Monday, January 17, 2011

What A Difference A Death Makes

Whenever a loved one dies, their death often raises uncomfortable questions.
  • Was there unfinished business between us?
  • Did we really know each other as well as we thought we did?
  • Did the decedent owe us money? 
  • Did the decedent mention us in his will?
  • Will any nasty secrets surface following his death?
Nowhere is this phenomenon more tortuous than in families whose baseline has been a failure to communicate. Over the years, little white lies produce chasms of silence that serve to keep people from prying too closely. Eventually, some folks build such thick walls of emotional armor around themselves that a family tragedy can leave them surprisingly numb.

For some, there is the fear that a long-cherished and carefully maintained lie will be exposed. For others, a new pack of lies must be devised to keep the illusion/delusion of wellness afloat. It's a dark and dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

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Considering that The Architect is the first feature-length film to be written and directed by Ina Weisse, this is obviously a filmmaker to watch in the future. A small, intimate drama about despair, betrayal, and how people can suffocate in a toxic family environment, The Architect begins as Georg Winter (Josef Bierbichler) is receiving an award honoring him for his professional work. Soon, however, he receives a phone call telling him that his mother has died.

Although Georg's reaction to the news is surprisingly detached, his wife Eva (Hilde Van Mieghem) insists that their upscale family do the right thing, leave their comfortable home in the city, and travel to the Bavarian countryside to pay their respects. Joining them are their spoiled daughter Reh (Sandra Huller), an aspiring violinist who is obsessing about her audition for admission to a prestigious music conservatory, and their son Jan (Matthias Schweighofer), who doesn't seem to be good for much of anything.

Eva (Hilde Van Mieghem) and George Winter (Josef Bierbichler )

Upon their arrival in the village, the Winters are greeted by Hannah (Sophie Rois), a close friend of Georg's mother who discovered the dead woman's body. Hannah's son, Alex (Lucas Zolgar) is a handsome young man approximately Jan's age who seems to know his way around the house in which Georg's mother lived.

On the family's first night in Georg's childhood home, the tension quickly builds. Although his children could care less, Georg is convinced that it would be a good idea for them to fix up his mother's home so they can either use it for themselves or as a rental property. Resenting Georg's emotional coldness, Eva's sexual frustration with her husband makes her increasingly aggressive. She wastes no time letting everyone know that she considers the locals to be totally unsophisticated fools.

Hannah (Sophie Rois) and her son Alex (Lucas Zolgar )

When the town's pastor informs the family that Georg's mother left the house to Alex, Eva quickly realizes that Alex is Hannah and Georg's son. Totally disgusted with her father, Reh heads off into the snowy mountains hoping to die.

A man of many secrets, Georg has not informed Eva that his health is failing. When he tries to engineer another sexual rendezvous with Hannah for old time's sake, events quickly conspire against them:
  • The village gets cut off from the main road by an avalanche. 
  • Eva gets drunk and tries to get friendly with Alex. 
  • Reh disappears.
  • Jan goes off into the snowy darkness and, although he finds his sister's near-frozen body and manages to bring Reh back to safety, not even Eva's fury at her husband can make Reh feel better.
As the Winter family attempts to leave town, Georg stops the car by the roadside and, in a futile response to all the pressures on him, tries to run away. To his family's bewilderment, he wanders off across a snowy field until he falls down in exhaustion. Not knowing what else to do -- and thoroughly disgusted with her husband's lies and selfishness -- Eva gets her children back into the car and abandons Georg, driving back to the city in stony silence. As the filmmaker explains:
"The Architect is about the collapse of a seemingly intact family. Their relationships are in a crisis, which is why all communication fails. Georg believes he can control the powers, which end up controlling him. Going back to his roots shows him that he cannot escape from himself (or others). He could now have the chance to come to terms with his past and acknowledge it, but he’s too much of a coward to succeed, so in the end he’s guilty again -- maybe because of a fear of loss and even self-loss. Ultimately, he breaks down.
We all have families, and therefore we’ve all experienced humiliations that are passed on from one generation to the next. Everything to do with suppression and denial ultimately becomes a question of power and powerlessness. The children in the family get to sense it directly. They act in silence. Georg's wife is speechless, even though she talks incessantly. The more intense the conflict, the more speechless they become."
The Architect is helped immensely by the musical score composed by Annette Focks and Carl-Friederich Koschnick's beautiful cinematography. Rest assured, there's plenty of resentment to go around. Here's the trailer:

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Coming up at the 13th San Francisco Independent Film Festival is an indie gem of such honesty, poignancy, and dry humor that I'm surprised it has spent so much time on the festival circuit without having already found a distributor. Written, directed, and beautifully realized by Michael J. Weithorn, A Little Help is the kind of film one could easily imagine sweeping the Independent Spirit Awards.

Set in the upscale suburbs of Long Island, the film stars Jenna Fischer as Laura Pehlke, a young mother and dental hygienist whose life is not going too well.  At work, she must deal with an extremely irritating parrot whose shrill squawks and choice vocabulary could cause anyone to jab a dental probe through someone's cheek.

A year after the attack on the World Trade Center, Laura's husband (Chris O'Donnell) seems to be working late on far too many nights in a down real estate market. Her 12-year-old son, Dennis (Daniel Yelsky), is a typical teenager: lonely, moody, a young boy who wishes he could spend more time with his father and who has a wealth of contempt for his lying mother.

Oh, and Laura drinks a little. Maybe she drinks a lot. But with relatives like hers, who wouldn't?
  • Laura's older sister, Kathy (Brooke Helms) is the control freak from hell. Determined to ruin her children's happiness, stifle their dreams, and emasculate her husband, Kathy has the sensitivity of Godzilla and plays the wounded martyr card as deftly as Sarah Palin.
  • Helping Kathy along is her mother, Joan (Lesley Ann Warren), an upscale suburban matron with a porcelain facade that covers a heart of stone. 
  • Laura's father (Ron Leibman) can't stop reliving his memories of being a sports reporter who got a few good scoops. 
  • Laura's brother-in-law, Paul (Rob Benedict), really married Kathy so he could find a way to always be near Laura. Paul, who works at a local radio station for an asshole DJ named "Big Bad Dan" (Sam McMurray) has always encouraged his son's participation in a garage band.

One night, while Laura is attempting to give her husband a conciliatory blow job, Bob suddenly dies as the result of an arrhythmia. Kathy goes into full commando mode, Joan insists on sending Dennis to a private school, and Laura reaches for yet another beer. Embarrassed that his father died of something as uncool as an arrhythmia, Dennis comes up with a great lie that gets him lots of acceptance from his new schoolmates: He claims that his father died in the attack on 9/11. 

Meanwhile, Kathy is trying to get her sister to let attorney Mel Kaminsky (Kim Coates) sue Bob's doctor for malpractice, one of Laura's patients is trying to hit on her, and the only sympathetic soul is her brother-in-law, who has always had the hots for her.

The cast is uniformly excellent (including the parrot) and there are nice cameos from Aida Turturro, Arden Muyrin, and 1950s rock star "Dion" DiMucci. But it is really Michael J. Weithorn's sensitivity that sculpts A Little Help into such an appealing story without ever letting it lapse into slapstick or mawkishness. This is an intelligently conceived, beautifully crafted, and emotionally fulfilling piece of work that you won't want to miss. Here's the trailer:

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