Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
If the Dancer Dances

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Devil’s Gate (2017)


Bridget Regan is having a bad hair day.

(2017) Horror (IFC) Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Spencer Drever, Adam Hurtig, Will Woytowich, Scott Johnson, Sarah Constible, Beverly Ndukwu, Jean-François Ferland, Jan Skene. Directed by Clay Staub

 

There’s something about creepy old farms that just seem to lend themselves to horror movies Old time farm implements like pitchforks, scythes and rakes become all the more sinister hanging in a barn when someone is being stalked by a creature or a serial killer. American Gothic has more than one subtext, after all.

A local farmer’s wife, Maria Pritchard (Regan) and her son Jonah (Drever) have disappeared and suspect number one is the husband, abusive but devout Jackson Pritchard (Ventimiglia). They’ve owned their piece of land in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota for generations and while Jackson awaits the arrival of angels to make his barren soil fertile the FBI in the person of Special Agent Daria Francis (Schull) to investigate the disappearance.

One wonders who called her in; it certainly wasn’t good ol’ boy Sheriff Gruenwell (Frakes) who not-so-subtly warns her to stay away from Pritchard; reluctantly, he allows Deputy Colt Salter (Ashmore) to accompany her. The Deputy warns the Special Agent that Jackson, whom he went to high school with, is a little bit twitchy and is known for his explosive temper. Still, nobody is prepared for the police cruiser they arrive on the farm in to be struck by numerous bolts of lightning. I mean, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Well, it does in Devil’s Lake and more to the point on the Pritchard place. Soon it becomes apparent that Jackson may not be as crazy as everyone thinks he is; there are most definitely some things lurking in his basement. There are also beings coming from the sky but they might not be the angels Jackson thinks they are.

The cast is pretty strong with some TV veterans as well as Ashmore who cut his teeth on the X-Men movies. Surprisingly, Ventimiglia chews the scenery more than I’ve ever seen him do before. He was such a compelling figure in Heroes but here he truly embraces the crazy. A fairly high percentage of his dialogue is shrieked rather than stated and when he’s quiet, it’s because he’s giving a menacing mumble. Beyond that, it’s great to see Frakes in a role that isn’t named Will Riker although it is a bit disturbing to realize that 31 years has passed since he originated that role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the years are definitely taking their toll.

The actors for the most part do their jobs well but they aren’t given a whole lot to work with; the characters really aren’t developed much as writer-director Staub and his co-writer Peter Aperlo don’t give them much in the way of character development to hang their hats on. There are other compensations however; the creature effects are pretty damn good and reminiscent of the work of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also some nifty storm effects although they don’t really break any new ground there.

It’s not an entirely well-filmed movie though. The cinematography ranges from outdoor shots that are so overlit that they look like the sun’s exploding, or indoor shots that look like they were lit by candlelight. Less extremes on both ends would have been sincerely appreciated.

For the most part this is a fairly entertaining sci-fi/horror creature feature, set on a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre loaded with traps a la Saw and some slimy monsters a la Pan’s Labyrinth. This isn’t a rocket science kind of movie but it is a decent enough thrill ride nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty impressive. It is good to see Jonathan Frakes in a non-Star Trek role.
REASONS TO STAY: Ventimiglia is more than a little bit over-the-top. The cinematography is either virtually washed out or just  about too dark to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town itself is fictional but there is a town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
For the Love of George

Welcome to Leith


Nothing supreme about these whites.

Nothing supreme about these whites.

(2015) Documentary (No Weather) Ryan Schock, Craig Cobb, Thomas Kelsch, Laura Collins, Lee Cook, Kynan Dutton, Deborah Henderson, Todd Schwartz, Steve Bay, Greg Bruce, Kenneth Zimmerman. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker

Florida Film Festival 2015

Leith, North Dakota, on the surface seems to be an unremarkable small town in the Great Plains. A rural hamlet of 24 hard working people, it’s indistinguishable from dozens, hundreds of towns just like it. That wasn’t always the case though.

In 2012 a man named Craig Cobb bought a home in Leith. Not a remarkable thing in and of itself, although people moving into Leith is a big event in Leith. Some of the residents went to greet the new neighbor, but for the most part he resisted any attempts to socialize. People figured he just wanted to keep to himself and gave him space. In North Dakota, people mind their own business.

That’s not true elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center had been keeping tabs on the main players in the White Supremacy movement, and it turns out that Cobb was one of the major players among the neo-Nazis. They also discovered that he was out to take over this town by quietly buying up plots of land for a song, then turning around and selling them to other white supremacists. Once they had a voting majority, they would take over the city government and create a paradise on the plains for racists.

That didn’t sit well with the townsfolk of Leith, who wanted nothing more than to live out their lives in their small slice o’ heaven without bother or fuss, but to have armed racists terrorizing the town carrying loaded rifles around town, getting into confrontations with citizens of Leith and of course sending all sorts of worry into the town’s lone African-American and his family, something had to be done to stop Cobb. But what could they do?

Filmmakers Nichols and Walker offer a surprisingly balanced and dispassionate chronicle of the events in Leith with interviews with Cobb and his follower Dutton as well as Schock – the town’s mayor – as well as other townspeople and other interested parties. Both sides are allowed to present their point of view.

And in fact, in some ways, the racists have some salient points. They’re doing nothing illegal. They’re simply taking advantage of the town’s by-laws and of laws that are common throughout North Dakota and the U.S. in general. Until they start stalking the streets with shotguns, they seem to be well on their way to accomplishing their goal. Of course, once they start talking their world view shows itself to be completely repugnant, but the filmmakers wisely let them dig that hole themselves rather than pointing self-righteous fingers. The former method is far more effective than the latter.

They also paint a beautiful picture of a small town in what would at first glance seem to be a stark and barren land. They are relatively close to the booming oilfields that have been attracting workers to the area (and are the subject of another acclaimed  documentary, The Overnighters but that is another review for another day), but the way the filmmakers shoot the landscape it is almost mystical. You can easily see why the people love this place and want to defend it so vigorously. There is a beauty that is quiet and unassuming but unforgettable nonetheless.

One of the few quibbles I have with the movie is Credo 64. You see “Credo 64” emblazoned throughout the film on signs around town left by the supremacists, but it is never explained in the movie. For the record, it refers to the “White Man’s Bible” which is the holy book of the Creator sect, a Christian-like religion that has rewritten the Bible to reflect White Supremacist doctrine. Credo 64 essentially permits Creators to act as terrorists and vigilantes when their government oppresses them and is in this instance a veiled threat to the town, one which probably should have been explained better in the movie.

There is also a fairly large usage of racial epithets including the N word throughout; if that makes you as a viewer uncomfortable, you may want to give that some consideration. I found myself numbed to it pretty quickly, but I did feel uncomfortable initially. Depending on your sensitivity to that sort of thing your reaction may differ.

This is an essential documentary. It is easy to forget that people like the Craig Cobbs of the world took over an entire country and swayed them to their morally bankrupt principles and turned that country into a military threat that destabilized the entire world until an alliance of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other nations put down that threat for good. But it could still happen here; it almost happened in Leith but for the will of the people who lived there. It could happen elsewhere, maybe where you live and when it does, it will be insidious, someone who spreads fear, mistrust and hatred until the entire community rallies around a demagogue who will lead them to victory over the object of that fear, mistrust and hatred. Don’t think it can happen here? Look at how many people are supporting laws that oppress the LBGT community. Look at how easily the voting rights, so dearly won in 1964, have been swept aside. It can happen here. And it will happen here if we aren’t careful. Welcome to Leith reminds us that we need to stand up together and say “No” when an entire community is threatened and that’s how you ensure that it doesn’t happen here.

REASONS TO GO: Chilling to the bone. Beautiful cinematography. Captures the conflict fairly.
REASONS TO STAY: Leaves a few terms unexplained.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Rolling Stone named it one of the ten best films of the festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gabriel