Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

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New Releases for the Week of August 18, 2017


THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD

(Summit) Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung, Richard E. Grant, Joaquim de Almeida, Sam Hazeldine. Directed by Patrick Hughes

A vicious dictator is going on trial in front of the international court and only one man can put him away – one of the world’s most successful assassins. However, the ex-fearless leader has put out a hit on the hitman and things don’t look good for him to make it to the trial. A bodyguard is assigned to the killer and it has to be said the two don’t exactly hit it off but if they are going to survive they’ll have to put aside their differences or die in a really spectacular fashion.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout)

Brigsby Bear

(Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Greg Kinnear. The children’s television show Brigsby Bear Adventures has been playing for an audience of one – James. When the show abruptly ends, James is motivated to finish the story himself taking him into a land of imagination he never knew he had within him.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Barnstorm Theater, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, brief sexuality, drug material and teen partying)

Dawson City: Frozen Time

(Kino Lorber) Bill Morrison, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, Kathy Jones-Gates, Michael Gates. In 1978, a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot in Dawson City, a former gold rush town in the Yukon and discovered a cache of over 500 films that had been buried there since the silent film era. Many of the films had been thought to be lost forever. After an extensive restoration process, the newsreels and films are ready to be shown to the public, depicting an era in history and in Dawson City itself that is long gone. This film has been described as being like stepping into a time capsule.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Leap!

(Weinstein) Starring the voices of Elle Fanning, Dane DeHaan, Carly Rae Jepsen, Maddie Ziegler. An orphan girl who dreams of being a prima ballerina travels from Brittany to Paris to follow her dream. A case of mistaken identity leads her to become a pupil at the Grand Opera House in a Paris that is full of enchantment, music and magic.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some impolite humor and action)

Logan Lucky

(Bleecker Street) Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes. Two brothers, cursed by bad luck all their lives, attempt to steal a windfall of cash from the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Enlisting the aid of Joe Bang, one of the great demolition experts of all time, they merely have to break him out of prison where he is in-car-cer-rated and then get him back inside without anyone noticing. Piece of cake. Incidentally, this is Steven Soderburgh’s return to the big screen in like four years. Think of this as the unholy love child of The Dukes of Hazzard, <em and Oceans 11.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for language and some crude comments)

Lost in Paris

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Fiona Gordon, Dominique Abel, Emmanuelle Riva, Pierre Richard. Fiona visits Paris for the first time in her life to assist her Aunt Martha. Fiona has always repressed her feelings but when she meets Dom, a homeless man who is absolutely unafraid of expressing his feelings or his thoughts. The City of Lights will never be the same.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

Step

(Fox Searchlight) Paula Dofat, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon. This documentary follows a step dancing team from inner city Baltimore as they embark on competitions throughout the city and navigate their senior year in high school.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some language)

Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

(Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Laurence Livermore. San Francisco has always been the center of the Bay Area music scene. For a brief shining moment, a group of committed men and women ran a punk co-op out of a former warehouse in Berkeley that became a creative cauldron that changed the face of punk music – and pop culture – forever and put the East Bay in the forefront of the Bay Area musical firmament.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Musical Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Wind River

(Weinstein) Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, Elizabeth Olsen. A grisly murder scene is discovered on a Native American tribal reservation. An FBI agent is called in to investigate and he ends up teaming with a veteran game tracker to run the killer to ground.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs

Rating: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Bareilly Ki Barfi
Fairy Tale: Dragon Cry
From the Land of the Moon
Imperfections
Shot Caller

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

Anando Brahma
Fairy Tale: Dragon Cry
Menashe
Once Upon a Time 3D
The Only Living Boy in New York
The Untamed
Whose Streets?

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

6 Days
Anando Brahma
The Ancient Magus Bride
Bareilly Ki Barfi
Fairy Tale: Dragon City
The Midwife
Shot Caller

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

68 Kill
Anando Brahma
The Ancient Magus Bride

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

68 Kill
Brigsby Bear
Dawson City: Frozen in Time
The Hitman’s Bodyguard
Logan Lucky
Menashe
The Only Living Boy in New York
Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk
Whose Streets?
Wind River

Brighton Rock


Sam Riley resists going back on set.

Sam Riley resists going back on set.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, John Hurt, Nonso Anozie, Sean Harris, Philip Davis, Craig Parkinson, Geoff Bell, Steven Robertson, Maurice Roëves, Steve Evets, Francis Magee, Adrian Schiller, Pauline Melville, Mona Goodwin, Kerrie Hayes, Lexy Howe, Harry Lloyd-Walker, Dennis Banks, Helen Kingston. Directed by Rowan Joffe

Good and evil are meant to balance each other out. You can’t have one without the other; they are opposing forces, a yin and yang of morality as it were. And as such, they often attract one another.

Pinkie Brown (Riley) is a gangster wanna-be. He is vicious and calculating, sometimes cruel and absolutely without any morality. He meets waitress Rose (Riseborough) in the restaurant of a grand hotel in Brighton and walks her down the pier, passing by a thug from a rival gang. Pinkie goes back afterwards and kills the thug. Later Rose realizes that she saw the man whose picture has been published by the newspapers.

Ida (Mirren), the manager of the restaurant and surrogate mother to Rose, warns Rose away from Pinkie. As it turns out, she is very well acquainted by men of his ilk. She enlists the aid of her friend Corkery (Hurt) to help Rose out, but he has other worries, one of them being Pinkie’s boss, the urbane but evil Colleoni (Serkis). When Rose gets married to Pinkie, she no longer can testify that Pinkie was in the vicinity of the murder victim. Can that be the only reason that Pinkie married Rose? Or does the gangster actually have a heart?

Graham Greene wrote the novel this movie was based on back in 1938, at the height of prohibition in the United States and the golden age of gangsters and in some ways the tropes of that era carry over not only in the novel (as you would expect being a product of those times) but here as well. In order to distance the film from those tropes – and from the English noir movie that starred a young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie – Joffe elected to set this version about 25 years after the novel was set, in an era when Mods and Rockers were rioting in Brighton. It’s actually a bit of a brilliant move; the era was evocative (as captured by the Who in Quadrophenia) and appeals more to filmgoers today than perhaps the pre-war era would. The translation between eras is spot-on, particularly since the filmmakers captured the 1960s Brighton so well.

Riley is an actor better-known to admiring critics than he is to the general moviegoing public and that’s a shame; in my opinion he’s one of the best actors working today. He has an amazing intensity and the ability to take on vastly different roles while retaining his own style which is no easy task, I can tell you. I’ve sometimes thought of him as a Johnny Depp without the mannerisms and that’s about as close as you’re going to get.

I think because his looks are more unconventional than traditionally hunk-ish or handsome he has largely been ignored by American filmmakers and audiences, which shows a deep shallowness on our part. I have seen him in movies where he is the only good thing about them and so good was he that he was worth seeing all by his lonesome. If some artsy-fartsy pretentious douche hipster filmmaker decided to make a Dadaist version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or worse, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – as a one-man show, if that one man was Riley I’d go see it anyway.

The rest of the cast is pretty terrific; Mirren is another actress whose presence in a film is all  the recommendation I need to go see it. Hurt is a veteran character actor who brings rumpled gravitas to the role, and Serkis is serpentine as the gangster in a smoking jacket, an ape in a velvet coat.

There is a thin veneer of civility over the violence which can come suddenly and shockingly which I found fascinating. However, one of the movie’s great flaws is a curious lifeless feeling to it; there’s little energy, as if the actors are all sleep-deprived. Riley is the lone exception although even he at times seems somnolent. Perhaps that was an effect the filmmakers were intentionally trying to create?

One of the major plot points is that both Pinkie and Rose are teens, but curiously Joffe (who wrote the screen adaptation) chose to bury that particular lede; it’s a major plot point but I get the sense that he presumes you know it already (note to Joffe: not everyone read the book). It does eventually get revealed, sort of, but by then it changes the dynamic tremendously and unnecessarily. I would have wished that Joffe made this salient point clear from the get-go, but again, that’s just me.

Other than suffering from script obfuscation, the writing is actually pretty good most of the time and the acting, despite the odd lack of inertia, is top notch. I would have liked to have rated this higher (and some critics did) but I just wasn’t inspired to like it any more than a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack number. In this case, the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Riley is intense. Great period depiction. Terrific cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit muddled. Curious lack of energy. Omits a crucial story point early on needlessly.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second adaptation of the Graham Greene novel; the first was made in 1947.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard, but there are some interesting interviews with the principle cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and Steaming), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Krays
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Films 4 Foodies begins!

Winter’s Tale


Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

(2014) Romance (Warner Brothers) Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Will Smith, Mckayla Twiggs, Eva Marie Saint, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Ripley Sobo, Graham Greene, Harriett D. Foy, Matt Bomer, Lucy Griffiths, Michael Patrick Crane, Brian Hutchison, Alan Doyle, Maurice Jones, Maggie Geha. Directed by Akiva Goldsman

It goes without saying that we don’t really understand how the universe REALLY works and we likely never will. Whether or not there’s an afterlife when we die or whether we just dissolve into oblivion is something we won’t find out until it’s our time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Peter Lake (Farrell) is a thief and a good one indeed. He works for the Small Tails band, headed up by Pearly Soames (Crowe), a rough and tumble sort of fellow and they hold Manhattan in their thrall, circle 1912. However, Peter and Pearly have had a falling out, as it were and both being fine Irish gentlemen they mean to settle it the old fashioned way – by killing one another.

Peter knows that his opponent has the upper hand and it is only a matter of time before he is captured and killed. He needs to get out of New York but he needs to score enough cash to be able to survive. He doesn’t have much but he has a beautiful white horse that he found while being chased by Pearly and his thugs and that horse is absolutely special. In fact, it’s at the horse’s urging that Peter rob one final house, the house of New York Sun publisher Isaac Penn (Hurt).

The house appears to be deserted but it isn’t. Beverly Penn (Findlay), who suffers from terminal consumption, is home waiting to be well enough to head up to their lakeside country estate. Her fever is killing her and only cold weather can save her but soon even that won’t be enough. She interrupts Peter in his stealing and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Peter leaves, thinking that this house is a dead end for him literally but he can’t get the girl out of his head.

Neither can Pearly who has had a vision of a beautiful red headed woman. In fact, Pearly is a demon, one to keep souls from ascending to the heavens and becoming stars which is what happens when souls complete their work on Earth. Pearly means to shatter Peter by using the young Penn girl to do it and even if it breaks the rules as adjudicated by the Judge (Smith) he will get his vengeance. Peter will find a way to his destiny even if it takes a century.

This is based on the complex and what many considered to be unfilmable novel by Mark Halprin. I don’t know how closely this sticks to the book having not read it yet but judging from what I see here if the movie is any indication I can see where it got its reputation. The backstory is so complex and layered that the overall effect is that the movie becomes convoluted. While I kept up with the movie, I got the sense that there was a lot of things in the backstory that by necessity had to be glossed over and I was losing a good deal of the novel’s richness.

That isn’t the fault of the performers who are universally stellar. Farrell and Findlay make a fine on-screen couple while Crowe glowers with the best of them. Greene, Hurt, Smith and Saint all make what are essentially extended cameos and make the best of their abbreviated screen times. Connelly, as a modern reporter looking into what would be to anyone an astonishing story, is given little to do besides look concerned and bewildered.

Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel beautifully captures New York City both old and new beneath a stark winter sky. This is a truly gorgeous looking film, and the story itself if you can follow it without getting completely lost is actually really affecting. Now some critics have been giving this a thrashing because they found it to be, as veteran Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers eloquently put it, to be preposterous twaddle. Now, I personally think this is unduly harsh. If you call the film preposterous twaddle, so too is the book on which it is based on and the Shakespeare play that inspired the book and while we’re at it, other literature and movies of a like nature, including Ladyhawke and The Princess Bride which are of a similar vein. From my point of view, we can all use a bit of preposterous twaddle every now and again. Keeps the soul honest.

This isn’t going to be making any ten-best lists at the year’s conclusion nor is it apparently going to be setting any box office records. This isn’t a good enough movie to get the kind of word-of-mouth that a movie needs to thrive these days, and let’s face it – romantic fantasies have a bit of an uphill climb because the audience that once craved them is now overserved with such tidbits as The Twilight Saga. However, I for one was enchanted by Winter’s Tale, flaws and all.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful story. Nice performances by most of the leads. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat preposterous in places. A bit muddled.

FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find some violence and some sensuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rhythm and Hues, one of Hollywood’s top effects companies, went bankrupt while in post-production for this film; Framestore was hired to complete the work that Rhythm and Hues had begun.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Xanadu

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

Casino Jack


Casino Jack

Even though Kevin Spacey is calling to verify, Barry Pepper looks skeptical that he’s got 250 pounds in that weight.

(2010) Biodrama (ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Conrad Pla, Christian Campbell, Yannick Bisson, Spencer Garrett, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, David Fraser, Graham Greene, Maury Chaykin, Stephen Chambers, Rachelle Lefevre. Directed by George Hickenlooper

We grew up thinking that American politics were relatively corruption-free, compared to other countries. That politicians would vote their conscience and while not necessarily paragons of virtue, were at least not for sale. How wrong we were.

Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was one o the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He had some of the most powerful men in the world on speed dial; he could get men elected or doom their campaigns. His alliance with Native American casinos helped liberalize the laws that allowed them to flourish. An orthodox Jew, he helped fund Jewish community centers and education facilities and was a pillar of his community.

Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) lived high on the hog, funneling the money from Indian casinos into the pockets of politicians, with a certain amount remaining for themselves in fees. But the two men get greedy, deciding to hire seedy Virginia businessman Adam Kidan (Lovitz) who has ties to mobster Big Tony (Chaykin) to further skim off the top.

When Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Lefevre) discovers he’s cheating on her, she starts talking to investigators about the wrongdoing that she’s fully aware of – things that the savvy Abramoff had warned him not to discuss with anyone. Big Tony becomes uneasy and orders a hit on Kidan which fails. Kidan also begins to talk – and the empire around Abramoff begins to crumble.

Director George Hickenlooper was best known for his documentaries – including the acclaimed Heart of Darkness which looked at the troubled production of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  He tells his tale here with admirable tautness, taking the brevity of the documentary form and mixing it with the richness of a narrative. Sadly, he passed away less than two months before the film opened in the United States.

This is very much Spacey’s film. For a time after American Beauty, he was perhaps the best actor in Hollywood  with a string of performances that were as good as any body of work for a comparable amount of time in the history of movies. Strong hyperbole I know but you can certainly make an argument for it. However after his Bobby Darin movie, he seemed to move away from the limelight deliberately, opting to spend more time on the stage and mostly confining himself to supporting roles over the past decade or so. This is his best performance in years, taking Abramoff – a very complex human being – and humanizing him. We see his manic, compulsive side and his tender, giving side sometimes within moments of one another. Kelly Preston plays his wife and the two have a pretty decent chemistry going.

One of the things that I really liked about this movie is that you really see how lobbying works in the political system. I also admire the courage of the filmmakers in naming names and pointing fingers. There are no punches pulled; those that were involved with Abramoff are portrayed here, either with actors or in documentary footage of the Senate hearing which is weaved in masterfully with the re-created footage. Spacey has a moment where he harangues the Senators passing judgment on him, reminding them that most of them took money from him for their campaigns. This all occurs in his head, of course – in reality Abramoff has been relatively charitable towards his accusers.

This makes a fine companion piece to the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money which portrays Abramoff in a less sympathetic light, preferring to opine that he was symptomatic of the corruption and arrogance in the Republican party. Hickenlooper doesn’t make such indications, pointing out that this is a political problem that doesn’t belong to a single party (which of course it doesn’t). The real Jack Abramoff actually is leading the fight against lobbying following his release from his prison sentence. Perhaps to atone for his own actions, he remains a zealot dedicated to changing how politics work.

This was characterized as the worst political scandal since Watergate and yet it passed through the American consciousness like a Kardashian sex tape. In fact, it would be fair to say the Kardashians got more notice than the Abramoff trial. It involved some of the top figures in the George W. Bush White House, resulted in the indictment and conviction of a U.S. Congressman (Bob Ney) and in Abramoff’s fall from grace. What it should have done was prompt a re-examination of the role of lobbyists in the political structure but it is business as usual in Washington. That’s perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sordid affair.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Spacey’s best performances in the last five years. A sobering look at how lobbyists are subverting the political process.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The foul language is pretty much non-stop. There is a bit of sexuality involved as well as a little nudity, and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed with the digital Red One Camera in Canada utilizing blue screen technology with characters filmed in Canada projected onto backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel but not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $12M production budget; this wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Colors

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT:More of the American Experience

The Green Mile


The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan shows Tom Hanks which direction he'll have to grow in to be as tall as he.

(1999) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Gary Sinese, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Sadler. Directed by Frank Darabont

 

I know of at least three authentic American geniuses in the arts named Steve: Stephen Sondheim, who doesn’t figure into this; Steven Spielberg; and Stephen King.

Spielberg started out as a director of entertainments that while not always taken seriously by the critical cognoscenti nonetheless enjoyed extreme popularity. Later, he would direct projects that met with critical acclaim, Oscars and the respect of his peers. He is now rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time.

Stephen King appears to be paralleling Spielberg’s course. At the start of his career, his work was dismissed as mere horror novels, but they sold in record numbers. Then starting in the late 1990s, he began to produce works of greater depth and heart. Witness The Green Mile, which has been brought to the screen by Frank Darabont, who also directed one of the best filmed adaptations of King’s work, The Shawshank Redemption.

Like Shawshank, The Green Mile is set in a prison in the ’30s at the start of the film. In this case, it’s in cellblock E of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana (moved from Mississippi in the book) circa 1935. Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) supervises the guards on the cellblock, which is better known as Death Row. He has a pretty good team of guards working for him, most notably Brutus “Brutal” Howell (Morse), a surprisingly gentle-natured bear of a man. Their job is to keep calm the men who are waiting to die because, as Edgecombe tells Percy Wetmore (Hutchison), a sadistic guard with connections to the governor, “they can snap at anytime and hurt themselves, or somebody else.”

Into this volatile mix comes John Coffey (Duncan), a huge, hulking, simple man who dwarfs even Brutal. He has been convicted of the rape and particularly brutal murder of two young girls. He seems gentle and frightened, but as his lawyer (an uncredited Gary Sinese) explains, a dog may seem gentle and loving and then unexpectedly turn on you.

Coffey joins a group of men waiting to be executed, including Eduart Delacroix (Jeter), a timid prisoner with a very precocious pet; Wild Bill Wharton (Rockwell), who is understatedly described by Warden Hal Moores (Cromwell) as “a problem child”; and Mr. Jingles, a mischievous mouse.

Coffey, you see, has a gift – a unique and miraculous gift. He shoulders the burden of this gift in a world of suspicion, prejudice and brutality. The Green Mile looks at that world without flinching or blinking, the kind of a world that produces a Wild Bill, a John Coffey and a Paul Edgecombe, who is a decent man doing a horrible job.

Parts of The Green Mile are hideous (a botched execution attempt) and sometimes beautiful (unexplainable cures, fireflies in the moonlight). It also has more urine than you’ll ever see in five movies (courtesy a urinary tract infection for Edgecombe), so those who are squeamish about bodily fluids be warned.

 The acting here is uniformly good, with Hanks at the top of his game and Morse, Jeter and Cromwell – some of the finest character actors in Hollywood then and now – all delivering fine performances. Duncan and Rockwell, both at the very beginnings of their careers, were both terrific, Duncan receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. That was one of four Oscar nominations the film received and while it didn’t win any of them, certainly it received plenty of love from the Academy who are not known for extending much of it to Stephen King and his movie adaptations.

Despite being three hours long, The Green Mile never drags for a moment. That’s because this really isn’t a film about prisons and crime; the human spirit is really the subject of the picture – the nature of good and evil, death and dignity. There are some emotionally gut-wrenching moments. Da Queen had tears streaming down her face for about the last half hour. She claims that The Green Mile is off the Hankie scale completely, and advises that you just have a whole box of tissues available when you sit down and watch the movie. Preferably one of those industrial strength Costco sizes. Trust me, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that you know from the first few moments is going to be a great motion picture experience, one that touches you in deep places, perhaps even comforts you. The Green Mile is just such a movie. It was my pick for the best film of 1999 and remains to this day more than a decade later a modern classic, one which bears repeated viewings. It certainly is a staple in my family and I’m not alone in that assessment. If you haven’t seen it, you are truly missing out.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern classic. A touching treatise on the human spirit. Excellent performances from Hanks, Morse, Duncan, Rockwell, Cromwell and Jeter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe you hate Stephen King on general principles.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can be pretty foul, there are some sexually oriented scenes as well as some fairly disturbing images of murder and execution. There are also lots of scenes involving urine, so be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stephen King visited the set during filming and asked to be strapped into the electric chair. He was somewhat unnerved by the experience and immediately asked to be released.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While the original DVD release (2000) didn’t have much room for features, the 2-disc special edition (2006) did and included Duncan’s original screen test and a make-up test with Hanks (he was originally set to play Edgecomb as an old man but the make-up was unconvincing and so Dabbs Greer was cast in the role in his final screen appearance) as well as a new nearly two hour feature on the making of the film. The Blu-Ray (2009) has all of these as well as a 34-page Digibook with background on the film, actor bios and an essay on Darabont’s three King adaptations to date.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $286.8M on a $60M production budget; the movie was pretty much a Blockbuster (and is the highest-grossing Stephen King adaptation to date).

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance