Is “Captain Fantastic” Fantastic?

The film Captain Fantastic (2016) is much better than one might expect.  Although a short description of the film sounds like a family television series, the movie rises above expectations so that the sum of its parts make it one of the more enjoyable movies of the summer.

Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben, an idealistic father trying to raise his six children away from society in the wilds of Washington state.  As the movie opens, we learn that Ben’s wife is away being treated in a hospital.

Ben is serious about the education of his children, teaching them such activities as defending themselves with knives and rock climbing.  But he equally teaches them about politics, philosophy, and literature.  For example, the anti-capitalist family celebrates Noam Chomsky‘s birthday instead of Christmas.

As the movie progresses, word about Ben’s wife leads him and the children to go on the road. Some of the more humorous moments involve the family clashing with modern society.  Ben also clashes with family members, in particular with his father-in-law Jack, played by Frank Langella.

From a description, so much of the movie seems predictable.  But the movie works for several reasons.  First, the actors are outstanding.  Mortensen, of course, dominates the film.  But the actors playing the children do an excellent job of giving personality to the roles.  Actors Samantha Isler and George MacKay, for example, show that they have promising careers ahead of them.

Another reason the movie works is that the characters are three-dimensional.  Producers of movies like this one are often tempted to make the father character perfect, but Ben is far from perfect, just as Langella’s character is not all bad. 

Captain Fantastic does not give a one-sided perspective.  Variety even argues that the film is both left-wing and right-wing.

I will not say more about the movie because it is better enjoyed without knowing too much about it.  It is not a big-budget summer blockbuster, but it is an enjoyable movie that may be under the radar.  Is Captain Fantastic fantastic?  I will have to think more about the question, but the movie certainly does restore your faith in small summer movies.

Rotten Tomatoes gives Captain Fantastic a 78% critics score and an 85% audience score.

What did you think of Captain Fantastic?  Leave your two cents in the comments.

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  • Snow Angels (Missed Movies)
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    Runaway Train (Missed Movies)

    If you have not seen the 1985 movie Runaway Train, it will take you back to the time when action movies were about more than explosions. Even though there is plenty of action this film, there also is a lot more.

    Runaway Train features one of Jon Voight’s greatest performances.  And it also has a meaningful story that has something to say about life and freedom.

    The movie opens in an Alaska prison, where Voight plays an inmate.  The inmate, Manny, is despised by the prison’s warden. Another prisoner named Buck — who is played by a young Eric Roberts idolizes Manny.

    When Manny makes a move to escape, Buck goes with him. Not long after getting out of prison, the two end up on a train, which as you may guess from the movie’s title, becomes a runaway train due to various circumstances.

    Although that is the basic plot, there is a lot more going on in the story.  Much of the best part of the movie is the interactions between the characters and what the story has to say about life, freedom, and death.

    In many ways Runaway Train is an existential movie about choices we make, either dictated by luck or by our own choosing. If the movie had nothing else going for it, the movie is worth watching for the final haunting scene.

    Runaway Train
    also stars Rebecca De Mornay and was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. One may surmise that some of the depth of the film came from the original version of the screenplay that was written by the great director Akira Kurosawa.

    Kurosawa explored similar themes in his own movies, including in a much quieter way in the wonderful Ikuru (1952). The acting, especially by Voight, is also excellent, as both Voight and Roberts were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles.


    If you have never seen Runaway Train, you are in for a treat if you enjoy thoughtful movies. Although the movie features plenty of action, it does not have the myriad of explosions of modern movies.  This movie is really about something. Runaway Train is one of the great existential action films of all time.

    Other Reviews Because Why Should You Trust Me? On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has an 86% critics rating and a 77% audience rating. If you do not believe me about the movie, here are Robert Ebert, who loved the movie, and Gene Siskel, who did not, discussing Runaway Train.

    {Missed Movies is our continuing series on good films you might have missed because they have not received the recognition and attention they deserve.}

    What did you think of Runaway Train? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Is “Captain Fantastic” Fantastic?
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  • A Balance Between Culture and Fun: “In Bruges” (Missed Movies)
  • Snow Angels (Missed Movies)
  • It’s About Time to Watch “About Time” (Missed Movies)
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    Tommy Lee Jones and “The Homesman” (Missed Movies)

    The odds are pretty good that you might have missed even hearing about a movie last year directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones that also featured Hillary Swank, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Hailee Steinfeld, and several other stellar actors. But through the miracle of DVDs, you may now catch up on the odd but fascinating movie The Homesman (2014).

    The movie is based on a book by Glendon Swarthout, who wrote several books that have been made into movies, including Bless the Beasts and the Children and The Shootist. Although the actors and crew argue about whether or not The Homesman is a Western, the film is set in the 1850s of what was the West at the time, the Nebraska Territory (although much of it is filmed in northern New Mexico). And, like many Westerns, the film features beautiful images of the open landscape with wonderful cinematography (by Rodrigo Prieto).

    Much of The Homesman centers on Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), a resourceful, intelligent, and lonely woman living on the frontier. In several disturbing scenes, the movie shows us how harsh conditions and tragedies affect the mental health of three women who live near Cuddy. As a result of their deterioration, the townspeople select Cuddy to take the mentally ill women back to civilization. As she prepares for her journey, Cuddy encounters George Briggs, who through some odd circumstances she recruits as the “homesman” of the title, a term for someone who takes immigrants back home.

    Threads of mental illness, loneliness, and the harsh landscape run throughout the movie, which features haunting images throughout. Few movies present such scenes of oddness that touch on the fact that the Old West must have contained many disturbed characters, although we see flashes of it in somewhat odd movies like Missouri Breaks (1976) (with Marlon Brando in an odd portrayal of a character talking to his horse) and Dwight Yoakam’s interesting but messy South of Heaven, West of Hell (2000). Similarly, there is a standout strange scene in Dances With Wolves where Costner encounters a soldier driven crazy by his time on the frontier.

    Homesman is made up of many such images but ties them together in a fascinating story that seems real and honest. None of the characters are perfect and they all have their own demons and weaknesses. Because of that, the movie strays from the traditional Western format that focuses on heroes who save the day. The movie is not predictable, and while not perfect, you will not soon forget it. Tommy Lee Jones continues to show a unique directing eye as he did in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) and The Sunset Limited (2011).

    Conclusion? If you have a taste for an unpredictable honest raw movie about unusual but real characters, and if you enjoy beautiful shots of the desolate Western United States, you might enjoy The Homesman. While it is not a great classic, it is a memorable unusual film that generally received good reviews and is worth your time.

    {Missed Movies is our continuing series on good films you might have missed because they did not receive the recognition they deserved when released.}

    What did you think of Homesman? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    A Balance Between Culture and Fun: “In Bruges” (Missed Movies)

    I recently watched In Bruges (2008) for a second time to see if it still held up for me after liking the movie the first time I saw it. I enjoyed the film, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, even better the second time even though I still find it hard to categorize. Is it a black comedy? A drama? A thriller? A modern film noir? A love story? A travel adventure? Or is it, the way one character describes their visit to Bruges, a “balance between culture and fun”? Maybe it is a little bit of each.

    Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star as two hitmen who are sent by their boss, played by Ralph Fiennes, to Bruges, Belgium to wait for his further instructions. The two travelers do not know why they are in Bruges, and they wonder whether they are there to lay low after their last job or if they are going to be given an assignment in the city. Meanwhile the two men squabble as Gleeson’s character enjoys following their instructions to appear as tourists, while Farrell is miserable in what he sees as a boring town.

    The actors all give excellent performances. Farrell shows vulnerability and humor playing the young troubled character. Fiennes gives one of his scariest performances since Schindler’s List. Gleeson is excellent in a role where his character has to be completely believable for the film to work. Clémence Poésy and Jordan Prentice are excellent in important smaller roles. At the beginning, an American viewer might struggle a little to catch all the words due to the accents, but the movie is not hard to follow.

    When the assignment comes, the three men must struggle with their concepts of loyalty, friendship, and honor. But these heavy ideas — and some violent scenes and profane language — are tempered by humor and the beauty of the surrounding city. I will not spoil the movie by revealing the events, but if you enjoy dark humor, buddy movies, and beautiful scenery, you may find that In Bruges is a hidden gem.

    Some Other Reviews Because Why Should You Trust Me? Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a respectable 82% critics rating and an 85% audience rating. It does not surprise me that the critics and audience ratings are similar because it is an intelligent film that should appeal to many in both categories. Jason Zingale at Bullz-Eye.Com calls In Bruges “one of the most original films in years.” But Marjorie Baumgarten at the Austin Chronicle did not like the film so much, concluding that “the film’s light comedy and dark morality make for an unsettling mix.”

    {Missed Movies is our continuing series on good films you might have missed because they did not receive the recognition they deserved when released.}

    What did you think of In Bruges? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Snow Angels (Missed Movies)

    When one considers that much of the U.S. has snow on the ground for a significant part of the year, it is somewhat surprising that so few movies are placed in that setting. There are the Christmas movies.  But where are the movies set in the frigid and dreary months of January and February?

    Perhaps because I grew up in the snow and later lived part of my life in areas without snow, I especially enjoy a good snow movie. And there are some excellent movies set in the snow such as the sad The Sweet Hereafter (1997).  There’s also Paul Newman’s fine performance in Nobody’s Fool (1994).  Murder sagas also seem to work well in the snow, as shown by Fargo (1996) and Insomnia (2002).

    Snow Angels
    photo: Adam Colton (licensed for reuse)

    One of my favorite snow movies, though, is Snow Angels (2006).  The film is set in a 1970s small town in Pennsylvania.  The time of year is during the weeks when snow stays on the ground but it seems too cold for more snowflakes.

    In the opening scene of Snow Angels, a marching band practices as their director tries to inspire them.  The students suddenly hear gun shots in the distance. The screen goes dark and we jump to “weeks earlier.” So we know from the start that somehow at least one person is heading toward a tragedy.

    There are tragic turns in the movie, but I will not ruin the film. The movie focuses on two families. In one, Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell) are separated spouses struggling with the failure of their marriage while trying to take care of their young daughter.

    Annie works with and used to babysit for teenager Arthur (Michael Angaro).  And the other family focus is Arthur’s family. While Arthur is developing a relationship with a new girl at school, his parents are separating.

    The acting in Snow Angels is superb and believable. Sam Rockwell may not immediately come to your mind when listing the top actors today, but he continues to make his every movie worth watching. Here, as the troubled Glenn, he is outstanding.  He makes viewers sympathize with someone they probably would not want to be around in real life.

    I had seen Snow Angels several years ago.  So I watched it again before writing this entry. I enjoyed the movie the second time too, although it may not be a movie you will want to watch repeatedly.  Although there is a great deal of sadness in the movie, one may also find a little hope toward the end.

    The movie is based on the book Snow Angels by Stewart O’Nan. Apparently the book included someone making a literal snow angel, while the movie does not. Still, the title suits the movie in a number of ways.  “Snow Angels” may refer to real angels or to the cold emotions and isolation faced by many of the characters.

    If you are looking for a light comedy or uplifting story for this weekend, you should look elsewhere. But if you are in the mood for an intense drama that keeps you enthralled, you may like Snow Angels.

    The trailer gives away too much of the movie.  So, you are better off not seeing the trailer before seeing the movie. But if you want to know more before deciding whether to watch the film, the trailer for Snow Angels is here.

    “Snow Angel” the Song

    Instead of the trailer I will introduce you to an excellent band from Ohio called Over the Rhine.  The band consists of the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist.

    Below is a fan recording of their live performance of their beautiful song, “Snow Angel.” The song is not related to the movie of the similar name. The singular “Snow Angel” is off their album of the plural Snow Angels (2008).

    In the song, the singer tells of saying goodbye to her “one and only love” who goes off to war (“The rumors of a distant war / Called my true love’s name”). But the man is killed during the war, leaving the singer heartbroken (“Snow angel, snow angel / Someday I’m gonna fly / This cold and broken heart of mine / Will one day wave goodbye”).

    Like the movie Snow Angels, the song “Snow Angel” captures something about the pain and loneliness of winter.  It also reminds us to enjoy our days of warmer weather.

    Movies You Might Have Missed is a Chimesfreedom series to inform our readers about good movies that did not receive the attention they deserved.

    If you saw
    Snow Angels, what did you think? Any thoughts on the very last scene? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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