Embers


Lonely amidst the rubble.

Lonely amidst the rubble.

(2015) Science Fiction (Papaya) Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva, Greta Fernández, Tucker Smallwood, Karl Glusman, Roberto Cots, Dominique Swain, Matthew Goulish, Silvan Friedman, Derrick Aguis, Brandon Bowens, Ryan Czerwonko, Nathaniel Andrew, Kirsten Kairos, Arianna Messner, Janice Culver. Directed by Claire Carré

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is said that we are really only the sum total of our memories, and there is some validity to that. But what happens when we take memory away? Are we still the same people we were with them?

In the not too distant future, a neurological epidemic has damaged the hippocampus of most human brains, leaving the survivors unable to form new memories. Everyone is forced to live in the present other than the privileged few like Miranda (Fernández) and her father (Cots) who live in a high-tech bunker with no other human contact.

Everyone else survives in a gutted wasteland, the crumbling ruins of a society no longer equipped to maintain itself. Wandering through are a girl (Gocheva) and a guy (Ritter) who are in love, but wake up every morning not knowing who the other one is, forced to fall in love all over again. There’s also a teacher (Smallwood) who is trying to find a cure, using logic and memory aids to help him remember what he is trying to do – and what he needs to do to survive. There’s also an angry, destructive teen (Glusman) who brings chaos wherever he goes. Finally there is a young boy (Friedman) who is trying to find someone to bond with, although he isn’t all that sure why.

For first time director Carré, this might have been a daunting prospect but she wisely tackled it in phases. I can’t say that it results in a cohesive whole – some of the stories simply do not mix with the others – but the results are impressive nonetheless. In fact, most of the characters don’t interact with others for the most part and the stories remain separate, rather than an anthology in which all of the threads end up coming together. Rather here, the threads are unraveling. Good science fiction isn’t necessarily about the technology (although the bunker sequences show some off nicely) but more about exploring who we are as individuals or a society. Our connections with other humans are largely based on memory; take that away and the anarchy depicted here is almost certain to result.

There is a tone here that can be likened to a malaise, although there are moments of action (particularly when Chaos is around) and conflict (between father and daughter). There is also some heartrending emotional sequences and even occasional bits of humor. Cinematographer Todd Antonio Somodevilla utilizes a lot of blues and grays in his palate, giving the film a feeling of further decay.  It also serves to make the mood a little more depressing and it is already not the most uplifting of films, if that’s what you’re looking for.

The performances here are tight and contained with a cast that is largely unknown (other than Ritter, who bears a resemblance to Ethan Hawke here, even more than to his own famous father). In this situation, even the adults become child-like, exploring the world for the first time. Carré elicits a good deal of pathos, but while there are moments of humor, there aren’t enough of them to give the movie the variety of tone it desperately needs.

This is more a movie for intellectual stimulation than emotional, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but sometimes the viewer needs a little of both. In some ways, the movie is terrifying – I can’t imagine anything worse than losing my memories and in the process, losing my self – and in some ways, it really does ask us to define who we are without the marker posts of our memory. I can’t complain about that to be fair – I do like to be challenged at the movies from time to time, and this movie certainly does that. All in all, this is a terrific debut from a promising talent.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating concept. Excellent set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Far from uplifting.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, rape, violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the events of the film theoretically occur in the same place, the movie was shot in three separate locations – Gary, Indiana, Lodz, Poland and upstate New York – in three separate sections, which were then interwoven during editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blindness
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Newman

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A Bag of Hammers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Releases for the Week of August 8, 2014


Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES

(Paramount) Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Shalhoub, Jeremy Howard, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

New York City is in trouble – but then again, when is it not? In this instance, the dreaded Foot Clan, led by the insidious Shredder, has complete control – an iron grip on the cops, crooked politicians and crime. The city needs heroes and it’s about to get them. Rising from the sewers, four brothers – superbly trained and honorable, trained by their sensei Splinter will fight for justice and peace aided by an intrepid reporter. These are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michael Bay-style.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a promo and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)

About Alex

(Screen Media) Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter, Max Minghella, Maggie Grace. When a member of a circle of 20-something friends suffers an emotional breakdown, his concerned buddies decide to reunite for a weekend in a bucolic lakeside cabin. Despite their efforts to keep things light, years of unrequited passion, petty jealousies and widening political differences brings an already volatile cauldron to a boil.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and drug use)

Deepsea Challenge 3D

(National Geographic) James Cameron, Frank Lotito, Lachlan Woods, Paul Henri. The famous film director and noted marine biology junkie decides to dive to the deepest place on Earth using an experimental submersible. The dive is extremely dangerous and if Avatar fans knew he was making these dives before he’d finished writing the sequels they would have been raising a stink.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: PG (for language and brief disaster images)

The Hundred-Foot Journey

(DreamWorks) Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Charlotte Le Bon. When an Indian restaurateur settles in an idyllic French village, it sparks open warfare with the patrician owner of a Michelin star-rated bistro across the road. However, the extremely talented young son of the flamboyant Indian finds that good food can bridge any cultural gap. This is the latest film from acclaimed director Lasse Halstrom.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and premiere footage here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some violence, language and brief sensuality)

I Origins

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Steven Yeun, Astrid Berges-Frisbey. The eye is like a fingerprint – no two humans have the same one. However, a molecular biologist makes a startling discovery that turns all our thoughts about the subject on its ear and in the process challenges long-held spiritual beliefs as well as scientific theory.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity and language

Into the Storm

(New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep. A small town is hit by a storm of epic proportions, one in which tornadoes self-regenerate and the worst is yet to come. Think of this as a political test – Climate Change deniers will undoubtedly shriek that this is propaganda while ecology freaks will call this prescient.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Disaster Movie

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense destruction and peril, and language including some sexual references)

Magic in the Moonlight

(Sony Classics) Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Jacki Weaver, Marcia Gay Harden. The latest from Woody Allen is set on the Cote D’Azur in the 1920s and is concerned about an English sleuth brought in to unmask a possible swindle. Sort of Woody Allen does Agatha Christie.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for a brief suggestive comment and smoking throughout)

The East


All signs point to The East.

All signs point to The East.

(2013) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Pamela Roylance, Ryan Grego, Ava Bogle, Nick Fuhrmann, Patricia French. Directed by Zal Batmanglij

How difficult is it to uphold the law when the law protects the strong and harms the weak? Are you doing the right thing then by enforcing the law – or are you part of a system that preys on those who don’t have the cash?

Jane (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working for the private security intelligence firm Hiller Brood, hired by corporate clients to protect their executives from harm. Of late, a radical eco-terrorist group calling itself The East has been targeting bigwigs at Big Oil, flooding the home of an oil company CEO with crude oil after his company flooded the gulf with the same stuff.

Sharon (Clarkson), her steely boss, picks Jane to go undercover and infiltrate The East to discover who their targets are and what they plan to do with them. Adopting the name of Sarah, she goes cross-country hanging out with free spirits and counterculture types, engaging in freeganism (the practice of eating discarded food, what some call dumpster diving). She hops trains with a group of them including one suspect she thinks might have ties to the organization but he turns out to be a red herring. However, a different member of that group – Luca (Fernandez) turns out to be the real deal and after Sarah is injured protecting him from railroad bulls he takes her to the safe house of his group to let Doc (Kebbell) take a look at her.

Doc isn’t what he used to be – an adverse reaction to a drug meant to protect him and his sister, both working for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, from dysentery has left him prone to seizures and extreme muscle tremors. Despite the suspicions of Izzy (Page), one of the other members, she is accepted into the group and captures the eye of Benji (Skarsgard), the de facto leader of a group which claims to have no leaders – call him the first among equals then.

As the group continues to exact revenge on corporate bigwigs whose crimes have gone unpunished by the justice system, Jane/Sarah begins to become conflicted and questions whether she’s batting for the right team.

I really like the moral ambiguity here. This is a film that asks the question does the ends justify the means when the system is broken? That’s a question that’s deceptively difficult to answer. In a system rigged to prevent justice when the super-wealthy are involved, how does one achieve justice particularly when you’re a part of the system? There are no easy answers.

Kudos to Marling and Batmanglij who don’t give the audience any easy outs. Benji and his brood have their own issues and motivations and they aren’t the “pure-at-heart” anarchists that liberal Hollywood sometimes likes to parade as heroes taking on the evil capitalists, nor do all of the CEOs here come off as money-grubbing monsters who are willing to trade human lives for an extra billion they couldn’t possibly spend. Obviously their hearts lie with the anarchists but some of the actions they take are troubling.

Marling, a cool blonde who 60 years ago would have made a perfect Hitchcock female lead, is rapidly becoming one of the independent scene’s best actresses. She’s smart and takes smart roles. Her character undergoes a metamorphosis – from a Christian rock, prayerful and ambitious security agent to a radical leftist spouting freeganism and anarchy. Now, I’m not saying such a change isn’t possible but it does seem to be a rather extreme conversion. Skarsgard, who has become a heartthrob on True Blood, shows that he will make an easy transition to the big screen when that series ends if he chooses to.

On the minus side, there are some plot holes. For example, considering how secretive the group is, Jane/Sarah finds them awfully quickly. One would think if it were that easy to find them, some law enforcement agency would have located them first. Secondly, if the dysentery inoculation caused such serious side effects for such a great percentage of those who took it, a) someone would have noticed and pulled the drug from the marketplace, b) the company that was marketing it would likely never have put it in the marketplace to begin with fearing the class action lawsuits that would surely have followed and c), the Pentagon wouldn’t have signed a contract to give their soldiers a drug that would have debilitated them to the point where they were not only no longer useful as fighting men and women but also would require extensive care for the rest of their lives.

However, these things aside, the writing is pretty dang smart and keeps the tension level high throughout. Certainly one’s political leanings will color your appreciation of the film; liberal sorts will applaud the idea of those perpetrating injustices upon the environment and people getting a taste of their own medicine while conservatives might see this as a self-righteous throwback hippie Che Guevara-fest from the ’60s. Neither viewpoint is wrong, by the way.

REASONS TO GO: Raises some timely questions. Taut and suspenseful.

REASONS TO STAY: Politically self-righteous. A few plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Most of the themes here are pretty adult in nature. There is some violence, some sexuality, quite a bit of foul language and some partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, based it on their experiences in the summer of 2009 practicing freeganism and joining an anarchist collective.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; this one got some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle in Seattle

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: R.I.P.D.

Free Samples


I think Jess Wexler looks like Winona Ryder but she just doesn't agree.

I think Jess Wexler looks like Winona Ryder but she just doesn’t agree.

(2012) Drama (Anchor Bay) Jess Wexler, Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Tippi Hedren, Halley Feiffer, Keir O’Donnell, Jocelin Donahue, Whitney Able, Eben Kostbar, Jordan Davis, James Duval, Matt Walsh, Craig Gellis, Suzy Nakamura, Cory Knauf, Joseph McKelheer, Montre Burton, Madison Leisle, Joe Nunez, Angel Parker. Directed by Jay Gammill

 Florida Film Festival 2013

We all go through periods where we just seem to be treading water. Inertia deserts us and life is happening to everyone around us but not to us. We flounder in the current, not really moving anywhere and praying to God we don’t drown before we figure out which direction we need to move in.

Jillian is in just such a phase. She’s dropped out from Stanford Law School and is taking a break from her fiancée. She is adrift in Los Angeles, trying somewhat diffidently to become an artist (which is a lot harder when you aren’t particularly talented at anything) and engaging in a series of all-night binges and one night stands, the latest ending up with a cowboy hat-wearing dude that Jillian knows only as Tex (Eisenberg) in her bed. Well, it’s not really her bed – it’s her best friend Nancy’s (Feiffer) bed and she’s just sleeping in it, apparently with Tex’s hat. Tex isn’t in it at the time.

Jillian is experiencing the mother of all hangovers but since she slept in Nancy’s bed and mutual friend Wally (Ritter) – who’s in a band along with the half of L.A. that isn’t in the movies – has urinated on her couch in his alcohol-induced blissful slumber, Jillian owes her a favor; she needs to cover for Nancy at work. Jillian is oh-so-reluctant to do this, but is eventually coerced into it.

Work happens to be standing all day in an ice cream truck handing out free samples of the most godawful excuse for artificial ice cream that you’ve ever had the sorrow to try – you might well get a cup full of chilled sour cream instead – to the freeloaders and nutjobs of a neighborhood not far from hers. It’s excruciatingly boring, like having bamboo shoved up your fingernails while your genitals are sprinkled liberally with napalm, except I would assume those pursuits would probably not be strictly classified as boring. Not by me, anyway.

As she stands in the cramped confines of the truck, handing out samples to all who request one – vanilla, or chocolate (one to a customer, no exceptions) the things that are driving her life – the motivations that persuaded her to drop out of college and her relationship – are brought into focus and not in a vague, diffuse allegorical way but by the serendipity of bad luck and crushing coincidence.

Not all of it is bad. She meets Betty (Hedren), an actor of some fame who is retired, living alone in a small apartment with TCM blaring old movies (“It’s like a reunion,” Betty asserts when a heartbroken Jillian comes to visit her) whose daily highlight is a walk to the truck for a bit of free ice cream. It’s not the ice cream she craves (“it’s really awful” she confides to Jillian) but the company.

As the day ends and Nancy shows up at long last, Jillian has had an epiphany and maybe her life is about to change for the better. You know, you can gather a lot of good karma by handing out free samples.

This is mainly Wexler’s movie and for a young actress with limited experience, it can be a daunting task to carry a movie on one’s slender shoulders but Wexler – who cut her cinematic teeth in Teeth, to date the best movie about vagina dentata ever made – is up for the task and she really has two strikes against her from the onset. Jillian is something of a bitch who whines constantly, complains repeatedly and always seems to be flipping life a mental bird. She has been compared facially to Uma Thurman and I suppose I can see what they’re saying, but I think she looks and sounds more like Wynona Ryder and carries some of that actress’ spunky attitude in her demeanor.

One of the things I love most about this movie is the synergy between Jillian and Betty. Movies rarely show mentor relationships between older women and younger women that aren’t related which I’ve always found to be quite odd – older women can be friends with younger women just like older men can be friends with younger men although Hollywood doesn’t seem to have a problem with those sorts of relationships among men. Women seem to only be allowed those relationships when it’s the younger woman’s grandmother or great-aunt or some such.

The soundtrack, provided by Indie Rock wunderkinder Say Hi is one of the best I’ve heard thus far this year, one which might give the slackers who dug Juno a run for its money. At least from my admittedly non-slackeroonie perspective.

There are some flaws here, some inherent. For example, nearly all of the film takes place with the lead in the claustrophobic ice cream truck. There really are only so many ways you can shoot that, so we get a lot of standard two shots and it does get a trifle repetitious. And Wexler does such a good job as Jillian that there are times you want to give the girl a major foot in the behind with an admonition to stop complaining and start living. Of course by the end of the film she pretty much does that without the need for a boot to the ass.

It was lovely to see Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s The Birds in the film and I was astonished at how good she looks for a 83-year-old dame. She hasn’t gotten any work that I could detect; she’s just blessed with good genes. How often do you see an 83-year-old woman that you’d seriously think of doing? Not that I actually would sweetie (ducking from the inevitable bonk on the head from Da Queen’s scepter). But if I were single…(sigh). And it was thrilling to see Ms. Hedren at the Florida Film Festival screening we attended. Such beautiful diction. (sigh)

Anyway, that aside this is a terrific indie film that takes some of the indie clichés that we’re so bloody used to and turns them on their head. At the end of the day this is about relationships and redemption, with the object lesson that rehabilitation truly comes from within. Surviving being lost in the current is one thing but swimming for shore and rescuing ourselves is quite another. Me, I’d pay for this free sample – not for the ice cream though.

REASONS TO GO: Wexler gives a terrific performance. Shows a relationship between an older woman and a younger woman who aren’t related – a rarity in Hollywood.  Terrific soundtrack.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit claustrophobic. Occasionally you want to give Jillian a shake.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and anti-social behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music composer is credited as Eric Elbogen, which is the real name of the person who is the one-man indie rock band Say Hi. Some of that band’s music is also on the soundtrack.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; this is making the rounds on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Future

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Evil Dead (2013)

The Dry Land


The Dry Land

Ryan O’Nan and America Ferrera look towards an uncertain future in the Heartland.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Diego Klattenhoff, Ana Claudia Talancon, Evan Jones, Zion Sandoval, Benito Martinez, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Ryan Piers Williams

 

Some see war as a grand exercise in duty and honor, a means of achieving personal glory or perhaps advancing a cause through battle. Those of that mindset are not the ones usually on the front lines. Those warriors who actually fight, who risk life and limb are the ones who pay the price – even if they survive.

James (O’Nan) has returned home to Texas from his tour of duty a damaged soul. His body is OK, but the trauma of surviving unscathed sometimes is just as bad as the trauma of suffering grave injury. He can’t stop thinking about an ambush in which his buddy Henry (Klattenhoff) got hurt.

His wife Sarah (Ferrera) is only happy to have her man home at long last but it doesn’t take long for her to notice that he’s not the man who left for war all those months ago. He’s changed; he has become distant and brooding. She tries her hardest to break through; his best friend Michael (Ritter) tries as well but to no avail.

He takes a job in his father-in-law’s (Martinez) slaughterhouse but the scenes of death and butchery only serve to remind him of the carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan. He also begins to get suspicious of Sarah and Michael, wondering if they have a different agenda than his well-being.

James starts turning towards people who might have some frame of reference in understanding him, like his combat buddy Raymond Gonzales (Valderrama) who has returned home to a neighboring Texas town as well. Raymond is a volatile powder keg who is steadfast in his loyalty to his friends but with an unbelievably short fuse when it comes to everyone else. Together they decide on the spur of the moment to go visit Henry in the VA hospital. That meeting has unexpected consequences that lead to both James and Raymond going in unexpected directions – and Sarah may end up being caught in the crossfire.

The return of veterans home from war has been fodder for Hollywood for ages and none did it better than The Best Years of Our Lives which in essence set the template for movies like this one. In all honesty, I’m not sure what sort of experience Williams has with the military – whether he himself served or someone close to him – but he has the feel of it right.

Williams captures the camaraderie between brothers – as those who serve under fire inevitably are – with brevity and depth. There isn’t a lot of posturing here, the kind of lovefest you might find between drunks which is often how Hollywood portrays it. Instead there’s that simple, quiet knowledge that something has been shared that nobody else can understand unless they were there.

It helps that his cast does an excellent job here. There are no histrionics, no grand speechifying – just people trying to live their lives as best they can, keeping their heads down as much as possible and in general just getting on with things. It’s a quintessinally American outlook, the U.S. version of the stiff upper lip and Williams captures the attitude well.

I’ve been a big fan of Ferrera since I saw her in Real Woman Have Curves during Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s Floating Film Festival several years back and this might be her best performance to date. Sarah is a complicated character, a good woman who wants to be a good wife but one who has been alone for a long time and who now finds herself alone even though her husband is back home. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the emotional center of the movie.

O’Nan plays James as a cypher who keeps his emotions close to his vest. It’s not always an easy task to figure him out, but I think that it’s an honest portrayal; James should be difficult to peg. It gives the viewer a sense of what his family and friends are going through. It’s not a sympathetic performance maybe but it is a gutsy one.

Leo is one of my favorite actresses today and even though her part is small and very much in the vein of part she has been cast in seemingly every time out, she at least gives it enough subtle shading to make it unique. Ritter is showing signs of breaking out into legitimate stardom; he could be one performance away from achieving it.

The bleak and barren Texas landscapes are fine companions to the brutal images of the slaughterhouse. Some of those images might be disturbing to the sensitive; I understand the need for them though, although I might have used them a bit more sparingly. A little brutality goes a long way in a movie as understated as this one is.

Not everything works. Some of the more talky scenes seem to be at odds with the overall feel of the movie. The Dry Land is at its best when it is quiet. This isn’t a movie about bombast and noise; it is a movie about people quietly and perhaps desperately trying to cling to something while the world strips them of their dignity and even their humanity. There are some powerful messages to be had here when the movie is at its best; I would have wished for some more consistency  but there is enough worthy material to warrant keeping an eye out on Williams as  a potentially great filmmaker in the nascent stages of his career.

WHY RENT THIS: Taut performances from nearly all the cast. Some tremendous images, disturbing and otherwise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uneven. The reach exceeds the grasp but just by a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language, some sexuality and violence as well as some disturbing situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A number of the lead actors are TV sitcom veterans (Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Valderrama in “That ’70s Show” and Suplee in “My Name is Earl”).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,777 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Wild Target