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DIVORCE CORP. Review: Money Changes Everything

Divorce Corp PosterLike many other things today, divorce has lost a lot of its societal impact, a lot of its shock value.  It wasn’t that long ago – certainly within the lifetimes of people alive now – that divorce was considered shameful and scandalous.  Today, divorce is commonly a headline or a punchline (or both); sightings of parents making kid-swaps in convenience store parking lots are routine; and just about anyone can spout the “50% statistic” about divorce.  People also know that divorce can be messy and expensive.  But a lot of people don’t know just how messy or how expensive it can be, and who – or what – just might be to blame for the muck and the money.  Director Joseph Sorge‘s Divorce Corp. attempts to make those things known.

The documentary opens with a little statistical rope-a-dope.  The first statement to appear onscreen is the obvious one: 50% of US marriages end in divorce.  It’s the next statement that goes for the knockout: Divorce is more than a 50 billion dollar a year industry.  That’s “billion.”  With a B.

Through the traditional combination of data-fueled graphs and animation, interviews with a wide variety of people, and a smoothly delivered narrative (courtesy of narrator Dr. Drew Pinsky), the documentary attempts to present the case that because the divorce industry – a euphemism for the US Family Court system – has structured itself in such a way that it acts beyond and above the law, it has become corrupt and favors no one but itself.  “Itself” is defined as the judges, lawyers, and other key players who make staggering sums of money.

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Divorce Corp. is a curious exercise in documentarian extremes.

To the positive extreme, the film uses a blend of data, cases, and interviews (with judges, lawyers, spouses, ex-spouses, and others) – and does so early and often – to expose the flawed construct of the US Family Court system, and does so by pointing out some things that maybe I should have already known.  For example, I never knew Family Court is a “Court of Equity,” not a “Court of Law.”  As such, no one has the right to an attorney in Family Court.  (The film makes a big deal of this, going so far as to state this denies people their constitutional rights to legal representation.  That’s a debate for another platform.)

Also interesting is how the film lays out the money trail to highlight that it isn’t just the lawyers that get rich.  Judges also get rich through various (legal) means, as do other players, like parenting evaluators (in custody cases) and court-appointed mediators.  There is then an overarching lather-rinse-repeat rhythm to the process, as lawyers file mountains of paperwork, which begets the filing of additional paperwork mountains by other lawyers, which motivates the judge to take additional action that creates the need for more paperwork, all of which goes on and on – sometimes for years and often times longer than the marriage itself – and adds up to stacks of cash.  (According to one statistic cited in the film, the average divorce costs $50,000 from start to finish.)

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To the negative extreme, though, the film goes to great lengths to find the ugliest “actual” stories to tell.  These are tales not just of greedy lawyers (one attorney boasts an hourly rate of $950), but of ruthless judges, unfit evaluators, and a system that thrives on the most corrupt strain of back-room quid pro quo.  In one tale, a judge strips custody of a woman’s children because she goes to the media.  In another, a father is arrested because he refuses to remove a blog that is critical of a judge.  And in the worst tale, a parenting evaluator who attempts to blackmail a mother is later found to be involved in or associated with behavior that (the film implies) belies the responsibility his formal role requires him to take.

Presenting these stories, and more like them, is the film’s great misstep.  Any good will gained in the early stages of the film (no matter how overzealously some of the “facts” are presented) is lost by the implications that the excessive (and excessively lurid) tales make.  Their cumulative narrative indirectly suggests that because the system is bad, and these particular people from within the system are bad, then surely all people within the system are bad.  As this message is pounded home, the film shifts from being a message movie to having an agenda.

I don’t know anyone in the Family Court system, but surely some of them are good guys.

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Divorce Corp. is at its best when it efforts to present information that exposes the considerable flaws in the US Family Court system.  Once it strays from that, though, it becomes nothing more than a series of salacious segments loosely attached to the social cause the first half of the film championed so well.




THE BOOK OF LIFE Review: Blank Pages

October 18, 2014 2 comments

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When a film is heavily promoted with “From Producer Guillermo del Toro,” certain cinematic expectations are automatically set.  While the statement doesn’t explicitly mean the viewer will get a del Toro film, it certainly implies something akin to, “If you like the films of del Toro, you’ll love this film.”  The statement also suggests del Toro may have had creative influence on the film (like producers have never done THAT before), thus improving the film and adding greater value to it.  But while associating del Toro with a film gives the film more cinematic heft out of the gate, it also increases the expectation that del Toro’s creative influence has made the film a better product.  It’s an expectation that the animated film The Book of Life struggles to live up to.

La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Remembered, the place where souls live happily in eternity so long as their loved ones remember them.  Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) is the spiritual ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, the place where souls suffer in obscurity, having long been forgotten by their loved ones.  On the annual festival known as the Day of the Dead, the pair spots a trio of children: Maria and the two boys who battle for her affection, Manolo and Joaquin.  Xibalba, tired of ruling his land, bets La Muerta that in the future, Joaquin will win Maria’s heart; La Muerta takes Manolo.  The winner rules the Land of the Remembered.

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Fast-forward to adulthood and the trio are reunited, having gone their own ways to live their lives.  Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) has returned home from school; Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) is on the verge of becoming a great bullfighter; and Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) is a war hero.  But things are not quite as they seem.  While Manolo has been trained by his father to be a great bullfighter, he’d much rather be a musician.  As for Joaquin, he seeks revenge against the bandit Chakal, who killed his father, but he does so wearing a medal that was sneakily given to him by Xibalba (in disguise) – a medal that prevents any harm from coming to him.

When the contest looks like it’s going La Muerta’s way, Xibabla intervenes with trickery that keeps Maria on earth but sends Manolo to the Land of the Remembered, where the young man is reunited with his ancestors but separated from his love.

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The Book of Life can best be summarized as a film of two extremes.  On one end of the spectrum is the film’s gorgeous animation.

The story is actually told to a group of children on a class trip by a museum guide (voiced by Christina Applegate), who uses wooden figurines as props.  Director Jorge R. Gutierrez maximizes the marionette-like construct of the figures and presents his characters with the same characteristics, from skin texture to body joints to overall body movement, all accented by sharp lines.  However, Gutierrez doesn’t sacrifice emotion, allowing his animated wooden dolls to have a full range of facial expressions.  All of these characteristics hold true once the action moves to the Land of the Remembered, where everyone is a skeleton of their former self.

It’s also in that afterlife realm that the already vibrant and rich animation finds a higher gear and simply dazzles, with a jaw-dropping reveal of the Land of the Remembered that is reminiscent of the wow-factor of the ballroom scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  The attention to detail is staggering.

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Gutierrez’s direction is excellent.  He has a wonderful sense of scope, but it’s his use of character motion (and slow-motion) that is inspired, particularly in the bullfighting scenes and in a labyrinth scene that is one for the animation books.  His camera movement is fluid and he keeps the viewer constantly engaged.  It’s unfortunate he is saddled with the other end of the film’s spectrum – a dreadful screenplay he-co-wrote with Douglas Langdale.

Just as the film is soaked in glorious visual details, so to is it drowning in endless clichés.  The male leads are given tired paternal shadows to live in (one wants to break away from the family tradition his father expects him to follow while the other wants to avenge his father’s death).  There is never a sense of true peril, either in the Land of the Remembered or in the circumstances surrounding Joaquin’s magic medal.  And there are constant reminders of things found in Disney movies, including The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Lion King, and (worst of all, in the Ice Cube-voiced Genie-like character, Candle Maker) Aladdin.  In all of these cases, Disney did it better.

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The film’s ending is as standard a third act as you can get from a kid’s movie.

Also disappointing is the film’s music.  While the score and the original songs are pleasant, in a very non-Disney like move there is no real memorable number.  A hit record isn’t mandatory with an animated film (the Toy Story franchise has done just fine without one), but this animated film sets up to have one, particularly with its great Mexican flair.  Also in the film are famous pop songs reimagined with a Latin flavor – “I Will Wait” from Mumford and Sons, “Just a Friend” from Biz Markie, and Radiohead’s “Creep” are the big three – but only bits of those play in the film, which make them feel awkwardly inserted.

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This is the first film to come from Reel FX Animation Studios, and as visuals go, they have come to play.  But if there is anything we’ve learned while living in the Pixar Era, it’s that a film’s story is equally as important as its animation.  It takes more than fancy imagery (and a famous person’s name on the poster) to make a quality animated film in 2014.  Despite its gorgeous visuals and del Toro’s gravitas, The Book of Life is a disappointment.


THE DOOR Review: Don’t Knock It

Door PosterIn addition to Twitter being my primary source for news, reviews, trailers, posters, and everything else film-related, the social media platform is a great place to bear witness to the lifecycle of an independent film – from conception to fundraising to promotion to release to reviews.  Via Twitter, I have been exposed to independent films I would never have known about otherwise.  One such independent film – and just in time for Halloween – is the latest entry in the horror genre.  I found this film late in its creative lifecycle – post-production – but it was a find nonetheless, and a pretty good one.  From writer/director Patrick McBrearty comes The Door.

Twenty-something Owen (Sam Kantor) has been unemployed for months and is desperate for work.  On his way home after breakfast with his friend Matt (Matt O’Connor), he has a chance encounter with a mugging-in-progress.  The two muggers flee, and as a show of gratitude, the mysterious would-be victim (Andy Wong) offers Owen a job that starts that very night.

The job?  Put on a security guard uniform, sit at a desk in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, and make sure the door on the other side of the room never opens.  The shift is 12 hours per night, five nights per week.  It pays $500.  Each night.

The seemingly easy money comes with a price, though.  When Owen’s friends crash his gig on the first night, that door winds up being opened, setting forth a series of events that will cost Owen far more than just his job.

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The strongest takeaway after watching The Door is that Patrick McBrearty has some real skills when it comes to being a horror filmmaker.

First, he makes quick work of establishing Owen’s predicament and getting the character into position for peril to occur (complete with some interesting rules about that door).  He also makes quick work of introducing Owen’s friends – his girlfriend Abby (Winny Clarke); Matt’s girlfriend Jess (Alys Crocker); and lesbian couple Olivia (Liv Collins) and Mia (Jessie Yang) – and placing them in harm’s way.  This allows more time for more the evil to occur.

McBrearty also has a very smooth directorial style and storytelling flow.  The pace is brisk and the camerawork and shot selections are deft, a combination that keeps the viewer quite engaged.  The lean running time of 83 minutes contributes to the movement of events as well.

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McBrearty also provides an excellent technical experience.  There are times independent films fumble their audio and video quality.  Not here.  Both the image and sound are top-notch and it’s a good thing.  Cinematographer Joshua Fraiman brings some serious game in setting the mood via the film’s shadowy look and the repetitive contrasts of red and green lighting.  (That said, there are some scenes that are so dark, the action taking place in them is unrecognizable.)  The sound team’s work is excellent too, as is the score from Steph Copeland.

Unfortunately, for all of the good that the film’s execution offers – and that execution includes fine performances from most of the cast – the film fails to do the one thing a horror film is fundamentally obligated to do: scare.

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Despite the film’s great moody atmosphere and McBrearty’s ability to sustain a level of tension throughout the better part of the picture (no mean feat), very little happens to deliver an actual scare.  Tension builds and builds and then … there’s no release.  It’s quite frustrating.  For the better part of the film, there’s a wait for something to happen and just when it feels like it might, it doesn’t.  Yes, there are a couple of surprise moments, but they are so rare, they feel like they support the theory that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

This problem might be a byproduct of McBrearty’s indecision (as the film’s screenwriter) to decide just what kind of horror story he is telling.  The notion that Owen’s boss hires him to keep a door closed (combined with other details I won’t divulge here) suggest a humans-terrorizing-humans-for-sport type of horror film.  But other events occur (including mysterious and unexplained voices) that suggest something supernatural is at play.  Both can coexist, but even if that is the case here, it is not made clear.

The film’s conclusion, despite feeling rushed, is the delicious joy of the story.  It is both unexpected and wholly gratifying.

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There is enough good in The Door to recommend it for a late-night watch.  (Kill all the lights and, more importantly, try to use headphones to get the most out of the terrific sound.)  There is also enough good in this film to look forward to McBrearty’s next effort, whatever that might be.





(Note: I was supplied a complimentary iTunes copy of this film for review purposes.)