Blue Ruin


Fear comes home.

Fear comes home.

(2013) Thriller (Radius) Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson, Bonnie Johnson, Daniel L. Kelly, Ydaiber Orozco, Erica Genereaux Smith. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

When we commit a heinous act, the ripples from that act often reverberate for years and decades. We may consider the incident at an end, but those affected by it may not.

Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car. He talks to nobody, eats out of garbage cans and basically is completely off the grid. In the quiet beach community in which he’s taken up residence, he bothers nobody and from time to time can be seen under the pier staring out at the sea. His is a wounded soul and people generally stay away from him.

One morning a cop (Anderson) raps on the window of his bullet pock-marked blue Buick and informs him that one Wade Cleland has just been released from prison. That seems to wake him up from his fog. After all, Wade was the one who murdered both his parents some years before. So Dwight does what he thinks he ought to – head back home and take the vengeance that the justice system didn’t give him. He finds Wade and murders him. That should be the end of it but it’s only the beginning.

Now the Cleland clan is out looking for revenge of their own so Dwight needs to protect his sister Sam (Hargreaves) from the rampaging Cleland brothers Teddy (Kolack) and Carl (Werzner) as well as rabid sister Hope (Rock) and matriarch Kris (Plumb). Dwight isn’t ex-Special Forces. He’s no martial arts expert nor is he a marksman with a gun. In fact, when he tries to steal a gun from the front seat of a car, the trigger lock the owner installed is enough to defeat him.

With the help of his friend Ben (Ratray) he will go after the Cleland family but being something of a bumbler, Dwight is going to make a mess of things and certainly he’s not getting out of this in one piece. Then again, revenge isn’t exactly known for being the type of affair that leaves those who seek it intact.

This low-budget affair which was financed almost entirely through Kickstarter has been receiving rave reviews from filmgoers and critics alike and for good reason. You are unlikely to find a film that will be more intense and stressful to watch (in a good way) than this one. From nearly the opening scene to the final denouement the tension never lets up. Part of the reason for that is that Saulnier wisely adds no extraneous parts to this. Every scene is necessary to the plot; there’s not an ounce of fluff to this film. Perhaps that’s due to the budget as it is to the filmmaker but either way, that’s a good thing for the viewer.

Blair does a bang-up job as Dwight. His eyes show the wounds that never healed and throughout the movie his expression is one of near-panic, as if he is the lone passenger on a runaway train which isn’t far from the truth. One of the more original aspects of the film is that Dwight is an ordinary guy who is somewhat of a screw-up to begin with, so his plans for vengeance and protection of his sister are pretty much prone to being messed up more than they are being successful. He isn’t Dwayne Johnson, an expert in hand-to-hand fighting or a crack shot; he’s more likely to miss from point blank range than he is to hit his target. He’s basically in every scene, so the movie relies on him to carry it and Blair does. It’s a career-defining role for him.

Certainly the plot isn’t necessarily a new one – we’ve seen revenge films before, and in environments as rural as this one. It’s the way that Saulnier and company handle the premise that is refreshing and exciting. The suspense that is created is at times excruciating and I loved every minute of it. While veteran moviegoers may have a pretty clear idea how things are going to end up, the ride getting to that point is one worth taking.

REASONS TO GO: Great tension and suspense. While the premise isn’t original, the execution is. Dwight is realistic and not a superhero.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence is strong and bloody and there’s plenty of cursing going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yes, that’s the actress who once played Jan Brady playing the Cleland matriarch.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 77/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

R.I.P.D.


Gunfight at the OK Corral

Gunfight at the OK Corral

(2013) Supernatural Comedy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, Robert Knepper, James Hong, Marisa Miller, Mike O’Malley, Devin Ratray, Larry Joe Campbell, Michael Coons, Christina Everett, Michael Tow, Lonnie Farmer, Piper Mackenzie Harris, Ben Sloane, Catherine Kresge. Directed by Robert Schwentke

Just because we’re dead doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules. When you die, you depart this mortal coil and drift skyward into the next realm where you will be judged and your final destination assigned. A lucky – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – few are yanked out of line because they have certain skills. They become part of an elite law-keeping force – the Rest in Peace Department.

Nick Walker (Reynolds) is a Boston cop and up until now, a good one. He and his partner Bobby Hayes (Bacon) stumbled onto some gold during a routine drug bust and now are keeping the stuff out of evidence. Nick, who wants to build a better life for his wife Julia (Szostak), is having second thoughts however. He just can’t bring himself to be a dirty cop. Bobby has no problem with it however and just to show Nick what a good sport he is about it he shoots him in the face.

Nick’s trip to judgment is interrupted (as you might guess from the first paragraph) and is yanked into a sterile-looking office where a bored-looking functionary named Proctor (Parker) basically tells him what’s what and offers Nick a 100-year contract with the R.I.P.D. Or, of course, he can go ahead and face judgment.

Nick isn’t quite ready for that so he accepts and is assigned to Raycephus Pulsipher (Bridges), better known as Ray – a cantankerous Wild West sort that would have been played (or at least voiced) by Slim Pickens a few decades back. Ray’s none too happy about having a partner – particularly a green-behind-the ears (literally) rookie. However, he shows him the ropes albeit reluctantly.

The job of the R.I.P.D. is to locate souls who had somehow stayed on Earth after death and bring ’em back for judgment. Apparently earth and death don’t mix and the souls begin to rot, developing a stank (as Roy puts it) that can be noticed by electronic glitches, unusual amounts of rust, rot, mildew and dead plants and of course human-looking people who when confronted with cumin suddenly transform into fleshy, putrescent masses of rot that have superhuman strength, can bound about like a kangaroo on steroids and generally wreak havoc. These rotting souls, which are called Deados, need to be kept from human attention in order to keep the universe in balance. Oh, and R.I.P.D. officers on Earth don’t look like their earthly selves; Nick appears to be an elderly Asian man (Hong) and Roy a smoking hot underwear model (Miller, who happens to be a smoking hot underwear model).

In a case of cosmic serendipity that only a Hollywood screenwriter could hatch, Nick’s first case involves a Deado named Stanley Nawlicki (Knepper) who – wonder of wonders! – has pieces of gold just like the ones Nick was keeping. That leads him to investigate his old partner who he still has some unfinished business with which leads to a conspiracy to turn the one-way portal to the afterlife into a two-way street using an ancient artifact (there are always ancient artifacts in these stories) called the Staff of Jericho which if activated will literally create Hell on Earth as the Dead overwhelm the living. Or it could just be this week’s episode of The Walking Dead.

Based on the 2001 Dark Horse comic of the same name, R.I.P.D. has a clever title and a not-bad premise to work with. Schwentke provides some pretty cool visuals, from the Men in Black-esque headquarters to the Ghostbusters-esque monsters. But therein is the rub – the visuals, while cool in and of themselves, remind you of something else. I don’t have a problem with borrowing – even borrowing liberally – from other visual looks but I don’t recall anything in the movie that looked especially unique.

Reynolds has gotten a lot of flack lately for his appearances in subpar movies (much as Ben Affleck did a few years back) which I think is patently unfair – Reynolds is charming and appealing but his character doesn’t really play to those strengths. Here he’s kind of grim and obsessive and that really isn’t his forte; when Reynolds is at his best he’s a bit of a smartass, like his work as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and when is his Deadpool movie coming out 20th Century Fox executives? We’re waiting!). Had his role been a lot lighter, the movie would have been better. Instead, he’s essentially a straight man for Jeff Bridges.

And there’s no shame in that. Bridges is a terrific actor and he hams it up here for all its worth, which is considerable. He goes on and on about having a coyote gnaw on his bones after his demise which gets a bit tiresome but then his character is supposed to be tiresome. Kevin Bacon knows how to be a smooth, vicious baddie and he pulls it off here.

The worst crime this movie commits though is a lack of energy. There’s no sense of fun here, like the cast and crew were performing a chore rather than having a good time. This is the kind of movie that should be made with a twinkle in the eye and a sly wink to the audience but you don’t get that sense here. The elements are all there for a really good summer movie but the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. It’s not as bad as the critics say it is – but it isn’t as good as it could have been either.

REASONS TO GO: Clever premise. Bacon and Bridges do some fine work.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels flat. Derivative.

FAMILY VALUES:  A lot of violence, much of it of the Looney Tunes variety. Some sexuality and a bit of language (including some suggestive dialogue).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth film based on a comic book that Ryan Reynolds has appeared in to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100; the reviews were dreadful, coming as a surprise to no one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Fruitvale Station