Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

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Top 10 of 2013


Top 10 2014Those who read a lot of movie reviewers know that it is part of the job to rank the best movies of the year once that year is over. Not being one of those critics who gets to see all the big movies well in advance of their release date, I have to make do with getting out to see them as soon as I can, which leads to delays in publishing my top 10.

As with most things, any top 10 for any critic is a moment in time captured. This is how I feel these movies belong to be ranked at this moment, right now. I can guarantee you that I’ll look back on this next year and wonder how in the hell I ranked one movie ahead of another, or how I missed this movie or that one.

Here you’ll see plenty of movies that are already on a lot of year end lists, but there’s one you won’t see that is – Her. That’s not because I didn’t love the movie – in fact, I think that it would be near the top if not the top movie of 2013. However, while it did get released in New York and L.A. in 2013 for Academy consideration, most people in the country didn’t get a chance to see it until January of this year. That is why I decided to put the film in as part of my 2014 films. Normally I go by the release date of the movie to qualify it as a top ten film, but in all honesty these days we’re getting so many quality foreign films that were released in their own countries a year, two or even three years prior to their American release that I am going with a general “when did it get its widest release” in order to determine what year I rank the film with. You can bitch and moan if you want to but it’s my playground and my rules and I reserve the right to change them tomorrow.

I think that the quality for movies overall in 2013 was pretty high compared to recent years. Many of the honorable mentions would have made the top 10 lists in years past. This one was a bit harder to put together; there were several I had a hard time relegating to the purgatory of Honorable Mention but at the end of the day, this is my list and I’m sticking to it.

So this is the list as I see it. Feel free to leave your comments and opinions here on the site or elsewhere. I’m always happy to defend my choices. However, if you haven’t seen some of them, do seek them out; I’ll do my best to provide information as to how to go watch them right now, whether it be in your local multiplex, through an online streaming service, on your cable or satellite subscription service or at your local DVD store.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are a number of movies that didn’t quite make the cut of the top ten. I thought I’d add them here so you can get an idea of which ones came close, were considered and ultimately not chosen. Again, I will stress that all of these are quality films worth seeking out if you’re looking for entertainment, enlightenment or insight. I didn’t include links here but if you want to read my reviews of any of these, simply type in the title into the search field and have at it. So,  in no particular order;

Dallas Buyers Club, Aftermath, Saving Mr. Banks, Mud, Starbuck, A.C.O.D., Unfinished Song, Nebraska, The Book Thief, John Dies at the End, The World’s End, Stories We Tell, The Attack, Good Ol’ Freda, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Sightseers, Captain Phillips, Pieta, Philomena, The History of Future Folk, About Time, I Declare War, Year of the Living Dead, Quartet

This Is Where We Live

10.  THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE

(Bluff City) Tobias Segal, Marc Menchaca, Barry Corbin, Frankie Shaw, C.K. McFarland, Ron Hayden, Katherine Willis, Marco Perella, Brent Smiga, Brian Orr, Christine Bruno, Carolyn Gilroy. Directed by Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca

Released April 7, 2013 A Texas hill country family has a tough go of it, with the adult son having a severe form of cerebral palsy and the father in the beginning stages of dementia. The mother is also battling high blood pressure and the sister is bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Into this volatile mix comes a rough and tumble handyman who at first builds a wheelchair ramp for the front porch but eventually becomes the son’s caretaker and friend. However his shortcomings may tear the family apart.

WHY IT IS HERE: Beautifully photographed and written with sympathy and sensitivity, this is a movie for people who love movies about people and by people, I mean real people, the sort you might run into at the grocery store or sit next to in the bar. It could have easily been a manipulative Lifetime movie but instead chooses honesty over treacle. An amazing debut by the directing team.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Tobias Segal as August expresses his frustration at trying to communicate with a body that doesn’t co-operate with him – ever.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: Not available.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Is trying to secure distributorship for some sort of theatrical release. Until then, look for it on the Festival circuit.

Short Term 12

9. SHORT TERM 12

(Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Stephanie Beatriz, Melora Walters. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Released August 23, 2013 In an era of austerity where social service funding is under fire from the fiscal conservatives, this is a look at just what that wasteful spending is actually spent on. A young woman is the caretaker of at-risk youths in a care facility in Los Angeles in an eventful few days in the facility. A girl is admitted, one who reminds the caretaker strikingly of herself. A long-time resident prepares to get released to live on his own. And the caretaker discovers that she is pregnant, which triggers her own long-held emotional issues.

WHY IT IS HERE: As authentic a movie as was released in 2013. A warts-and-all portrayal of troubled kids and of the young people who care for them. Larson’s performance would certainly have been in the mix for the Best Actress Oscar had this been released by a major studio; suffice to say she has what it takes to get the gold somewhere down the line. Surrounded by a great young cast, Larson shines and elevates this film to the next level.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Larson “rescues” Dever from the home of her abusive father and in doing so the inner pain of both women comes to the surface.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $1 million domestic (as of 1/14/14), $1 million total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Download from iTunes/Amazon. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix. Stream from Amazon.

The Wolf of Wall Street

8. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

(Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Released December 25, 2013 It seems only fitting that Scorsese would in this day and age make a film about amoral Wall Street capitalists – after all, they are the new mob of the 21st century. Still, there is a fascination to the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort from ambitious penny stock trader to criminal on an epic scale. All the drugs, all the language, the greed and the women – it’s a morality tale like none other.

WHY IT IS HERE: Di Caprio delivers one of the defining performances of his career to date and Hill proves he’s more than a one-shot wonder with an Oscar-nominated performance. While some have complained about the indulgences and the f-bombs, nonetheless there’s authenticity about what you see onscreen. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then money corrupts inevitably. One of the critical hits of the year and judging on the box office returns this may well being one of Scorsese’s biggest hits ever.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Delayed-reaction Quaaludes. That’s all you need to know.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $82.8 million domestic (as of 1/17/14), $120.9M total.

BUDGET: $100M

STATUS: Still out in wide release.

The Hunt

7. THE HUNT (JAGTEN)

(Magnolia) Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkoop, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Ole Dupont, Rikke Bergmann, Allan Wilbor Christensen. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Released July 12, 2013 We were one of the first in the country to see this here in Orlando at the Florida Film Festival. Recently this was announced to be one of the final nominees for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Given it’s wrenching story about a substitute teacher who is just trying to get his life together after a bitter divorce accused of molesting a little girl, it’s hardly unsurprising but there is more to this than simply a terrific story.

WHY IT IS HERE: The storyline, as well-told as it is, is brought to life by an Oscar-worthy performance by Mikkelsen. In a year in which we’ve been treated to a wealth of fine performances, this is as good as any as you’ll witness, Only the fact that this is a mid-major distributor and a foreign film kept Mikkelsen from being in the Oscar mix. This is the kind of movie that leaves you feeling emotionally drained after seeing it.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The Christmas eve church confrontation.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $613,308 domestic (as of 1/21/14), $16.76M total..

BUDGET: $3.45M.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Download from iTunes/Amazon. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix/Blockbuster. Stream from Amazon/Blockbuster/Netflix/iTunes.

Fruitvale Station

6. FRUITVALE STATION

(Weinstein) Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears, Destiny Ekwueme. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Released July 12, 2013 Based on true events that happened on the last day of 2008 (and on the first day of 2009), the shooting of Oscar Grant III at an East Bay BART station galvanized the Bay Area and the nation as to the training of transit police and their use of firearms. Taking place on the last day of his life, the film shows the story of a man who’s made some terrible mistakes trying to get his life together only to lose it in a senseless confrontation

WHY IT IS HERE: Some talk about Oscar snubs to Redford and Hanks but this entire movie has gotten snubbed this entire awards season and it just isn’t right. Part of he problem was that the movie was released back in July but frankly the studio hasn’t really supported it as much as it deserves either. The movie certainly should have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jordan), Best Supporting Actress (Spencer) and Best Original Screenplay. Hopefully the justice will be in big boosts to the careers of Coogler and Jordan.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: When a mother is informed that her son is dead.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $16.1 million domestic (as of 1/21/14), $16.7 million total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Download from iTunes/Amazon. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix. Stream from Amazon/ iTunes.

20 Feet from Stardom

5. 20 FEET FROM STARDOM

(Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lynn Mabry, Claudia Lennear, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin. Directed by Morgan Neville

Released June 14, 2013 Most of us know the stars out front belting out the hits but few of us are all that aware of the back-up singers who often sing the parts of the song we sing along to. Some of them are the most talented and powerful voices in the business bar none – including the stars, who would be the first to tell you so. These are the anti-American Idols – women content to remain in the background, who sing for the love of singing rather than in pursuit of fame.

WHY IT IS HERE: This Oscar-nominated documentary shines a light on those who have shunned the spotlight, some for nearly 50 years and still going strong. This was the opening night film for the 2013 Florida Film Festival and an auspicious kick-off to that event it was, with Merry Clayton a special guest gracing opening night filmgoers with a song.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: A deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter” with the various tracks stripped away until only Clayton’s powerful voice remains.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $4.8M domestic (as of 1/22/14), $5.2M worldwide.

BUDGET: Not available

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Download from iTunes/Amazon. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix. Stream from Amazon/ iTunes.

Gravity

4. GRAVITY

(Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), Phaldut Sharma (voice), Orto Ignatiussen (voice), Amy Warren (voice), Basher Savage (voice). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Released October 3, 2013 Perhaps the worst possible fear of an astronaut is a disaster in space, crippling their spacecraft and robbing them of a ride home. For all our well-trained, cool-as-a-cucumber-under-pressure NASA heroes, there’s no doubt that each one of them are human inside and in a situation like that would be absolutely terrified. This comes as close as we can to making that situation real for a general audience.

WHY IT IS HERE: Stunning special effects that duplicate weightlessness so perfectly, and a bravura Oscar-nominated performance by Bullock (and justifiably so). This has been getting rabid kudos from critics and audiences alike since it opened and it is no surprise that it is one of the finalists for the Best Picture Oscar.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The initial collision with the debris field that leaves Bullock’s character spinning out of control and headed for deep space – all against eerie silence.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $258.9 million domestic (as of 1/21/14), $677.7 million total.

BUDGET: $100 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release; scheduled for home video release on February 25.

The Forgotten Kingdom

3. THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM

(Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube, Sam Phillips. Directed by Andrew Mudge

Released April 5, 2013 This is yet another movie on this list that I first caught at the Florida Film Festival – in this case, the best film I caught at the FFF this year. In it a South African man, living a life of drinking and womanizing, is charged with taking his father – from whom he was estranged – back to Lesotho to be buried. Along the way he rekindles an old flame, learns something about his dad and of himself – and of Africa.

WHY IT IS HERE: An amazing film that drills down father-son relationships and forces you to explore your own relationships with your parents and/or your children. Beautifully shot in gorgeous African vistas, this is a movie so compelling and beautiful that I was thinking about it for days. I’m still thinking about it now.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Atang’s confrontation with Dineo’s father.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: Not available.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Still appearing on the festival circuit. At this time there are no concrete plans for home video release but at some point hopefully that will change.

12 Years a Slave

2.  12 YEARS A SLAVE

(Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Steve McQueen

Released October 18, 2013 Solomon Northup, a free American of African descent, is betrayed, kidnapped and sold into slavery. Sent to the deep South of the plantations of Louisiana, he is taken away from his wife and children and must learn to survive in the brutal world of the cotton fields, maintaining the hope that one day he will be free once again.

WHY IT IS HERE: Just a magnificently gripping film, one which can show the depths of human depravity one moment and the heights of the strength of the human spirit the next. Ejiofor comes out as a legitimate star here while McQueen who for years has been labeled as a director of enormous promise, fulfills it here.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Solomon Northup sobbing as he is being carted away in a wagon as he is at last set free.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $43.9M (as of 1/2913), $79.0M total.

BUDGET: $20 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release. Expected to be released on home video this spring.

The Act of Killing

1. THE ACT OF KILLING

 (Drafthouse) Anwars Congo, Herman Koto, Safit Pardede, Adi Zulkadry, Haji Anif, Jusuf Kalla, Ibrahim Sinik, Syamsul Arfin. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Released July 19, 2013 During the Indonesian military takeover in the mid-1960s, thousands upon thousands of Indonesians were murdered by death squad, often led by members of organized crime. In an effort to rid the country of leftists and communists, the net was expanded to include executions of ethnic Chinese and as time went on, basically anyone they wanted. Some of the more notorious death squad leaders were interviewed here and invited to re-enact their crimes in any style they wished; being to a man big fans of Hollywood movies, they would choose some fairly inventive means.

WHY IT IS HERE: I can’t say I enjoyed this movie but the experience of it really changed my perceptions on the notions of forgiveness and humanity. Anwars Congo, one of the most blood-soaked of the death squad leaders (and one of the most revered in Indonesia), is today a grandfatherly sort whose gentle onscreen demeanor is at odds with the horrors of his vicious, cruel and bloodthirsty acts. Is there redemption for men like that? Can one feel sympathy for the devil?

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The scene on the roof when the horror of his actions catches up with Anwar and he has a violently physical reaction.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $469, 214 domestic (as of 1/29/13), $469,214 total.

BUDGET: $1 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. Download from iTunes/Amazon. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix. Stream from Amazon/iTunes/Netflix.

Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

New Releases for the Week of December 13, 2013


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG       

(New Line) Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Peter Jackson

Continuing on their journey to reclaim the Lost Kingdom of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and thirteen stout and true dwarves must navigate the gloomy Mirkwood, take on swarms of giant spiders and Beorn the skin changer and the dangerous Wood Elves before coming face to face with the most fearsome foe they could imagine – the dragon Smaug. It will take all their courage and camaraderie to survive these obstacles.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)

Nebraska

(Paramount) Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacey Keach. A man decides to humor his cantankerous old dad and accompany him to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize the man suspects is a sham. Along the route he will see his father through different eyes – and maybe become a better man in the process. Acclaimed director Alexander Payne shot this in beautiful black and white.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some language)

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas

(Lionsgate) Tyler Perry, Kathy Najimy, Chad Michael Murray, Tika Sumpter. Madea reluctantly helps a friend make a surprise visit to her daughter in the country during the holidays. When they get there, things aren’t at all what they expect and in typical Madea fashion she must give out massive doses of her own brand of Christmas spirit or kick some serious booty – sometimes both.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opening Thursday)

Genre: Holiday Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references, crude humor and language)  

The Whistleblower


The Whistleblower

Sometimes the peacekeepers aren't so blessed.

(2010) True-Life Drama (Goldwyn) Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Roxana Condurache, Paula Schramm, Alexandru Potocean, William Hope, Rayissa Kondracki, Jeanette Hain, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Hewlett. Directed by Larysa Kondracki

In the course of our working day, we often see things that we find repugnant. Most of the time, we just let things slide. After all, why get yourself into a tizzy over things you can’t change? Once in awhile however, we run across things that we just can’t leave alone. We have to put a stop to something that is heinous.

Kathy Bolkovac (Weisz) is a hard-working police officer in Nebraska. She is recently divorced and her husband has been awarded custody of her daughter. He is now moving to Georgia for a new job and Kathy is doing her level best to find work down there but hasn’t been able to as of yet. Her commanding officer tells her about the potential of making $100K working as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia after the end of the Bosnian civil war.

This will enable Kathy to eventually move to Georgia when she finishes her six-month tour. She agrees and is given a position with the security contractor Democra and before long she helps train the Bosnian police in successfully prosecuting the first case of domestic abuse since the war ended. It’s a difficult job at best, given the still-simmering mistrust between ethnic groups and the attitude towards women in general in the region, but she perseveres and gets her conviction. This brings her to the attention to UN official Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) who installs her in charge of the Office of Gender Affairs, there to investigate crimes against women.

 Boy, does she find one. A ring of human traffickers are bringing women into Bosnia to serve in forced prostitution, particularly in the case of 15-year-old Ukrainian Raya (Condurache) and her friend Luba (Schramm) who were sold to human traffickers by her own uncle. When Raya is discovered beaten to the point of near-unconsciousness, Kathy investigates the incident and is shocked to discover that not only were the Bosnian police complicit in the affair but so is the United Nations and high-ranking diplomats and military personnel. Kathy will have to battle apathy and indifference in a bureaucratic nightmare that has some powerful forces arrayed against her, and the health, welfare and very lives of innocent young women in the balance.

This is based on an actual case and yes, Kathy Bolkovac is a real person. She worked for the real life company DynCorp which Democra substitutes for here. More on that in a minute.

This is an unflinching look at what is one of the fastest-rising crimes in the world. Human trafficking is at an all-time high and shows no signs of slowing down. Director Kondracki is obviously passionate about the subject and that passion is reflected in Weisz who gives Bolkovac a simmering, dogged personality. Not knowing much about the real Kathy Bolkovac, I can’t say whether that’s accurate or not but I can say that it fits the needs of the character in this movie nicely. Weisz as an actress can be extraordinary when given the right role. This isn’t her very best work but it’s darn near.

She is aided by an excellent supporting cast including Redgrave, regal and majestic as the UN official and Strathairn, as an internal affairs officer at Democra who helps Kathy in her investigation. Kaas plays a Dutch member of the international Democra peacekeeping team who enters into a romantic relationship with Kathy as well as a professional one.

The movie’s dark tone is underscored by the dark cinematography which occasionally descends into murkiness. There are scenes where it is difficult to ferret out what’s going on. A few more lights might not have been a bad idea here. Also, it feels like major plot points have been edited out or skipped over. I don’t mind reading between the lines in a movie, but this one needed a few more that would have helped explain some of the goings-on.

In real life, the investigation cost Bolkovac her job, forcing her to sue DynCorp in the British courts. DynCorp fired seven people (including Bolkovac) and reassigned several more but to date the company has never paid any restitution for its role in the incident. Personally, I find this sort of injustice infuriating; at the very least they should have been find and personally I think they should have lost every government contract they have. Not so much because their employees committed crimes under their aegis, but because they complicitly supported them by protecting them and impeding the real-life investigation of Bolkovac. To my mind, that’s unconscionable.

This could well have been an important movie and still might be. I don’t remember a movie dealing with the human trafficking subject that was this stark and this realistic. For once you get an idea of the degradations and horrors that these girls go through and the sexual slavery aspect isn’t just there for titillation. That The Whistleblower is based on actual events makes this as terrifying as any horror movie hitting the October release schedule.

REASONS TO GO: A terrifying view at a subject rarely tackled by films and never with this level of realism. Weisz, Redgrave, Strathairn and Kaas give raw performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many blanks left for the viewer to fill in. The cinematography is often murky.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, much of it of a sexual nature including one particularly brutal sexual assault. The language is rough as well and as you might expect, there’s plenty of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly shot in Romania. Weisz had originally been approached to play the role in 2005 but turned it down due to her pregnancy. When she discovered the movie’s production had stalled, she accepted the role and consequently the movie was made.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d say see this in a theater; it might be easier to make out some of the images on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: You Again

Zombie Strippers


Zombie Strippers

If this is what a zombie looks like then I don't want to be alive.

(2007) Horror Spoof (Triumph) Jenna Jameson, Robert Englund, John Hawkes, Roxy Saint, Penny Drake, Whitney Anderson, Jennifer Holland, Shamron Moore, Jeanette Sousa, Carmit Levite, Brad Milne, Jen Alex Gonzalez, Jessica Custodio. Directed by Jay Lee

Some movies are kind of hard to figure out from their titles. Others tell you right out of the gate what their intentions are. On rare occasions, you’ll get one of the latter that deliver something extra, to your surprise or dismay.

In the near future, George W. Bush is in his fourth term as president and has gotten us into more wars than we have soldiers to fight (that knucklehead!) so it is up to CheyneyCo to develop a chemical enhancement that reanimates dead soldiers so that they can return to the fray over and over again (the depressing thing is that I could see G.W. actually coming up with a strategy like that).

Of course, as such things always do in horror movies, the virus escapes the lab and makes its way into Rhino’s,  an underground strip club (in G.W.’s dystopian future, all strip clubs are illegal) and of course lead stripper Kat (Jameson) is the first to be infected. Ian (Englund), the club’s sleazy and greedy owner, is at first appalled but when Kat proves to be more popular than ever as an undead stripper, he quickly determines ways to keep his strippers dancing after death. This leads to the mother of all cat fights.

It’s not often you get a movie that mashes up zombie gore, softcore titillation, political commentary and philosophical undertones but Jay Lee does so here. This is a movie that references Eugene Ionesco unreservedly (England’s character is even named Ian Nessco and his club named for Ionesco’s most well-known absurdist play Rhinoceros) and has a wonderful moment when Kat is found reading Nitzsche post-zombification and exclaims “Now it all makes sense!”

The movie also delivers on the breasts and gore, surprisingly effectively in both departments which is a good reason why it got almost no release in the U.S. which has become effectively paranoid about both. Utilizing a number of adult film actresses, models and actual strippers, the dance scenes have at least some authenticity to them.

So what if the acting is ham-fisted and the story begins to peter out (no pun intended) towards the end? If you’re looking for more than that in a movie entitled Zombie Strippers you are clearly in the wrong aisle of your preferred rental venue, my friend.

WHY RENT THIS: Boobs and gore – the two staples of a horror fanboy’s diet.  At least makes an attempt to be a little different.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is not so good and the movie runs out of steam by the end.

FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, there’s plenty of nudity, sexuality and gore not to mention filthy foul nasty language and a whole lot of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bouncer at Rhino’s is played by MMA legend Tito Ortiz who was also Jameson’s boyfriend at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on all the nods to French existentialism and in particular the Eugene Ionesco play Rhinoceros (no, I’m not kidding). The Blu-Ray has a trivia track which is actually surprisingly better than most.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw V