ChildOfGod_keyart_406x600Note: This review does go into spoilers, but I feel I needed to in order to explain some of the film’s redemptive and misunderstood qualities.

Some of the bleakest films in recent memory have been based on books by Cormac McCarthy. The Road almost felt like an exercise in hopelessness. No Country for Old Men had a sense of inevitable futility. Respectively directed by John Hillcoat and the Coen Brothers the films captured McCarthy’s dark sensibility via cinema. Now comes the media factotum James Franco to take on McCarthy and one of his earlier novels: Child of God, which is not only told from the demented perspective of a serial killer who has sexual relations with corpses but does not forget those who failed to stop him. Whatever you might think of this actor/director/author/poet who seems to spread himself kind of thin, there is no lack of quality direction invested in his adaptation. It follows Lester Ballard, a man abandoned by his family, community and humanity as a whole. What becomes of such a person is disturbing in its implications of society, and that Franco pulls off channeling that from the book as well as he does — though not flawlessly — deserves praise.

Smartly constructed, Franco’s Child of God (like the book) unfolds across three distinct acts that subtly grow baser and more harrowing as the story unfolds. The film takes place in rural, mid-20th century Tennessee. It’s winter, and the trees are mostly stripped bare of their leaves. Actor Scott Haze puts himself into the titular character of Lester Ballard with a grandiose lack of inhibition. We meet him confronting a group of people and an auctioneer on what Ballard says is his rightful property. Rifle in hand, he yells bloody murder at those who show interest in the land and large house. The scene, as with much of the film, is presented via handheld camera. It establishes the movie’s raw tone early on. Furthering the film’s earthy quality, the extras and bit players come across as non-actors genuinely recoiling as this beast of a man in a scruffy beard spits angst and frustration in an almost unintelligible drawl.

COG-Scott look to camera-SMALLER

Child of God would probably not be as watchable were it not for Haze’s go-for-broke performance. His version of Ballard recalls what Denis Lavant did with Mousier Merde, a remarkable monster who could hardly speak and ate bouquets of flowers after emerging from the sewer in two films by Leos Carax, a short film in the omnibus Tokyo! and his terrific feature Holy Motors. But Haze doesn’t get the cartoonish flourishes of living underground and devouring flowers. Ballard feels more realistically and frighteningly grounded in the primal.

What Child of God is more interested in exploring — if it’s not already apparent in the title — is the underlying, universal basis that everyone needs human connection. In one scene after another Ballard is denied genuine, vested sympathy by others on screen. Haze channels Ballard’s anguish with a visceral performance beyond his unkempt exterior and a nose prolific enough to produce large globules of mucus when he’s at his most desperate. His hangdog face and over-bite add to his character’s pitiable quality, but there’s also a conviction in his eyes and posture that never wavers throughout the movie.

Franco also uses cinematic flourishes that speak to his keen skills as a director. The perspective of this man is of course easily manipulated through cinema. It’s about editing and the decision of what to show of the narrative, but it is a film that “shows” in the best narrative sense. CHILD OF GOD-Scott Haze - 1The banjo music by Aaron Embry brings Deliverance to mind and unknown narrators give background vignettes that allude to the ghost of the person Ballard once was, though they make him no less frightening. “He’d grown lean and bitter. Some say mad,” says a voice-over narrator as Ballard stalks the side of a road, his gun in plain view, yelling at cars. Oh, Ballard also defecates in the woods and scrapes between his butt cheeks with a stick (just one more element of Haze’s conviction to his character).

With a harsh, layered musical sting out of a horror movie, Franco turns to Part II of the film. The unseen narrators have dropped out at this point, reflecting the notion that what lies ahead will seem inconceivable to the civilized person. Eventually, Ballard stumbles across a pair of young lovers who have died in their car of carbon monoxide poisoning, and during an extended sequence that features him having his way with the corpse of the young woman, he finds love. Ballard is now cuddling up with the young woman’s body in an abandoned home, saying “it’s me and you.” Companionship at last. As noted, the film is only headed further down a grim path. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who enters the film to the sound of bells is half on alert for Ballard. As the unkempt, homeless man is left to roam the woods, he eventually finds shelter in a cave. Ballard is mostly regarded as a nuisance… until his crimes are revealed.

This is a man presented with little human connection from the beginning of the film and alluded to as much by the mysterious narrator(s) who help flesh out Part I of the film. It’s an extreme and ultimate example of the dissolution of humanity, but it stays true to the McCarthy ethos. Yet, deep under the murder and necrophilia, COG-1073Franco finds a way to keep the humanity of the film’s protagonist relatable while maintaining an objective sensibility that does not make his acts forgivable. The film only seems to jump too ambitiously toward the end, after Ballard seems to have come to terms with his impulses, giving him an alien quality that betrays the film’s ambitions… or maybe it’s making its point even more harshly.

It’s tough to say because Child of God demands a lot from the audience that dares to seek out truly adventurous filmmaking. Far from a feel good film yet not deserving of the label of exploitation, Child of God aspires for a kind of enlightenment via the shadows that should not be ignored. As with much of Franco’s work, it’s the fact that he dares to explore certain themes that does not always make him easily palatable but no less worth shrugging off as irrelevant. He’s not.  Of course there is no excusing Ballard’s crimes, but the film speaks to the need of sympathy for such people. It’s a cautionary tale that supposes psychosis as a social problem and not all psychological. A lack of moral guidance can happen from the outside as well as from within. The film dares to indict society and the onlooker as much as its protagonist. No one is innocent of horrors because, let’s face it, stuff like this can happen.

Hans Morgenstern

Child of God runs 104 minutes and earns its R rating. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 15, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

royal-tenenbaums

Father’s Day is fast approaching, offering the perfect time to celebrate some of the best cinematic depictions of father figures in independent filmmaking. Unlike mainstream media, independent filmmakers tend to focus on the flaws that make these characters unique, memorable and relate-able. Some of these films can be seen as moving tributes while others appear more like indictments. Whatever the case, they are sure to stir up a reaction.

Father. There are few words that bring out so many conflicting emotions, either because of your own father or for the weight you attach to that word in relationship to your own family. This Father’s Day, whether you love, dislike or feel indifferent to your father, it is likely that you will be prompted to think about him if only because of constant reminders to shop, shop, shop for him! Here at Independent Ethos we suggest you take some time to relax and reminisce with some great films featuring memorable fathers that deserve to be re-watched or should be considered must-sees if you haven’t caught them yet.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums

Not only is this one of my favorite films in general, but it also features one of the best realized father figures in Wes Anderson‘s oeuvre, which tends to explore the complexity of familial ties. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum (yes, that’s the name of the patriarch!), a former lawyer who was disbarred by one of his own sons in one of the funniest montages of the film (there are several). Royal is the yang to the family’s more polished, sensitive, over-achieving group of geniuses. He curses, says overly crude things in a direct way, plays favorites and disappoints every member of the family at some point. He redeems himself only through death and reveals a tender loving father underneath that figure everyone had loved to hate.

Opening scene:

2. The Squid and the Whale

If you ever wondered what it’s like growing up with a narcissistic father, this film will get you close to that experience. The Squid and the Whale presents a dysfunctional family, struggling to overcome what seems to be a traumatic divorce. Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of Bernard Berkman is masterful. Bernard finds competition everywhere. He’s bitter to see his ex-wife get recognition on her writing abilities (Bernard is a writer as well). He challenges his ex-wife’s tennis-trainer boyfriend to a match of tennis. And sabotages his older teenage son’s dating life. Lest you think, now this is an awful father, director Noah Baumbach also does an amazing job showing a troubled individual who struggles to re-define himself as a middle-aged man. The writing alone in this film is superb, full of sharp witticism, sarcasm and heartfelt depth. Baumbach’s writing has excelled at depicting the self-involved male, from Mr. Jealousy and Greenberg, but to this writer, Bernard Berkman takes the cake. The Squid and the Whale is filled with quotable moments, such as a scene featuring Bernard talking to his younger son about his ex-wife’s new love interest.

Bernard: Ivan is fine, but he’s not a serious guy. He’s a philistine.
Frank: What’s a philistine?
Bernard: It’s a guy who doesn’t care about books and interesting films and things. Your mother’s brother Ned is also a philistine.
Frank: Then I’m a philistine.
Bernard: No, you’re interested in books and things.
Frank: [pause] No, I’m a philistine.

Trailer:

3. Raising Arizona

Fatherhood does not necessarily come with procreation. In Raising Arizona, recidivist convict H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) meets police officer Edwina “Ed” McDunnough (Holly Hunter), and in classic Coen fashion, they fall in love. They dream about starting a family only to find out that Ed is barren. Alas, adoption is also out of the question since Ed has a long criminal history. Soon after, though, they hear about a couple having quintuplets and they decide why not take one of those babies. They name the baby Nathan Junior. The adventure of having a family— even if construed illegally— changes Hi to reveal a caring guy. Full disclosure: I am not a huge Nicholas Cage fan, but in Raising Arizona he delivers a  performance of great comedic timing and a soft touch. A Father’s Day feel-good movie!

raising_arizona1

4. Kolya

Prepare to have your heart thoroughly melted, tugged and pulled. Kolya is the story of a Czech life-loving bachelor who was once a concert cellist. Living under Soviet rule, Louka (Zdenek Sverák) was fired from the philharmonic after being blacklisted by the communist party and now works at a crematorium playing music. In order to make some extra cash he marries a Russian woman who then uses her Czech nationality to migrate to West Germany. In the meantime, she leaves behind her 5-year old son, Kolya (Andrey Khalimon), who speaks only Russian. While communication between Louka and Kolya is rough at the beginning, a strong bond begins to form. Louka’s transition from womanizer to a father figure is beautifully carried by actor/screenwriter Sverák. The on-screen chemistry between the two truly makes you believe that this relationship, which transcends language, will define both men. Just like Raising Arizona, Kolya shows that fatherhood transcends biological constraints.

Kolya is now a classic. It received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1997. The critically acclaimed movie is a must and could be inspiration for fathers-to-be!

5. Big Fish

This is perhaps the most personal of all these entries. Big Fish, I must confess, reminds me of my own journey in discovering my father. Directed by Tim Burton, Big Fish tells the story of Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney), who tries to get a grasp of his dying father’s life through the stories he used to tell. He finds that truth lies somewhere between myth and reality. Burton captures the vivid imagination of a child who hears stories from his father through fantastic visuals. The dream-like quest of finding the truth only becomes clear and vivid as Ed Bloom senior passes away. The film is a reminder that life should be celebrated, and what better time to do so than during Father’s Day!

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

inside-llewyn-davis-posterWith their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers show a profound understanding of the existential quandary of musicians. As a longtime chronicler of the local Miami music scene, I have met many talented musicians who have fallen on one side of the fine line of recognition versus the other. In between there are many levels of accomplishments that defy such black and white notions as success versus failure. Whoever thinks becoming a recognizable musician defines success will miss out on the divine subtlety of Inside Llewyn Davis.

One could think of musicians as inter-dimensional travelers. They can move between two distinct worlds: the world of music and the conventional world non-musicians known. With their latest film, the Coens take the viewer Inside Llewyn Davis with only one special effect: the music. Actor/musician and Miami native Oscar Isaac does a stunning job of playing the titular character, a folk singer on the famed Greenwich Village circuit of the early 1960s whose blossoming talent seems doomed to ruin at every turn.

The film opens with a close up view of the bearded Llewyn, softly singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a traditional folk song that has never been attributed to a writer. The camera closes real tight, as he strums an acoustic guitar and sings the entire, dreary song to a darkened, crowded, yet silent cafe. Something almost religious is happening as Llewyn sings and strums. The lyrics speak of a life rich in experience but destined to be cut short by an executioner.

They put the rope around my neck, they hung me very high.
The very last words I heard them say, “It won’t be long ’til you die, poor boy.”
I’ve been all around this world.

Oscar Isaac performing in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The Coens have admitted to modeling Davis’ character on Dave Van Ronk, an obscure folk artist essential to the Greenwich Village folk scene (just look at this album cover). Van Ronk was known for a purist’s interest in the oral history of folk songs such as “Hang Me.” It’s an example of music that has so overshadowed its composer, no definitive record of its songwriter exists, an ironic touch that’s no accident in the detailed world of the Coens.

The Coen brothers’ interest in a musician who sings such a song foretells what sort of man, outside the music, Llewyn is destined to become. What follows is a journey both pathetic and sublime. It’s sublime in those moments the filmmakers allow for the songs, affectionately produced by T-Bone Burnett, to unfold, always in their entirety, as Llewyn dives into the realm of music and seems to exist in another almost divine world that has a different language and sense of time. Then there are the moments outside the music that reveals a rather sad and sometimes angry life of the homeless folk singer, who must spend much of his energy in search of a friendly couch to sleep on during the snowy winter of the Northeast while also peddling his musical talents.

Llewyn has an incompetent manager who seems far from invested in Llewyn’s music and an irascible sister (Jeanine Serralles) annoyed with his pursuit of art instead of a more practical career. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVISThen there’s Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of the married sunny singing duo Jim & Jean. She has two-timed Jim (Justin Timberlake) with Llewyn, and she’s angry with Llewyn for maybe getting her pregnant. She flings “fucking asshole” at him like it’s his first name, and Llewyn takes it with hangdog pathos.

Meanwhile, Llewyn tries to eke out a living from his art, which includes a sincere, almost virtuous repertoire of folk songs, including one song that dates back to the 18th century (“Fare Thee Well”). He’s a Luddite musician who hates the idea of selling out yet aspires for some level of success. He’s so haunted by his desire to make an honest, authentic mark, even vandalism in a toilet stall has resonance. “What are you doing?” the universe seems to ask him, adding another heavy ounce of pressure to the matter.

It’s not accidental that Llewyn’s name sounds like Lou and Davis, something belligerent, misanthropic jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman doing a harrowing impression of Doc Pomus) so casually notes. Llewyn is a man missing his other half, as is revealed literally early in the film, when he looks at a corny record cover featuring him and another musician, who has met a rather sad, untimely demise. Beyond a literal sense of Llewyn existing as one half of a duo, he is also figuratively half a man when not performing, incomplete without the music. He’s the ideal noble warrior for the purest reason of artistic expression.

Oscar Isaac winter in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Between naps in the backseat of a car, Roland pokes at Llewyn, shaving down his esteem with insults that Llewyn shakes off with annoyed, quiet resentment. He puts up with the troll of a man, as he is providing the ride to Chicago where he hopes to audition for an important manager named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Once again, the Coens offer a shadow of greatness as this manager shares a name and an implied history of the impresario who became Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. When Llewyn makes an opportunity to audition for Grossman, it’s a reference to how close he has come to achieving the success he so yearns for. So often the line between success and failure depends on being at the right place at the right time, and no other film captures this with so much melancholy and depth.

Besides a subtle and distinctive sense of humor and pathos to the narrative, the Coens again prove they know how to create an absorbing cinematic atmosphere. Art director Deborah Jensen and costume designer Mary Zophres have worked together to achieve this sepia-toned world of a lost time (and lost opportunity) that is both vintage chic and ghostly somber. Then there’s the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The image often looks soft and the gray area in which this man exists never blended so well between the black and white. It’s the perfect complement to the muted vision of a world that revolutionized popular music at the time. It befits the unlucky Llewyn, who merely seems a passenger on this ride to near glory. After all, we all know there’s someone else besides him waiting in the shadows to transcend this scene.

Hans Morgenstern

Inside Llewyn Davis runs 105 min. and is rated R (for cussing and sexual references). The only art house that has it in South Florida is the Coral Gables Art Cinema, where it opens this Friday, Dec. 20. As for the multiplexes in South Florida showing the film, they include:

AMC Sunset Place
Regal South Beach
AMC Aventura
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Palace
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Paragon Jupiter 18

But the best seat to see to see the film in South Florida, as ever, is the Coral Gables Art Cinema. CBS Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of awards consideration. Those living in other parts of the U.S. can insert their zip code here for nearby theaters hosting this film.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)