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Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America
Family Portraits A Trilogy of America
Actors: Gary Betsworth, Ray Bland, Sally Conway, Jayne Deely, Larry Fessenden
Director: Douglas Buck
Genres: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy
UR     2006     1hr 43min

From acclaimed director Douglas Buck comes an unflinching, disturbingly beautiful look at the underbelly of American family. Three separate narratives (including the shocking film festival favorite "Cutting Moments" as wel...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Gary Betsworth, Ray Bland, Sally Conway, Jayne Deely, Larry Fessenden
Director: Douglas Buck
Creators: Nicola Saraval, Douglas Buck, Rita Romagnino
Genres: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Sub-Genres: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Studio: Homevision
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen
DVD Release Date: 02/21/2006
Original Release Date: 01/01/2005
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2005
Release Year: 2006
Run Time: 1hr 43min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 0
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Misery Loves Company
Chris Pandolfi | Los Angeles, CA | 05/02/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Before I could begin my review for "Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America," I had to do some online research to get an idea of what other film critics thought of it. Naturally, I found almost nothing in terms of professional reviews; the best I had to work with was the reaction of John Q. Public on DVD websites (this one included). They were interesting reviews to say the least; it seemed that the most unanimous opinion was that it's a disturbing yet powerful film, something that had to be watched for the sake of originality and style. That's why I had to see what other people thought of it before I said anything: even though I liked it, I had absolutely no idea why. Maybe getting a general idea of why other people liked it would help me find the reason.

A compilation of three previously made short films from writer/director Douglas Buck, "Family Portraits" is in a lot of ways like an adult oriented, much less campy, and much darker version of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket. Every character is moody, troubled, and depressed, and their circumstances go from bad to worse in a relatively short period of time. It pretty much destroys the possibility of hope, happiness, and redemption, which, I suppose, can be seen as realistic and thus effective (if you think like an incurable pessimist, that is). But that's where the similarities to Snicket's book ends; even he wouldn't think up something that delves into the aftermath of a severe mental breakdown, depicted in "Family Portraits" with some of the sickest, most perverted acts of violence ever captured on film.

The plot is actually a combination of three distinctly separate stories, all of which focus on one character and their decent into heartbreak, madness, and in some cases, murder. The first story is called "Cutting Moments," a bleak expose that, frankly, has no redeeming qualities. It opens with a man named Patrick (Gary Betsworth) trimming his hedges. Right away we see that he's completely detached from the world; looking him in the eye would be as meaningless as looking at someone on a television screen. He then forces himself to speak pleasantly (unsuccessfully) with his young son (Jared Barsky), who's just as detached as his father is.

And then we meet Sarah (Nicca Ray), the wife and mother. You've probably already guessed that she's detached as well, and at that point, I began to ask myself what she and Patrick saw in each other in the first place. The emotional tension in this segment is thick right from the get go (just as it is in the other two segments); everyone walks on eggshells, taking long pauses between sentences to find just the right words. What exactly is wrong, here? There are hints of a divorce and their son's removal from the home, but it's never clearly explained. Because of that, the rest of the piece was too shocking for me to comprehend.

Apparently, Sarah fits the recently coined Desperate Housewife profile, struggling with the torment of feeling unattractive and unloved. She makes one last attempt at a moment of happiness with her husband by dressing in a flattering red dress and putting on lipstick. His complete failure to notice her sends her over the edge ultimately leading to one of the most disgusting scenes of self-mutilation I've ever seen. I'll spare you the details, although I will say this much: Patrick certainly notices her then. And something is awakened within him, something much darker. By the time you get to the final shots of them in bed, you'll understand what I mean.

The next story, entitled "Home," is a bit more tolerable, but only to the smallest degree. Gary Betsworth returns as a character (also named Gary) that attempts to understand why he feels the way he feels about his life, his family, and his faith. His voiceover narration weaves in and out of the segment as he goes on a disturbing journey of self-discovery, a journey that leads to memories of his own childhood. His father (Ray Bland) was particularly troubling: yes, he was a distant, unfeeling man, but that was only by day. By night, he was an even darker person, as seen when the young Gary (Ronald Baldino) spies on his parents after hearing his father ramble words of domination and belittlement.

Gary's relationship with his parents instilled a fanatical sense of religious piety; a few key shots show him (both as a child and as an adult) punishing himself by repeatedly whipping his left forearm. Exactly why is a mystery, but whatever the reason, it plays a big part of his current life with his wife (Christine Caleo) and daughter. He says repeatedly that he wanted to have the security of family. He also says that he tried to be a good father; at one point, he asks his daughter if she thinks of him while he's at work. It's clear that he's in a terrible rut, going so far as to deny his wife sex (who timidly proclaims "I have needs," even though she knows she's supposed to be "proper"). At first, I was led to believe that he wanted to make things better for himself and his family. I was wrong: yes, he does want to make things better, but the method he decides on is not what I was expecting. Believe me when I say that it's a deplorable, inhuman method, something that anyone with even a shred of decency wouldn't even think of.

The last story is the most compelling one, and while it's just as melancholy, it at least attempts to show that even in the most terrible of circumstances, salvation may be waiting for those who deserve it (but that may be a stretch). It's called "Prologue," and it tells of Billy (Sally Conway), a teenage girl returning home after a year of rehabilitation. She had apparently been in some kind of accident, one that left her paralyzed and missing both her arms (in their place are a pair of fabricated metal claws).

Weaving through the segment is the plight of an elderly couple that is still reeling over the disappearance of their daughter (which supposedly happened many, many years ago). Like everyone else in this movie, they exhibit the most downtrodden of personalities, one being completely unresponsive to the other (mostly due to the wealth of hidden secrets). We initially don't know what the situation is, and interestingly enough, neither do some of the characters. But the details gradually show themselves, almost as if the audience is slowly being given puzzle pieces that fit into a large, complex jigsaw picture. And by the time the dark, deadly connection between the couple and Billy is revealed, the audience will finally come to understand that human nature is sometimes filled with some pretty ugly stuff, stuff that should never be let out into the open.

So I go back to my original point: why did I like "Family Portraits"? Maybe it's because--despite the repulsive gore, the wallowing characters, and the inescapable despair--it does follow a kind of twisted logic, one that centers on the reality of grief. This isn't to say that the film takes a moral stance against it; if that was the intention, the filmmakers certainly chose a funny way to get their point across. No, I think they were trying to say something else; specifically, that grief exists, period. It's a simple truth, but it's a truth nonetheless, and for a lot of people, it's something they have to live with everyday. Still, it makes you wonder: was there really no other way to say what needed to be said, even in a film about mental and physical suffering? Watching this is an emotionally draining ordeal, and if you don't prepare yourself for it, you just might lose yourself in a whirlwind of misery.

Doesn't sound like very much fun, does it? Oh well. It's a negative way to end a review for a negative film, and I'm sure that counts as something."
Forget the violence, check it out for EXTREME empathy and GR
Scott Bradley | Los Angeles, California USA | 06/26/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"It's interesting to read the sharply divided reviews for Douglas Buck's FAMILY PORTRAITS trilogy. They accurately reflect the nature of his work - you're either going to Love it and (like me) even become emotionally attached to it, or you're going to hate it and be appalled/offended/unmoved. In one of the commentaries on this commendable disc, author/critic Douglas E. Winter calls Buck's work a cross between David Cronenberg and Ingmar Bergman, which I agree with, although I'd also throw in Tarkovsky and Polanski as well. All of those echoes, however, are shot through a uniquely American idiom and vocabulary. While I have my problems with the second film, HOME (for me, by far the weakest of the trilogy), I think this collection is one of the finest cinematic works to emerge in American cinema over the last ten years, and I can't wait to see what Mr. Buck does with his first mainstream picture, the remake of Brian De Palma's SISTERS, which is currently in post-production. Yes, this is heavy and horrifying stuff, but if you give it a chance, and watch the three films as a connected trilogy, you will see a filmmaker grappling with not only the darkest reaches of the human heart, but also finding light and hope in the most unexpected places. There is catharsis as well as devastation here - albeit catharsis in the most unexpected ways."
HaroldGarySpencer | Racine, Wisconsin, USA | 12/18/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Douglas Buck is an American treasure. All three of the films contained on this collection have moments of brillance, but "Cutting Moments" is Buck's masterpiece. It's the reason I picked up this DVD (directly from Buck himself, pre-Amazon availability -- you can get it, too). This won't really serve as a review as such, but more of a "hurrah" for finally having all of Buck's films in one place. And they're all remastered to look and sound tremendous. My only gripe: the original soundtrack to "Cutting Moments" closed with the Pink Floyd song "If", and I've only seen that version one time on cable tv back in 1998 or so. I really wish the song had been included on this edition of the film; it really made the ending.

NOT the People Next Door - Let's Hope
R. Schultz | Chicago | 09/06/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)

"The cover summary and title of this DVD would lead you to believe that you'll find insights into the disturbances of the average American family here. Really though, the pathology of these families is much too extreme to be representative.

However, there are little maggot eggs of some common American themes captured in this trilogy - and then these eggs flesh out, exaggerate, engorge into the full-scale horrors that confront us. So while the people depicted are probably not our next-door neighbors, neither are they total aliens. There is something in their overwhelming dysfunction that perhaps does speak to the American condition in some oblique, ultimately bleak way.

First though - to clear up a confusion that sort of interfered with my watching of this work. The DVD is 2-sided. One side presents the three vignettes as the separately conceived, self-contained featurettes that they are. The other side of the DVD runs these three vignettes into one feature-length movie. I happened to watch the second side, and so I initially thought there was some relationship between the family members in its three chapters. I kept trying to figure out if the man in the second vignette was the son of the man in the first - and if the murderer in the third vignette was the grandfather of them all.

But no. Author/Director Buck wrote these works years apart. And although he concedes some family resemblance between the actors he chose, he didn't originally intend there to be any direct connection between the families depicted. So don't waste your time trying to trace any "Cat's in the Cradle" causation between these episodes.

However there are those common themes, those common obsessions uniting these works. Most noticeably, each of these episodes features a profoundly repressed wife. These women are alike in being locked up in some long-suffering hell. They are locked away from all ability to get any normal response from their mates. They are further constrained by secrets, by what they suspect, what they fear, what they dare not speak of.

Then there is the common theme of gore that unites this triptych of films. The characters in these dramas find themselves in such an affectless landscape, the only way they can provoke any sensation at all is through extremes of self-mutilation and murder. In the most shocking and original of these featurettes, "Cutting Moments," a wife is seen literally scrubbing her face away. There are images here that will probably haunt you for a long, long time.

In order to find any significance to these vignettes though, it would be best to skip Director Buck's bonus commentary. His remarks detract from the impact of the characters' actions. In his gab, Buck reveals a sort of randomness to his intentions. At first he wanted to make a movie about Martians - then he wanted to do a take-off on Hitchcock's shower scene...

I didn't want to or need to know all this. Better to let the individual horrors of each of the movie panels just seep down and fall of their own weight. Better to leave this DVD thinking that the insights the dramas give into Americans' inner torment - were arrived at, not by a fluke, but through real artistic vision. Because maybe there really is more of a coherent artistic vision here than even Buck himself realizes.