Split


James McAvoy is having a ball.

James McAvoy is having a ball.

(2016) Thriller (Blumhouse/Universal) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Leigh Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Ukee Washington, Ann Wood, Robert Michael Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan, Rosemary Howard, Jerome Gallman, Lyne Renee, Kate Jacoby, Peter Patrikios, Kash Goins, Julie Potter. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

The human mind is a marvelous thing but also a dangerous thing. When you scratch the veneer, you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes what you find can be absolutely horrifying.

Three young girls – haughty Claire (Richardson), sycophantic Marcia (Sula) and outsider Casey (Taylor-Joy) – are kidnapped in broad daylight from a birthday party at a mall in suburban Philadelphia. They are rendered unconscious with a kind of spray chloroform and brought to a dungeon by Kevin (McAvoy), a seemingly mild-mannered young man.

Except it’s not just Kevin; there are a lot of different personalities jockeying for position “in the light” (i.e. the dominant personality allowed to show their face to the light) including prim and proper Miss Patricia, scheming manipulative Dennis, foppish Bradley, and 9-year-old child Hedwig. All are completely unique and some are more dangerous than others.

Kevin is under the care of a psychiatrist (Buckley) who specializes in Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder or good ol’ schizophrenia. Kevin has 23 such personalities rummaging around his head and a 24th getting ready to emerge with the ominous name of The Beast who has special plans for the young girls.

There have been some who have called for a boycott of the movie for it’s portrayal of DID patients which is, to say the least, far from realistic. I find that kind of disingenuous since nobody in their right mind would think of this movie as a scientifically accurate portrayal of a very real psychiatric issue – it certainly isn’t meant to be that any more than The Incredible Hulk is meant to be a realistic presentation of radiation poisoning. It’s a case of agenda-pushing politically correct sorts with sticks lodged firmly and deeply up their anal cavities trying to inflict their world view on the rest of us. Sometimes a movie is only after being a good time; lighten the hell up already.

Shyamalan who started out as a golden boy after his first couple of movies fell out of favor with both critics and fans alike and after a couple of really awful movies (I’m talking about you, After Earth and The Last Airbender) rebounded in 2015 with The Visit which was the highest-grossing horror film of that year. Judging on its performance so far, Split has a good shot at equaling that accomplishment.

One of Shyamalan’s strengths has always been his ability to tell a story well. It is when he drifts away from that strength and tries to be either too complicated or too cute that he gets into trouble. His last two movies have been more economical not only in terms of budget but also in terms of story; there is little or no fat on the bones of either film and as a result the movies feel more taut and involving.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor deliver an exceptional performance and McAvoy does as Kevin. It’s hard to imagine but Joaquin Phoenix was originally cast in the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; I don’t think the movie lost a thing for the change. In fact, I think Phoenix might have been less effective in the role, as good an actor as he is. McAvoy doesn’t oversell the various personalities and uses a lot of subtle facial expressions to convey his characters. There is a little CGI help, particularly near the end of the movie (which is not coincidentally the weakest part of the movie) but otherwise it’s all McAvoy and hopefully it will help him garner some meatier roles in the future.

The supporting performances are adequate but frankly the three captives have little depth to them (which is more a function of the writing than the performances) although Taylor-Joy continues to develop as one of the most exciting up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood right now. Buckley hams it up a little bit as the scientist too blinded by her research to see the real danger that is developing right in front of her very eyes. Like McAvoy, she seems to be having a grand old time making the film and it shows. In fact, I get the sense that Shyamalan himself seemed more confident and while he did express that this was one of his most challenging shoots ever, there is an element of fun throughout with some appropriately placed humor.

Some are calling this his comeback film but I am still a bit on the fence about that. Certainly he is on the right path but this doesn’t compare with his best two films, both made at the beginning of his career. While the post-credits scene absolutely floored me and left me leaving the theater with a huge grin on my face (and sets up a sequel that is sure to happen), the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and the final sequence when The Beast makes his appearance is a bit of a letdown in many ways.

Still this is in the upper echelon of Shyamalan’s filmography and that’s a good thing. While he has been disappointing of late, his last two movies are showing a return to form and leaves me hopeful that we will soon be seeing movies on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Now that would be truly a Hollywood miracle.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is nicely taut and suspenseful. McAvoy gives a very strong performance. The twist in the post-credits scene is absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The girls are in general pretty much without personality. The film drags a bit in the middle. The Beast is a little bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, thematic content that may be squirm-inducing for some, a bit of foul language and some behavior that is suggestive of pedophilia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth film directed by Shyamalan to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Psycho
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Book of Love

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The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2


Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

(2012) Romance (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Chaske Spencer, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Sheen, Maggie Grace, Jamie Campbell Bower, Christopher Heyerdahl, Lateef Crowder, Lee Pace, Omar Metwally, Dakota Fanning. Directed by Bill Condon

Our Film Library 2015

All things come to an end – even the Earth one day will flicker out of existence, the victim of our sun’s own demise. For fans of the Twilight Saga, the approach of the final movie in the franchise was met with a bittersweet mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that once the movie was viewed that the series would be done forever and yet looking forward to seeing the climactic chapters in the book come to life.

Following the conversion of Bella Swan (Stewart) to vampirism by her new husband Edward Cullen (Pattinson) in order to save Bella’s life while giving birth to their new daughter Renesmee (Foy and ten other actresses not to mention CGI babies) life has resumed normalcy in the vampire household of the Cullens but it won’t stay that way for long. The vampire ruling class, the Morituri, have been informed of Renesmee’s birth and have decided that the child is an abomination that will never age, will become exceedingly powerful and dangerous and must be destroyed. They don’t like her name much, either. Then again, nobody does.

So leader Aro (Sheen) and an army of vampires from throughout the world come to Forks to do battle. Meanwhile, werewolf Jacob (Lautner) has been imprinted upon by baby Renesmee, which means that the two are destined to be lovers which is kind of creepy when you think about it. The feud between Jacob and Edward is more or less resolved, although neither Bella nor Edward are all that keen on having a werewolf as a future son-in-law. However, with Jacob imprinted by the vampire Jacob’s wolf clan reluctantly agrees to aid clan Cullen in the coming fight, which they know about because Alice Cullen (Greene) is, as everyone knows, psychic. Convenient, that is.

Anyway, it’s all going to culminate in one big battle in the snow with vampires and werewolves alike getting their heads torn off like so many cheap action figures. Bella, however, is now one mother of a badass and no longer needs to be the weakling relying on the protection of Edward and his family. Can the Cullens defeat the numerically superior Morituri clan or will the Morituri succeed in destroying the Cullens and the new baby once and for all?

Well, I’m sure you can figure out the answer to that one even if you aren’t familiar with the series. I have to admit that I actually enjoyed the first movie in the series but they’ve gotten progressively worse as the series has gone along. The fifth and final cinematic opus in the saga is unfortunately the very worst of the lot.

The cast is as a whole excruciating to watch. Even eminently watchable actors like Sheen and Dakota Fanning overact so shamelessly that the union might have considered revoking their membership. Worse still are the special effects, which for a movie with a $75 million production budget are unforgivably bad. More on that in a minute.

Despite their poor performances, I do feel for the cast because quite frankly, there are no actors good enough to elevate the script which contains dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. Mostly you get the sense that the producers wanted the cast members (particularly the main characters) to look cool to the tween audience and their moms that make up the core of the Twihard nation. Tweens and moms are generally not the most trustworthy arbiters when it comes to cool.

Even so, I can even feel for the screenwriter because the little of the Twilight books I’ve read have been uniformly poorly written. They are a soap opera on a page, a lily white telenovela that shamelessly pushes buttons but doesn’t have the grace of self-awareness. Everything that happens in this movie lands with a mind-numbing dull thud.

I will say this, however. The movies have as rabid a fanbase as any in the history of books and movies. Those who love this franchise do so with all of their heart and soul and their loyalty is kind of touching. They don’t care whether the books are great literature. They don’t care that Pattinson and Stewart are spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by an alien who has never spoken with an actual human being ever. They don’t care if the CGI wolves move like wolves, or if the decapitations look realistic, or if the wire work of the actors is graceful.

None of that matters to them. What they care about is the fantasy that the love story gives them, and it certainly appeals to the target audience without question. One thing you can say about author Stephanie Meyer – she truly understands what the audience she’s writing for wants and gives it to them. Many authors would kill for that kind of knack and I can’t really condemn her for doing what many writers dream of doing – connecting to her audience in a meaningful way.

I really can’t recommend the movie to general audiences, but that’s okay. This is a movie made for a specific niche audience and at the end of the day, it serves them well. I look at the Twilight series much the same way I look at rap; it’s not written for me, I was never meant to relate to it and it’s okay if someone else relates to it and it’s certainly not a bad thing. At the end of the day, it’s a good thing to feel a strong connection to something, whether it be to a book, a rap song, or a movie. Saying merely that something sucks is to not only to judge the book/song/movie in question but also the person who connects with it deeply and doing so betrays a certain amount of arrogance. Certainly I can be critical of the cinematic missteps that I found here in the movie and I have to be true to myself when I say I can’t encourage anyone who isn’t a fan of the series already to go see it. That doesn’t mean that I hate this movie or what it represents; clearly there are people who are truly inspired by the Twilight books and films. Even if I don’t share that connection, I can’t deny that it exists nor can I entirely say that the series is unsuccessful because clearly it has not only made the filmmakers and the author a whole lot of money but a whole lot of fans as well and who am I to object to that?

WHY RENT THIS: Twihards will want to see this again and again.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Horrible special effects, bad acting, worse writing and a sense that the studio just punched this out without support or care in order to make as much money as possible.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent battle sequences, some disturbing images, a little sensuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the highest budget of any of the films in the series, and also was the only film in the series that had a complete opening credits sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a feature that allows you to jump to either Edward or Jacob-centric scenes. The making of feature is surprisingly good and Condon proves to be an interesting subject as he talks about the pressures of meeting fan expectations and staying true to the book while remaining cinematically viable. It’s really a lot better than most of these. There’s also an interesting featurette on the logistical issues that came from shooting two movies simultaneously.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $829.7M on a $75M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romeo + Juliet
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Our Film Library concludes!

The Woman


This is the new Goth look.

This is the new Goth look.

(2011) Horror (Bloody Disgusting) Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Marcia Bennett, Sean Bridgers, Carlee Baker, Tommy Nelson, Lauren Ashley Carter, Shyla Molhusen, Vincent Gordon, Zach Rand, Shelby Mailloux, Laura Petre, Lauren Schroeder, Alexa Marcigliano. Directed by Lucky McKee

Take the animal out of the person and, so the way of thinking goes, you are left with a civilized human being. Often however that civilization is only a veneer and when you strip it away you find the inner animal.

Chris Cleek (Bridgers) is a lawyer and a family man, well-respected around town. He likes to go hunting now and again and on one such trip he spies a woman (McIntosh) with a fishing knife in the river spearing it and eating it raw on the end of her knife. He is fascinated by this obviously feral woman and decides to take her home and civilize her. He captures her with a net and knocks her out.

When she awakens, she is chained in his garage on his rural, isolated property. Cleek turns out to be a monster, abusing his wife Belle (Bettis) and oldest daughter Peggy (Carter) who is becoming withdrawn at school, her grades plummeting. His son Brian (Rand) is developing a sadistic streak of his own. The youngest, Darlin (Molhusen) is just a toddler.

Chris begins enlisting his family in “civilizing” the woman, using a pressure hose to wash her, and subjecting her to all sorts of torment. Brian participates enthusiastically while Belle and Peggy are much more reluctant. In the meantime Mrs. Raton (Baker) has become suspicious of Peggy’s change in behavior and decides to pay the home a visit.

There she’ll find a house of horrors that she (and we) didn’t expect. Survival of the fittest is what nature teaches us and the woman will have to be very fit indeed to make it out of the garage alive.

This movie debuted at Sundance  in 2011 to a great deal of controversy. A significant portion of the audience walked out on the film and those that stayed accused it of being misogynistic trash. This is where you can tell the difference between a critic who understands film and those who don’t – there is a difference between a misogynistic film and one in which misogynistic acts are displayed. On the one hand, the agenda is to describe women as inferior who deserve the treatment that they’re receiving; clearly in this movie the men are the monsters, perpetrating all manner of horrors on women. However, it is these men who are woman-haters – these characters. We are able to identify them as such by their behavior. Calling this movie misogynistic is like calling the makers of the Bond films megalomaniacs because their villains behave in that manner.

A superior performance is demanded of McIntosh and, fortunately, received. She doesn’t utter a word of dialogue other than grunts, snorts, screams and screeches. Much of her acting is done through body language and through her eyes. An Oscar-winning performance this ain’t but it does show a great deal of physical talent. I’m not sure she’ll get a lot of opportunities out of this but she should – there’s a real deal actress under all the grime.

There is a good deal of gore and violence, including the (inevitable) sexual assault of the woman by Chris. This is definitely not for the squeamish or those who find violence and sex distasteful. Then, this isn’t the sort of movie that was really made for that sort of person. It is a movie about the savage inside us, one that often has a civilized veneer. Which one was truly the monster – the Woman or Chris? I think you’ll find that question easy enough to answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Brutal but not meant to be taken seriously. McIntosh lets it all hang out in her portrayal of a feral woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some might find it misogynistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Warning, this is a pretty shocking film by any standards. Let’s see, there’s some pretty graphic violence and gore, misogynistic  behavior, a fairly brutal rape, graphic nudity, foul language and torture. Louise May Alcott this ain’t.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word anophthalmia which is used repeatedly during the film by Chris refers to the congenital absence of an eye or both eyes and teases one of the aspects of the film’s climax.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an animated short and a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Promised Land

Straw Dogs (2011)


 

Straw Dogs

Kate Bosworth wants better roles and she’ll do what she has to to get them!

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Walton Goggins, Anson Mount, Drew Powell, Kristen Shaw, Megan Adelle, Jessica Cook. Directed by Rod Lurie

 

There is no doubt that violence pervades American culture. We glorify it through our love of football; we aggressively defend it through our love of guns. We like to think of ourselves as civilized, sure but how civilized are we really? If violence were to come to our homes, would we know when to stop? Is there a point where we cross the line even in defense of those we love?

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter and a Harvard graduate, a combination that you don’t see very often. His wife Amy (Bosworth) is a marginally successful actress who worked on a short-lived TV show that Sumner wrote for. After her father passed away, she is returning home to Blackwater, Mississippi where she grew up to repair and renovate his home with an eye for a possible sale in the future.

Sumner, an intellectual with a friendly but slightly condescending attitude, fits in to the good ol’ boys in Blackwater like a rhino in a flock of sheep. There’s the alcoholic ex-football coach, Tom Heddon (Woods) who fancies himself a latter-day Bear Bryant (down to the houndstooth cap) who has a somewhat slutty 15-year-old daughter Janice (Holland) who has eyes for Jeremy (Purcell), a mentally challenged young man who has had past incidents with young women.

Worse yet is Charlie (Skarsgard), a handsome handyman who once was Amy’s beau. She was a cheerleader at the time, he a football hero who still hangs out with the same bunch he did in high school. The pack of them have seen their lives go downhill since high school, a bitter pill for anyone to swallow but they dull the ache with beer and hunting trips. Charlie gets the friendly David to hire him and his crew to repair the hurricane-damaged barn on the property.

Charlie, you see, still has a bit of a torch for Amy. He also has a bit of a passive-aggressive mean streak with a hate on for David that starts to manifest itself in subtle ways, like showing up for work early enough to wake David, or helping himself to beer uninvited from David’s fridge. As David retaliates in equally passive-aggressive ways, the violence escalates.

It boils to a head when Jeremy precipitates a tragedy and through an unlikely turn of events ends up in David’s home. A maddened crowd gathers with the intent of storming David’s castle. This he cannot allow and the passive aggressive turns to outright aggressive. As the villagers take to assaulting the walls of the fortress, David turns from civilized to savage in the blink of an eye. What will this cost him?

This is a remake of a 1971 Sam Peckinpah film which at the time polarized audiences and critics alike. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as the couple, the action was in that film located in rural England with Hoffman playing an out-of-shape mathematician. The hunky Marsden is a far different physical type.

That film was notorious for the shocking brutality of its violence which at the time caused critics to wonder if Peckinpah, whose The Wild Bunch two years earlier had made violence into an art form, had gone too far. Today there are those who consider it one of the most brilliant films to come out of the 70s, pushing the anti-hero so prevalent in the era to its limits.

In some ways Peckinpah’s film was ahead of its time. While there is violence here, it isn’t as in your face as it was in the 1971 version. One of the crucial scenes in that film was a rape of the wife by the handyman. During the course of the assault, the Susan George character seems to give up fighting, and may be even enjoying it. This was considered to be misogynistic, even though there are accounts of women reacting in a similar manner in real life. That element is missing here; Amy struggles mightily throughout and in doing so removes a plot point that is crucial to the first film and makes it less ambiguous than the first movie, robbing it of some of its power. I don’t know that Lurie makes a mistake in that regard but it is a major change from the original and I can see fans of that film being outraged.

Marsden has to fill the shoes of Dustin Hoffman, one of the most brilliant actors of all time and fares surprisingly well. He doesn’t even attempt to be the same character; he is far too hunky to be convincing as a meek nebbish as Hoffman’s character was, but he does manage to imbue the character with a kind of intellectual superiority which he can’t help but flaunt.

That leads to a kind of political subtext for the movie, which then becomes a Red State versus Blue State confrontation – the Left Coast liberal who is an *shudder* atheist and an intellectual, whose presence is slightly insulting to the god-fearing, gun-toting football fans whose traditional moral values get a might twisted in an Old Testament style reckoning. Woods, who actually is kind of a Left Coast liberal, plays Heddon as a hotheaded bigot with a short fuse. He’s usually a reliable performer but here he sails way over the top and turns the coach into a character.

I don’t know that this stands up to the original, which was about the savage lurking in all of us, even the most civilized of people. Here this turns into a bit of a revenge fantasy which when you get down to it are kind of a dime a dozen. There are enough elements from Peckinpah’s original to make this worth looking out for in the rental queue but even though the relocation in my mind is perfect location casting, not enough of the changes work out well enough to make this something you’ll want to see more than once.

The sad thing is that the point is lost on a lot of audiences, who critics reported were cheering and clapping at the end. Peckinpah might have been right about the savage in all of us after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Relocation to the American South makes much sense. Marsden does surprisingly well stepping into Hoffman’s shoes. Skarsgard shows some big screen charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too watered down, removing the shock value. Woods too over the top.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence can be pretty brutal. There’s a sexual assault, a ton of bad language and some consensual sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lurie is the Israel-born son of internationally syndicated cartoonist Ranan Lurie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette comparing and contrasting this with the 1971 original which in a way attempts to justify the existence of the remake, but Lurie’s commentary also does plenty of that.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $25M production budget; the movie fell short at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Iron Lady

The Queen


The Queen

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip feel the love.

(2006) Drama  (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas Reith, Robin Soans, Mark Bazeley, Earl Cameron, John McGlyn, Lola Peploe, Pat Laffan. Directed by Stephen Frears

Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of the most public figures of the last half-century, but how little we know her. For most of us, she is this cold, unemotional creature more or a figure than a real person. Few have been allowed inside the inner sanctum of her heart.

One of the most emotional weeks in recent British history was the week following the untimely death of Diana, the former Princess of Wales in 1997. Tony Blair (Sheen) had just been elected Prime Minister and had met, along with his bemused wife Cherie (McCrory),  with Queen Elizabeth (Mirren) just prior for the royal family’s departure to their summer estate at Balmoral in Scotland. It was there that they were given the awful news of the car accident in Paris and anxiously watched the BBC through the night like the rest of us until the final word was received. 

Elizabeth’s first thought was to Diana’s sons, Harry and William, who were understandably devastated. She had been trained to treat the tragedy as a private matter for the family, with dignity and public stoicism befitting the monarch of the realm, a decision supported by her husband Prince Phillip (Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Syms). However, Blair, who was the first to publicly speak about the tragedy, was disturbed to find that there was increasing sentiment that the British people wanted – needed – to hear their monarch speak on the issue, whereas the Royal family were loathe to do so, resisting more the harder he pushed. Prince Charles (Jennings), the ex-husband of Diana, was somewhat weak but still understood what was happening politically. Nonetheless, the family stayed in Balmoral in seclusion until Blair had to demand that the Queen return to London to be with her subjects. There she would at last be forced to address the issue and allow her subjects to publically grieve with her, one of the most extraordinary turn of events in recent British history. 

There are some terrific performances here, particularly Mirren who once again turns in an Oscar-caliber performance as Elizabeth. She’s been nominated twice for a Supporting Actress (in 1995 and again in 2002) but this would be the movie that finally got her the statuette. She portrays Elizabeth as a stoic, highly private person who is slow to realize that the world has changed and her role as monarch needed to change with it. She captures the queen’s mannerisms nicely, and breathes life into a personage that is somewhat two-dimensional, at least here in America. In the end, she adapts to her new role with admirable graciousness which seems to be in character with the woman Mirren was portraying. 

Cromwell does a terrific job as Phillip, playing him as a cantankerous and stuffy aristocrat whose belief in the rightness of his cause blinds him to the damage he is doing to his own position. In many ways his portrayal is exactly the way most Americans see the aristocracy of Europe as somewhat prissy, arrogant and bone-headed, refusing to enter the 21st century even as time has passed their sort by. Whether or not this is accurate is subject to debate; however, many Americans share this view which has been reinforced often in films and television.

Sheen is sympathetic as Blair, who is at first in awe of the Royals, then grows frustrated by them and at last comes to admire them. Blair – who would have his own fall from grace later in his career – was then the fair-haired boy of British politics (the Hugh Grant character in Love Actually was modeled on him somewhat) and his actions during the crisis of Diana’s death cemented him in the hearts of the British people for years. Sheen captures Blair’s political savvy and his somewhat awkward self-consciousness in the presence of the Royals. Much of the movie is seen through his eyes, and quite frankly it’s an effective way of acting as an audience surrogate.

Frears gives us what feels like a real glimpse into the royal household, albeit one that is largely conjecture. For example, there is a sequence involving Elizabeth’s encounter with a magnificent buck in the countryside at Balmoral which follows her most emotional scene of the movie. It is lit in almost a heavenly manner, and one gets the feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if anything of the sort ever happened, and if it did, well, the Queen isn’t talking. Then again, perhaps this movie is talking for her. Mirren’s performance elevates it from what could have been movie-of-the-week territory to something more splendid.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare glimpse into the Royal household, even if much of it is conjecture. An Oscar-winning career-defining performance by Mirren, as well as solid performances by Cromwell and Sheen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit on the slow side, pacing-wise.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of strong language and a disturbing image of a dead buck.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mirren had so inhabited the role of the Queen that by the end of the shoot, slouching crew members would often stand at attention and hold their hands respectfully behind their backs when addressing Mirren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While commentary tracks are standard with nearly every DVD and Blu-Ray these days, there is one here by monarchy expert and British historian Robert Lacey that provides a great deal of illumination not only to the traditions of the royal family but also to what happened during tht week in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $123.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Source Code

Winter’s Bone


Winter's Bone

As the NRA says, the family that shoots together…

(Roadside Attractions) Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, Shelley Waggener, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Isaiah Stone, Tate Taylor, Sheryl Lee, Ronnie Hall, Ashlee Thompson, Casey MacLaren. Directed by Debra Granik

Note: This is a film I first saw during the Florida film festival, at which time I posted a capsule review here on Cinema365. It is opening in limited release today, so here is the full review written back in April.

Life in the Ozarks can be as hard as bone and twice as frightening. It breeds hard people, tough people, people who will do anything to survive.

Ree Dolly (Lawrence) is 17 years old, pretty in the way of mountain folk, soft-spoken and polite. A girl like this should be in school, worrying about the senior prom or the math test next week. Instead, she has to deal with keeping her family fed. Her mother has had a mental breakdown that the medication doesn’t seem to help. Her father, Jessup, a meth cooker, has fled, leaving Ree to hold the bag and somehow take care of her younger sister and brother.

You won’t find Ree complaining, despite her dreams of joining the military. She’s mountain-tough and very practical. When the sheriff (Dillahunt) comes knocking at her door to tell her that her father has a court date in a week, that doesn’t surprise her. No, the surprise is that dear old dad put the house and lands up as collateral for the bail bondsman and has appeared to skip out. If Daddy doesn’t show up at his court date, the house and property will be forfeit.

Ree has no choice but to go looking for him. Having no idea where he might be, she starts questioning people who used to hang out with him but she runs into a surprising wall; nobody wants to tell her where her Daddy is, even though they are well aware of the consequences to Ree and her family if she doesn’t find him. Each person she questions is more frightening than the last, each more violent and more unpredictable. As Ree makes her journey with the help of her best friend Gail (Sweetser) and her dad’s brother Teardrop (Hawkes), the mystery will unravel before her eyes and she will have to be as tough as she’s ever been to survive the winter.

This movie got tremendous buzz at Sundance and rightfully so. I think it could well be this year’s Hurt Locker if things play out right. The movie was picked up by Lionsgate subsidiary Roadside Attractions with the intent of distributing the film on a limited basis, although the Oscar success of Hurt Locker may alter the way Lionsgate distributes and markets this.

At the forefront of the film’s selling points are the marvelous performances. Lawrence stands out as the young, plucky heroine who finds herself biting off way more than she can chew. It’s a performance that is surprisingly nuanced and incredibly mature, and is likely to bring a lot of well-deserved attention her way. Veteran character actor Hawkes (The Perfect Storm, “Lost”) is nearly unrecognizable as the taciturn Teardrop. He is the sort of man who explodes at the slightest provocation and even men much bigger and double tough think twice before crossing him. Teardrop also has a tender side that manifests itself unexpectedly. Although Lawrence will undoubtedly get the most ink from this, to my mind Hawkes also gives an Oscar-worthy performance here.

Director Granik uses the beautiful rural Ozarks as a nice backdrop, the stark winter images of the ramshackle houses and trailers, the forests and hilltops, give you a nice sense of time and place. She also gets the mentality of the mountain folk right; their nearly obsessive loyalty to one another, their suspicion of those “not from around here,” their violent tempers and the importance of music to their daily lives (even Teardrop plays).

This is another standout film playing the festival circuit (I saw it at the Florida Film Festival in April) and one that should it come to a theater near you is one you should go out of your way to seek out. This is a moving, stark drama, a hillbilly Hamlet if you will. There are noir-ish elements to it for certain, but the unsettling feeling that things aren’t going to end well permeates the mood. You can expect to see it on a lot of year-end top tens – including mine.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performances by Lawrence and Hawkes may very well attract Oscar notice. A gripping, powerful drama that will keep you squirming in your seat.

REASONS TO STAY: The tone may be a little too bleak for some.

FAMILY VALUES: A heaping helping of foul language, sudden and terrifying violence, depictions of drug use and a few disturbing images help make this a movie for the mature adults in your family only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Prior to this movie, Jennifer Lawrence was best known for playing the daughter on “The Bill Engvall Show” on TBS.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this may be hard to find in theaters but if you look hard enough it will be worth your while. If you can’t find it in your local art house, it will be just fine on home theater as well.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Goya’s Ghosts