Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic is a stunning independent drama that, despite a ridiculously prolific cast, ultimately slipped through the cracks into obscurity. It’s well worth hunting down to see four seasoned professionals as the top of their game in telling the story of various characters dealing with the lingering horrors of the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly. Susan Sarandon plays a Canadian woman sometime in the 80’s who survived a concentration camp at a very young age, and has invited two fellow survivors (Max Von Sydow & Gabriel Byrne) to a reunion at her house in the Quebec countryside where they will reconnect after decades of separation following a tragically abrupt parting from each other and will have the chance to meet her much older husband (Christopher Plummer) and their son (Roy Dupuis). It’s a pleasant, cathartic enough reunion but the collective scars they share from enduring such a horrific phase of their lives are apparent in each of them, in different ways. Byrne’s quiet, introspective character has buried his trauma under a cloak of calm, Von Sydow deliberately tried to forget using electroshock therapy, while Sarandon herself has obsessively documented, scrapbooked and reflected on their past very openly over the years to employ her own process. Plummer’s character is the outsider, having never gone through what they did and starts the film off in a sort of cavalier, borderline insensitive way until the grave reality of what his wife and her friends have suffered through hits home and he becomes more compassionate. All of the performances are absolutely magnificent and I really wish more people were able to see this moving film because each of these actors provide showcase work and should be very proud. If you are lucky enough to find a DVD, please ignore the misleading, stupid Hallmark style artwork and silly alternate title (Autumn Hearts, are you kidding me? Lol) because it’s as if the distribution company didn’t even watch the film and just did whatever the hell they wanted. This is not a sappy, syrupy film at all, it’s a deep, thoughtful, challenging interpersonal drama that stirs the soul in a realistic fashion without cheap manipulation. Highly recommended, wonderful hidden gem of a film.
Some independent films are just so amazing, heartfelt and original it pains me they’ve never found a larger audience or made a bigger splash. Dennis Brooks’ Goodnight Joseph Parker has the kind of script, acting and execution that would probably have attracted Oscar attention had it been done on a bigger budget or had more marketing, but this thing is a barebones indie despite having a fairly well known cast and remains to this day a long buried treasure. Somewhere in New Jersey is a run down, behind the times bar run by Charlie (Paul Sorvino), staffed by waitress Rita (Debi Mazar) and frequented by drunkard Frankie (Richard Edson). This is a humdrum, low income barfly existence in a part of town that never changes save to continue to its own beat, until estranged regular Joey Parker (Nick Chinlund) returns to town in a “900 dolla’ suit” with tales of making it big and going on Jay Leno soon. His return sparks many feelings and long repressed things from the past, in paternal Charlie, in Rita who has always loved him and local junkie Muriel (Kim Dickens) who he loves and foolishly plans to propose to with all his new flash and swagger to back him up. But flash and swagger is what barely masks the pain, sadness and regret in all these characters, that and the booze they constantly swill. This isn’t so much a story as it is a quick snapshot of collective lifestyles in the Jersey area, but even though it’s a ‘small’ story, the emotions and character dynamics couldn’t feel more immediate or affecting. Chinlund is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, mostly saddled with supporting villain roles in his career, but when he’s given a lead like this he really and truly shines. Joey is a man who lives in his ego and when he’s forced to shed it, to confront himself and where he stands in his old community, well Nick’s performance is something to see. Sorvino has always been one of the greats and he’s heartbreaking here as a man who constantly tried to do the right thing and is haunted by the consequences, it’s a manic, playful, compassionate and comedic bit of acting genius. Mazar is another one who constantly gets stuck the ‘snarky bitch’ character and for sure she’s great at that, but give her some breathing room, let her play a more sensitive type girl and just watch what she can do, her work is spellbinding here. As if all that talent isn’t enough we also get a recurring cameo from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as a sleazy, hyperactive ladies man who runs in and out of the plot like a tornado. In the credits it says this film is ‘inspired by the music of Tom Waits’ and indeed he can be heard rasping away on the soundtrack faintly from time to time. The film really captures the day in, day out nature of this part of town, and the human beings whose drink, laugh, fight and live within it. It takes place over the course of one night and the following day only, but in that window of time I felt all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, downfalls, regrets, passions and hopes in this group of scrappy individuals and cared for each one deeply. Brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Oh hey another top ten of the year film for me. I love a good passion project, especially when the two artistic forces behind it are a couple beloved character actors who have spent much of their career in Hollywood playing villains, criminals, weirdos, bikers, aliens and all kinds of heavy stuff. William Fichtner’s Cold Brook sees the consistently brilliant actor team up with equally fantastic buddy Kim Coates for a charming, wonderfully simplistic tale of two small town dudes who make an incredible discovery.
Fichtner and Coates are Ted and Hilde, two lifelong pals who work as maintenance men for the college museum in their sleepy upstate NY town of Cold Brook. They each have a loving wife (played by Robin ‘Calamity Jane’ Weigart and Mary Lynn ‘Chloe O Brien’ Rajskub), kids and pretty much as cozy a life as anyone can hope for, complete with the kind of bromance that makes it obvious these two actors are tight in real life. Then one day a mysterious and deeply confused stranger (Harold Perrineau) shows up in the museum exhibit after hours and seems to follow them around after that like he has some purpose that even he doesn’t understand, and only our two boys can see him. It’s up to them to find out why this restless spirit has chosen them, what he wants and how to put him to rest while juggling the curious eyes of their wives, bosses and one campus security guard (Brad Henke) who takes his job just a bit too seriously.
This is low key, whimsical indie fare through and through and I downright fell in love. I’ve been following William and Kim’s career since I was a kid, they are two endlessly talented scene stealers and I can’t tell you how lovely and cathartic it was to see them just play a couple bros living and loving the small town life. They both shine brightly in their work here and Fichtner shows a steady hand in writing and direction here too, telling a story that clearly means a lot to him in broad, loving strokes. Perrineau is really effective as Gil the wandering spirit, seeming somehow perpetually lost but also pointedly soulful in each appearance. If you’re at all a fan of these two artists then I’d very strongly recommend this as you get to see them do the kind of work that Big Hollywood just doesn’t usually ever hire them for, something very personal to each and something that allows them the kind of freedom in expression that we as artists always dream of. Even if you’re not a huge fan it’s a beautiful little indie to watch on a cold rainy morning to warm the heart. Brilliant film.
The title ‘Super Dark Times’ serves as a warning of sorts for the film to follow. It should be wisely taken into consideration, as this is probably the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year. In contrast, it’s also one of the most beautifully made. Bring a comfort blanket or cuddle buddy though, because these aren’t only Dark Times, they’re bleak, grim and tough to absorb without feeling grossly affected after. I like it when films explore themes of both violence and adolescence bourgeoning side by side in small town youth, everyone from Stephen King to David Lynch have been fascinated by these ideas. Violence is an unavoidable step in the learning curve for youngsters and a key element in any individual’s coming of age, no matter what we tell ourselves. First time director Kevin Philips pads those themes well by telling his story in the most realistic, blunt fashion he can, casting kids that genuinely look to be high school age, using sound design and cinematography to create a frighteningly immersive atmosphere and not neutering the stark violence in off-screen gimmicks to soften the blow of a blood-chilling story. Two normal enough high school boys (Charlie Tahan and Owen Campbell, both superbly good) are set on different yet equally dark paths following a brutal accident that scars them both, awakens a dark passenger in one and lays a blanket of dread over their small upstate New York town. That’s all I’ll say in terms of plot, it’s a scary guessing game of dangerous encounters, adolescent discoveries and tragic violence that unfurls like a jet black velvet carpet of doom. Metaphors as colourful as that are just me trying to abstractly impart to you how affecting the visual and auditory mood-scape are, but you’d be better off just watching the thing for yourself. Philips leaves certain areas of the narrative *just* vague enough until one gets the gnawing notion that what is presented to us might not be the full story, a tactic which instills the aftertaste of unease beyond the film’s bloody conclusion. Speaking of conclusions, this has to have the most suspenseful climaxes I’ve seen in a while, a breathless, literally razor sharp confrontation that feels earned and urgent because of how invested I was in the characters up until then. The film opens with violence, proceeds through a violent tale and ends with it as well, but as is often the case with films that care to do so, there’s contrast, a certain vitality to the characters and a hope that lives in lingering shots of a dying sunrise or a girlfriend (Elizabeth Cappuccino) gently comforting one of the protagonists. I read another review that called this ‘a simple story, well told’, which I partly agree with. It goes without saying it’s well told, but there’s a complexity to it, an intuitive force guiding the proceedings that one can feel like an undercurrent, and the moods it stirs are anything but simple. One of the best films this year.