Uncle John


Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

(2015) Suspense/Romance (Self-Released) John Ashton, Alex Moffatt, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Don Forston, Laurent Soucie, Gary Houston, Tim Decker, Mark Piebenga, Janet Glimme, Michael Sassone, Matt Kozlowski, Eli Rix, Carol Sekorky, Charles Stransky, Andy Cameron, Ian Pfaff (voice), Donna Steele, Tammy Newsome, Adria Dawn, Ashleigh LaThrop. Directed by Steven Piet

Florida Film Festival 2015

Most of us have some sort of secret or another; few people are completely transparent. Maybe it’s a secret crush we harbor for someone we work with or maybe it’s a dark deed done in the heat of passion. Maybe it’s just how we feel about the man who raised us.

John (Ashton) is an aging man who lives on a Wisconsin farm he inherited from his dad but is no longer a working farm. He has managed to keep the land but has turned his skills to carpentry, where he installs and repairs cabinets or builds furniture in the small town near his farm. Generally his social life involves hanging out in a diner with his friends, men he’s known and hung out with likely since childhood. They’re all old men now, chattering about gossip like you’d expect from old women. The main source of gossip is the disappearance of Dutch (Soucie), a former roustabout who had found Jesus and was trying to make amends to everyone he’d wronged which was a fairly sizable list.

Ben (Moffatt) is a young man working for a digital animation studio in Chicago that handles a lot of advertising accounts. He works long hours and doesn’t have much time for a social life. His latest project has a new producer, Kate (Lyng) who is a very attractive young woman. Ben is instantly attracted, and it soon becomes clear that the feelings are mutual but both are aware that office romances can be career killing things, so they keep things cordial but the fire is clearly smoldering. The two are forced to spend a lot of hours working together and naturally begin hanging out after work, a post-work cocktail here, a late dinner of Thai food there. Even though Kate is trying to get Ben laid with hook-ups at their local bar, Ben bicycles home late at night with Kate on his mind.

When the client for the project that Ben and Kate are working for demand some late changes, a weekend work session begins to take its toll. Ben suggests some pastries at the best bakery he knows – in the small Wisconsin town he grew up in. Kate is all in and they take a road trip to visit Ben’s Uncle John, the man who raised him after his parents passed away.

In the meantime Dutch’s brother Danny (Blevins) is certain that his brother is dead despite the fact that no corpse has been found. He is also certain that his brother has been murdered, even though signs point to a fishing accident. His suspicions land on John, whose behavior arouses Danny’s instincts and while the genial John denies it, Danny is certain he knows a lot more about the situation than John is letting on. With Ben and Kate arriving for a visit, both stories begin to swirl towards the inevitable; will Kate and Ben give in to their feelings for each other and will Danny confront John with the violence that is clearly bubbling beneath his surface?

Piet is attempting the rather ambitious task of filming two different stories in two disparate genres and then entwining them together in a single movie. The effect is not unlike switching channels on broadcast television between two different movies whenever a commercial interruption occurs. It’s an intriguing notion on paper.

For the most part, Piet does achieve what he seems to be aiming for – the two stories make their way through the course he lays out for them. It’s like they’re both swirling down a drain as they reach a denouement, moving faster and faster towards their conclusions before joining and merging at the bottom of the drain. Some of the best moments in the movie occur when all four of the main characters are together.

Oddly, Piet then chooses to separate the stories again with Ben and Kate in the house and John and Danny out in John’s workshop across the yard in a converted barn. The sex/death metaphor is a bit hoary for the most part but effective as the two stories reach their conclusions and the questions outlined earlier are answered. We end up very much full circle in a lot of ways.

Ashton, who most know as the by-the-book Sgt. Taggert in Beverly Hills Cop, does some of the best work of his long career here. John is a pillar of the community sort who seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s a widower and lives alone, even though there’s at least one woman in the community who wouldn’t mind a little canoodling with him. However, his affection for his nephew seems very genuine and the chemistry between Ashton and Moffatt is really the adhesive that binds the film together.

How well the movie works for you is going to depend first of all on how patient you are as the two stories move closer and closer together. As I sat through the film, I found myself wondering if there was going to be some sort of destination but the swirling around the drain metaphor is apt; the further into the movie we go, the faster the two stories seem to get towards merging into a single story. The two stories are pretty compelling with a slight edge towards the suspense story of John and Danny – there are too many awkward courtship moments in the Ben-Kate romance for my liking. Still, if you stick with it, the reward here is worth the effort. I admire the audacity of the filmmakers to purposely make two stories that seem as different as can be and then attempt to join them seamlessly together; it’s not 100% successful in that venture but it is close enough to it that I think this is worth keeping an eye out for on your local film festival circuit. Hopefully the movie will get some distribution and also bring back Ashton’s career as he has been absent from the screen for far too long.

REASONS TO GO: Ballsy move, incorporating two disparate stories. Ashton delivers a fine performance and has good chemistry with Moffatt.
REASONS TO STAY: Two stories merge and yet stay separate. Takes maybe too long in delivering payoff.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moffatt is a past member of Chicago’s esteemed Second City troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rope
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

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Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)


This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

This guy could teach Mad Max a thing or two about vengeance.

(2014) Comedy (Sony Classics) Ricardo Darin, Rita Cortese, Maria Marull, Cesar Bordon, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Walter Donado, Oscar Martinez, Osmar Nunez, Maria Onetto, Erica Rivas, Diego Gentile, German de Silva, Dario Grandinetti, Monica Villa, Julieta Zylberberg, Nancy Duplaa, Lucita Mangone, Alan Daicz, Hector Drachtman, Margarita Molfino. Directed by Damian Szifron

Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold although it must also be said that in Latin American countries, there’s nothing cold about good ol’ hot-blooded Latin revenge. It is a cultural imperative, as a matter of fact.

This collection of vignettes each looks at vengeance from a different angle, all of them funny and some of them downright hilarious. Mostly set in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires (although at least one is set out in the hinterlands of Argentina), there is a delicious quality to all of them which goes against what we normally see in American movies in which we are taught that an eye for an eye tends to leave everybody blind.

Herein we see a variety of different scenarios, with the first one begins with a beautiful model sits down on a strangely uncrowded airplane and strikes up a conversation with a neighbor. Soon, all of those aboard the plane discover they have a connection and that they aren’t aboard the plane by happenstance.

From there on we go to a waitress, discovering that the corrupt politician who ruined her family has sat down in the deserted diner in which she works is egged on by her somewhat diabolical cook to take her justice, then to an incident of escalating road rage, followed by a demolition expert whose car gets towed, setting off a chain of events that grow more and more devastating. Then we see the results of a drunken hit and run by a spoiled scion of a wealthy man who, sickened by the corruption of those who want to cover up the deed, is torn between saving his son and not contributing to the corruption. Finally we end of with the ultimate Bridezilla who makes a devastating discovery on her wedding day.

Each of the vignettes is told with a sense of humor that has a distinct Latin feel; some of it is quite subtle while some of it is broad to the point of slapstick and there is even some grossness that would make Apatow shudder and exclaim “Now, that’s going too far” – as in the road rage vignette in which one of the combatants defecates on the auto of another. Many auto-worshiping American men would rather have their genitals cut off with a butter knife than have that happen to their own car.

I was fond of the opening vignette which may be disturbing to some because of recent events in France which have some similarities to what you see here. The second one set in the diner isn’t nearly as clever as the others and briefly made me wonder if the rest of the movie would be like the first scene or the second; it turned out to be the former which was quite the relief.

My favorite was that of the munitions expert who is caught up in a corrupt, greedy scam of a towing company and his quest for justice ends up costing him nearly everything. However, in this particular case, his redemption turns him into something of a folk hero as a little man takes on the big machine and wins out. I think we’ve all felt like that at one time or another.

There is definitely a class element here; the road rage incident, for example, involves an upper class man in an expensive sedan versus a working class man in a beat up truck, while the case of the hit and run drunk driving we see the police and lawyer conspire with the wealthy man to have a groundskeeper in the wealthy man’s employ take the fall for the action committed by the wealthy man’s no-account son, which seems to indicate that justice is never truly served when it can be bought by the rich.

If you can see elements of the great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar in the movie, you are to be congratulated for your insight. In fact, Almodovar served as a producer for the movie although he didn’t direct it. Certainly his influence as a filmmaker can be felt in every scene.

This truly isn’t for everybody, I will admit. Americans don’t always find the Latin sense of humor palatable, although I think that we have more in common with it than not. Still, I enjoyed this very much and laughed throughout. It can be absurd and sometimes gross and even occasionally thought-provoking but there is some real superior filmmaking here.

REASONS TO GO: Howling with laughter funny. No weak vignettes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find some of the scenes crass and the opening vignette has elements in common with a recent tragedy that might make it offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of violence, a little bit of sexuality and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film from Argentina to make the final list of nominees for Best Foreign Language film and the third straight to star Ricardo Darin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: It Follows

Wild Card (2015)


Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

(2015) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominik Garcia-Londo, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden, Michael Papajohn, Jean Claude Leuyer, Grace Santo, Lara Grice, Shanna Forrestall. Directed by Simon West

Life is a bit of a gamble when you think about it. We can control things to a certain extent but circumstance and luck have quite a bit to do with it as well. All of our best laid plans can be irrevocably changed in an instant.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a bit of a Las Vegas fixture. He is one of those guys that if you need a favor, he’s the one you see. Some of these favors he charges for – for example, he takes a beating from a guy so that he can impress his girlfriend (Vergara) for $500. He works out of the office of lawyer Pinky (Alexander) where he is introduced to tech billionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) who wants a bodyguard and, as it turns out, something more.

Then there are the favors he does for free. When his ex-lover Holly (Garcia-Londo) is beaten up and raped, he uses his connections with mob boss Baby (Tucci) to find out who done the deed and discovers it’s Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia), the sadistic scumbag son of a highly placed East Coast mob boss. Using his impressive fighting skills, which were honed in a British special forces division, he subdues DeMarco’s bodyguards and allows Holly to take her revenge, after which she flees Vegas, taking with her money from DeMarco’s desk, some of which she gives to Nick for his fee.

Nick realizes that he won’t be welcome in Vegas much longer and needs to get out. DeMarco will be gunning for him and if he wants to make his dream of retiring to Corsica, he’d better get hopping. However, there is the thing that has been keeping him in Vegas so long – his gambling addiction. And on a night when so much is riding on it, he can’t afford for Lady Luck to be fickle.

Considering that this is essentially a Direct-to-VOD production, the talent before and behind the camera is pretty impressive but if you look at the budget below, you immediately understand that this was never meant for that sort of release. Why Lionsgate gave up on this project is beyond me; it’s actually surprisingly good for the genre and even though it is certainly flawed it deserved better for an unpublicized excuse me theatrical release.

For one thing, you get Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman supplying the script based on his own novel. Goldman excels in character development and each role here is definable and has at least some sort of personality to it. Given the stellar nature of the cast and that some of them only have a scene or two here, it’s no wonder that they were attracted to these parts which are more than stunt cameos.

West, who has such genre fare as Con-Air and The Expendables 2 on his resume, is usually pretty dependable for films in the action genre and surprisingly (yes, I’m using that word a lot here) this is pretty light on the action as action films go, but that’s a good thing in this case. Rather than going from one fight scene to the next, there’s actual dialogue, some of it pretty damn good. There’s also exposition and a genuine story. For film critics used to seeing action films which are just an excuse for people to shoot lots of big guns, chase around in cars and generally give people the opportunity to watch big men beat the hell out of one another, that’s like rolling ten sevens in a row.

I’ve always thought Statham was more than just a tight-lipped martial arts action hero. He actually can be quite soulful and when given the opportunity to act, has done so particularly well. Mostly though he seems content to accept roles in which he is given little to do beyond beating people up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good at it and usually his movies are entertaining but they are little more than that.

Here he gets an opportunity to do more and he takes advantage of it. Definitely this is a reminder of how good Statham can be in the right role, and given that he has a high-profile villain role in the upcoming Furious 7 gives me even more reason to look forward to that movie. He has nice chemistry with Hope Davis as a heart-of-gold blackjack dealer, as well as Angarano as a rich guy who believes himself a coward.

The oddball thing here is that the action sequences are the weakest aspect of this movie. That’s surprising (there’s that word again) given West’s action pedigree. Had a little more time and care been devoted to them I think this would have been released into theaters and maybe would have been the same kind of action hit that John Wick was last year.

Instead we end up with a movie that had enormous potential and remains an entertaining diversion but doesn’t do anything that pushes the envelope which is a shame. I think the movie’s slow start – things really don’t pick up until about 40 minutes in – also doesn’t do it any favors.

While the blackjack sequences are realistic and Davis (or her body double) gets the moves and attitude of a blackjack dealer just right, we also lose something in the fight choreography which is business as usual with the exception of the final fight in which Statham takes out a bunch of baddies with a butter knife and a spoon, not to mention slicing open a bad guy with a credit card. I also like that we get kind of a local’s point of view to Vegas. Still, with just a little more imagination when it came to the fight sequences this might have been something special.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining but not groundbreaking. Realistic on the blackjack sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly. Fight sequences are just adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most Jason Statham movies, plenty of violence and cursing, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William Goldman wrote the script based on his novel, which was filmed once before as Heat starring Burt Reynolds back in 1987. This is Goldman’s first script in eleven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

A Bag of Hammers


A Bag of Hammers(2011) Dramedy (MPI) Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston, Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Josh Cooke, Micah Hauptman, Barbara Rossmeisl, Devika Parikh, Greg Clark, Ricardo Chacon, Dale Waddington Horowitz, Jordan Green, Sally Kirkland, Elmarie Wendel. Directed by Brian Crano

Responsibility for a lot of people is a four-letter word. While it’s true there are few who eagerly go out looking for it, most of us are able to accept it when it comes time. However there are those who flee it at every available opportunity.

Ben (Ritter) and Alan (Sandvig) are really good friends and why shouldn’t they be? They have a great deal in common. For one thing, neither one is particularly interested in growing up. Neither of them are out to make a conventional living and for the most part, neither one cares what the rest of the world thinks one way or the other.

They make a living with a scam in which they set up a valet parking stand at funerals. Someone gives them their keys, they give the bereaved a ticket, drive off with their car…and keep going. The bereaved will have something else to mourn.

Mel (Hall), Alan’s sister, works as a waitress and nags them both to find a respectable occupation but neither one is ready to. They’re having too much fun. Then Lynette (Preston) moves into their neighborhood along with her son Kelsey (Canterbury). Kelsey takes a liking to the boys and they to him. He begins to accompany them on their scams and actually turns out to be pretty helpful.

When a sudden tragedy forces the boys to take stock, they begin to see the world as finally not revolving around their immediate gratification. In short, they grow up fast. But is it too late for them and more importantly, for Kelsey?

In many ways this is a coming-of-age indie comedy although it is also in many ways a forced-to-face-responsibility indie drama. It blends both of those chestnuts together into a kind of hybrid which, even if it isn’t exactly fresh is at least diverting.

Ritter and Sandvig play their roles like they’d been acting together since childhood. They have an easy banter that goes beyond the occasionally very witty one-liners they’re given to work with. They have that ability to anticipate each other in an organic way so it at least seems like people who are familiar with each other doing the give and take thing. You know, like real people actually conversing.

The dialogue also for the most part impresses. So often in indie films the screenwriters sacrifice authenticity for hipness, which might appeal to the horn-rim glasses-wearing PBR-drinking bearded guy crowd but few others. Here yeah there is a certain patina of smug hipness but there is also at least some reasonably genuine emotional content too.

This is more of a pleasant diversion than it is a deep-thinking exploration of The Way Things Are, but there’s much to be said for the former. It won’t challenge you overly much but it will draw you in if you’re anything like me. I liked the vibe here and it was a place I wanted to stay in after the movie ended. You can’t ask for more than that from any film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Ritter and Sandvig. Well-written dialogue.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seen it before kind of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, adult themes and disturbing parenting techniques.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Simmons, who plays Kelsey at age 18, is the same age as Jake Sandvig who plays his adoptive father.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: To Be Takei

The Double (2013)


Jesse Eisenberg can't stand to look.

Jesse Eisenberg can’t stand to look.

(2013) Thriller (Magnolia) Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Cathy Moriarty, Chris O’Dowd, Gemma Chan, Paddy Considine, James Fox, Rade Serbedzija, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Christopher Morris, Tony Rohr, Susan Blommaert, Phyllis Somerville, J Mascis, Natalia Warner, Joanna Finata. Directed by Richard Ayoade

Florida Film Festival 2014

When we look into the mirror, we generally have a good idea at what we’re looking at. What if the face staring back at us, however, wasn’t necessarily our own?

Simon James (Eisenberg) is a cubicle drone for one of those big conglomerates whose purpose really isn’t necessarily apparent. It is run by a mythic figure known only as the Colonel (Fox) who rarely makes appearances but is deeply appreciated and loved by his workers. Simon’s immediate boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Shawn) can barely remember Simon’s name. In fact, he can’t.

In fact, nobody can. When Simon comes into work one day on the train, his briefcase carrying his ID and pretty much his entire life gets stuck in the doors of the train and is whisked away. The security guard at the front gate doesn’t recognize Simon and isn’t disposed to letting him in at first. Only Harris (Taylor) seems to have any idea that Simon actually works for.

Worse still, Simon pines away for Hannah (Wasikowska) who works the gigantic room-sized copier machine for the company. Too shy to actually ask her out, she is kind enough to him but again doesn’t seem to know that he is anything other than an occasional nuisance, asking for a single copy of a document when, as Hannah’s co-worker points out, the copy department is meant to make thousands of copies of large documents.

However, even this somewhat desperate life is threatened when a new employee arrives: James Simon is his name and he looks like an exact doppelganger of Simon. James is everything Simon is not – cool, confident, instantly memorable, manipulative and without conscience. A mirror image, if you will; reflecting the same person but in reverse. Simon is the only one who notices that James looks exactly like him.

James begins romancing Melanie (Paige), the boss’s daughter whom Simon had been attempting to train (although she is remarkably uninterested in learning anything). While James attempts to help Simon capture the woman of his dreams, it is James that Hannah falls for. It is also James who gets recognized for Simon’s accomplishment. Simon isn’t just fading into obscurity; his life is being usurped.

This played the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and was my favorite film to come out of it. It is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the conceit of which wasn’t especially new even in Dostoevsky’s day. Still, it works as a modern parable of how our personality is more or less a reflection of how others see it – and when others don’t, we begin to fade into oblivion.

Ayoade, a British comedian who has appeared in such films as The Watch also directed Submarine, much of whose cast appears here in various roles and cameos. Like this film, his directing debut also had the subtext of the disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. Here he adopts a kind of retro-futuristic look that resembles the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil set in a kind of postwar Soviet environment with recognizable modern technology in large, boxy and hideously inconvenient to use incarnations; personal computers have tiny screens on large grey shells that take up the entire wall of a cubicle, for example. Everything is grimy and dingy, like nobody has bothered to dust for decades. Even the diner that Simon patronizes looks distinctly unappealing, and you just know that any food served by the frowzy waitress Kiki (Moriarty) is going to be tasteless, bland and will probably give you the runs.

Eisenberg is one of those actors who can be dreadfully annoying with his nervous tics and stammering, the love child between Woody Allen and Hugh Grant, but when given the right kind of role, can hammer it out of the park. He seems to excel when given characters who aren’t entirely likable; the less likable, the better – Michael Cera has much the same issue in his career. This is one of Eisenberg’s best performances to date, one in which he plays both the nebbish and the morally bankrupt hipster. Both are personas that he has done before.

The movie is darkly funny with a weird sense of humor that once in awhile comes at you from oblique angles and causes you to laugh not just because the situation is funny but because you didn’t expect it even for a moment. In fact, you are never quite sure where the movie is going, but are content and even eager to let it get you there. That’s the kind of movie that most stimulates me not only as a critic but as a moviegoer.

This isn’t likely to get a good deal of exposure. It’s certainly not a movie that’s for everyone. It is very bleak in places which you would expect from a film based on something written by a Russian writer. However, that bleakness is offset by the cheerfully warped humor and Eisenberg’s dual performance. Mainstream audiences will probably want to give this a pass but if you love movies as much as I do, it is one that you should put on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful set design and atmosphere. Eisenberg at his neurotic best.  Weird sense of humor.

REASONS TO STAY: A little twitchy in places. Not for everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  Enough foul language to garner an “R” rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there are several other films with the same title, this is the first to be based on the Dostoevsky short story that bears its name (the Stanley Kubrick film The Partner is also loosely based on the novella).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Winter in the Blood

Little Accidents


Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

Boyd Holbrook contemplates a future that is much brighter than this photo suggests.

(2014) Drama (Archer Gray) Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Josh Lucas, Jacob Lofland, Chloe Sevigny, Beau Wright, Randy Springer, Louie Lawless, Joseph Longo, Travis Tope, Alexia Rasmussen, Kate DeLuca, Tim Gooch, Mike Bizzarri, Peter Herrick, Steven St. Gelais, James DeForest Parker, Mike Seely, Kimberly Shrewsbury. Directed by Sara Colangelo

There are those who say that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t discern what those reasons are. However, there are those who think that life is a series of accidents great and small, that things happen entirely through random chance. I guess your point of view depends on whether or not you believe in luck or that you make your own luck.

Amos (Holbrook) is a quiet, single young man living in the small town of Beckley, West Virginia. He doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary except for one thing; he was the sole survivor of a mining accident that took the lives of ten of his fellow miners. After having been out of town recuperating and undergoing physical therapy, he has finally returned home, still unable to use all of his limbs fully. The town waits with baited breath to see how he testifies about the accident. Should he say it was company negligence, the families of the dead (and Amos himself) would get an enormous payday. However the rest of the miners know that if that happens, the company will close its doors and they’ll all be out of a job. Both sides are putting a great deal of pressure on Amos.

Bill Doyle (Lucas) is the manager of the mine that collapsed. The company is already putting distance between him and them, telling him to get his own legal representation and putting him on suspension. But he has far more on his mind – his son JT (Tope) has disappeared and there has been no trace of him for days. His wife Diane (Banks) is beginning to suspect her husband had something to do with the disaster – certainly the town thinks so. Despite her grief, the town is turning their backs on her and her husband, shunning them.

Owen (Lofland) is going through a difficult time. His father was one of the miners killed in the accident. His mother (Sevigny) is showering him and his Downs-afflicted brother James (Wright) with gifts of video games and iPods. Owen, a high school freshman, wants desperately to fit in among the older kids, even bribing them with beer but they tend to make fun of him and think of him as beneath them. He carries a terrible secret – he alone knows what happened to JT.

The power of the secrets carried within begins to tell upon all of the main characters who start to unravel. Diane begins an ill-advised affair while Amos dithers between telling the truth about the accident and lying about it. Owen, wracked with guilt and pain, strikes up friendships with both Amos and Diane, one representing the father he lost and the other representing the friend he might have had.

First-time director Colangelo chose to film in a small West Virginia coal mining town and that gives the film the right atmosphere of authenticity but the real authenticity comes from the emotional reactions of the players involved. Owen, in particular, acts like a child unequipped to deal with a terrible situation, acting out and behaving out of panic.

The one exception to this is the relationship between Diane and Amos, which doesn’t ring quite so true and doesn’t have the feel of a relationship motivated out of sex nor one out of emotional need. It’s like they’re together because they don’t have anything else better to do and I felt zero sparks between the two of them.

That said, I think Holbrook has huge potential. The former model and poet is electric here, showing the quiet dignity of a Gary Cooper mixed in with the warm humanity of a Tom Hanks. While he has gotten some buzz in previous appearances, here he shows not only that he can carry a film emotionally but he has the screen presence to hold our attention every moment he’s on the screen.

Lofland, who was impressive in Mud, is just as good here. He carries the look of a boy haunted by demons larger than he can bear and still he has time to be protective of his younger brother. He does lash out at his mom who attributes it to missing his dad, and then he sort of adopts Diane as a surrogate mom, the mom he wished he had perhaps. It’s a terrific performance and when you consider Lofland’s age, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he may turn out to have the kind of talent that we’ve seen from Abigail Breslin, Haley Joel Osment, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Hutcherson and Dakota Fanning.  He may end up being better than any of them.

All in all, this is a wrenching movie about the choices we make, the consequences of those choices and the secrets we choose to keep and how they affect us. It’s a slice of life movie sure, but there is something almost epic about this particular slice even though the film itself is very intimate and low-key. It is the subjects of this movie that are greater than the sum of its parts. This may end up like Winter’s Bone in the sense that it brings a huge star to public notice – world, meet Boyd Holbrook. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Fine performances by Holbrook, Lofland and Lucas. Excellent emotional realism.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Relationship between Amos and Diana is unconvincing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly rough language, some sexuality and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were torn between two locations, one in Northern Kentucky before settling on Beckley, West Virginia only a week before pre-production began.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/14: Since the movie is not yet in general or limited release, there are no scores as yet on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Skies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

The Killing Jar


Michael Madsen is tired of being mistaken for Tom Sizemore.

Michael Madsen is tired of being mistaken for Tom Sizemore.

(2010) Suspense (New Films International) Michael Madsen, Harold Perrineau, Amber Benson, Danny Trejo, Jake Busey, Kevin Gage, Lew Temple, Lindsey Axelsson, Talan Torriero, Patrick Durham, Jonathan Sachar, Emily Catherine Young, Mark H. Young (voice), Todd Davis. Directed by Mark Young

There is something intimate about a late night diner. Few customers, each with their own story, their own drama, their own tragedy. Why are they there? For some, it’s just a way station, a temporary stop on the journey between here and there. Others have nowhere else to go. A few, a very few, are waiting for something…anything.

This diner in particular is in the middle of nowhere special. The cook, Jimmy (Trejo) isn’t cooking food to write home about but it ain’t bad either. The waitress Noreen (Benson) probably deserves better than this but still here she is, just trying to make ends meet and not always succeeding. Lonnie (Temple) is a cop who stops here regularly; there aren’t many dining choices late at night in this small town. Billy (Torriero) and Starr (Axelsson) are eloping; they’re excited and in love, but also hungry. There’s also Smith (Perrineau), a salesman heading out into his territory to ply his trade, stopping for a quick meal before finding some place to hole up for the night. Then there’s Hank (Gage) whose story nobody really knows.

On the radio is fearful news; a family one county over has been massacred. Everyone’s a bit uneasy over this; that’s not the sort of thing that happens in a place like this. Then Doe (Madsen) comes in. He’s twitchy, dressed in black leather and angry that he can’t get the steak he wants. Noreen, thinking he might be the miscreant responsible for the multiple murder, spills coffee on him. After she discusses her suspicions with Lonnie (who is skeptical) and Hank (who thinks she might be onto something), Lonnie attempts to question Doe who proves uncooperative. The radio report had specified that the killer had gotten away in a black truck; it becomes clear that Doe is driving a red one. Lonnie apologizes, Doe pays and walks out.

But not for long. He comes back in with a shotgun and handgun and takes the room hostage. Turns out that he’s a veteran and he is fed up. When Greene (Busey) comes in, he’s also taken hostage but it turns out that Greene is involved with that massacre – and that the real killer was supposed to meet him there for payment. Doe isn’t the killer. That means that someone in that diner is and is even more dangerous than the guy with the guns. Things have gone from bad to worse.

This is in my mind a pretty decent premise. It isn’t necessarily a new one, but the claustrophobic environment of the diner, knowing that the people herein are locked up with at least two killers makes for a pretty tense situation. Sadly, Young doesn’t really make the most of it. The dialogue ranges from unnecessary to downright cringeworthy. The movie comes off as too talky which in a movie like this is a bad thing. Dialogue is necessary for a movie like this to be successful.

It doesn’t help that for the most part the actors here seem disinterested in what’s going on other than Madsen, Perrineau and Trejo, but Madsen in particular shines. His intensity as an actor is tailor-made for a role like this and he executes it to perfection. Perrineau and Trejo are both terrific character actors and they at least make an effort to appear like they’re invested. Benson, who has shown some real talent in previous roles, phones this one in.

That’s sad because this is a situation tailor-made for indie budgets. Under a surer, firmer hand this might have been a pretty decent thriller. Unfortunately, it’s a suspense movie that lacks suspense although it gets points for a whopper of a twist ending that I appreciated. Still, even with that the film’s deficiencies are such that I can’t recommend it other than with faint praise. Be warned.

WHY RENT THIS: Madsen is always intense. Interesting premise with a nice twist at the end.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Does nothing with the good ideas it does have. Lacks tension.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some of it fairly bloody with a goodly amount of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the radio announcer is director Young.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Suspect Zero

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: About Time