Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

Advertisements

Dean


Life is a day at the beach for Demetri Martin.

(2016) Dramedy (CBS) Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, Ginger Gonzaga, Luka Jones, Briga Heelan, Levi MacDougall, Rory Scovel, Drew Tarver, Barry Rothbert, Meryl Hathaway, Nicholas Delany, Kate Berlant, Asif Ali, Florence Marcisak, Pierce Minor, Michael Oberholtzer, Victoria Vitkowski-Bennett, Reid Scott, Jamila Webb, Jessica Ruane. Directed by Demetri Martin

You never know when your life is going to change irrevocably – or how. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a romance that will turn out to last a lifetime. When it comes right down to it, life is a roller coaster ride we take while blindfolded.

Dean (Martin) is a cartoonist (and by the way, Demetri Martin drew the New Yorker-style cartoons seen throughout the movie) who lives in New York City. He has just broken up with his fiancée (Vitkowski-Bennett) and he is having trouble finishing his second book of toons. One of the reasons for that is he is still grieving for his mother (Marcisak) who recently passed away unexpectedly.

His life is in a bit of a stall. His relationship with his father Robert (Kline) is tenuous to say the least; neither man approves of how the other is grieving. When Robert drops the bombshell that he plans to sell the family home that Dean grew up in, Dean refuses to even discuss the matter and when Robert insists that he start clearing out his room, Dean flees to Los Angeles, ostensibly to listen to a job offer (that he never really took seriously to begin with) but more to hang out with his buddy Eric (Scovel) who takes him to a party where he meets Nicky (Jacobs), an Angelino whom he falls head over heels for – literally. His first act when he makes eye contact with her is to do a face plant on the floor.

Nonetheless their relationship starts to take off. Meanwhile, back in New York City, Robert is developing feelings for his real estate agent Carol (Steenburgen) that he’s not ready to act on, or at least thinks he isn’t. They do go out but the date ends disastrously. Both men are at a crossroads and need to get on with their lives, but do they have the will to move on?

If the movie sounds like something Woody Allen might have done back in the 70s, you’re probably right. Martin’s sensibility as a writer seems to fall in line with that of the Great Neurotic. However, this isn’t straight rip-off by any means; while Martin is almost certainly influenced by Allen, he isn’t slavish about it. Dean is certainly somewhat neurotic (his cartoons since his mother passed all have to do with the Grim Reaper) but not of the “ohmygawd he needs therapy” variety, which was where Allen mined much of his best material.

Martin is definitely a multi-threat performer; not only is he a terrific stand-up but he shows that he has the ability to be a lead in a theatrical narrative. Yes, the Beatles haircut is distracting but no more than some of the crazy hair-dos of comic actors we’ve seen of late. Martin’s delivery is a little sad sack (which fits the circumstances) but he has a kind of puppy dog cuteness that will certainly win him some fans. As a director he’s still learning his craft, but this is an effort that is impressive for a first full-length feature.

While Martin has a promising future, there are some cast members who are terrific now. Casting Kline and Steenburgen – so wonderful together in My Life as a House – was inspired and the two still have tons of chemistry. Some critics have found the storyline involving the two of them more interesting than the one between Martin and Jacobs and I can’t say as I disagree. I wouldn’t mind seeing more movies with Kline and Steenburgen in them. I would also like to see Jacobs’ role a little more fleshed out. Like Martin, she also has a bunch of screen presence and could be an onscreen force someday.

While the film wasn’t as consistently funny as I might have liked, it had enough humor in it to tickle the funny bone yet didn’t sink into parody or low comedy. The humor is, like Martin’s stand-up act, intelligent and a bit off-kilter. While this isn’t a movie that is going to make big waves on the Hollywood ocean, it should get enough notice to further the careers of everyone involved, or at least I hope so. It certainly is worth indie film lovers taking the time to check out.

REASONS TO GO: Martin has a whole lot of potential. A stellar supporting cast helps power the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film comes off in places as a knockoff of Woody Allen.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs and Heelan also star together in the Netflix series Love.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleepwalk With Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Journey

The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Frantz


Pierre Niney enjoys the scent of a woman.

(2016) Romantic Drama (Music Box) Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair, Alice de Lencquesaing, Axel Wandtke, Rainer Egger, Rainer Silberschneider, Merlin Rose, Ralf Dittrich, Michael Witte, Lutz Blochberger, Jeanne Ferron, Torsten Michaelis, Étienne Ménard, Claire Martin, Camille Grandville. Directed by François Ozon

 

One of the facts of war is that it causes young people to die. While politicians, war profiteers and hawks tend to accept this as acceptable damage, those families whose loved ones are slain are left devastated, picking up the pieces.

Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Stötzner) is grieving the loss of his son Frantz (von Lucke) in the Great War, which has been over for a year now. He continues to practice medicine as the sole physician in a small German town, but his heart has been ripped out of his body. So too for his wife Magda (Gruber) who has buried her child that should have outlived her.

Perhaps it is worst for Anna (Beer), the fiancée of Frantz. With no family of her own, she has been unofficially adopted by Frantz’s parents, taking care of them and assuaging their grief. She also makes daily walks to the graveyard where Frantz’s headstone is; his actual body was buried in France where he fell.

One day she notices fresh flowers on the grave that she didn’t place there. She learns that it was a foreigner that put them there. A few days later, she sees the young man at the grave. She talks to him and learns his name is Adrien (Niney) and he was a friend of Frantz before the war when Frantz studied music in Paris.

Dr. Hoffmeister is initially cold to the visitor who is French; it was a French soldier that killed Frantz and the good Doctor essentially blames all of France for his son’s death. However, Adrien’s obvious grief and his quiet regard for his friend win the family over, culminating in Adrien playing the violin for the family, although it proves to be too much for him.

An attraction and later affection begins to develop between Anna and Adrien, much to the chagrin of Kreutz (von Bülow) who is interested in taking Anna as his own wife. Adrien’s appearance however has stirred up some anti-French sentiment in the village which is somewhat understandable as it was to their minds the French who decimated the young men from the town. Dr. Hoffmeister chides some of those feeling that way, speaking to his own guilt at urging his son to enlist in a patriotic fervor. The fathers, he opined, were guilty of putting the bayonets in the hands of children and were responsible when they weren’t enough to protect them from the mortars and machine guns that tore the German soldiers to shreds in the trenches.

But Adrien does carry a secret of his own and when at last he feels that he must confess it to Anna, he retreats home leaving her and her foster parents devastated. At length she decides to pursue Adrien to Paris but what she finds there isn’t exactly what she expected.

Ozon is one of France’s premiere directors but his latest film has sharply divided critics. Some believe this is among his very best efforts; others see it as one of his worst and still a few think it’s somewhere in between. For my own part, I think that the movie hearkens back to movies of the silent era; the black and white images take on an almost sinister aura but Ozon adds color for certain sequences, mostly flashbacks but also moments when (particularly) Anna is feeling some hope for the future, as when she watches Adrien go swimming in a local river in an idyllic setting. It’s not quite Technicolor however but more of a pastel tone that you might get from colorization or from early color cinematography in the 20s and early 30s. This does a tremendous job of establishing the era. I found it reminiscent of the work of Fritz Lang and other directors from Weimar Germany.

Beer is lustrous here and does a terrific job in taking Anna from grief-stricken and numb to hopeful and ready to move on with her life. There’s a lot of depth in her performance and I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing more of her in the future. Likewise, Niney adds an underpinning of melancholy to Adrien which we at first attribute to his grief at the death of his friend but eventually realize is something else entirely.

The source material was virulently anti-war and so is this but in a more subtle manner. The movie looks at the prejudices that drive us to war and also at the consequences and devastation that war brings, both in a physical sense as well as emotional. During a train trip, we see entire towns that have been obliterated by the war. Even the small town in which Anna lives is not untouched; the few young men who can be seen are terribly maimed and disfigured.

While the color makes an impression, it also has the effect of distracting the viewer and taking them out of the movie a little bit. The movie drags a little bit and could have been a bit shorter, I wouldn’t call this one of the director’s masterworks but it is a strong film nonetheless and worth seeing. I wouldn’t be surprised if you too were transported to a bygone era just as I was.

REASONS TO GO: Ozon resurrects a sort of Fritz Lang vibe. Strong performances by Beer and Niney help make the movie believable.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of color in the mainly black and white film is occasionally jarring and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence essentially in one scene as well as some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ozon based the movie on the Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullabye.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Years of Our Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Tommy’s Honour

Dig Two Graves


Samantha Isler and the tunnel of terror.

(2014) Thriller (Area23a) Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Audrey Francis, Mark Lancaster, Mikush Lieshdedaj, Bert Matias, Gregorio Parker, Ben Schneider, Ann Sonneville, Sauda Namir, Tom Hertenstein, Kara Zediker. Directed by Hunter Adams

 

Guilt when coupled with grief can make a very potent emotional stew. It can drive us to do things we would never ordinarily consider doing, to completely rewrite our moral codes. It takes a very strong will to grapple with these emotions at once and come out on top.

Jake Mather (Isler) however has the disadvantage of being a pre-teen. She and her brother Sean (Schneider) were standing on a cliff above a quarry which is now a lake. He urged her to jump. She didn’t want to. He offered to hold her hand. She said yes but at the last minute let go. Over the side he went and into the water, never to resurface. In fact, his body was never recovered.

She is soon approached by a trio of gypsy moonshiners who have the devil’s own offer for her; she can get her brother back if only she can get someone to take his place. They even have a specific person in mind – Willie Proctor (Cain) who has a huge crush on her. As it turns out their grandfathers have a connection to the gypsies going back to 1947, thirty years earlier. That connection has dark connotations for the two children who weren’t even born when the events took place.

Jake’s grandfather (Levine), the town sheriff, has been holding the guilt of those events in and as he investigates the mysterious gypsies and their designs on Jake, memories come flooding back, unpleasant ones. Keeping Jake alive will be hard enough; keeping her soul pure will be something else entirely.

Although this was filmed in Southern Illinois, there is more of a West Virginia vibe to it from my point of view. The movie seems to take its cues from Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. There is palpable menace but nothing so overt or concrete that we can identify exactly what it is. That makes the movie doubly scary. Adams chooses to take things slowly rather than racing towards the finish line; it’s a calculated risk but it serves the overall tone well.

Ted Levine is a fine character actor who is best known as the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs and the beleaguered San Francisco police captain in Monk. He goes subtle here, playing the haunted Sheriff Waterhouse mostly through the eyes and the cheroots he smokes. The sheriff loves his granddaughter fiercely and feels the pain of her grief keenly but he never talks down to her. I never thought I’d say this, but Ted Levine is the kind of grandfather I’d want to have. Most of the rest of the cast is decent although special mention must be given for Samantha Isler, who a couple years after this was filmed made Captain Fantastic. Her performance has depth far beyond that of most young actors.

The one place the movie goes wrong is the final act. It just seems to lose steam and never really regains it. There are some good moments that involve the Sheriff and his predecessor and we finally find out what the connection between the gypsies, Willie Proctor and Jake Mather is but I think a little bit too much is given away during the flashback sequences and as a result it comes as something of an anticlimax. I would have liked a bit more dramatic tension in the ending but at this point the film’s slower pace and languid tone work against it.

The rural setting is inherently creepy and dare I say haunted; thankfully, the horror elements are kept subtle and not too far-fetched. Adams has a very sure hand and the pacing is wonderfully slow. I’m absolutely flabbergasted this sat on the shelf so long but to be honest, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In these days of short attention spans and easily distracted youth, slow rolling thrillers simply aren’t going to get the audiences that quick cutting big budget CGI-laden franchise films are going to. And that’s okay; but there is an audience for movies like this and hopefully Dig Two Graves will find it.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a wonderful Southern Gothic feel to it.
REASONS TO STAY: It runs out of steam in the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some nudity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is just now getting a limited release, it actually debuted at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jessabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectral

The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson