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Josh Sternfeld has done the unthinkable. He has elected to tell a story
merely by allowing the viewer to overhear the minimal dialogue of the
characters without supplying a linear plot or explanation of how a
little family fell apart.
Landscaper Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia is a brilliant role) is the single father of two sons - Gabe (Aaron Stanford) who is the older and looking for ways to move away from his boring little small town home to find breathing space in Florida, and Pete (Mark Webber) a confused kid who wears a hearing aide and only sporadically seems to tune in to life and school. The three men live a fairly orderly life since the death 5 years ago of the wife/mother in a car accident which Pete survived. Jim tries to maintain some semblance of family but just cannot quite step out of his ill-defined grief to get a perspective on life. Obviously some forces of change are needed to heal this family of men.
Into the neighborhood moves Molly Ripkin (Allison Janney) who is house sitting for friends while she breaks away from being a paralegal to try her hand at making unique jewelry. She connects with Jim, tries to connect with his sons, but at the least she introduces a figure of gentle concern and focused presence. Pete finds some understanding from a summer school teacher (Ron Livingston) and begins to see some concept of meaning to his life. Gabe's decision to leave for Florida's promise of better life means he also must say goodbye to his only rock of realism - his girlfriend Stacey (Michelle Monaghan). With all of these elements of change in the air the story just ends. What will happen now is left to us to decide.
Yes, the film is slow moving, relying on minimal dialogue and more on silences and gazes. But Sternfeld opens this little family drama in such a tender way that we find ourselves wholly committed to the plight of each character. He makes us care. And that is the true beauty of minimalist art in film-making. The acting is first rate, with LaPaglia and Janney giving performances that deserve attention come awards time. Highly recommended for those who appreciate quiet sensitive films. Grady Harp
In Winter Solstice Josh Sternfeld's debate as a director is a true
original. This is a movie that shows exactly how men communicate. Men
tend to avoid emotional conversations. Some women may look at this
negatively because of their frustration with this fact. Women would
love to see their men discuss their inner most feelings and share in
their pain and happiness.
This movie shows the truth behind men's issues with showing emotion. Many people would consider it an ego thing. I think it is more of pride in oneself. Men were brought up to stand on their own two feet, and to make it on their own steam. This is exactly what Jim Winters(played by Anthony Lapaglia) deals with in raising his two sons on his own.
Jim and his two sons have to make it on their own after the loss of Jim's wife. The three communicate in a truly male way. Not saying much, but saying a lot in how they act and react.
I could relate to this movie so well because all of the conversations I had with my father were very much the same as in this movie. If you are a man who wants to see men portrayed in the light they deserve go see this movie. If you are a woman frustrated with not being able to talk to your man, take some time to watch this movie and try to leave any prejudice at the door.
Winter Solstice is not an exciting movie by any stretch of the imagination. Its about everyday life and how men deal with their lives. Go see it, but don't expect some major complicated plot. Its as uncomplicated as most men are.
Saw the film at Tribeca, and was very taken with it. So few films show normal, non-violent life to be as dramatic and as sweet and as hurtful as it really can be. This film does. The acting is terrific. The direction stays out of the way of the actors and the story. A young man has a hearing impairment, for example, but this is never called attention to or made maudlin use of--it's just there as part of the family's reality. Same with the missing mother. That's part of the back story, and no one is going to spend minutes explaining it to the audience, you just enter into the family's life as it goes on. Every moment is entirely believable, and usually, touching as well. I am afraid it may not reach many viewers, since it has not sex or violence to speak of, just the truth of family life.
I went to see Winter Solstice in the Vancouver Film Festival this
evening and was very surprised at the subtlety and restraint used by
the director to ensure the film was emotional with over acting. It is a
very peaceful film that explores the parents view of children leaving
home as opposed to the child's view. A tremendous cast and great
performances from Anthony LaPaglia and Mark Webber. Also a brief
appearance from Ron Livingston in which he always has a way stealing
scenes as the most likable guy in a room.
Very impressive little film with beautiful scenery of New Jersey, tremendous cast and an appealing change to cinema that is more than overwhelmed with actors who love to hear themselves speak.
WINTER SOLSTICE (2005) *** Anthony LaPaglia, Aaron Stanford, Mark
Webber, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Michelle Monaghan, Brendan
Sexton III, Ebon Moss-Bachrach. (Dir: Josh Sternfeld)
Echoes of "Ordinary People" and a first-writer's novella.
Anthony LaPaglia is an excellent actor whose talents have been lately on the small screen in the TV crime drama CBS hit "Without A Trace" but on screen it's been awhile since he's had the chance to shine and in his latest film his talents are on full display.
LaPaglia plays Jim Winters, a recently widowed father of two teenagers, attempting to hold things together including his moderately successful landscaping business in the lush suburbia of New Jersey. After the car crash that killed his beloved wife and the apparent glue to his brood the Winters family has been in a state of flux with his eldest son Gabe (Stanford) restless to break free from his dead-end job at a restaurant and his youngest son Pete (Webber) is aimlessly attempting to rebel by being a chronic late-to-riser and winding up in summer school much to their chagrin. All the while Jim has kept his grief to himself and apparently blaming himself.
Enter Molly Ripkin (Janney of NBC's "The West Wing") a newcomer who enters the picture as a neighbor's house sitter who breaks Jim's cloud by moving in a few doors down enlisting Jim to help her move in and by returning the favor invites him and his boys to a dinner. Jim is naturally awkward and still trying to heal his new wounds but sees some salvation in this sudden change of events but still must deal with his head-strong sons when Gabe announces he's saved enough money to drive down south to stay with a friend in Florida, even leaving his girlfriend Stacey (Liv Tyler look-alike Monghan) behind.
Novice filmmaker Sternfeld (making his directorial debut) who also wrote the screenplay tiptoes around the familiar angst in suburbia route that "Ordinary People" furrowed 25 years ago but shrewdly makes this more of a character study than a soap opera melodrama; the film feels like a first time writer's early novella. His casting of LaPaglia anchors the film with an implosive anger and rising feel of uncertainty yet doesn't rely on pyrotechnique of the human emotions that often blister what is lurking under the surface of complacency: fear and anger. LaPaglia has a few nice moments where the emotions are bubbling (I especially liked his encounter at a teacher/parent meeting where he almost bursts out in barely restrained ire) and tries to find his footing when Janney enters the picture; he clearly wants to move on but is plagued by his own hatred of himself which is subtle yet on display with his interactions with his sons.
The acting is fine Janney is a drink of ice water in an arid story of sadness and dislocation; Stanford and Webber have a good feel for their characters as not atypical teens and Livingston has some fun as the summer school teacher who seems as bored as his charges with ancient history.
The only problem overall is the pacing seems a bit off and is arguably too low-key prompting the viewer to expect a fireworks display of feelings to come skyrocketing out of nowhere but this is not what Sternfeld has in mind and yet the stillness works. As does the rustic guitar-playing acoustic score by John Leventhal.
A nice little indie film with some assured acting and interactions that often are overlooked in the multiplexes, even in the wilds of Jersey. Trust me, I had to venture to the jungles of Manhattan to catch this gem.
This is a very low-key film in which the action is inaction. LaPaglia's character, Jim Winters, in particular lives in the silences between the sounds. The film is redolent with the ghosts of unsaid words therefore as the viewer one must approach this film with the knowledge and appreciation that this is intended as a thought-provoking piece of cinema and so has no really big bursts of emotion. All the cast act beautifully, but as one has come to expect of Anthony LaPaglia he is outstanding. He plays a widower who after five years has still not come to terms with his bereavement, and as a result, though seemingly living an ordered day to day existence, in reality he finds it increasingly difficult relating to life in general and specifically to his two teenage sons. LaPaglia's portrayal is subdued and masterful; I don't think I know of any other actor who can so eloquently inhabit a role by apparently doing so little - definitely this is a case of art concealing art. This is a sensitive and rewarding film. And for all those guys out there who want this film to have some male endorsement, my husband liked the film very much when I asked him to watch it over Christmas, so it must be good.
What happens when a spouse dies? There are no tender flashbacks in this
film showing the husband and wife in their marital bliss before the
wife dies. This film is about what happens afterward. Even five years
later, the reverberations are being felt by the husband and his two
young adult sons.
Keep your expectations realistic, and this film delivers. In a key scene, a high school history teacher asks the class, "Why did the Mongols turn back when they were poised to roll up Europe like a carpet?" Pete, the younger son, seems to know, but doesn't care to answer. The teacher offers to let him out of class (a makeup summer class) if he can answer.
Pete finally takes the bait: "Their leader died and they didn't know what to do." There you have it. Does the filmmaker do any more to explain what troubles this family? Yes, but you have to put the pieces together yourself. He doesn't make it hard; he just doesn't grind it up and put it in a baby food jar.
The film builds to some very touching scenes that explore the impact of loss on the three remaining family members. If you're interested in exploring how real people deal with the real issue of loss, you'll find something here.
The ending comes before you want it to, sure. There are no easy answers offered by the conclusion, but that's the way life is.
Quick physics analogy here. (although I hate the discipline!) Imagine a
family consisting of three forces pulling in opposite directions.
What's gonna happen? Whatever exists between them is gonna start to
show cracks, right? Well, even if this little scientific postulation of
mine turns out to be incorrect, it still handily applies to the
meditation on grief that "Winter Solstice" offers. If they were united
as a group, they would be much stronger, but with the huge space
vacated by a missing figure, they become a ship without a rudder.
Fans, like me, of Lapaglia, Stanford or David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls" should definitely come away from this with some food for thought. There are echoes of "In the Bedroom", too. Admirers of any mentioned will be pleasantly acquainted with the pace this film moves at as this is not a work for those who like their cinema to run loud, obvious and at a mile a minute. If low-key indie musing is your thing though, then I would suggest you check it out. It's content not to milk its material for moments of angst, so there are few showy moments for the actors. Suppressed anger is the main vent for hidden depths, so it could have been more 'raw', but taken together it nevertheless builds to something that is genuinely affecting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A family tragedy changed the lives of the Winters family. When we meet
them, Jim, a landscape gardener, and his two children, Gabe and Pete,
have not gotten over the death of the woman who held this family
together. At this juncture of their lives, they appear resigned with
what happened to them. The somewhat quiet family atmosphere is going to
be suddenly changed.
Jim, the father, who has not seen another woman since his wife's death, is suddenly awakened from his lethargy with the arrival of a well meaning woman who is house sitting for friends in the neighborhood. Molly is a fine listener; she hears what Jim has to tell her, as he opens to recount the anguish, he and his children, have been living.
Gabe, the older son, is seeing Stacey, a lovely young woman who loves him in return. It comes as a shock when Gabe informs his father and brother he is moving to Tampa. Jim's immediate reaction is to ask "What about Stacey", to which he responds "I'm dealing with it". Gabe wants to leave the oppressive home atmosphere to re-start his life in a new area. His brother Peter, who was with his mother when the accident happened, can't express his feelings; he has kept his emotions bottled inside him. He is a bright young man, but does poorly in school, something one of his teachers, tries to get him to respond and participate in class.
Josh Sternfeld created a sensitive and beautifully restrained film that shows that not all in life is rosy and that people suffer when tragedy strikes. The director, who also wrote the screen play, knows this family well. Not everything is gloom and doom because we realize, as we watch, things will improve, especially for Jim, who is attracted by a woman who clearly understands his situation.
Anthony LaPaglia, who is also credited as one of the producers, shows he was the right actor to portray Jim Winters. This talented man doesn't make a false movement and stays true to his character all the time. Mr. LaPaglia, who worked with Allison Janney on Broadway in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge", is again reunited with his co-star and they feel right for one another. Ms. Janney's Molly, although not a showy role, gives her an opportunity to shine.
Aaron Stanford is seen as the older son, Gabe, and Mark Webber is Peter. Both actors do a credible job under the sure direction of Mr. Sternfeld. Ron Livingston is the kind teacher who sees possibilities in Peter and Michele Monaghan is perfect as Stacey, the girl that is dumped without much logic, by Gabe.
"Winter Solstice" was beautifully photographed by Harlan Bosmajian, who captures the world of suburbia in all its glory. The atmospheric music is by John Leventhal. Josh Sternfeld created an intimate portrait about pain and anguish, as this family
"Winter Solstice" is a quiet, almost all-male counterpart to "Imaginary
Heroes," dealing with the same theme of family grief, and was even
filmed in the same town of Glen Ridge, NJ.
Debut writer/director Josh Sternfeld perfectly captures the inarticulatelessness of working class guys, particularly in father/son and brother/brother interactions.
Anthony LaPaglia as the landscaper dad and Aaron Stanford as his restless older son add to the minimal script with on screen charisma. It's sweetly charming how absolutely clueless they are in their lack of communication with the women who are attracted to them, but Allison Janney and Michelle Monaghan are overly understanding minor characters in their intersections with the dad and older son, respectively. I presume this is to emphasize the hole in their lives caused by the absence of the mother.
The problem is that without either more intervention by the women or the alcoholic violence of Sam Shephard's male family explorations, authentic looking and sounding guys hanging out together don't do very much or resolve issues. Pretty much the only plot point is the older son's gradual decision to leave --though I was surprised he has LPs to pack up--and how the other characters react to that.
It was nice to see Brendan Sexton again, more filled out, but he looked distractingly like the younger son played by Mark Webber so that I was confused at first that he was the best friend not the brother.
John Leventhal's intricate guitar playing on his original score is almost distractingly good. The song selections are beautiful sounding, though not particularly illustrative.
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