Little Woods


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elysium


Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

(2013) Science Fiction (TriStar) Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, Adrian Holmes, Jared Keeso, Valentino Giron, Yolanda Abbud L, Carly Pope, Michael Shanks, Ona Grauer, Christina Cox. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

When the world becomes too overpopulated and too polluted to live comfortably, where are the super-rich going to go? Why, to outer space of course.

In 2154, the same year Avatar is set in – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the Earth has become one gigantic favela – a kind of super-barrio that has appeared in Brazil and are ultra-violent. The wealthy, whose corporate interests have destroyed the Earth and enslaved the population, have fled to Elysium, an idyllic space station which looks a whole lot like Boca Raton except for the humidity. There the rich live in peace, quiet and plenty living indefinite lifespans due to an automated medical bay that cures pretty much anything short of death.

Of course, no such machines exist on Earth for the general population who overcrowd hospitals using 20th century technology for the most part. This is the world that Max (Damon) lives in. An orphan who became a legendary car thief and was imprisoned for it, he’s trying to scrape together a life on the straight and narrow building robotic police officers. Somewhat ironically, one of the robotic cops ends up breaking his arm when he gets lippy during a routine bus stop hassle. However, the silver lining here is that the nurse who cares for him is Frey (Braga), a childhood friend and fellow orphan who Max is sweet on. Frey is reluctant to get involved with an ex-con though, especially since her own daughter (Tremblay) is in the end stages of leukemia.

However, Max gets accidentally irradiated in an industrial accident caused by an uncaring and sloppy corporate bureaucrat. He has five days to live before the radiation kills him. His only chance at survival is to get to Elysium. His only chance to get to Elysium is through Spider (Moura), which Max’s good friend Julio (Luna) warns him against but nevertheless supports him for. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium but first he must do a job for Spider; to download the codes and passwords from a citizen of Elysium so that Spider’s shuttles can successfully get through the formidable defenses of the station without getting blasted into atoms. Max chooses Carlyle (Fichtner), the uncaring and callous owner of the robotics factory.

Unknown to either Spider or Max is that Carlyle is conspiring with Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) to stage a coup from the satellite’s somewhat milquetoast president (Tahir). Carlyle has created a program to reboot all of Elysium’s systems and effectively give control of the entire satellite to Delacourt. When Max gets that information from Carlyle, he immediately becomes the most dangerous human on Earth. Delacourt sends her brutish operative Krueger (Copley) and his thugs to collect Max and download that data. Krueger doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get that information and Max doesn’t care what he has to do to get cured. The results of their struggle will shape the future of two worlds.

Blomkamp is best known for directing District 9, the surprise South African hit that was nominated for four Oscars. He showed a real flair there for fusing social commentary with an all-out action movie. He also showed a unique visual sense that is also very much in evidence here – this is one of the most stunning movie this summer visually in a summer full of great visuals.

There are a lot of modern parallels here from the Occupy Wall Street class war scenario to Obamacare. Clearly Blomkamp has some liberal sympathies; I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t compared this movie as a thinly veiled love song to Obamacare which it isn’t – it’s far more liberal than that. If anything, the filmmaker seems to be advocating a single payer system in which health care is free for all.

Matt Damon is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable actors both from a box office standpoint (a recent study revealed that his films make more money per every dollar he is paid than any other major Hollywood star) but also from a quality standpoint. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Matt Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation, the everyman who triumphs over adversities large and small. Here even though his character has an overly-developed sense of self-preservation (so much so at times that he is willing to throw friends and loved ones under the bus for his own gain) he’s still so thoroughly likable that you end up rooting for him anyway. I doubt if any other star in Hollywood could get away with a role like this.

Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico so there is a healthy dose of Mexican talent in the film, including Diego Luna who is growing into as compelling an actor as there is in Hollywood. Alice Braga, a Brazilian, is lustrous and shows why many consider her one of the most promising actresses in the world. Copley is a bit over-the-top as Krueger, more brutish than anything. He would have been more compelling a villain had his character been fleshed out a little (no pun intended – for those who have seen the movie already you’ll know what I mean). Foster, an Oscar-winning actress and one of the finest performers of her generation, throws us an oddly lackluster performance which gives me the sense that she really didn’t understand or care about her character at all. It makes me wonder if her experience on this film may have led her to announce (in a roundabout way) her retirement from acting. If so, I hope that she reconsiders; I’d hate this movie to be her acting swan song.

I like that the movie gives us something to think about, although conservatives may find the film to be unpalatable to their viewpoints. Some of the film is a bit wild in terms of the potshots it takes, sacrificing believable story to make its political points. Liberals may be more forgiving of its sins in this area however.

In a fairly tepid and disappointing summer blockbuster season, this is one of the brighter lights. While the box office to date leads me to believe that it will have to rely on overseas revenue to make back its production costs, this is still a compelling movie that you might want to see on a big screen for some of the awesome visuals (a shuttle crash on Elysium is simply amazing). Hey, in the heat of August an air-conditioned multiplex might be just the thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful science fiction. Nice performances by Damon, Braga and Luna. Sweet special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems scattershot at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlyle’s shuttle bears the Bugatti Automotive logo.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100; more positive reviews than negative but not by much.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zardoz

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Red State

Extraordinary Measures


Extraordinary Measures

Harrison Ford is getting tired of Brendan Fraser's claims that Rick O'Connell was a better archaeologist than Indiana Jones.

(CBS Films) Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Courtney B. Vance, Meredith Droeger, Diego Velazquez, Jared Harris, Alan Ruck, Patrick Bauchau, David Clennon, Dee Wallace, Ayanna Berkshire, P.J. Byrne. Directed by Tom Vaughan

There are no limits to what a parent will do for their children. Once in awhile, there are situations that call for parents to demonstrate that, to risk everything for the sake of their children – particularly when everything is precisely what’s at stake.

John Crowley (Fraser) is a successful marketing executive at a pharmaceutical firm. He has reason to be in that particular business; his daughter Megan (Droeger) and son Patrick (Velazquez) suffer from Pompe disease, a genetic disorder in which the muscles are unable to break down sugars due to the lack of a critical enzyme. The disease is incurable and fatal. Megan has just celebrated her eighth birthday and is showing signs of entering the disease’s final stage. A respiratory failure nearly finishes her off, but she shows surprising fight. Most of the doctors involved in Megan’s treatment are advising Crowley to enjoy what little time he has left with his two sick kids.

He and his wife Aileen (Russell) are on the edge of despair but Crowley has found a lone researcher at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford) who has formulated some radical solutions for a possible treatment. It is the closest thing to hope that Crowley has found, but repeated calls to the good doctor have gone unanswered. Taking the bull by the horns, the desperate father goes to Lincoln to meet with Stonehill, only to be stonewalled. Crowley chases him out of the university parking lot and finally corners him in a bar. Stonehill is gruff, but sympathetic. He is nowhere near producing a working drug, and the money it would take just to set up testing for the drug – half a million dollars to start – is prohibitive. Without batting an eyelash, Crowley tells Stonehill that he has started up a foundation that is in the process of initial fundraising and that he could raise the necessary cash. Stonehill gives him a month to do it, but is skeptical that Crowley will raise anything at all.

Instead, Stonehill and his wife roll up their sleeves and get to work. They run fundraising events and call friends, colleagues and parents of children with Pompe like Markus (Vance). They don’t quite make the goal, but they raise $91,000, enough to at least keep Stonehill involved. Instead of doing research at the University, which Stonehill believes doesn’t value his work, he decides to start a new biotech company with Crowley as his business partner. This will mean that Crowley will have to quit his job, which his boss (Ruck) pleads with him not to do; Crowley is on track to get a promotion and a significant upgrade in salary. Crowley however is not swayed; if there is even a shot of saving his kids he has to take it.

The new startup needs to raise some venture capital in order to get off the ground. They approach the Renzler Group in Chicago, headed by Dr. Renzler (Clennon), an old friend of Stonehill’s. The meeting goes disastrously however when Dr. Stonehill has a meltdown when he is questioned about the new start-ups plans to get the drug to market. Stonehill, a career academic and scientist, has never done this before, and the group is understandably nervous about the prospects of investing money in a company whose principals are woefully inexperienced.

In order to get Renzler on board, which Crowley knows is critical for the start-up company’s very existence; he has to give Renzler far more concessions than Stonehill is willing to give. He manages to broker an agreement with Dr. Renzler, but Stonehill is furious at the terms and wants no part of the deal. Crowley responds that he can continue his career of curing diseases in theory but not helping a single patient in reality. Mollified somewhat, Stonehill signs the agreement.

They set up a lab in the middle of Nowheresville, Nebraska and things aren’t going well. They are running through their funds at an alarming rate and their investors are demanding that clinical trials begin on Stonehill’s enzymes or they will pull the plug. Crowley is aware that there is a large biotech firm that has been working on a Pompe treatment as well; better funded and better equipped, they might well reach the market before Stonehill’s group with some sort of treatment. Aware that Stonehill’s theories and scientific genius are salable assets, he convinces Stonehill that in order for their small company to survive they will have to sell themselves to the larger company. Stonehill blows yet another gasket but once again gets on board with the program.

Crowley and Stonehill don’t fit in well initially. Stonehill hates being bogged down with protocols and procedures, while Crowley is constantly butting heads with Dr. Webber (Harris), an executive who is more of a bureaucrat. Time is ticking down on Crowley’s children and he is becoming desperate. Can they come up with a treatment in time to save the Crowley children?

This is the first release by the new film arm of the CBS Network, and some have snickered that it has a bit of a TV movie-of-the-week smell to it, but that’s not completely true. I thought there were a lot of positives to be sure.

This movie is based on a true story, albeit very loosely. While John Crowley and his children are real, Dr. Stonehill is not. He is an amalgam of several scientists, in particular Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen at Duke University. In reality, Pompe kills most children before their second birthday; Megan and Patrick are eight and six, respectively, in the film,. In perhaps forgivable license, Megan is aged so that she may display spunk and wisdom beyond her years to evoke more symathy from the audience and to be sure Droeger does a credible job in the role.

Ford is an actor who knows his own limitations, but he is also conversely well aware of his strengths and this role is right in his wheelhouse. Stonehill is grumpy, cranky, narcissistic and just plain ornery. Ford imbues him with all the gruffness that he can give him, which is considerable. Nobody does gruff quite as well as Harrison Ford. And while critics have been picking on Brendan Fraser, I think he did a credible job as the desperate father. Sure, there were some maudlin moments but I think that was a function of the script more than a reflection of Fraser’s abilities as an actor (check out Gods and Monsters if you want to see him at his best). What’s criminal here is that Keri Russell, an actress who is wonderful whenever she is given something to work with, is once again shuffled off into the background without much to work with. As anyone who saw her in Waitress will tell you, she is absolutely capable of carrying a movie, so it’s a shame she is reduced to mainly playing a doting/grieving mom. There is a scene in which she and her husband are interrupted in the course of having a rare intimate moment by a nurse coming to their home for her shift; it was one of the few moments when you got a sense of the relationship between John and Aileen Crowley.

Where the movie excels is in its portrayal of the pitfalls, obstacles and long odds that face the development of an orphan drug, and the road it must take to make it into the pharmacies. I found some of the boardroom scenes more provocative than the medical ones, which is fine by me.

It also has to be said that the movie is a little soft on the pharmaceutical industry in general. It should be noted that the drug that was actually developed for Pompe patients, Myozyme, costs about $300,000 a year and must be taken for the entirety of the patient’s life. There have been instances in which American insurance companies have refused to pay for the treatment, which is a death sentence for the patient and yet another talking point on why health care reform is so badly needed in this country (for the record, most other developed countries provide Myozyme for those who need it).

There are some very powerful moments, particularly when the Crowleys are in despair. Once in awhile there is a touch of the maudlin in the brush but the canvas isn’t affected by the unwelcome addition as much as you might think. Still, the film might have benefitted from less dramatic license and more of the struggle not only to find the cure but in getting it funded. Less would have definitely been more in this case.

FOR MORE ON THE CROWLEYS FOLLOW THIS LINK: The Crowley Family Website

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing glimpse at how orphan drugs are brought to the market. Very powerful in places from an emotional standpoint.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally veers from emotionally powerful to maudlin. Russell, a fine actress in her own right, is given very little to do. Many liberties are taken with the facts of both the disease and the Crowleys’ story.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language, but some children may find the frank treatment of the Crowley children’s condition a bit disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.J. Byrne, the actor playing the Crowley children’s physician, has a cousin who is actually treating the real-life Crowley children.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Book of Eli