February 21, 2009

All Roads Lead Home

Vivien Cardone attempts to save condemned animals in 'All Roads Lead Home'It's easy to find reasons to dismiss All Roads Lead Home. Shot in Kansas City by a small independent producer on a shoestring budget, it bears many of the unfortunate hallmarks of the direct-to-video family genre: cinematography that's only a step or two up from amateur video, a cloying and overly literal score and a screenplay full of overly familiar archetypes and cringeworthy dialog. None of that changes the fact that it's an incredibly hard film to dislike.

The story centers around Belle Lawlor, the daughter of a dog catcher and the granddaughter of a horse breeder. This resulted in a childhood surrounded by animals. She loves them as much as her mother does. But when her mother dies, very early in the film, that love causes her regular heartache. One of her father's responsibilities is to euthanize the animals that require it. Culling the inferior offspring is a necessary part of her grandfather's business model.

Though the film pulls back from the worst of its punches (don't expect your kids to be blindsided by an Old Yeller ending), it doesn't shy away from tackling the difficult questions it raises. The film is emphatically promotes alternatives to euthanasia, but recognizes that there are times when euthanasia is necessary. Belle's grandfather indulges her desire to save all of the animals near the end of the film, but is frank that he can't do it forever. Belle's father is equally frank about the circumstances of her mother's death. At the hospital, he repeated refused to sign off on a do-not-resuscitate order. But after 39 hours of trauma, his wife died anyway. In the end, he wished he'd done the thing his daughter had resentfully assumed he'd done. I appreciated that the film respected its young audience enough to think they could handle dealing with these issues.

Aside from a few local supporting actors, the performances are a step above what you normally get from movies with this kind of budget. Vivien Cardone had years of experience playing a grieving daughter on "Everwood" and it no doubt helped her with the formidable burden of carrying the film on her shoulders. Peter Coyote brings an incredible warmth to the grandfather, essential for a character that must share many horrible truths. I've long considered Jason London one of Hollywood's most wooden working actors, so I was very surprised with his convincing portrayal of Belle's dad. As written Evan Parke's character seems dangerously close to the Magic Negro stereotype, but his execution helps to counter that. Patton Oswalt got the best written character of the bunch and makes the most of it. Vanessa Branch got the most poorly scripted character of the bunch but makes the most it too. I don't know if it's because he so close to the end, but the late great Peter Boyle brings an entirely different energy than we expect from him for his last on-screen role. His inn-keeper character is either a little crazy, or wants everybody to think so.

While the film snob in me found plenty to sneer at, again and again I kept wishing more family films had its convictions. For all of their gloss and technical accomplishment, most Hollywood family films are ultimately pandering diversions. If When I was in the targeted age range, All Roads Lead Home would have given me a lot to consider. And given the choice, wouldn't you rather your kids watch a humble little movie that engages their minds instead of a flashy blockbuster that merely dazzles their senses?(**½)


February 19, 2009

Henry Poole Is Here

Henry Poole revisits childhood haunts in 'Henry Poole is Here'What little critical attention was paid to Henry Poole is Here, one of 2008's overlooked gems, alternately embraced or dismissed the film as a celebration of religious faith. It is unquestionably a celebration of faith, but only in the broadest sense of the word. It's about finding yourself in a place where you can't see your way to tomorrow—and discovering that meaning is everywhere around you.

The film opens with Henry Poole's homecoming. When his perky and persistent realtor shows him a dump of a house in a dilapidated L.A. neighborhood, he decides to buy it on the spot. Yes, he wants to pay full asking price. No, he doesn't want any repairs made first. He's not going to be living in the house long anyway. The full significance of that assertion is unraveled slowly.

Henry's trips to the grocery store center around the acquisition of large quantities of alcohol. The cashier, peering at him through Coke-bottle glasses, and tells him he looks angry and sad. Her observation is spot on, and has everything (or maybe nothing) to do with the secret he's hiding.

And yet, despite his tightly coiled despair, Henry is reveal through a series of small and beautiful articulated moments to be a fundamentally decent person. He really listens to his overly intrusive and deeply passionate neighbor Esperanza, even as he attempts to drive her off his property. When he discovers Millie, the young daughter of his neighbor next door, taping his conversations through the fence, he approaches her with the deliberateness and gentleness one would afford to a cornered animal. Rather than confront the child, he affords her the space she needs to express her own turmoil.

His neighbors are all just as fundamentally decent. The neighborhood has visibly decayed in the years since Henry moved away, transformed from a symbol of the American Dream to a place where dreams go to die. Its current inhabitants form a community more social than is strictly desirable. Millie's mother Dawn went through a break-up so traumatic that the girl hasn't spoken since. Patience, the cashier, faces Henry and the world with an indomitable optimism. A water stain on the side of Henry's house provides Esperanza with an affirmation of the love she shared with the man who previously inhabited it. Father Salazar tries to stay on top of the fervently Catholic Hispanic congregation that surrounds them.

The neighborhood responds to the water stain, which may or may not be a divine image representation of the Savior, in ways that range from the profoundly symbolic to the regrettably unambiguous. Henry remains steadfastly unconvinced through it all, though his experiences with Dawn and Millie leave him with a desperate desire to persuaded.

The ending feels maddeningly artificial and contrived, but how could it end anyway else given everything that has come before? Either way, Luke Wilson sells it from the first frame to the last in a performance that captures all the humanity and complexity of his on-screen personality. Through his skeptical eyes, we are greeted with a vision of humanity that is honest and affirming. Adriana Barraza makes an irritating woman sympathetic and endearing. At seven years of age, Morgan Lily turns in a three-dimensional performance in a role with virtually no dialog. Radha Mitchell and George Lopez each do a great job with a thankless role. Rachel Seiferth's first scene convinces us that Patience is pathetic. It takes a remarkable performance over the rest of the time to prove otherwise. Don't let the films few irritating contrivances detract from an artistically sound and incredibly moving embrace of hope.(***½)


February 09, 2009

Push

Dakota Fanning sees the future in 'Push'Push is an intriguing but unexceptional scifi thriller in dire need of a final act. Functionally, the movie plays like Minority Report crossbred with "Heroes" in the back alleys of Hong Kong. What sets it apart is a unique visual palette and editing choices that favor small character beats over blistering action sequences.

As thirteen-year-old clairvoyant Cassie Holmes explains over the opening credits, ordinary people with extraordinary abilities walk among us. Beginning with the Nazis during World War II, governments around the world have tried to weaponize these individuals. Until Kira Hudson, all of these efforts had been lethal. But Kira survived, and escaped to Hong Kong—where Cassie and telekinetic deadbeat Nick Gant are destined to find her.

Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans anchor the film. When Nick is introduced as a failed gambler and general loser, Evans plays him as a man living far below his potential. Because he doesn't let Nick seem naive, it makes his rather sudden transition to ringleader of a complex and intricately plotted conspiracy more credible. Fanning imbues Cassie with depth; she manages to balance moments of true youthful innocence with a factitious snarky exuberance that masks the heavy burden of knowing too much.

The rest of the characters exist to serve a function. As Kira, Camilla Belle is impenetrable. A human MacGuffin, Kira exists so that Nick and Cassie have something to chase after. Djimon Hounsou, Joel Gretsch, Cliff Curtis, Ming-Na, and a large cast of most Chinese cohorts serve as pieces in an ever changing puzzle.

That puzzle demands the audience's full attention, and will leave many scratching their heads. I enjoyed keeping track of it all, and appreciated the obvious work that must have gone into bringing things together cleanly. Unfortunately, there's more puzzle than the movie's 111 minutes can hold. The ending is beyond frustrating, cutting to credits just when the characters are poised to dive into the larger mythology. Good movies know better than to dangle characters in front of the audience they'll never get to meet. Imagine if The Third Man had ended right before the Ferris wheel scene, and you'll understand Push's biggest failing.

There is much to be admired about Push, including a great cast, fantastic location shooting, and a smarter-than-average plot. Unfortunately, the good parts don't overcome cardboard cut-out supporting characters and an ending that doesn't resolve anything. All things considered, it would have made a better television pilot than a movie.(**½)