Three Identical Strangers

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Directed by: Tim Wardle

Significant spoilers follow.

Documentarian Tim Wardle stunned the Sundance crowd earlier this year when he premiered Three Identical Strangers, the remarkable true story of a set of triplets separated at birth who by sheer chance were reunited at the age of 19. Call it one of life’s greatest plot twists. You might even call it a real-life fairytale. But do all fairytales have a happy ending?

Level One

It all began when a curly-haired Robert “Bobby” Shafran stepped foot back on campus at a community college in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. It was his sophomore year. A day that started as any other quickly turned surreal when seemingly everyone kept mistaking Bobby for some guy named Eddy (last name Galland), a former high school football star who was attending classes there the semester prior but had since transferred. It wasn’t until Bobby met his roommate that he would get an answer as to why girls he had never met before were walking right up to him and kissing him. The roommate, a Michael Domitz, knew Eddy had left the college and yet Bobby was so strikingly similar looking he had to ask a couple personal questions to potentially satisfy a theory. Were the two related in some way?

Turns out, both of Michael’s roommates shared the same birth day and year, and both were adopted — through the same adoption agency, no less. How many instances of coincidence does it take for someone to become convinced they aren’t coincidences? After an eerie phone call to someone whose voice was a perfect echo of his own, Robert took off for Long Island in the middle of the night. He had to meet this Eddy and immediately. Michael tagged along too. Four hours later, Robert found himself staring into a mirror — minus the actual mirror. The two had the same smile, the same bearpaw-like hands, the same curly hair. They spoke with the same cadence and laughed each other’s laugh. They instantly knew they were brothers and they acted like it. It was if those years, all that time spent in ignorance of each other’s existence, never were.

Level Two

Their story quickly gained national attention and the pair toured the country, making appearances on all the major talk shows. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Kellman happened upon a picture of the two in a local paper and was struck by their resemblance not just to each other, but to himself. America was already falling in love with this saga about long-lost twins being found. When it was learned there was actually a third, the narrative shifted from heartwarming to truly unbelievable. In this film there are so many things you will try to deny even as the subjects themselves graciously invite you into their lives. And as they explain more, it paradoxically becomes harder to accept.

Three Identical Strangers is a pure joy to behold, a spectacle of families coming together and expanding under the most unlikely of circumstances. It really is like a fairytale, until it isn’t. That isn’t an indictment on the way Wardle handles the material. There is a reason he considers the triplets the “single greatest story” he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second. In that way, there is this bipolar quality to the film’s emotional trajectory, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.

The triplets, along with their respective foster parents (one an upper-class couple, another comfortably middle class and the third blue collar) had more questions than they had answers — the most pressing of which were directed at the adoption center that split them up at birth and irrevocably altered their lives.

Level Three

The jaw-dropping revelations don’t end with the three brothers finally together and taking Manhattan by storm. In fact I’d argue this is where Wardle really goes to work. And where Three Identical Strangers goes from feel-good to “I feel sick.” As it moves into its unforgettable third act, interviews with curious journalists and scientists alike begin steering the narrative in a direction that is altogether surprising and deeply disturbing. What was before a celebration of life and love curdles into a desperate search for the truth and, ultimately, an infuriating ethics debate.

How were the three boys never told by their foster parents they were triplets, separated at birth? Did the parents themselves know? What about their birth mother? Why were they put up for adoption in the first place? I really want to answer some of those questions right here, right now. But you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Believe this though: Three Identical Strangers is one of the most breathtaking documentaries you will ever watch. It exposes an existential crisis the likes of which you and I will never experience, while questioning the nobility of scientific experiments in which the lab rats look alarmingly like us.

the triplets star in a brief cameo in the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Recommendation: Three Identical Strangers is the epitome of a film best experienced going in as cold as possible. Ideally, you’ve read my spoiler warning up top and skipped right down to this section. I guess it doesn’t matter when words don’t really do this story justice. It is just an insane true story and you have to check it out to draw your own conclusions. And please do so before Hollywood botches it by turning it into a narrative feature. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.unz.com

The Accountant

the-accountant-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 14, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

In Gavin O’Connor’s new film Ben Affleck plays a small-town certified public accountant with a keen interest in some very private accounts. Sure, he’s good with numbers but he’s even better with bullets (and belts, seemingly). This is a guy who doesn’t sleep with a pistol under his pillow but rather with a mini gun in his garage; someone whose line of work obligates him to convert his storage unit into a Russian nesting doll designed to bury or at least obscure his real identity.

And there’s the million-dollar question: just who is The Accountant? Or perhaps that’s just part one, for the why is just as important as the who. O’Connor, working from a script by Bill Dubuque, ceaselessly chases after the child that prefaces the adult in this nature-versus-nurture dramatic action flick. Part two of that question may be something we’ve asked of ourselves ad nauseam, but it’s still one worth mining in the movies: why do we become what we become? To what degree are we products of our environments?

Christian Wolffe (Affleck) is a high-functioning autistic and the survivor of his father, a military man who moved the family 34 times in Christian’s first 17 years of life. That’s a quite literal matter of fact, by the way. He didn’t just outlive his father; it’s something of a miracle he survived such a childhood — a childhood largely spent taking on school bullies in the streets and sparring with martial arts trainers well past the point of being bloodied. Yes, dear old Dad was the sort who actively denied his children happiness, believing boys should be bred tough. The sort who couldn’t possibly be pleased to hear one of his sons may have special needs.

O’Connor envisions the savant as a very nearly tragic character, someone whose violent actions in the present are inextricably linked to his brutal past (read: not to his mental health). In so doing, his film flits back and forth rhythmically between childhood memories and his present situation, teasing out a character study that is as entertaining as it is intriguing, even if the sum total of the experience is far from revelatory. Ultimately, The Accountant is another action romp fashioned around an enigmatic antihero, but it needn’t make apologies when it’s this well performed and this engrossing.

Suffice it to say the movie becomes less so when we get away from Christian Wolffe. Several subplots work their way into the mix, each of which try to match the gravity of that which is pulling them all into orbit. Even though they don’t draw the same power as this bonafide A-lister, they manage to be perfectly entertaining diversions, products of the immensely talented cast O’Connor has once again assembled. More importantly, they each add a layer to the discovery process, be they government agents (J.K. Simmons) who have wasted enough of their career on this sort of wild goose chase, or potential romantic prospects in the form of other awkward professionals (Anna Kendrick) whose earnestness is all but lost on a cold, calculating man.

Though the likes of John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor and Jon Bernthal play pivotal roles in the saga, there are two notable relationships on the periphery worthy of some page space here. One is constructed out of a fascinating tension between Simmons’ Treasury agent Raymond King and Cynthia Addai-Robinson’s Marybeth Medina, a hot shot looking for a promotion but who neglects to mention her history as a juvenile delinquent. Since lying on a federal form is a felony, her willingness to track down a very dangerous man becomes driven more by a deep-seated fear of regression rather than the pure pursuit of justice. Meanwhile the dynamic between Kendrick’s sweet-natured Dana Cummings — who works for the top-flight robotics company Christian has decided to make his next client — and the saucerful of secrets that is the accountant himself, remains mercifully platonic.

O’Connor is a filmmaker with a strong grasp on setting mood and establishing atmosphere, and those elements remain front-and-center while Affleck’s tremendous performance pulls us into a strange world, somewhere between the legal and the illegal, somewhere between righteous antagonist and morally corrupted hero. The Accountant bares many of the director’s trademarks — if you have seen Warrior you shouldn’t be too surprised by at least one of the many twists that surface — but there’s also a requisite (and substantial) suspension of disbelief that hasn’t really been there in O’Connor’s previous output. All the same, given all the elements that work and work really well, the discovery process is just too fascinating to write off the books.

just-another-boring-accountant-doing-typically-boring-accounting-stuff

Recommendation: If you like Gavin O’Connor’s style you’ll lap up The Accountant. It’s another study of how familial history and relationships play a part in shaping who we grow up to be, along with a myriad other environmental factors. I can’t outright declare the film as something you’ve never seen before, but there are enough things going on here to distinguish it — namely yet another strong lead performance from Ben Affleck (who says the guy can’t act?!) and universally fun performances from the whole cast. A fairly strong recommendation from yours truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Do you like puzzles? Tell me what you see . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack movie poster

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

Short film director Crystal Moselle’s first feature-length documentary probably would have never happened if she weren’t on the right street corner at the right time of day. Her chance encounter with the Angulo brothers on the streets of New York one afternoon would seem like serendipity had it not been for the director and the boys sharing one major interest: a love of movies. For the subjects of this incredible film, maybe the statistical improbability of their run-in is more like karma.

Six young men with long-flowing, dark hair, dressed to the nines á la the guys from Reservoir Dogs and running down a New York avenue would probably seem to many a cause for concern, a group with only mischief on their minds. But Moselle wasn’t intimidated as much as she was fascinated by their presence. Four years later and their life story — or the story as it had been controlled up until that point — would serve as the basis for one of 2015’s most intriguing and unique documentary films.

The Wolfpack captures the Angulo family as they go about living in a cramped four-bedroom apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At film’s open the family dynamic reveals nothing untoward: boys are being boys and re-enacting their favorite scenes from their favorite Scorsese, Tarantino and Nolan movies (albeit with a creative fervor that should have them nominated for best home-made costumes). Mom and dad are elsewhere. Their young sister is separated, less interested in the collective cinematic obsession.

Fairly early on it’s difficult to ignore a crushing sense of stagnation, though. This isn’t a home of hoarding nor of physical abuse leading to the complete dissolution of the family unit. Rather, the Angulos have been living a hermitic lifestyle because of their father, Oscar. The Peruvian immigrant fundamentally disagrees with the way in which American society runs. Intensely afraid the dangers and influences of the outside world would have a negative impact on his family, he has rarely allowed them to leave the building. He keeps the only key to the apartment and monitors his wife’s weekly grocery trips. We’re not talking about a situation where the boys are restricted to socializing only on the weekends. This is total isolation.

This was a situation that had been ongoing for 14 years prior to the director stumbling upon them on the street. One of the older brothers informs us that a good year might have yielded a half dozen trips outside, while during a particularly bad year they never got out at all. Ventures outdoors were more likely when the season’s right. The same applied to their sister and their mother, who had been homeschooling her children while collecting on welfare. (Oscar also fundamentally disagreed with the concept of holding down a job.)

Moselle’s work isn’t the most tightly focused documentary you’ll see, but that’s because she’s aiming at extracting the essence of the Angulo’s personal relationships and how film has shaped and informed their lives. She’s there for the good times as much as she is for the bad; even though interviews remain fairly casual and lighthearted, a lingering look in an eye or a reluctant smile tells another story. There are moments where anger and bitterness surface, though the Angulo boys are, with these extreme conditions considered, remarkably well-adjusted. Polite, well-spoken and each intelligent and thoughtful, it’s often difficult reconciling their potential with the sheer number of opportunities that they’ve been denied.

The Wolfpack offers a fairly disturbing story but it’s never confronting. It’s intimate and honest; moving and at times absurdly comical. I’m left wondering, after viewing the footage themselves, if any of these brothers would end up owning this on DVD. They strike me more as the action/thriller/crime-drama crowd but after all they’ve been through together, re-watches of their own history could prove to be both a powerful reminder of history and a reinvigorating push forward into the future.

Recommendation: An inspiration for cinephiles everywhere, if there ever were one. Er, . . . one not named Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This quietly powerful documentary serves as a testament to the power of film and of brotherhood. Undoubtedly one of the year’s most memorable stories. Highly el-recommended-o.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com