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‘Flipside,’ ‘Dead Don’t Hurt’ better than ‘Ezra’ — Play It Again, Tim

Viggo Mortensen as Holger Olsen in “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” (Marcel Zyskind/The Shout Factory)
Written by Tim Miller

Christopher Wilcha’s documentary “Flipside” (92 minutes, in theaters) is about time. What we do with it. What we leave undone.

Like life, the film is a hodgepodge of overlapping storylines. But Wilcha pulls them all together to create something miraculous, a powerful personal triumph.

Wilcha tells the stories of many people, including himself. A Gen Xer born in the early ’70s, he depicts his lifelong struggle between his desire to maintain his artistic integrity and his need to make a living. This is reflected early on by his decision, once out of college, to take a marketing job at Columbia House, the mail-order music club. Wilcha soon decides to make a documentary about the experience; the result is “The Target Shoots First,” which is well-received and puts him on the track of a career as a filmmaker.

Christopher Wilcha stands in front of his former place of employment in “Flipside.” (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Christopher Wilcha stands in front of his former place of employment in “Flipside.” (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Meanwhile, life goes on, Wilcha gets married and has kids, and has bills to pay. He occasionally starts documentaries that are never completed (leading to what he calls “a library of abandoned projects”); he earns a living by directing commercials. At some point he realizes, to his dismay, that his identity has changed. Rather than a documentarian making commercials to make ends meet, he has become an advertising film director. He has sold out.

Ah, but those abandoned projects. Wilcha returns to them, like pulling out old souvenirs from a childhood-home closet (which he also does in the film), and weaves them into his personal story. These unfinished documentaries bring Wilcha into contact with comedy writer-director-producer Judd Apatow (an executive producer of “Flipside”), TV writer-creator David Milch (“Hill Street Blues,” “Deadwood”), jazz photographer Herman Leonard (shown as he’s nearing death at age 87), cult TV comedian Uncle Floyd and NPR personality Ira Glass (“This American Life”), all compelling characters with stories of their own.

Wilcha also returns to the funky suburban New Jersey record store, Flipside, where he worked as a teenager when it was, as he puts it, “a clubhouse for misfits and fellow obsessives.” He reunites with the longtime owner, Dan, and resolves to finish the documentary he planned years earlier in order to save the now-failing business.

As Wilcha jumps back and forth between all of these people and stories, “Flipside” comes across as scattershot. But the segments blend into something profound, as they deal with life’s choices, the passage of time, finding meaning – all exemplified by the lives of Wilcha’s subjects, including himself. One of the film’s messages: It’s never too late. That is, until it is.

This is an extraordinary film, perhaps the best I’ve seen so far this year. It’s worth seeking out. **** (out of four)

‘Dead’ transcends genre

Viggo Mortensen as Holger Olsen in “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” (Marcel Zyskind/The Shout Factory)

Viggo Mortensen as Holger Olsen in “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” (Marcel Zyskind/The Shout Factory)

The Dead Don’t Hurt” (R, 129 minutes, in theaters), written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, defies expectations.

It’s a Western, and it’s populated by characters typical of the genre: the silent hero, the virtuous love interest, the corrupt mayor, the villainous “boss” running the town and his trigger-happy son. They’re played here, respectively, by Mortensen, Vicky Krieps, Danny Huston, Garret Dillahunt and Solly McLeod.

The film focuses on the relationship between Danish immigrant Holger Olsen (Mortensen) and French Canadian Vivienne Le Coudy (Krieps) as they start life together in a rustic homestead. Olsen leaves to fight in the Civil War, Vivienne is brutalized by bully Weston Jeffries (McLeod) while he’s away, and it all leads to a climactic showdown.

No big surprises there. But, in the spirit of revisionist filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Quentin Tarantino, Mortensen has taken Western movie tropes and turned them on their heads. Mortensen’s approach, though, is more restrained than the others (with the possible exception of Altman; see “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” – no, really, see it).

Vicky Krieps as Vivienne Le Coudy in “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” (Marcel Zyskind/The Shout Factory)

Vicky Krieps as Vivienne Le Coudy in “The Dead Don’t Hurt.” (Marcel Zyskind/The Shout Factory)

“The Dead Don’t Hurt” (you’d think it might be the title of a spoof; it isn’t) is at its best with the little touches: Olsen and Vivienne holding hands while riding on horseback, a barkeep reading a book when not pouring drinks, Olsen keeping a journal, Olsen and his son huddled together by a campfire and howling like wolves. There also are welcome twists tied to themes related to the arbitrariness of life (a character’s cause of death) or the pointlessness of revenge (the showdown).

The whole cast is outstanding, but Krieps (“Phantom Thread”) stands out with her nuanced performance as a strong woman trying to hold her own in an unmerciful world dominated by men.

Despite this setting, though, Mortensen is able, with his sensitive treatment of the ever-evolving relationship between Vivienne and Olsen, to find beauty amid the violence. ***½

Good intentions, but …

Ezra” (R, 100 minutes, in theaters) is the kind of movie you especially want to succeed. It’s about parents desperately trying to come to terms with their son having autism, and it wears its heart on its sleeve.

If only it weren’t so heavy handed.

 “Ezra” stars, from left, Robert De Niro, Bobby Cannavale and William Fitzgerald. (Bleecker Street)

“Ezra” stars, from left, Robert De Niro, Bobby Cannavale and William Fitzgerald. (Bleecker Street)

Hoboken, New Jersey, standup comic Max Brandel (Bobby Cannavale) and his estranged wife, Jenna (Rose Byrne), have an 11-year-old autistic son, Ezra (William Fitzgerald). When Ezra creates a disturbance in class, school officials determine that he should go to a school for students with special needs. When Ezra later runs out of Jenna’s home onto a street and is hit by a cab, a doctor prescribes a drug to help with his behavior.

While Jenna reluctantly tries to work with the authorities, hothead Max explodes, attacks the doctor, is arrested and jailed, and is issued a restraining order keeping him from seeing Ezra. Not one to learn from his mistakes, Max then kidnaps Ezra and heads off on a cross-country trip whose final destination is Los Angeles. Why L.A.? Just by coincidence, while he’s on the lam with Ezra, Max finds out from his agent (Whoopi Goldberg) that he’s just earned a gig on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” During the trip, Max stops off to visit one friend (Rainn Wilson), then another (Vera Farmiga).

Back in Hoboken, Jenna and Max’s chef-turned-hotel-doorman father, Stan (Robert De Niro), who could use some anger-management therapy himself, decide to join forces (despite not liking each other). They hop in a car to track down Max and Ezra before the cops find them.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, who also plays Jenna’s new boyfriend, the film was written by Tony Spiridakis (“Queens Logic”), who reportedly based his script on his own experiences as the father of an autistic son.

Parents in a similar situation might find that “Ezra” rings true in terms of the challenges they might face or emotions they might feel. Also, Byrne is quite convincing as the distraught mom. But, on the whole, the film seems forced, over the top, especially in its painfully contrived grand finale. A little subtlety could have helped. **½

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and a Tomatometer-approved critic. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.


About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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