Friday, July 22, 2016

Deep, rich, thoughtful and vastly entertaining: Matt Ross' captivating CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

Along with Anne Fontaine's The Innocents, the new film -- CAPTAIN FANTASTIC -- from actor/writer/director Matt Ross -- looks to be a shoo-in for one of 2016's best movies. Mr. Ross graced us back in 2012 with the lovely little indie 28 Hotel Rooms, so his newest work does not come out of nowhere, as they say. But as charming and real and special was the "Hotel Rooms" debut, his new film seems light years beyond it.

This is one of those big-themed movies that manages to deliver the goods on almost every front: ideas, dialog, performances -- they're all first-rate. If Mr. Ross' visual sense as a filmmaker still has a way to go, that's just fine: TrustMovies will take intelligent ideas over flashy artistry any day. Not that Ross (shown at left) doesn't deliver some of the latter, as well. Take his opening moments, for example. It's been a long while since any filmmaker startled an audience this much by tossing us in media res quite so drastically. At the critics' screening I attended the fellow to my left screamed aloud, as though there was clearly something wrong here and that the theater had not begun the film properly. (This is not unheard of: I've already been to one press screening down here in Florida where we had visuals and no sound, and another in which we had sound but no visuals. And once, at a public screening yet, the film remained noticeably out of focus for its entire running time.)

But, no. It was soon clear that Ross had us right where he wanted us. And then the film's title appeared on the screen, and we knew were exactly where we should be in this unusual work. That initial scene, taking place in the middle of what looks like a forest in the Pacific Northwest, involves a father (Viggo Mortensen, shown above, right, and below, center) and his six children faring for themselves -- and I mean really roughing it -- in terms of everything from housing to hunting for food and insuring clean and accessible water.

This is no summer camping trip. The family has been in this situation for some years, except that now, its mom is in the hospital, and dad has to do all the parenting, such as it is. Yet these are highly skilled children. It almost seems as if the family is preparing for some sort of post-apocalyptic living. But, no. Dad and Mom had simply given up on Capitalism and its increasingly meagre results and so have been teaching their kids to live "off the grid."

An event soon occurs that forces the family to rejoin the "normal" world, at least partially and for a time, and it is from there that Ross' film leaps off into a wonderful, problemed, difficult, disturbing, rich and mysterious look at what "good parenting" might mean in our ever more trying times.

To his credit as writer and director, the filmmaker does not turn anyone here into an outright hero or villain. Even grandpa (another very good turn by Frank Langella, above, left), who initially seems like an ornery creep, turns out to be more nuanced and understandable that we might have imagined. (The wonderful Ann Dowd is grandma.) Also in the cast are the always-fine Kathryn Hahn and Steve Zahn, who play our hero's sister and brother-in-law.

Sure, we're meant to be on Dad's side in all this (even though it is soon apparent that his choices for his kids may not always be the right ones), and Mortensen does his usual terrific job in a role that calls for him to go too far and then have to face the consequences of his "journey." This actor -- whose career has encompassed everything from little-seen indies (The Reflecting Skin) to little-known foreign head-scratchers (Gospel According the Harry) to ever-popular art-mainstream movies (A Walk on the Moon) to international blockbusters (that Lord of the Rings trilogy) -- is always good. You can count of him for reliability, reality, depth, versatility, and of course that gorgeous face and breath-taking body (all of which we view here, including one sustained full-frontal shot). The actor even got an Oscar nod back in 2008 for Eastern Promises; maybe 2016 will be his year to win.

What makes the movie work especially well are the excellent performances given by the six children on view, all of whom, as characters, have been home-schooled, and damned well, by their parents. The kids include a swell mix that ranges from the oldest boy, now of college age -- a great job by that terrific Britisher George MacKay (above, left) -- to one of the young girls (Shree Crooks, at right, below), who can quote you our Constitution and know exactly what she's talking about, as well as understanding the importance of a fellow like Noam Chomsky.

One of the film's loveliest scenes involves a mother and daughter (Erin Moriarty and Missi Pyle, below, respectively, left and right) that the family meets on the road and who discover the joys and oddities of the McKay character's personality.

The kids are amazing (both their characters and their performances). They can scale the side of sheer cliff and hunt their own prey, as well as discuss the likes of Nabokov's Lolita. While they've been given a fine education in so many ways, they have not, it soon becomes clear, been socialized enough to mix in properly with the world as we know it.

How all this resolves (and it does not, thankfully, do so in any pre-formatted fashion) is where Mr Ross goes with his movie, which is part road trip, part coming-of-age tale, and part coming-to-terms with compromise while caring for one's children. The trip is a stunning one. You may disagree with some of the characters and their choices now and again, but you will not easily -- nor should you -- forget their journey.

Captain Fantastic, from Bleecker Street and running just under two hours, after opening in New York, and L.A. two weeks back, opens today, Friday, July 22, here in South Florida at the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton and Cobb's Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16 in Palm Beach Gardens. This amazing movie is now playing all across the country, and you can click here to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. There'll likely be one near you.

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