This week’s meanderings will take us to some final commentary on Oscar-nominated Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee; 2013); somewhat-shorter-than-usual (for me) comments on other Oscar hopefuls, the 2013 Live Action Short Films; and, finally, a standard (mind-numbingly-long) review of Labor Day (Jason Reitman, 2013), with no connecting thread among these inclusions except that I wanted to get all of this stuff posted, especially the evaluations on the short film award contenders. So—after you wade through the usual opening reminder clusters—on with the show.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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At least until the Oscars for 2013 have been awarded on Sunday, March 2, 2014 (which, in no relationship whatsoever, is also Texas Independence Day—some things you don’t forget after they’ve been drummed into you for 37 years [after which I finally escaped to California]) I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards. You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can monitor here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2013, along with the Oscar nominations here.
When discussing the new Disney princess movie, Frozen, in my last posting (January 24, 2014) I noted it’s in competition for 2013’s Best Animated Feature Film with the Oscar folks but I neglected to explore within the review itself (although I did offer it as an optional video clip at the end of the posting; as I noted then I was fighting a severe stomach virus that week so I’m just glad I got anything in "print" whatsoever) that it’s also up for Best Original Song, “Let It Go” (written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez), as sung by Idina Menzel (already a Broadway legend at the youngish age of 42 for her 1996 debut in Rent [reprising that role of Maureen Johnson in the film adaptation of the same name (Chris Columbus, 2005)] and her 2004 Tony-winning-role of Elpheba in Wicked, even though I know her better for the recurring portrayal of Shelby Corcoran, the biological mother of Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry on TV’s Glee)—although it’s sung by Demi Lovato on the movie’s soundtrack album, which also has spun that version off as a single—a song I could have offered in the official review to go along with my chosen musical metaphor of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” (from the 1969 Abbey Road album), so, to correct my previous oversight, here’s a listen again this week if you like of “Let It Go” at http://www.you tube.com/watch?v=moSFlvxnbgk, the Menzel version, but you’d prefer Lovato I can provide that also at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHue-HaXXzg (including many other images from the movie in addition to the ones used in the actual full scene that comprises the Menzel clip). I’ll also note that I hadn’t realized how truly successful Frozen is still becoming at the box office, placing at #4 overall for domestic releases in 2013 with a take of almost $348 million, further enhanced by ongoing revenues which bring it to #26 on the All-Time Domestic list (where it’s now topped $360 million) and #34 on the All-Time Worldwide list with a grand total of just over $864 million as of this writing. Now there’s a case of “frozen” assets that don’t need to be thawed to be effective.
I’ll begin the actual reviews this week with a cluster of comments on the 2013 Live Action Short Films vying for the Oscar, playing at select theaters around the U.S. in a package that includes commentary from various cinematic personnel, including Steve McQueen, director of 2013’s multi-Oscar-contender, 12 Years a Slave. If you’d like to see an overview of these final 5 (along with the 5 each that have been nominated for the animated and documentary shorts) then check out this site. You can also find a very brief Rotten Tomatoes rating, of 64%, for the live-action-package as a whole, but that’s based on just 14 reviews, all of which have averaged the 5 films into a composite score. I’ll give you some comments on each of these films, although to see the individual entries (at what, I imagine, will be very select showings in larger markets) you have to pay for the entire package, along with separate pricing at theatres that are alternating the live-action and animation groups (given that the short docs are still longer than their truly-short-contemporaries, those have been broken up into 2 separate programs as well so that each of the Shorts collections runs for about 2 hrs. total—in following February weeks I’ll offer additional comments on these other short film programs). I’ll give the reviews of the Live Action Shorts to you here as listed on the Academy ballot (in case you want to make any reference to it later in your home Oscar pools), although the first one below is actually #4 in the theatrical presentation order. However, I’ll issue my usual Spoiler Alert warning right now because these films aren’t all that available to see so while some of you might benefit from my complete plot summaries, as opposed to never really knowing what goes on in these nominees, the rest of you may prefer to wait to read these comments after you see if a screening will be scheduled in your area. With that understanding in place, here we go to Reviewland for our first Shorts program.
The premise of this brutal drama is that a couple of romantically-linked Spanish doctors, Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón) and Paula (Alejandra Lorente), have been tending to the victims of a civil war in some unnamed African country but are now trying desperately to make it across the border before a rebel unit catches up with them. With a safe-passage-letter they almost get through the flimsy gate that separates them from freedom into the neighboring nation, only to be stopped by a convey led by a vicious man known only as General (Babou Cham) and his squad of children soldiers who’ve been brainwashed by their chant of “Blood! Blood! Blood!” to detest anyone condemned by their leader, unfortunately including our protagonists who are accused of kidnapping rebels (there may be Europeans who are doing this but it sure isn’t this totally-terrified-pair). We soon understand who will be the other main character to be interested in here, young Corporal Kaney (John Tojaka), who must show his loyalty to the commander in a horrid scene of macho-reinforcement where a kid soldier decides to kill the doctors’ driver (which he does but also accidently wounds one of his comrades—all of this in front of a disturbing collection of White women in various porno photos tacked to the back wall of the execution room); Cpl. Kaney is then required to kill his injured fellow soldier (so he won’t be captured and used in what the rebels understand as black magic against their cause), followed by his snap decision to also kill Juanjo for shouting out against the previous execution, which terrifies Paula but only as a prelude to the General’s desire to rape her. He’s in the process of this defilement when government troops arrive at the rebel compound with weapons blaring and buildings collapsing, leaving Paula’s tormentor dead and her totally unconscious for awhile until she wakes, grabs a weapon, then by chance captures Kaney. She forces him into an available vehicle, using all of the restraint at her command to keep from killing him on the spot but settles for wounding him in the leg prior to driving him back to some town for treatment, to be followed by an enforced re-education program (in Spain, as best I could deduce) intended to purge him of the military-brainwashing he’s previously been required to endure.
Along the way we realize that this is all being told as a flashback as young adult Kaney explains to a Spanish audience the cruel lifestyle of these children warriors and how they’re taught to kill thoughtlessly for their cause, although most of what we see is about the traumatic few minutes on that fateful day long ago. The quick shift in tone from the opening raunchy exchange among our intended escapees (view it here if you like) to the constant tension of the rest of this action, the horrible brutality so easily ordered by this rebel leader to his young troops, the shock of watching innocent victims casually murdered, and the contrasting restrained tone of remorse as Kaney explains his mindset to the later audience all contribute to make this short film the best of the bunch for me, a very unsettling exercise in how quickly we can be conditioned to be stripped of our humanity, following the dictates of our tribal/national xenophobia to the point of gruesome mindsets that just lead us to oblivion. You can get more information on Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) at its official site in Spanish, which you can likely click for translation but it’s available in English if you need it. The best version of the trailer I could find is at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=pfbDN94UucU, but for those of you who are as monolingual as I am I’ll note that some of the dialogue is only in Spanish. I’d recommend seeing this Oscar-nominated program of short films for this one entry alone, but you’ll also have other pleasures within the entire package.
Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) Xavier Legrand, Alexandre Garvas [Academy info indicates Garvas as co-director but the film’s actual credits have him as producer] (France, 28 min.)
Despite the effective tension employed in this one, though, I find it the least award-worthy of the bunch (but still a well-made-film and a solid nominee—as best I know, having not seen anything else but the 5 finalists) but only because it feels to me too much like one part of a longer film, although this sequence does stand on its own regarding what’s presented in its narrative elements. Those include an odd beginning where a young boy, Julien (Miljan Chatelain), is dawdling on his way to school one morning then gets in the car with a woman, Mariam (Léa Drucker)—who turns out to be his mother—in what seems to be a pre-arranged plan; they pick up his teenage sister, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), at a bus stop (where she gives her boyfriend a really-invested-goodbye-kiss), then drive off to what we learn is Mom’s jobsite, a Target-like grocery/department store where we learn by inference (via conversation and seeing some bruises on Mariam when she changes out of her work uniform) that she’s fleeing her abusive husband as soon as her sister can meet her later in the afternoon. Tension builds effectively, though—really, that’s all this film is, an exercise in proper trauma-setup for the characters and the audience—when dominating Dad, Antoine (Denis Ménochet), shows up trying to buy a sander but needing the checkbook that Mom must have taken. She gives it to him (all the while fending off questions from her clueless-but-disturbing-supervisor about her supposed absence during the morning shift), then gathers up the kids for a run to meet the sister across the street from the megastore while avoiding suspicious Antoine as he prepares to leave the parking lot. Unlike an American film, though, where he’d spoil the escape at the last minute (just like you’ll find a version of in Labor Day in the discussion farther below—I told you that spoilers run rampant in my reviews, so don’t complain, please), he doesn’t see them as they make their break for freedom (in a long shot of their drive-off with Mariam’s sister, a tactic which distances us from their plight as they leave our consciousness) and—hopefully—a better life, which we’ll just have to imagine because that’s all we get. I can’t help but feel that this is a middle act in a longer story that explicates the abuse, then gives us a sense of what occurs once they leave, so while it’s all coherent enough in its current existence I just didn’t feel the sense of closure that I get with the other 4 films in this group. Don’t get me wrong: the depiction of an abused spouse and the successful escape by her and her children from her tormenter is a worthwhile subject for any length of cinematic story, but here it just feels like time limits of the format have restricted us from understanding anything but the implications behind the need for flight along with the complications that exist therein. Again, I’ll note that you get a much more complete version of that in Labor Day (a pure coincidence that I’m reviewing both of them this week) so maybe I’m being unfair with Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), where even the title implies more trauma to come, but for me, this third-scheduled-entry in the Live Action Short Films program is the least compelling of the group, at least in comparison with the others, although I’m sure there are a good many female viewer/readers of this film and my review who’d be happy to tell me what an insensitive idiot I am. To those who might feel that way, I ask you to at least see this Oscar entry however you can, whenever you can, then blast away at me if you feel the need to. I could find very little for you to examine in the meantime, though, except for a trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1jmM8eYLoI, which presents a single scene from the film but in such a dark image that you can hardly tell what’s going on except for the explanatory subtitles for those of us not fortunate enough to speak French.
Helium Anders Walter, Kim Magnusson [Magnusson is seemingly co-director according to the Academy information but is listed as a producer in the film’s credits] (Denmark, 23 min.)
Our next excursion into the Oscar Live Action Short Film nominees is the one that opens the theatrical cluster that you might be able to see but you may find nothing more on the Web to elaborate it than a trailer at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=UiHTwc EY230. This is a sadly-sweet-story of a young boy, Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbaek), with an unspecified fatal disease, who is spending his last days in a hospital where sympathetic-orderly-Enzo (Casper Crump), whose younger brother died some years ago, tries to counter the child’s concerns that Heaven sounds like too dull a destination by telling him of a more lively place beyond the clouds, Helium, where he’ll be able to heal and meet up with departed relatives such as his grandparents (he’ll also find it to be a fascinating place where boulders float around, held aloft by helium balloons, some with living spaces on their top portions which are visualized in Alfred’s imagination to resemble the more-sophisticated-version of this same type of CGI spectacle that we saw a few years ago in Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]). As Alfred is moved into an intensive-care-unit Enzo must depend on the help of a kindly nurse (Marijana Jankovic) to gain clandestine access to the boy so that he can finish the story of how he’ll be brought on board the Helium Express dirigible after he’s located by means of Red, a balloon dog (made by Enzo) in the boy’s hospital room window. There are bits of dialogue interchange between Alfred and Enzo as well as the physical attempts of the orderly to get into the area of the hospital above his pay grade in order to see his young friend, but once the premise is set up the whole impact of this film depends on the final scene where the Express ship arrives, sends a ladder-like bridge over to Alfred’s room for him to walk across to board, then sails away into the city’s foggy night leaving us a view of many other hospital rooms with those same red balloon dogs indicating that the ship will return several times to bring so many other dying patients (maybe not just children; we don’t know who’s in those other rooms) away to the floating wonders of Helium. Whether this is all just in Alfred’s imagination as encouraged by the encouraging tales of Enzo or whether Enzo has accidently tapped into a metaphysical realm that he doesn’t realize the reality of (Or does he?) isn’t really the culminating point here. What matters is how simultaneously marvelous and melancholy that final scene is, offering us some solace about Alfred’s sad fate with hopes that at least in his dying moments he gained some wonder and comfort about his demise, whether it then led to a wondrous afterlife or not. I think you’d be hard-pressed not to feel choked up when seeing this one, no matter how maddening or irritating your day had been before settling in for this program of well-crafted short films from many lands.
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?) Selma Vilhunen, Kirsikka Saari [the Academy implies Saari is co-director but both the credits and the official site verify the proper role as scriptwriter] (Finland, 7 min,)
This inspired bit of wackiness is the one that concludes the theatrical package of Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Films, a marvelous end piece that has you laughing hysterically throughout (quite helpful after the grim topics of the preceding French and Spanish entries, along with the lingering sadness you might still be feeling from that opening dose of Helium). Essentially, it’s a marvelous comedy of errors where mother Äiti (Joanna Haartti), father Isä (Santtu Karvonen), along with daughters Ella (Ranja Omaheimo), age 6, and Kerttu (Ella Toivoniemi), age 4, have overslept, leading to a frantic attempt to get to a wedding on time despite encountering everything that could possibly go wrong: Äiti spills coffee on Isä’s shirt forcing him to try to cover up the stain; the kids’ good clothes are soaking wet in the washer leading to them dressing up in the only party duds they can muster—Halloween costumes—plus they have no present for the reception, forcing the out-the-door-grab of one of their household potted plants (which Äiti drops during their frantic run to the church as one of her high heels breaks out from under her). Once they arrive for the ceremony they find a funeral in progress instead, so they clumsily pay their respects to the coffin, leave the potless plant with the many floral offerings, along with their hastily-made-card sporting the ridiculously-inappropriate-message of “Congratulations” (although maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if somehow this wacky Scandinavian culture embraced the more sentimental version of the afterlife offered in the neighboring story from Danish Helium; however, I’ve been to both Finland and Denmark and met various citizens of both, leading me to believe that the life-is-absurd-attitudes of the former would rarely find resonance with the generally-more-somber-brethren of the latter). When the constant chaos has finally come to rest, the parents realize that the wedding is actually next week, so now at least they’ll have time to regroup and try again (although I wouldn’t anticipate anything much less discombobulated just because they have a warning—although, apparently, not a calendar). Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?) is just pure Task-Accomplishment slapstick, one of the oldest subgenres of cinematic comedy but one that never fails to elicit laughs when done properly; here the propriety comes from a galloping pace, escalating problems, the comic irony of the desperate attempt to overcome the obstacles no matter how crazy the solutions must be, and the genial sense of this family that they’re all in this mess together no matter how insane the situation becomes. In a way, there’s nothing going on here that you couldn’t have seen 100 years ago in a Mack Sennett Keystone comedy in the early years of the 20th century, but the sheer determination of the Ketonen family to triumph over constant adversity along with the witty situations they encounter makes this a delightful closing piece for the entire program. You can get more information on this one at is official site at http://www.tuffifilms.com/fiction along with a trailer that nicely summarizes the whole crazy situation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sDBUjNf6dc.
The Voorman Problem Mark Gil, Baldwin Li [once again, Li is indicated by the Academy as co-director but appears as producer in the credits] (U.K., 13 min.)
This one I love just for its pure audacity (although readers of more esoteric literature might find a bit of a similarity to Julio Cortázar’s short story “Axolotl,” about a man who exchanges identities with an amphibian—you can read it at http:// archive.org/stream/ Axolotl/Axolotl1djvu. txt in a sloppy layout [I wonder if my overseers atGoogle Blogspot snuck around to override them like they constantly do with me, although they've been very cooperative this week, which I greatly appreciate] but you do get both the Spanish and translated English texts [or if you feel like downloading and reading a scholarly analysis of this short story then here’s a very interesting one at journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/ifr/article/download/14282/15359 (although I doubt this will link automatically so you'll just have to put this address in a Web browser to download this PDF—or if that doesn't work and you're really interested just send me a note at email@example.com and I'll send you a copy of the file)*]—which first appeared in print in 1952 and is most available on paper as part of an anthology now called Blow-Up and Other Stories as translated by Paul Blackburn). The premise in The Voorman Problem is that a psychiatrist, Dr. Williams (Martin Freeman, of BBC/PBS Sherlock fame as Dr. Watson [fabulous final season episode, His Last Vow, just broadcast in the U.S.; highly recommended by me as one of the better feature-length cinematic works of any sort that I’ve seen recently] and Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s lavish Hobbit movies), is called to a prison to make a diagnosis of a strange inmate, Voorman (Tom Hollander), who not only claims to be a god but has the rest of the prisoners believing in him, causing unrest which the warden, Governor Bentley (Simon Griffiths), wants to quell by having a diagnosis to send Voorman off to an asylum. After their initial conversation (with Voorman secured in a straightjacket), the “god” claims that he created the universe only 9 days ago but implanted memories of previous time in everyone’s consciousness just to make things interesting for himself (despite the constant strain of keeping it all in his imagination so that it won’t just go “poof”), just as he’s allowed himself to be imprisoned for the amusement of mingling with some of his creations (unfortunately, there’s no way to track his history because there was a computer crash a year ago that wiped out all files so that the warden doesn’t even know what Voorman was convicted of but still hopes that with Williams’ help he can shipped off to a mental institution). As proof that he’s what he claims to be (in sort of a parody of how Klaatu convinced the scientists that he truly was from another planet in The Day the Earth Stood Still [Robert Wise, 1951]), Voorman says that later that afternoon he’ll make Belgium disappear (because it won’t be missed, even by its inhabitants). When Williams relates all of this to his wife (Elisabeth Gray) that evening she’s completely confused by any mention of Belgium, so Doc Confident checks a map to find only a large lagoon where the country used to be. Next day back at the prison he continues his verbal sparing with Voorman in a series of intense closeups that resolve with Voorman in Williams’ clothes talking about how he looks forward to spending time with the doctor’s wife as Williams is now in the straightjacket, given the burden of keeping up with everything happening in the world (although Voorman’s powers don’t seem to have transferred to the now-helpless-doctor, at least not yet—maybe we’ll get a sequel next year). Williams is frantic, but for all practical purposes he’s now Voorman so it’s quite a problem indeed—at least for him. While the film gives us no reason to wish this fate on Williams, the presentation of it is so concise, well-paced, and hilariously-presented that you just can’t help but love the sick humor of it all, especially coming as the second “chapter” of the theatrical program, providing a nice surreal uplift after the loving loss in Helium. You can visit the official site of The Voorman Problem at http://www.thevoormanproblem. com/ and watch its trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aNyXNYeiwA.
* Or, if you want to get really esoteric about Cortázar and his inspiration for the 1966 film Blow-Up (# 6 on my All-Time Top 10) here’s another article, this one by yours truly and my Mills College colleague, Héctor Mario Cavallari, “Julio Cortázar and Michelangelo Antonioni: Words, Images, and the Limits of Verbal and Visual Representation,” in Dissidences: Hispanic Journal of Theory and Criticism 6/7 (May 2010). I also did a related analysis of these works on my own but it’s not available on the Web, so if you’d like a PDF copy of it you can contact me directly for it.
An escaped convict with many endearing skills hides out with a lonely woman and her son over a long weekend where romance grows in a series of unlikely plot points.
So, with all of the commentary on this year’s Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Films completed, let’s move on to a more detailed review of a film that likely had Oscar-aspirations when it was being adapted from the 2009 Joyce Maynard Labor Day novel (she’s local, for me, from Oakland, CA, privately famous for her adolescent affair with J.D. Salinger [she was 18, he was 53]—then infamous for writing about it in her At Home in the World  memoir, forcing her to submit Labor Day anonymously to publishers because she was so reviled at the time in the industry; see, if she’d had gone to Woody Allen instead she could have married him and would now be writing screenplays rather than books [and please save your condemnations for a little while at least—any that may be left after my comments on Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)—of me joking about Allen when he’s in the midst of his latest confrontation with adopted-daughter Dylan Farrow, because I’m not taking any sides on that issue until something more conclusive emerges in one direction or the other, as I have indirect reasons to empathize both with molested children and falsely-accused-adults—in separate circumstances, of course—so I don’t want to assume guilt of either party based just on conflicting testimony]), cast with A-listers Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, but has been left in the dust by the Academy (no nominations), the critical community (Rotten Tomatoes reviewers offer a horrid 32% [based on a whopping 142 reviews so there’s little love for this romantic drama], with the Metacritics not that much better at 51%), and the audience (61% at Rotten Tomatoes based on about 9,200 user ratings at the time I wrote these comments, with a bit-better 6.8 of 10 from 1,750 opinion-offerers at IMDb; only a little over $5 million in domestic gross for its opening weekend despite playing in 2,584 theaters while Ride Along [Tim Story], Frozen, The Nut Job [Peter Lepeniotis], and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit [Kenneth Branagh; review in our January 24, 2014 posting] continued to add to their substantial totals, proving that even those who wanted something besides the Seahawks and Broncos on Super Bowl weekend—and certainly the Denver offense wanted something else than the Seattle defense—were more interested in escapism or full-blown-combat than escaped convicts or the mere threat of bodily harm). There’s a sense of danger early on in this movie version of Labor Day when lonely, depressed, nearly-catatonic divorced-mother Adele Wheeler (Winslet, again sporting the same surname as in the consummately-better Revolutionary Road [Sam Mendes, 2008] set in the 1950s where her essentially-suicidal-character, April, was married to a guy named Frank [played superbly by Leonardo DiCaprio], so maybe he fathered another child at some point [see the Mendes film for details on that comment] who moved from New York to New England to keep the Wheeler name going or maybe Maynard doesn’t recall reading the 1961 Richard Yates novel from which this earlier film was adapted) ventures out into her New England hamlet of Holton Hills (seemingly New Hampshire, based on some of the semi-autobiographical aspects of Maynard’s life in this story but actually shot in rural Massachusetts) on one of her rare appearances, to buy some new clothes for her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), 13 and headed into 7th grade after the titular late-summer-holiday-weekend, where they meet up with (soon-to-be-revealed) escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Brolin), who makes it clear that harm will come to Henry if Adele doesn’t cooperate (we later understand that it’s all a bluff, that he wouldn’t hurt either of them, especially not in the crowded local PriceSmart where he finds them, but given Adele’s reclusive, withdrawn nature she’s reasonably not ready to take any chances—although this initial acceptance of her imposed circumstances just opens the floodgates for the critical pile-on that has accompanied Labor Day, just like that opening Denver hike into the end zone that led to Seattle’s first points last Sunday seemingly opened the floodgates for Payton Manning’s worst Sunday in quite some time).
Adele still seems scared for Henry’s welfare by the time that she drives Frank back to their ramshackle home that serves as a visual metaphor for her dilapidated state of mind, so she agrees to just keep quiet until Frank can make a run for it in the dark, but in true Harlequin Romance-fashion (sorry, Joyce, I know you’ve been praised for your book, but things get awfully-sloppily-sentimental very fast here with sweaty Frank being obviously the only full rush of testosterone to walk through that front door in a long time—although Henry’s getting on the cusp of a physical awakening himself, as we see him in one sort of daydream-flashback fixating on the bra strap of the girl sitting in front of him in school—and Adele warming up to her abductor in a manner that too easily shouts out, “Hey, sailor, what’s the rush? Why don’t you stick around and I’ll teach you to dance,” which she does with rumba and cha-cha lessons over that very long weekend). I’ll admit right off that by the time we get to the end of this story several years after its 1987 beginning I could feel some sentimental acceptance of the never-ending-love that so quickly grew between these 2 damaged souls, but these opening scenes of Frank in hiding grow rather ludicrous very quickly (not so much so that his goatee comes and goes, though; the photo above comes from a much later time in this packed-weekend-story). First, he ties Adele to a chair in case someone stumbles onto her house in the police pursuit of his escape (which happened earlier that day just after his appendix operation when he took advantage of his guard’s laxness to jump out of the prison hospital’s second-story-window) so that she’s got a plausible story of being kidnapped. OK, he means her no harm, maybe none of the rooms in the house have functioning locks (not much else seems to work properly) that would allow him to just close Adele and Henry off into seclusion while Frank waits for nightfall, so the tying-up might have a plausible motivation initially (although Maynard should have followed up more with it so she could have gotten ahead of the curve that became the Fifty Shades of Grey juggernaut [E.L. James, 2011; movie adaptation of this book in motion also, with a planned February 2015 release]), but the following scenes take us into even further into “Mommy-porn” territory when Frank then makes a pot of chili for their mutual dinner, then spoon-feeds it to Adele while she’s still tied to the chair. I guess that solidifies her trust in her abdicator because that night she stays in her upstairs bedroom as normal while Frank sleeps on the floor downstairs, under the strangely-watchful eye of Henry who seems to find this escaped murderer (the news about him is all over the airwaves by now) to be a more engaging father-figure than his own departed Dad, Gerald (Clark Gregg, in a more subdued role than his recent work in TV’s Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting] spinoff, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), who finally gave up on Adele after her stillborn-driven-depression (Henry’s intended little sister seemed to finally arrive after traumatic miscarriages but was even more of a horror to her devastated mother than the previous losses), then married his secretary but tries lamely to keep a connection to his biological son. The next morning, Adele comes down holding the ropes for Frank; however, he says he doesn’t need them now—especially after he’s made scones for breakfast—although I can’t help but think I saw disappointment in her face that the bondage part of the deal was now on hold (adding to Adele's 50 shades of sad).
But Frank proves to be more than just a sensitive outlaw (who maintains that there’s also more to the death of his wife than his conviction and 18-year-sentence implies) who can handle fried hamburger, beans, tomato sauce, and spices; he’s also an excellent handyman for the various house and car repairs needed around the place, an accepting caretaker for a neighbor’s physically-disabled son, and a guy who easily irons the laundry, as well as being a no-nonsense baker who can bring this family together over a bowl of peaches that will end up in a mouth-watering-image of a perfectly-baked pie (this is the scene that really sent a lot of critics over the edge, such as what you’d find from Chris Nashawaty's C score in Entertainment Weekly, although Maynard was especially fond of this kitchen encounter in both her book and the movie, with the recipe taken lovingly from her mother and taught on-set to the actors, as recounted in this interview in the January 29, 2014 San Francisco Chronicle and its web-avatar, SFGate—but more on this at the end of my review). All this has been accomplished through the Labor Day weekend (where Frank does a heck of a lot more chores than another guy more or less on the run on that holiday—specifically on the marvelous Monday itself—Hal Carter [William Holden] in Picnic [Joshua Logan, 1955]—but, admittedly, he was let off the hook by Mrs. Potts [Verna Felton] because “nobody works on Labor Day,” after she fed him a piece of her freshly-baked pie for breakfast; anyway, Hal’s too busy calling Madge Owens [Kim Novak] “Baby” to do much else anyway—to complete the circle here there’s also a first-day-of-school-subplot in Picnic, but the 1955 trains must run more regularly even on holidays in Kansas because Frank never does hear one available for his 1987 escape in New England), including other tasks such as Frank teaching Henry some baseball skills as both pitcher and batter (Adele gets some coaching in the batting area as well, with additional help from Frank butt-to-crotch behind her—don’t worry, none of that “special coaching” for Henry), implications that he can pluck out a tune on a bass violin, and demonstration of the initiative to plot a getaway to Canada with his new “family” willingly along for the ride (which leads to them packing up everything necessary from the house, then cleaning the place, all before Monday night; Superman would be hard-pressed to demonstrate this much speed and this many skills, even with extra-terrestrial powers helping him out). Of course, by now we learn from a series of ongoing flashbacks how Frank’s had a miserable life where his one-true-love, Mandy (Maika Monroe), turned into a wandering wife who let slip that he’s not their baby’s father; further, he finds that she’s let the child drown in their bathtub so in anger he accidently pushes her down a staircase to her death, then rots in jail until he finally finds the opportunity to break loose. Consequently, Frank’s not only a jack-of-all-trades, he’s a wronged felon (guilty of involuntary manslaughter at worst) due for a fresh start, which seems to be all part of a well-conceived-on-the-fly-plan, until Henry’s emotions get the best of him, which throws a wrench into the works.
Somehow in the space of that event-packed-3-days of the holiday weekend (4 if you count Friday, for those who slip out of work—or jail—early), Henry—while at the library getting informational books on Canada—talks with the new girl in town, Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), who obviously has a crush on him but is a cynical child, based on bad experiences with her parents’ divorce; however, by the time that Henry sees her again she’s already figured out that Frank is holed up with the Wheeler clan but she seems to find some delight in that outlaw scenario (as she does with Henry, when she gives him his first kiss), although she sours the situation with her recitation of the famous Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) death scene just to let Henry know that his romantic dreams could have tragic consequences. It’s not too likely that she squealed on her new fascination-boy, though, and (through encouragement from Frank that a successful strategy for putting antagonists at ease is to disarm them with a truth so seemingly preposterous that they lower their guard), with Henry’s calmly-delivered version of a Bonnie and Clyde story about cleaning out Adele’s bank account so that they can run for the border, I doubt that the bank officers really had too much final suspicion about Adele when she walked off with a wad of cash on Tuesday morning in preparation for the escape to Canada. However, in addition to a neighbor walking in on Frank as he’s finishing up the packing that same morning and a cop finding Henry walking around oddly on the first day of school then insisting on bringing him home where he’s curious about the fully-loaded-station-wagon (with heavily-throbbing music on the soundtrack throughout these tense scenes), the final flaw in the best-laid-plans of manly-Frank and mousy-Adele comes when Henry goes early that Tuesday to leave a goodbye note in his Dad’s mailbox. It’s likely that’s what led to the police rushing to the Wheeler residence with sirens blaring (although we never get a specific explanation of why they came), just before the escape was to launch. Frank uses the kidnapping ploy again to protect the Wheelers, tying them both to chairs just before the cops arrive; later, Adele tries to protest his innocence to prevent more years from being added to his sentence for the kidnapping but the prosecutor explains that then she’d be liable for a charge of aiding and abetting an escaped con so she lets it go, just as she’s forced to let him go as he’s put in solitary, then moved to another prison somewhere. Yet, it all comes out well in the end as young-adult-Henry (now played by Tobey Maguire, which finally explained my confusion about why Henry’s voiceovers sounded so much like Tobey) opens a bakery, achieves some fame and press coverage, receives a letter from Frank about still wanting to connect with Adele if she’ll have him, puts them in contact, then fades from the story at the very end as we focus on the reunited oldsters so that our hearts can soar along with the music. I know that it’s all supposed to be romantic, in a The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004) sort of way, but after all of the other extremities that hold up the foundation of this plot the idea that these 2 aging lovebirds just waited in differing degrees of isolation for each other over the following years until our current time, then just walked off into the friendly fields of New England with no further contact after that initial 4-day encounter leaves me a bit incredulous, even though it’s hard to not be choked up a bit when they’re finally together. But, despite my preference for the overall detail of backstory, event, and closure that we get in this traditional feature film rather than just the tension-resolved-with-one-quick-dash-to-freedom-middle-act of Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), I would have preferred the simpler getaway-to-a-new-life-scenario of the short film as the resolution to Labor Day instead of pushing it even further into the realm of manufactured melodrama.
Anytime a cast features Kate Winslet—or James Brolin for that matter—I have high hopes for the film, but despite some authentic moments when I felt these primary actors overcame the sappiness of the script (or when young Henry and Eleanor were striking some authentic sparks) I can now see why this offering is hiding out during the early-year-lull when most audiences are catching up on Oscar nominees or trying to lose themselves in complete fantasy (although you could make an argument that Labor Day dishes up plenty of that along with the delicious peach pie) after holiday bills and freezing-polar-vortex-misery. I may be in the minority with my home-fried-support of the extended-family-meltdown in August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013; review in our January 15, 2014 posting) due to my connections with West Texas Strum und Drang, but I never could get into the flow of Labor Day enough to pull myself out of the majority dismissal of this attempt at romantic drama. Sorry, Joyce and Kate; this one strikes out for me (although it seems to resonate much better for my sincerely-empathetic-wife, Nina, so if I haven’t been clobbered for my comments on the French short film or Woody Allen’s off-screen-life I may catch it for this one). Accordingly, I’ll close with my usual musical metaphor for the feature film this week, picking up on Nashawaty’s critique of the Labor Day pie-baking as being “a laughable food-porn send-up of the pottery scene from Ghost” (Jerry Zucker, 1990), by first taking you to the original clip of that “Unchained Melody”-based-desperate-memory at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXfxUVjHFl0 (sadly, in a squeezed rather than original widescreen format, although I’ve got that too at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=265EFivguqA [with the only possible problem being that the dialogue’s dubbed into Italian, but maybe that makes it even more romantic; I'll let Italian-centric-Nina make the call on that option]) followed by the marvelous parody from The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (interestingly, by Zucker as well, 1991) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_LfUmdR2Mo (probably what Nashawaty was seeing in his mind’s eye while watching Labor Day), also in the less-than-ideal-squeezed-visual-format, with a segue into other silly-passion-parodies, but once you’re into the flow of this you may want the whole thing anyway. I know that Reitman and company were swinging for the fences with this one, but for me at best it’s a “seeing-eye”-single that was just burdened with too much schmaltz to ever properly get out of the batter’s box (beware of these baseball references because Nina and I are heading to Phoenix at the end of March to see our beloved Oakland A’s in the final days of Spring Training, so you may get more backdoor-slider-and-triple-play-analogies from me than you can stand over the next couple of months, with lots more short film commentary in coming weeks about Oscar’s nominees for animated and documentary offerings; I suggest you just grab a beer—if it’s not already frozen to your tongue in most parts of the country this winter—and flow along as we race for home plate prior to Gold-Guy-night on March 2, 2014). See you next week when George Clooney brings some heat with The Monuments Men. And, just in case I haven’t irritated enough of you yet this week I’ll close with the controversial Coca-Cola ad from the Super Bowl with “America the Beautiful” sung in a collage of languages to celebrate the diversity of our national culture, not just in our “official” English, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=443Vy3I0gJs&list=PLCIVZWq1FAwcWJmgdF5o3-QTZZ-OnBUgA. If that bothers you, maybe you’d better have another beer or 2 instead of that Coke. But, y’all come back now, ya hear?
In all seriousness, though, I end this week’s ramblings by bidding farewell to 2 great human beings whose lives and public works have given me much joy through many years of my time on this planet. Goodbye, Pete Seeger and Philip Seymour Hoffman; I’ll miss you both a lot and thank you for leaving us with so much wonderful work to remember you by. At times like this we truly might wonder “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” but we’re still able to sing along with Pete about that at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXqTf8DU6a0 as we contemplate the emptiness that can so terribly haunt our lives on sudden occasions or in lingering doses. Maybe we’ll learn someday, Pete—and Philip—maybe someday.
If you’d like to know more about Labor Day here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZTiopzhi0s (25:10 press conference from the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013 with commentary from director Jason Reitman, along with actors Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith, and Josh Brolin)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.