Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
If the Dancer Dances

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Shiner (2018)


Happy McBride (right) wonders what the blue plate special is.

(2018) Sports Drama (Tri-Coast) Seya Hug, Shannon Staller, Kevin Bernhardt, Randall England, Amin Joseph, Kirk Fox, Archie Hahn, Michael Hudson, Ibok, Jackie Mah, Brian T. Finney, Rocky Giordani, Christopher Meijer, Brian Waslak, Emely von Oest, Kelly Carter, Jessica McCabe, Stephen Scheide, Matt Lathrom, Lydie Denier, Victoria Anne Greenwood.  Directed by Seo Mutarevic

 

Fighting – whether it be traditional boxing, MMA or other forms of modern gladiators – is often defined publicly by he superstars but there are many levels of professionals in between the bottom and the top. Getting from the former to the latter is no easy task and can often be as brutal as what happens in the ring.

Matt (Hug) is a fresh-faced and somewhat naïve young wanna-be who has some talent but is going nowhere. He wants to enlist the aid of former champion Happy McBride (Bernhardt) as a manager, but Hap is not terribly interested. He has career aspirations of his own although he is perfectly happy to take all of Matt’s money and deliver him into a fight he can’t possibly win against a man much bigger than himself. Happy also owes money to people you really don’t want to owe money to.

Matt manages to appeal to Happy’s better nature and Happy reluctantly gets him a fight that is within his weight class. Matt turns out to have a whole lot more than some talent and eventually gets the attention of Happy’s former manager Larry (Finney) who thinks he can take the kid places, leading to some jealousy on the part of McBride. Matt’s overbearing dad (England) also shows up, convinced that his son should be a doctor (Matt left med school to take up fighting) and to complicate things further, Matt has fallen in love with Nikki (Staller) who is Happy’s daughter. Happy can’t help but like Matt more or less but the two could well be on a collision course as their dreams of clawing their way to the top almost inevitably go through each other.

In many ways this is a typical MMA/boxing drama with the kind of elements that are fairly traditional in the genre; a down on his luck fighter taking a younger man under his wing, a checkered past for the older man, an ill-advised romance for the younger man and stardom getting in the way of what might have been a fine mentor relationship. You won’t find a lot of surprises plot-wise here, although there is a very good scene in which father and daughter talk about the mother’s mental illness rather frankly.

The fighting scenes are actually pretty well staged and the action is kinetic. Mutarevic shows some promise as an action movie direction; certainly he understands what constitutes a good action scene. However, the performances of the actors with a few exceptions are fairly wooden, which isn’t necessarily their fault. The dialogue doesn’t always sound the way real people talk and occasionally you get the sense the actors are trying their best to figure out how to make what they’re saying sound natural and not managing to do so.

Staller is pretty and she has some good chemistry with Hug but at times she has a strange accent that sounds almost Eastern European and it is jarring since her onscreen father doesn’t have one. I don’t know if the actress has a natural accent or was trying to put one on but either way, it was jarring and distracting.

Bernhardt however delivered a nice performance as Happy. The character does some really crappy things to those around him, but it’s hard not to root for him. Bernhardt plays him as a charming Irish rogue  and that’s the perfect choice for the character (it helps that Bernhardt wrote the screenplay). I’ve seen plenty of movies in which very competent actors can’t pull off that kind of role, so kudos to Bernhardt for making it look easy.

The movie’s strengths and flaws just about even out in the end. I can’t really give this an unreserved recommendation because of the non-action sequences but I can give it a mild recommendation due to the action sequences. Of course, there’s always the fast forward button for those who don’t want to sit through one to get to the other.

REASONS TO GO: The fight sequences are pretty well staged.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the performances are a little bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a fair amount of MMA violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Seya Hug is the son of professional Kickboxer Andy Hug.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Driver X

Hell or High Water


Chris Pine finds that those "Beam Me Up, Scotty" jokes get old fast.

Chris Pine finds that those “Beam Me Up, Scotty” jokes get old fast.

(2016) Crime Drama (CBS) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon, Gil Birmingham, Buck Taylor, Dale Dickey, William Sterchi, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Debrianna Mansini, Kevin Rankin, Paul Howard Smith, Christopher W. Garcia, Heidi Sulzman, Richard Christie, Gregory Cruz, Amber Midthunder, Kristin Berg. Directed by David Mackenzie

 

Sometimes things happen to us. Other times, we make things happen. There are also occasions when things that happen to us force us to make things happen, things that we would never do under ordinary circumstances. When times are tough, that becomes a far more common occurrence.

A small regional bank in Texas is having its branches getting robbed. The two robbers are very clever and seem to know the workings of each bank thoroughly, although they are prone to making mistakes. The frequency of the robberies gets the attention of the Texas Rangers (not the baseball team) and elder statesman Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), just short of retirement, is assigned to the case along with his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham), who is of Mexican and Indian descent which are both causes for un-PC teasing for Marcus.

Marcus is a dogged detective and he follows the thieves through their next few strikes. He correctly deduces that they are only taking small bills (harder to trace) and seem to be working towards a fixed number. He is confident that given the mistakes they have made that he will catch them soon enough.

As for the bank robbers, they are in reality two brothers. Tanner Howard (Foster) was recently released from jail after a stint for armed robbery. He has a wild streak and can behave unpredictably. His brother Toby (Pine) is more restrained; a family man in the midst of a divorce. The boys’ mother recently passed away and her property, a farm which has been in the family for generations, is about to be foreclosed on by the same bank that they are robbing unless they can pay off the remainder of her loan by Friday of that week. The boys are using a local casino to convert the ill-gotten gains from cash to chips and back to cash again – sometimes with a little extra that Tanner won at the tables.

But the law is closing in as is their deadline. To make matters worse, the boys are having a bit of a disagreement on certain aspects of their plan. Still, they are brothers and blood is thicker than water. They are determined to meet their deadline come hell or high water – and a certain Texas Ranger means to catch them before that.

In the dry dusty desert that has been the summer movie season of 2016 this is like a desert rose. The script is smarter than usual, even if there are a number of tropes present here, like the bank robbers who aren’t really bad guys, the bank as main villain, the brothers who have each other’s backs even when they are squabbling. Blood is certainly thicker than water, but only just; the relationship between the Rangers is portrayed as being as close as that of the brothers Howard. There is a moment of shock late in the film when Hamilton is faced with an unspeakable tragedy from his point of view; he literally loses it for a moment. It is one of Bridges’ best moments as an actor ever.

Pine also does some of his best work as the smarter brother. On the surface it seems that Tanner is the more violent one and the one to be feared but as the movie develops, we discover that Toby is the true rattlesnake who is in many ways even more cold and vicious than his brother, who is more of a ball of fire exploding overhead.

Foster, who is proving to be a very versatile and talented actor, has fun with his role. Tanner is occasionally mean and certainly amoral but he’s loyal to a fault, and Foster captures all of the facets of his personality, making the character kind of an anti-hero and showing both sides of him without putting undue emphasis on one side or the other. It’s a bit of a tightrope he walks but he walks it perfectly.

Mackenzie has some well-regarded films on his filmography including Asylum and Tonight You’re Mine. It surprised me that he is an Englishman; he certainly gets the rhythms and the pulse of West Texas really well. He also was smart enough to hire Nick Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis to do the soundtrack. That’s reason for going to see this right there.

The movie takes place in the midst of economic recession and the reputation of banks, never sterling to begin with, is still as low as ever. Most people believe banks are run by money-grubbing scoundrels who care only about getting every last penny they can for themselves and aren’t above screwing over the working people to get it – largely because that seems to be the case. In a sense, this is a bit of revenge porn for most of us who have been screwed over by financial institutions one way or another, either through predatory loans, outrageous fees and onerous interest rates or all the way down to shitty customer service. Most people these days look at banks pretty much the same way they look at drug cartels and if we can see a movie about a person sticking it to a bank, most of us are quite all right with that. If you’re not okay with that, you might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by the three leads, all worth savoring. The cinematography of the desolate West Texas plains is starkly beautiful. The juxtaposition of the relationships between the brothers and the Rangers is thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: The commentary on economic issues may be unwelcome to conservative sorts.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence and bloodshed, profanity throughout and a couple of scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Pine and Foster also co-starred in The Finest Hours earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The People vs. Fritz Bauer