American Folk (September 12)


Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are fine musicians but they’re not above being corny.

(2017) Drama (Good Deed) Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, David Fine, Krisha Fairchild, Bruce Beatty, Elizabeth Dennehy, Miranda LaDawn Hill, Emma Thatcher, Holger Moncada Jr., Julian Gopal, Lawrence Mandley, Noah Craft, Bradford Barnes, Paul White, Shelly West, Maryann Strossner, Andrew Walton (voice), Greg Williams, James Perry, Ricky Aynes, Isabella George Brown. Directed by David Heinz

 

The road movie is an institution as American as, well road trips themselves. Exploring our own country is something we often fail to do in our busy lives but there is something that is truly uplifting about getting in a car and driving down the open road in whatever direction you happen to fancy, particularly when we take the back roads and avoid the Interstates which are, I grant you, soulless and Godless.

Elliott (Purdy) is a folk musician in an L.A. hotel room with maybe the thinnest walls ever – or a neighbor in the adjoining room with the worst temper ever, constantly banging on the wall whenever Elliott softly strums his guitar and sings into the cassette deck, working on a song. He has to get to New York City to begin a gig as a member of a band called the Hairpin Triggers, a gig that he’s not overjoyed about but as his agent intimates, may be his last opportunity to continue to make a living as a musician.

He’s not much of a people person so as the flight takes off he puts on his headphones and zones out. However the bright perky woman sitting next to him, Joni (Rubarth) whips out a splitter and listens in. I’ve never had that happen on a flight before but I suppose in all the annals of transcontinental air travel it must have happened o someone. Anyway, rather than punching her in the face, he strikes up an awkward conversation with her that is cut off when the flight is turned around and forced to land back at LAX. It’s not because of engine trouble or a medical emergency – all flights are being grounded. The date is September 11, 2001.

Elliott desperately has to get to New York and Joni has to return to take care of her ailing mother who is under the auspices of a none-too-reliable sister so Joni invites Elliott back to the house she was staying in with family friend Scottie (Fairchild), an ex-hippie and former touring musician herself. She lends the two a 1972 Chevy Van (and only children who grew up in the 70s will appreciate the Sammy Johns reference) and off they go.

The van has a tendency to overheat so the Interstates are a non-starter. They take back highways instead until the van gives up the ghost in the desert. They are pointed in the direction of Vietnam vet Dale (Fine) who lives out in the sand dunes by himself but can fix just about anything. The two travelers begin to bond over music and a shared love of traditional American folk – the music of Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and John Prine among others.

Along the way they run into other people who grab their attention but particularly a lesbian couple from San Francisco named Bianca (Hill) and Emily (Thatcher) who are on their way to Virginia to meet Bianca’s parents…and to come out to her very stiff-necked father (Beatty). Getting to New York the two begin to realize that it was truly  all about the journey and not the destination – and it would be a journey they’d remember forever.

I went into this movie thinking that it would be about folk music but in many ways it really isn’t. Think of the title for a moment – it’s not about American Folk but about American folks. This is a snapshot of a moment in our history when the country was drawing together and unifying in the face of a dreadful, horrible attack. That the unity that we experienced in those days and weeks following 9-11 has been completely lost makes it doubly tragic only 16 years after the fact.

Purdy and Rubarth make strong leads; Purdy is quiet and introspective, Rubarth outgoing and open-hearted. They are an opposites attract sort of couple but then again this is no rom-com; this is definitely a road movie and while they do bond there’s never a sense that they will remain together once they pull up in New York. Some viewers may end up wishing they had.

There is some great music on the soundtrack, much of it played and sung by Rubarth and Purdy (the two are touring together in support of the movie doing folk dates throughout the country). It is well that the filmmakers actually shot on the road rather than in a single state or soundstage; we get the flavor of the couple’s travels and that adds a lot to the enjoyment of the movie overall.

While the film gets a little flat in the middle, it does keep the interest high throughout. It has a gentle heart and a dulcimer’s soul, and the harmonies that Purdy and Rubarth make while singing echo in the very DNA of the film. I can’t say that there is anything particularly revelatory here – the healing power of music is well-known and road movies are nothing new, but still I found myself enjoying the journey. I think you just might, too.

REASONS TO GO: Purdy and Rubarth are surprisingly strong leads. The music the two make is really very good and the classic folk on the soundtrack works as well.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés scattered here and there. The movie loses some momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sophisticated themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Purdy and Rubarth are veteran singer/songwriters in folk and other American music forms. This is the first onscreen acting role for the both of them. In addition, this is Heinz’ debut as a feature film director after a long and distinguished career in film editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Easy Rider
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb

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Angels Crest


Here's an angel that Charlie missed.

Here’s an angel that Charlie missed.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Dekker, Lynn Collins, Jeremy Piven, Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth McGovern, Emma Macgillivray, Joseph Morgan, Greg Lawson, Chris Ippolito, Dave Brown, Colin A. Campbell, Marty Antonini, Ameko Eks Mass Carroll, Jonathan Lachlan Stewart, Julian Domingues, Aedan Tomney, Wally Houn, Lindsay Burns, Barbara Williams, Christianne Hirt, Kate Walsh. Directed by Gaby Dellal

Bad things happen, sometimes to good people and sometimes to bad. Even the worst of events that occur have nothing to do with a person’s goodness or lack thereof. What the true measure of a person is depends on how they deal with the truly awful things that life throws at us.

Ethan (Dekker) is a 21-year-old young man who works at an auto shop in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Angels Crest. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else, where rugged individualism is the expectation and where the bleak winters often mirror the bleak outlook for many, who have no hope of escaping the lives they lead.

Ethan is the father to 3-year-old Nate (Carroll) and his sole caregiver, mainly because Nate’s mommy Cindy (Collins) is a mess, a raging alcoholic who can barely care for herself with a side order of promiscuity. One bright afternoon, Ethan takes Nate for a boy’s trip into the woods. On the way back, an exhausted Nate falls asleep and as Ethan drives towards town, he sees some deer. For whatever reason, he gets out of his truck, makes sure Nate is strapped in to his child’s seat, and leaving the heater running, follows the deer out into the woods.

You can guess that wasn’t a very smart idea. When Ethan returns to the truck, Nate is gone. He searches through the woods fruitlessly, then races back to town, returning with a search party but Nate is nowhere to be found. It takes a little while but little Nate is eventually found, frozen to death. Of course, Ethan is devastated and the hot mess that is Cindy blames Ethan for her little boy’s demise.

The town is sharply divided by the event, some joining Cindy in blaming Ethan and calling for his arrest for negligence (a feeling that the prosecutor (Piven) shares) while others believe Ethan when he says he was gone for just a few minutes and that this was just one of those horrible things that could have happened to anyone.

Like Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the film examines the effects of a tragedy on a small town but the similarities end there. In the Egoyan film, the school bus accident that took the lives of a fair amount of children touched nearly every family in town; here, the directly affected are few. Still, the howls of Ethan’s grief are no less heart-wrenching no matter the number of children lost; in some ways the grief of a single person is more relatable than the grief of multiple people.

But the movie goes off the rails because of the excessive number of subplots which for the most part have no real bearing on the matter of hand. There is a lesbian couple (McGovern and Walsh) struggling for acceptance, with McGovern trying to win the affections of her own son (Domingues) who is also a horror show. The prosecutor has some deep dark secret that is motivating him to obsessively pursue an investigation that is tearing the town apart. A diner waitress (Sorvino) struggles to raise her own son on her own and happens to be Cindy’s best friend. Ethan’s best friend (Lawson) feels guilt over having been banging Cindy at the time of the incident.

All of these little subplots are enacted by characters whose only reason to be in the movie is to be involved in these subplots. They add no insight and don’t really enhance the story any. While the movie is beautifully shot with plenty of picturesque snow-covered vistas, the whole thing feels a bit like a soap opera more than a drama. While some of the scenes carry a good deal of emotional resonance, an equal number of scenes fall flat. This is as inconsistent a film as you’re likely to see.

Still, there is enough here that the movie is worth a casual glance if the opportunity presents itself although I wouldn’t put a whole lot of effort into seeking it out. The deficiencies in the film’s story and script nearly (but don’t quite) exceed the movie’s emotional impact.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the scenes work. Evocative. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes don’t. Heavy-handed and plodding. Soap opera-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, strong language and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was titled Abandoned in the UK.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with Dekker and Sorvino.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $832 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Baby Gone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Creed