.

Up to now this has played as comedy, with pathetic Ansel beset by one problem after another. But now things turn serious, as it quickly becomes apparent who would win a battle of wills between Ansel and Claire. There are twists, most of which can be anticipated by the audience. The change in tone can be accepted, and the obvious plot turns tolerated, if the overall story feels real (or at least entertaining). Unfortunately, the more secrets are revealed, the sillier the whole business becomes, and no one in the film can distract us from that.

Bang Bang Kiss Kiss

The indie drama Concussion starts with Abby (Robin Weigert) bleeding from a blow to the head, struck by a baseball thrown by her son. She seems to recover, but something is a little off-kilter; despite a good life with her wife Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) and their two kids, as well as independent work buying, renovating, and reselling apartments in New York, Abby is restless. She secretly sets up a date with a sex worker. After an awkward introduction, they proceed to the bedroom (off-camera; this is not a salacious film). Post-coitus, the escort compliments Abby’s lovemaking skills and suggests she join the profession. After a few days’ thought, Abby decides to give it a try. She uses an apartment she is decorating for her assignations (with women only). Then one day she gets a client whom she knows socially…. Discovery is inevitable.

A nice little film. The domestic picture of two women and two kids feels comfortable and true, and Abby’s friends, a group of ladies who lunch, entertain. The drama of Abby’s side business is played sympathetically, neither comic nor camp.

Concussion (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Stacie Passon
Running time: 96 minutes
DVD release date: January 28, 2014

Scarred Pup

As Starred Up begins, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is being checked into an unnamed U.K. prison. He has proved to be too violent to be held in juvenile facilities, so he has been “starred up” to the adult prison. In his new cell, Eric’s first activity is to matter-of-factly fashion his toothbrush into a weapon.

Eric is a hard case. Soon he gets into scrapes with other inmates, and for a while it’s hard to sympathize; he is sullen and angry and seems unreachable.

One of Eric’s fellow prisoners is his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), and eventually we learn that Eric had a brutal life after his father was incarcerated, back when Eric was five. Nev comes around to the idea of helping his son stay alive, though his fathering skills are limited.

Eric’s other ally is Oliver (Rupert Friend), a group therapist who works with violent prisoners. Oliver’s insight is that violent acts almost always arise out of shame and a sense of disrespect; he helps the inmates learn nonviolent ways to cope with these feelings.

Working against Eric are a prison bureaucracy not entirely on Oliver’s side; a vicious pecking order among the prison population; and corrupt guards who allow the thugs inside to rule.

It’s a tribute to O’Connell’s acting chops and the script’s subtlety that we go from wanting to see Eric locked up away from everyone to rooting for him to survive and rehabilitate. The film is naturalistic (as opposed to, say, Nicolas Winding Refn’s deeply stylized direction of Bronson). The language is sometimes indecipherable, with no subtitles offered on the DVD. That’s all right; you can’t miss the gist of the story.

Starred Up (reviews) (official site)
Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Jonathan Asser
Running time: 105 minutes
DVD release date: February 3, 2015

* * *

The Scottish accents of God Help the Girl are much easier to understand than the regional mutterings of Starred Up. The film, a musical, tells the story of a troubled young woman traveling to Glasgow and trying to launch her career as a singer/songwriter. The movie’s writer/director, Stuart Murdoch, is leader of the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian, and perhaps one’s affection for the band will track with one’s enjoyment of the picture. I don’t know the music and found the film to be unrelentingly pleasant; brutally pleasant; inexplicably pleasant (featuring one of the most pleasant suicide attempts I’ve seen depicted on film).

Maddin’s Brand

Guy Maddin, the lauded Canadian filmmaker, is known for his backward-looking and inward-looking movies. Brand Upon the Brain! is both, a melodrama in the style of silent film, depicting the story of a housepainter named Guy Maddin. The painter has returned to Black Notch, an island with a lighthouse where his parents had run a small orphanage. As he whitewashes the lighthouse, Maddin remembers a time when he was twelve. His father spent most of his time in a mysterious laboratory, while his mother monitored all activity on the island from a rotating chair high in the lighthouse. The boy had an older sister who was beginning to explore her sexuality, much to her mother’s deep dismay. A famous kid detective, Wendy Hale, visits the island, trying to find out why the orphans all have strange head wounds. She disappears, and reappears disguised as her twin brother Chance and sets out to seduce Guy’s sister. Fantastic and creepy things happen, heavy with symbolism. (A pivotal discovery in Maddin’s film education was Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or, which heavily influenced this pictore.)

The movie was filmed in grainy vintage Super 8mm black and white, with occasional tinted film for effect. The completed film went on tour with a small orchestra (playing a splendid moody score by Jason Staczek), a team of foley artists, and an interlocutor (narrator). On the Criterion DVD, the default interlocutor is Isabella Rossellini, but several others are available.

Brand Upon the Brain! (reviews)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by George Toles and Guy Maddin
Running time: 95 minutes
DVD release date: August 12, 2008

Three for the Road

The Puffy Chair was the Duplass brothers’ first feature film. I’m not sure I would have pegged it as such; maybe I would have been tipped of by an unsteady hand-held camera in the first few scenes, or a sharp zoom in on a moving van that feels like “Hey, look what this camera can do!” At any rate, it was well-received by the critics, deservedly.

Mark Duplass plays Josh, a fledgling booker of indie bands; Emily (Kathryn Aselton) is Josh’s girlfriend (and I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the non-Josh aspects of her life). We first meet them throwing cuteness bombs at one another, which means either they are just really, annoyingly cute or their relationship has a lot of emptiness to conceal. But Emily blows up when he is distracted by a phone call, and with an eye to reconciliation he invites her to join him on a road trip. He’s driving from New York to Atlanta for his father’s birthday, and on the way he’s picking up a gift–an overstuffed recliner he bought on the Internet. He also stops in Philly to see his brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), who asks to come along. Um, okay. (Awkward.)

So that’s the setup, and the trip is a chance for Josh to learn about relationships and best-laid plans, and most of the movie is enjoyable and feels true (though aspects of Josh’s personality come out that, surprisingly, surprise his girlfriend and his brother). There are some funny set pieces, one concerning a shared motel room and another involving the pickup of the titular chair. In the end a couple of the characters reach a conclusion much of the audience will have seen coming for some time, but we don’t mind; some decisions take a while.

The Puffy Chair (reviews)
Directed by Jay Duplass
Written by Mark and Jay Duplass
Running time: 84 minutes
DVD release date: January 23, 2007

The Golden Familiar

Movie fans are inclined to save their highest praise for those films that set out to dazzle. Fractured timelines, mind-bending twists, searing performances, breathtaking photography, Shakespearean scripts–movies with these features come to us, modestly concealing the already-inscribed trophies we may be expected to award them. And yet once in a while we get a film like The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, conducting us gently along a well-worn path, surprising us with the pleasure of the trip.

Edward Burns’s latest low-budget indie drops us in the middle of a big Irish-American Catholic family (two parents and seven kids), preparing for Christmas. Twenty years earlier, the father (Ed Lauter) walked out, for reasons we will learn; and now he wants to join the family get-together, for another reason to be revealed. Eldest son Gerry (played by Burns) wants to get a consensus: Do we let the big rat darken our door this holiday? Mother Rosie (Anita Gillette) has a birthday a few days before Christmas, so the ideal family powwow would take place then. But everyone seems to have other plans, so Gerry must improvise.

We meet the siblings, alone and in groups, and though some start out as stereotypes (for instance, there’s the kid brother returning from rehab), the personalities flesh out nicely. They align and re-align (brothers versus sisters, older versus younger), their behavior shaped by personality, birth order, and depth of trauma from the big crisis (papa’s departure).

Burns worked from a detailed script, allowing his trusted troupe to work out particular points in the story, and the result feels organic and consistent. One plot contrivance stands out a bit: Two couples working out their relationships are thrown together, consequentially; but every movie gets one freebie, right?

In any case, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is an exceptional naturalistic drama.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (reviews)
Directed and written by Edward Burns
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: November 5, 2013

Promised Joy, Delivered Sorrow

There may be parts of the world where prostitution is as dignified as any other work, but those parts are not visited in the documentary Whores’ Glory. In the movie, the three sites filmed–in Bangkok, Thailand; Faridpur, Bangladesh; and Reynosa, Mexico–are like three circles of hell.

The Thai location is relatively upscale. The women punch a time clock, get made up and dressed up, are pinned with numbered tags, and seat themselves behind a large display window. A customer picks the woman he wants and pays in advance, based on the activity planned and time reserved. There is an oversupply of women, and they are not well paid; a single trick won’t even cover busfare home.

The Bangladesh site is a crowded, multi-story brothel, where the women are more or less the property of “mothers.” Clients haggle, often bargaining prices down to almost nothing. Occasionally, a client brutalizes his whore.

In Mexico, the film visits a sealed-off area, which clients enter and cruise in their vehicles; the women do drugs.

All of these scenes are filmed with no voiceover; we see the women soliciting work, or they face the camera and talk about their working conditions. The Thai women are youthful, and some are not entirely beaten by life; beyond that, the film is relentlessly depressing. But the filmmaker’s view is humane, and there is some value in bearing witness to these women’s stories.

Whores’ Glory (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Michael Glawogger
Languages: Thai, Bengali, Spanish, and bits of German, French, Japanese, and English
Running time: 119 minutes
DVD release date: January 8, 2013