A Violent Separation


Carrying her across a different threshold.

(2019) Crime Drama (Screen Media) Brenton Thwaites, Ben Robson, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Claire Holt, Ted Levine, Gerald McRaney, Francesca Eastwood, Michael Malarkey, Peter Michael Goetz, Isabella Gaspersz, Lynne Ashe, Carleigh Johnston, Cotton Yancey, Silas Cooper, Jason Edwards, Kim Collins, Morley Nelson, Bowen Hoover. Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz

 

The backwoods hide its share of secrets. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing just right you can swear you hear the trees whispering about dark deeds done in the dead of night, of murder, mayhem and cheating hearts.

Ray Young (Robson) is one of those country boys whom trouble just seems to follow. He’s a man who likes to drink and has a hair-trigger temper, not a great combination. He’s done some jail time for petty crime and makes up “the usual suspect” in the small Missouri town he lives in. His younger brother Norman (Thwaites) couldn’t be more different; a straight-arrow deputy sheriff who is painfully naive, romantically awkward and a bit exasperated by his hot mess of a brother.

Ray is on-again off-again dating Abby (Holt) who is a single mom whose baby daddy is Cinch (Malarkey), a construction worker built in Ray’s mold – this girl sure can pick them. Her younger sister Frances (Debnam-Carey) is quiet, upstanding and of course the object of Norman’s affection, although much of what she jokes about goes sailing over his head. Abby and Frances live at their childhood home where they take care of seriously ill patriarch Tom (McRaney) who trundles an oxygen tank wherever he goes but is not above roaring his disapproval over one thing or another at the sisters, particularly when Frances has the temerity to take away his smokes.

After the four young people go out for a night of drinking an dancing at a roadhouse charmingly known as The Whispering Pig, Ray predictably makes out with a barmaid (Eastwood) and gets into a fight that Norman has to come to his aid for. Furious, a drunk Abby gets into her car and peels out of the parking lot, leaving the other three behind.

The next day a badly hungover Abby takes her dad’s pistol and lambastes an equally hungover Ray, nagging him to teach her how to shoot which he is reluctant to do. The two drive into the woods where a terrible accident occurs. Ray panics and calls his brother to help him cover up his involvement. In a moment of weakness, Norman agrees to.

The town sheriff (Levine) is a pretty smart cookie and he begins piecing together the crime from the few clues that have remained. Norman, as a cop, knows how to stage a crime scene and manipulate an investigation. While the Sheriff (and a few other people) are certain that Ray had a hand in what happened to Abby, nobody suspects Norman. As time goes by and the trail goes cold the romance between Norman and Frances begins to heat up. However, the guilt both brothers are feeling begins to bubble to the surface and threatens to expose what they’ve both done.

The brothers Goetz seem to be waffling between Southern Gothic and neo-noir when it comes to tone and ends up being neither. For some odd reason, they decided to set the film in Missouri but filmed in Louisiana an it looks like Louisiana – why not just set it where you filmed it? Nobody cares overly much. Secondly, most of the main cast (with the exception of Levine and McRaney) are British or Australian. Not that the cast members (mostly of basic cable and TV pedigree) from across the various ponds can’t handle these very American art forms, but it just seems a curious thing hauling them all the way to the backwoods of Louisiana.

Actually, the cast is pretty decent although it is the veterans McRaney and Levine who steal the show. Robson and Thwaites capture a brotherly dynamic that feels authentic; having directors who are themselves brothers probably has a lot to do with it. The movie is reasonably suspenseful as the brothers come closer to cracking, although the “twist” ending feels forced and much of the movie loses its punch because of the melodrama that tinges the entire production.

There are moments of cinematic beauty which are provided by cinematographer Sean O’Dea; however, Evan Goldman’s score is intrusive and a little bit annoying. Overall this isn’t all that bad but there aren’t enough good things about it that really make it stand out among all the other movies that are out there at the moment. Fans of the various shows the young actors are in might get a kick out of seeing them in very different roles than they’re used to but otherwise, this one’s pretty much a toss-up.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography has some lovely heartland images.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t add anything to the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Michael Goetz, who plays Riley Jenkins, is the father of the directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews: Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder by Numbers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Aniara

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

ADDicted (2017)


The joys of home study can’t be understated.

(2017) Drama (Vision) Luke Guldan, Lauren Sweetser, Kathleen Quinlan, Gil Bellows, Thom Christopher, Ezra Knight, Taylor Gildersleeve, Tyrone Brown, Morgan Roberts Jarrett Worley, Aaron Bickes, J. Tucker Smith, Danielle Marcucci, Mark Tallman, Ben Kaplan, Sarah Kaplan, Sal Belfonte, Delia Cai, Joe Greene, Ryan J. Murray, Sue Ellersieck, Jon Drtina, Katherine Ashcraft. Directed by Dan Jenski

 

College is a pressure cooker, even more so now than it was in my day. Every professor seems to be of the mindset that theirs is the only class you’re taking. Most students have to take on a job in order to make ends meet while they’re in school in addition to their class loads and if they intend to go further in their education with an advanced degree, the pressure is really on to keep the grades high in order to be in the mix for those coveted grad school slots.

\Drew Dawson (Guldan) has more pressure on him than most. Although he comes from a background of wealth and privilege, he is a star football player who loves playing the game. His overbearing and demanding mother Kate (Quinlan) has his future all planned out for him; law school, a job at his grandfather’s prestigious St. Louis law firm and then maybe politics. She herself is running for a seat in the House of Representatives and needs Drew to be at his very best.

But all this is much more difficult because Drew has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He has a hard time focusing and keeping his grades up, so he has been taking Adderall for a decade, not long after his father passed away in a car accident. On top of that, Drew has broken up with Ashley Ross (Sweetser) after he caught her cheating with an ex. A sorority queen and journalism major, Ashley is a favorite of Kate’s who knows she will write complimentary material for the school paper and Kate needs all the good press she can get. For that reason, Drew hasn’t told his mother about the breakup.

Things being what they are, Drew is starting to crumble a little bit. A paper he has turned in to Professor Mueller (Bellows) has been flagged for plagiarism; actually, Drew didn’t mean to plagiarize the material he’d just failed to attribute the quotes he was using to the proper sources. If Drew gets turned in for plagiarism, he could lose his scholarship and certainly his place on the team. After some pleading, Drew is given a second chance.

Drew’s doctor (Smith) ups the dosage of the Adderall and at first that seems to settle Drew down but Drew is also providing pills to Ashley and his good friend “Radar” Robson (Brown) who uses the pills to help him focus on the field. But the straw tower is collapsing and Drew is floundering; his mother isn’t very sympathetic and soon an innocent study session leads to a decision that could have devastating consequences.

In all honesty I didn’t know Adderall addiction on campus was a thing but apparently it is. Set at the fictional Missouri A&M University, the movie does a pretty realistic job of capturing the pressures of college life although most college students don’t have the resources that Drew has; as I said earlier, most have to maintain some sort of job in order to pay for their living expenses while Drew doesn’t have that problem. Still, even he is under the gun of high expectations.

Guldan is a good looking young man but throughout the film his delivery is low-key; I’m not sure if this is to portray the effects of the drug on Drew or if it’s his natural delivery. It makes his performance a little bit stiff and wooden though. Quinlan is given a character who isn’t very realistic and who isn’t a very good mother and she does her best with it but at times I thought her character should have been twirling a metaphorical moustache a la Snidley Whiplash. Bellows, a solid character actor, fares best with the hip and cool professor who really Cares About His Kids. He comes off as very down to earth and the kind of professor who made learning fun when I was in school back in the stone age when we didn’t bring laptops to class. We – horrors – hand wrote our notes; oh, the humanity!

Some of the plot elements are a bit over the top in a soap opera sense and that doesn’t do the movie any favors. The whole subplot about Kate’s Congressional campaign could have been jettisoned without adversely affecting the movie; in fact, I would have loved to have seen more material on the effects of the drug on Drew and the people around him and gain a sense of how widespread the problem really is. While the movie has some missteps, the subject matter and main focus are to be congratulated and it is worth checking out for the scenes that do seem to be more on mission and less concerned with unrealistic plot twists.

REASONS TO GO: The issue of Adderall abuse on college campuses is brought into focus. Bellows gives a down to earth performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drug abuse, adult themes, profanity, some sexual references and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the college campus scenes were filmed at the University of Missouri.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Basketball Diaries
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Uncle Gloria: A Helluva Ride

Gone Girl


This is NOT what a happy marriage looks like.

This is NOT what a happy marriage looks like.

(2014) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Carrie Coon, David Clennon, Lisa Barnes, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Lee Norris, Jamie McShane, Leonard Kelly-Young, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Pete Housman, Lynn Adrianna. Directed by David Fincher

There are some married couples who appear to have it all. I use the word “appear” because nobody really knows what goes on inside a marriage except for those in it. Even Da Queen and I have our disagreements. There are plenty of things that I do that make Da Queen crazy. Da Queen is also Da Saint.

Nick (Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Pike) are that couple. She’s a trust fund baby whose parents Rand (Clennon) and Marybeth (Barnes) immortalized her as the children’s book character Amazing Amy. Amazing Amy seemed to have a much better life and character than the original Amy which sticks in her craw a little bit but Nick seems to be able to deflect that parent-daughter conflict with his customary humor.

Nick and Amy are both writers but both of them lose their jobs during the recession. Then Nick’s mom gets cancer and they move from New York to North Carthage, Missouri to be close with her, buying a house with Amy’s trust funds. She also buys a bar called The Bar for him which he co-manages with his twin sister Margo (Coon).

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from the bar to find Amy gone and signs of a struggle. He calls the cops and at first Detective Boney (Dickens) is sympathetic but soon Nick’s somewhat un-emotional demeanor and mounting evidence begins to slowly point towards Nick as the prime suspect. Not helping matters is a Nancy Grace-like cable TV commentator (Pyle) who fills the airwaves with anti-Nick vitriol night after night. While Margo believes Nick is innocent, there is enough doubt that she has to ask him what he’s not telling her. And there are things he isn’t telling her.

This is a superb motion picture, not a perfect thriller but damn close. Gillian Flynn, who wrote the novel this is based on, also wrote the screenplay which can be a terrible idea – some novelists have a hard time figuring out what parts of their novel to cut out for the screen but Flynn does an admirable job. I haven’t read the book but I understand she sticks closely to what happens there so fans of the bestseller ought to be pretty satisfied.

The movie comes at you from every direction and although as someone who has seen a lot of thrillers in my time and can generally pick out which direction a movie is going, how it gets there can also be refreshing and new. I like how this movie takes an idea and runs with it.

Affleck is perfectly suited for this role; he can play the chiseled, handsome easygoing lead but he also knows how to allow just enough darkness out to make the character not only memorable but also leave plenty of doubt to the character’s guilt or innocence. This is right in his wheelhouse and he nails it.

And then there’s Pike. Her character is to say the least multi-layered and she handles all the different sides of Amy with perfect aplomb. I would go so far as to say that this is the kind of role Academy voters love to nominate and Pike is so good that I think that she’s got a very good shot at getting that nomination and possibly even the win. It hasn’t been as good a year for women’s roles as last year was and right now only Reese Witherspoon seems to have the other lock on a nomination but of course all that remains to be seen.

Fincher has always been an expert at delivering plots with a cynical but clear eye. There is some satire here on the way modern media influences opinion and on what passes for journalism these days. There is also some on the state of modern small town policing and while Detective Boney comes off relatively unscathed, her colleagues look like rubes. Keep in mind that the Ozarks run through Missouri.

He has also been an expert at keeping tension at a high level and knowing when to shock as opposed to attempting to use shock for shock’s sake (try saying that one five times fast). There is one scene of violence that isn’t entirely unexpected and yet when it does come it still ends up being shocking. That’s the mark of a great director.

If there’s a weakness, it’s probably in the dialogue. In places, the characters talk like characters in a movie rather than how real people talk. A little less cuteness in the dialogue would have made the movie better.

Some have complained that the movie is misogynistic (despite having been written by a woman). I disagree. It’s hard to state my reasons without giving too many plot points away but all I can say is that those who say that women can’t do some of the things that are done by women in this movie is patronizing at the very least. Ever hear of Jodi Arias?

As a critic, I have to be deliberately vague in describing the plot so be aware that much is being left out so as to improve the experience for those readers who haven’t read the book and don’t know what to expect going in other than what they’ve seen in the trailer. Trust me – as good a movie as the trailer promises, the one that is delivered is even better.

REASONS TO GO: Great plot. Pike gives Oscar-worthy performance. Affleck is solid and gets plenty of support.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit forced. A little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: One scene of bloody and shocking violence, some sexuality and nudity and a goodly amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Margo but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fatal Attraction
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Equalizer

Snitch


This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson's face when he's walking towards you.

This is NOT an expression you want to see on Dwayne Johnson’s face when he’s walking towards you.

(2013) Action (Summit) Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Benjamin Bratt, Jon Bernthal, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, Rafi Gavron, JD Pardo, David Harbour, Kyara Campos, Ashlynn Ross, Kym Jackson. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

In the United States, the War on Drugs has led to harsh mandatory sentencing laws in which first time offenders with no prior record who are caught with a sufficient amount of illegal narcotics in their possession will be charged with possession with intent to distribute. In these cases, the accused can be sentenced if found guilty to minimum jail terms longer than given to those convicted of manslaughter or rape.

Jason Collins (Gavron) is Skyping with a friend who wants to send him some ecstasy to hold onto. Jason doesn’t want to do it but his friend sends them anyway. Jason foolishly accepts the shipment and immediately the DEA break down the doors and arrest his ass. His mom Sylvia (Kanakaredes) calls her ex-husband John Matthews (Johnson) and the two are pretty much left to cool their heels before anyone will even talk to them much less allow them to see their son.

They discover that Jason was set up by his friend who used the arrest of Jason as a means of getting his own sentence reduced. If Jason can supply another drug dealer for arrest, his own sentence will be reduced as well but Jason doesn’t know any other drug dealers besides the jerk who set him up and refuses to set up one of his friends in the same manner he was, even though he’s facing ten years minimum and 30 years maximum.

Frustrated and desperate, John goes to see US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) who is also running for Senate on an anti-crime platform. There’s really nothing she can do; the laws tie her hands, she explains. John then offers himself as a snitch; if he can find a drug dealer for his son, can his help be used to reduce Jason’s sentence?

John enlists the help of one of the employees at his trucking/construction firm, Daniel James (Bernthal) who is an ex-con with two narcotics distribution convictions on his record without telling him that the DEA is involved. Daniel introduces John to Malik (Williams) who realizes that John’s trucking company offers him a transportation means that he wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and is much safer than what he’s used to. But being a drug dealer, he is naturally suspicious so he set John up for a milk run, insisting that Daniel accompany him.

John and Daniel do their end, monitored by Agent Collins (Pepper). However when Collins overhears Malik tell them when he gets the delivery of his drugs that he wants to set up a meet with Mexican cartel head El Topo (Bratt), things are moved to another level. Daniel, who discovers what John is up to, realize that both of their families are at risk. Mexican cartels are known for their vicious approach to informants. Now John is in way over his head and pretty much no matter what happens he’s going to lose.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether to be a rip-roaring action film or a serious drama examining the consequences of mandatory sentence laws. In all honesty Waugh could have taken this in either direction and made a successful film. Unfortunately he kind of dithers and tries to have it both ways and in the end the movie winds up suffering a little bit.

It’s not due to the cast however. Johnson is one of the most charismatic actors out there and continues to improve. This is one of his most dramatic roles yet and he handles it without mugging (which he sometimes does, a throwback to his wrestling days) and with a surprising amount of restraint. I don’t know that he’s ever going to win any Oscars (although I get the sense that he’s capable of accomplishing anything he sets his mind to) but he has graduated onto the Hollywood A-list and I suspect will remain on it for a long time to come.

Bernthal, an alumnus of The Walking Dead shows a whole lot of potential for big screen success. As the ex-con trying to get his life turned around he’s playing a role nearly the polar opposite of Shane, a good cop who was turning ruthless and amoral. He has tons of charisma and holds his own with Johnson which is a pretty nifty feat.

Pepper, looking like he was attending a try-out for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 is a DEA agent with a conscience while Sarandon is a tough as nails prosecutor who doesn’t care who gets trampled in her ambitions. In fact, most of the cast here ranges from solid to spectacular. As action movies go, this is phenomenally well-acted.

The atmosphere is gritty as well; we get a sense of all the worlds from that of the successful business owner to that of the paranoid drug dealer. I was impressed by a few of the action sequences (like a gun battle at a scrap metal yard) although they were fairly sparse; the car chase that is the film’s denouement isn’t particularly noteworthy but it at least maintains our interest.

I liked this movie and thought it had a lot of potential. There were a few pathways that they didn’t choose to go down that might have warranted at least a little exploration (did Matthews’ wife suspect he was lying to her for example) and there were a few credibility stretches here and there but all in all this is a better movie than we had a right to expect. In a year when the quality of most of the major releases has been meager, that’s a blessing in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Johnson is a terrific performer and gets excellent support.

REASONS TO STAY: Tries to walk the tightrope between action film and true crime drama and doesn’t always succeed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writers were inspired by a Frontline documentary on mandatory sentencing laws but didn’t use any specific incidents as the basis for their film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fast Five

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Radio

Holy Wars


Holy Wars

Khalid Kelly tries on his best Jihadist pose.

(2010) Documentary (Smuggler) Aaron Taylor, Khalid Kelly, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad Fostok, Sam Harris, M. Shalid Alam, Dianne Kannady, Stephen Marshall, Don Taylor. Directed by Stephen Marshall

 

Extremism in any form is something to be avoided. When it is encountered in such hot button topics as religion, it can lead to bloodshed.

Aaron Taylor is an evangelical minister in Missouri who travels around the world to predominantly Muslim countries to convert the natives to Christianity. He believes in the rapture and the apocalypse and that both are right around the corner. His fundamentalism sees all non-Christians as evil and Muslims in particular as the enemy of America and thus of Christianity.

Khalid Kelly is a Muslim of Irish descent living in Britain. He is an Islamic fundamentalist, naming his son Osama after the Al Qaeda mastermind. He is vehemently anti-West, protesting the invasion of Iraq by Tony Blair, and touts the harsher aspects of Shariah law as means of controlling crime and dissent. His own personal transformation from a belligerent drunk to a sober family man he accredits to his conversion to Islam.

The two are as different as two people can be and yet they are flip sides of the same coin. When director Marshall brings the two together, something unexpected happens. While Kelly is articulate and clearly wins the debate, thereafter he slides further into fundamentalism and eventually leaves the UK for Pakistan, which turns out to be not radical enough for him and he is deeply disturbed to discover that his views are liable to get him arrested.

On the other hand Taylor takes a good hard look at his own views and finds that Kelly had made some valid points. He researches Khalid’s complaints and discovers that his own outlook needs some mending. He begins to preach understanding and reaching out, much to the puzzlement of his family who remain committed to their fundamentalism. The change of heart is unexpected and pleasantly surprising.

Taylor is far less charismatic than Kelly and yet he is the one who seems to have more understanding and a greater global view than his counterpart. Marshall wisely sits back and lets the two men tell their own stories. We do see their families and wives but only in a limited sense; for the most part, this is mano a mano, the two trying to espouse their faith and justify their narrow interpretations of them.

I’m not the most religious person on Earth, but I do consider myself to be spiritual. I am not a big fan of organized religion and to a lot of extent this movie tends to confirm my own objections to religion in general. However, it is comforting to know that someone seemingly so entrenched in such a narrow bandwidth can be inspired to open their eyes and see things from a different perspective. Maybe there’s some hope after all.

REASONS TO GO: Surprising look at fundamentalism and its effects on politics. Kelly is engaging and articulate while Taylor’s faith and outlook are impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Religion and politics are two difficult items to discuss and they are both the focus here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and difficult subject matter.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marshall followed Taylor and Kelly for a total of three years.

HOME OR THEATER: While it will be difficult to find in a theater, it is worth seeking out at your local film festival if possible.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: This Narrow Space

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