American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel


The Reverend Robin Meyers is preaching blue in the reddest of red states.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Robin Meyers, Carlton Pearson, Marlin Lavanhar, Lori Walke, Bernard Brandon Scott, Nehemiah D. Frank, Robert Jones, Colin Walke, Nicole Ogundare. Directed by Jeanine Isabel Butler

It is no secret that religion has become a powerful political force in 21st century America. While the Founding Fathers touted a separation of church and state (and Jesus himself believed that one should render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and render unto God what was God’s), in more recent days the Evangelical right has become, if you’ll pardon the expression, hell-bent on rewriting history and turning their faith into a de facto state religion.

American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel is a documentary that attempts the difficult task of examining the role of religion in modern politics and how God became a Republican. They center largely on liberal-leaning Robin Meyers, the pastor of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Chris Church in Oklahoma City. Author of the book Why the Christian Right is Wrong, he is a jovial sort who often jokes “In Oklahoma, you can be a Democrat or you can be Christian. You can’t be both – it’s just peculiar.” He and his associate minister Lori Walke (unusual enough that she is a female minister in a profession dominated by men) and the Reverend Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, pastor of the All Souls Unitarian Church, are bastions of liberalism in a largely conservative pastoral community.

Oklahoma is perhaps the reddest of the red states, with every single county having voted for Donald Trump in the last Presidential election and for Mitt Romney in the one previous. The state is overwhelmingly Southern Baptist and to a very large extent that is who seems to be the driving force for the political arm of the Christian right.

However, as theologian and historian Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott of the Phillips Seminary in Tulsa and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Apostle Paul and his works. He reminds us that the modern Bible is essentially a “4th century creation masquerading as a 1st century eyewitness report,” referring to the Council of Nicea called by Emperor Constantine of the Holy Roman Empire to consolidate the Bible into a single version with agreed-upon chapters rather than dozens of different versions each with their own set of writings. Several gospels, such as the Book of Mary, were permanently removed, remaking the Church into a patriarchal enterprise whereas earlier women were a big part of the movement as crypt paintings and early Christian artwork shows.

Dr. Robert Jones also moves into more modern history, depicting the rise of Jerry Falwell and of politically-motivated pastors and the groundswell of the religious right that became a large part of the Tea Party and now the base that drives the Republican party. The movie also unflinchingly looks at the role of racism in the religious right, concentrating on the Greenwood Massacre – locally and incorrectly referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – in which a thriving African-American community called Greenwood, also known as the “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground by an angry white mob.

This becomes truly evident in the Mayflower’s decision on whether to become a sanctuary church for those fleeing deportation. In Oklahoma, most pastors would say that there’s no decision whatsoever – sanctuary churches run counter to what modern evangelicals believe that America’s borders must be protected. One wonders what Jesus might have thought except that, as Dr. Jones points out, Jesus and his parents were unwanted refugees as well.

In all honesty the discussion is pretty one-sided here, although those with differing viewpoints were invited to be interviewed and all declined according to the filmmakers. Still, it is an eye-opening film that uses the gospels themselves to point out the inconsistencies in modern evangelical thought. The movie uses music effectively (particularly an effecting sequence in which an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia” is played) but the movie is mostly talking heads, although the conversations are incredibly important as they go to the very soul of American Christianity.

It is hard to believe that any Fox News-watching conservative Christian will be moved very much by this, although the story of former associate minister to Oral Roberts, Carlton Pearson, shows that change is possible as he takes a church whose founders were ringleaders of the aforementioned Greenwood Massacre and turned it into a church where African-Americans were not only welcomed but have become dominant. In that sense while liberals will find this documentary fascinating, I fear that it is literally preaching to the choir.

REASONS TO SEE: The background information gives a good sense of how the Christian right acquired political clout. Very conversational but important conversations.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get a little bit preachy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of the results of the Greenwood massacre.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Evangelicals
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Man With the Magic Box

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Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny

Into the Storm


They're not in Kansas anymore.

They’re not in Kansas anymore.

(2014) Disaster (New Line) Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep, Scott Lawrence, David Drumm, Brandon Ruiter, Jimmy Groce, Linda Gehringer, Keala Wayne Winterhalt, Maryanne Nagel, London Elise Moore. Directed by Steven Quale

In this era of climate change and super storms, we have seen Mother Nature’s fury at levels unprecedented in our lifetime and scientists tell us it’s only going to get worse. That may send a chill through most of us but through Hollywood filmmakers it might be classified as more of a thrill.

Silverton, Oklahoma is very much like many small towns its size throughout the United States. High school seniors graduate amid what pomp and circumstance their towns can muster. Teens suffer from a feeling that their parents don’t listen to them. Lovelorn boys work up the courage to talk to beautiful young girls. Video projects get corrupted and need to be redone. Redneck idiots get drunk and do stupid things all for the sake of YouTube glory. And sometimes, bad storms cause havoc.

Gary Morris (Armitage) is the vice-principal at Silverton High School and both of his sons – Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress) attend the school. Donnie is something of a video nerd, president of the school’s audio-visual club and charged with recording the graduation ceremony. He has also been assigned by his father the making of a video time capsule to chronicle his high school years to deliver to himself 25 years later (an excellent idea by the way).

Pete (Walsh) is a storm chaser and documentary filmmaker who is frustrated with the lack of success this storm season. His funding is on the verge of being pulled and his meteorological expert Allison (Callies) has been spectacularly unsuccessful at using the weather data to predict where tornadoes might appear. However, a super cell has formed and there is hope that it will generate enough tornadoes to finally get Pete the shots he needs to complete his documentary. Taking the armored vehicle TITUS which has the ability to lock into the ground and withstand winds of up to 170 MPH, Pete, Allison, cameraman Jacob (Sumpter) and technicians Daryl (Escarpeta) and Lucas (Whitaker) head to where Allison believes the tornadoes will form – Silverton, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Donnie overhears Kaitlyn (Carey) being told that her video project had to be turned in that week for her to be considered for a summer internship, even though the video was hopelessly corrupted and needs to be reshot. Prompted by Trey, he offers to help reshoot footage at the abandoned paper mill some 20 miles out of town, even though it will take place during the graduation ceremony he’s supposed to film. Trey isn’t happy that he is now responsible for filming the ceremony and feeling the wrath of Dad.

A couple of knuckleheads named Donk (Davis) and Reevis (Reep) – think of them as a real life Beavis and Butthead – are doing the usual; getting drunk, trying stupid stunts and dreaming of fame and fortune on the Internet when they see the TITUS whizzing by. Sure that something big is up, they follow, hoping to grab some storm footage of their own.

What nobody knows is that the storm that is beginning to form over doomed Silverton is like no other in history and the destructive power more than anything that they could prepare for. While a desperate father searches for his son, the storm chasers bear witness to an American town being wiped systematically from the map.

The good news first. The storm sequences are very well done with no two tornadoes ending up being too alike. Several strike during the course of the film and all with differing results and creating different types of danger. As eye candy summer movies go, Into the Storm delivers.

However, what happens between the storms is what weighs this movie down. The characters in the movie are given little development and exist essentially to be buffeted by wind and debris, to drive maniacally as tornadoes form around them and to wistfully call home and talk with their angry 5-year-old daughter (in Allison’s case).

The movie starts out going the found footage route, mainly using the footage that the storm chasers shoot as well as from Donnie’s video time capsule. Amazingly, about two thirds of the way through the movie, the filmmakers abandon this approach in favor of traditional cinematic forms to tell the story and then return to the found footage thing for a post-storm coda. It’s a bit jarring, and tells me that they didn’t have the courage of their own convictions to stand by one form or another. Commit to it or don’t do it.

Armitage, so good in The Hobbit trilogy and Callies who turned heads as Lori in The Walking Dead sleepwalk their way through this one. Both in their previous roles showed that they are compelling performers but there is nothing compelling here. Perhaps if they’d been given more to work with. Then again, one has to look at the writing credit to realize that the guy who wrote this also wrote Step Up: All In opening the same weekend to realize that this isn’t a screenwriter who specializes in people stories.

In a disaster movie, it’s not just about the disaster; it’s about those put in harm’s way. We have to have a rooting interest in them to survive and we just don’t here. Kudos to the special effects teams for the CGI storms that are breathtaking but this could have been so much better if they’d put in as much care and craft into writing characters that we care one way or the other whether they survive the storm.

REASONS TO GO: The effects work is worth seeing on the big screen.

REASONS TO STAY: The characters are essentially an afterthought. Feels like a theme park attraction more than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of tornado destruction and mayhem, some teen peril, a smattering of foul language and sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to keep their spirits up during a wet, tiring and miserable shoot, the extras would often spontaneously break out into song. A favorite was the Styx classic “Come Sail Away.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twister

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: What If

To the Wonder


Whispers on the mournful prairie.

Whispers on the mournful prairie.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chilline, Romina Mondello, Tony O’Gans, Charles Baker, Marshall Bell, Casey Williams, Jack Hines, Paris Always, Samaria Folks, Francis Gardner, Jamie Conner, Gregg Elliott, Michael Bumpus, Lois Boston, Danyell Inman, Wigl-Black, Ashley Clark, Tamar Baruch. Directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is a true original and like most true originals, his work isn’t for everybody. His movies are visually arresting, epic and intimate at the same time. However, he tends not to tell his stories in the way that moviegoers are used to.

Neil (Affleck), an environmental engineer from Oklahoma, meets Marina (Kurylenko), a Ukrainian single mom ex-pat in Paris and the two fall deeply in love. So much so that Neil invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Chilline) to live with him in Oklahoma.

At first, everything is lovely but as reality sets in, Tatiana begins to miss her friends and Marina is disturbed by Neil’s unwillingness to commit although Marina wants very much to be married. She begins to get counsel from Father Quintana (Bardem), a priest who is having a crisis of faith of his own. Neil’s refusal to marry Marina leads to her visa expiring and her forced deportation back to France where Tatiana goes to live with her father in the Ukraine.

Neil begins a relationship with Jane (McAdams), a high school sweetheart of his who is recently divorced and having financial problems keeping her ranch afloat. When Neil’s commitment phobia submarines that relationship as well, he decides to bring Marina back with consequences that might just doom that relationship for good.

Like all of Malick’s films, this is simply exquisite from a visual aspect. Windswept prairie, picturesque small town downtown, suburban neighborhood, Parisian landmarks – all look epic and timeless under the watchful eye of Malick and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Even a common supermarket looks amazing and wonderful the way it is shot here.

There is no dialogue to speak of; almost everything that the characters say is done in a voice over in short bursts almost like poetry as their thoughts are what we hear rather than what they actually say. In a sense, it’s more honest than dialogue.

However, in an attempt to make cinematic poetry, the lines that the characters speak are often pretentious non-sequiturs that  have really sound much more thoughtful than they are. It goes through the whole film so really your tolerance for this sort of thing is going to determine how much you like the movie.

The actors are more or less props here. None of the lead performances are particularly memorable; they are made to convey moods and feelings so there are a lot of soulful expressions and child-like grins. Affleck has almost no dialogue; the voice-overs belong to both of the women in his life and Father Quintana and are done in three languages – Marina in French, Jane in English and Quintana in Spanish.

I get the sense that this is Malick’s take on a Bergman film; everyone in it is miserable and the stunning vistas reminded me of The Seventh Seal and other classics by the Swedish master. This is also in many ways one of Malick’s most spiritual films; much of the movie revolves around the loss of faith in something bigger than oneself whether that be God or love or the world. Nearly all of the characters undergo a crisis of faith in one form or another and the movie’s final shot of Mount Saint Michel in France may be as outright spiritual a shot as you’re likely to see in an American movie that isn’t faith-based to begin with.

Mention must be made of the score which is scintillating. Compose Hanan Townshend (who is apparently not related to the Who guitarist Pete Townshend) utilizes many classical works of the 19th and 20th century, particularly to the Prelude from Wagner’s Parsifal which is beautiful enough that you don’t get tired of its regular use. Also in the Oklahoma scenes, the sound of the wind blowing mournfully through the wheat fields is used to excellent effect. The Blu-Ray advises you to turn your sound up and I would concur with that; the sound is as important a part of the film as the visuals and picking up on the nuances will only add to the enhancement of the movie.

I get the sense that Malick is out to make the perfect film. He gets a little closer with each try but at the end of the day I think he ends up believing the next one will be the one. He isn’t very prolific except for lately; he made a movie two years ago, this one last year and another one is due out sometime this year or early the next. Considering that output would about triple what he had made in the previous dozen years before that and equal his output since 1978 (!) might give you an idea of how amazing his recent creative spurt has been.

As I said earlier, this isn’t for everybody. While the storytelling is linear, that is about all moviegoers will recognize about it. This is a series of images, some with thoughts attached to it, essentially like a memory of the events from years in the future. Not all about it is easy to digest and requires some thought. You can also just let the images wash over you and bask in their beauty, and that is a worthwhile endeavor also.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most beautiful visual cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the most frustrating cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Malick to be set entirely in the present day. It also has the distinction of being the last movie to be reviewed by Roger Ebert; the review was published posthumously.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: No-No: A Dockumentary

Yellow (2012)


Beware of yellow in the pool.

Beware of yellow in the pool.

(2012) Dramedy (Medient) Heather Wahlquist, Melanie Griffith, Sienna Miller, Gena Rowlands, Lucy Punch, Ray Liotta, David Morse, Max Thieriot, Daviegh Chase, Riley Keough, Brendan Sexton, Ethan Suplee, Elizabeth Daily, Cassandra Jean, Onata Aprile, Gary Stretch, Nancy De Mayo, Malea Richardson, Bella Dayne, Tonya Cornelisse. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Florida Film Festival 2014

There are those of us who live mainly in our heads. What must that be like if they are constantly bombed out of their skulls on drugs and alcohol?

Mary Holmes (Wahlquist) is a substitute teacher who fits that description. She brings her yellow painkillers and bottles of alcohol to school with her. Some of the teachers at the school think of her as the school bicycle – everybody’s had a ride. When one of the parents partake of her pleasures, she loses her job.

Mary copes with an often harsh reality by escaping into fantasy. School meetings turn into opera; a bike ride in the neighborhood becomes a psychedelic animation. She talks with her non-existent children, all of whom were aborted. When she goes home to Oklahoma to lick her wounds, her family is perhaps more eccentric than she – a hyper-religious grandmother (Rowlands), a sister (Punch) who is mentally ill and a mother (Griffith) who is as far away from reality as Mary herself.

Nick Cassavetes is a talented and promising director. His father John was known as one of the founders of independent cinema and was a tremendous actor and director in his own right. In many ways, this film hearkens back to the freak-out cinema of his father’s era.

I’ve been deliberately vague about the plot. I think the movie works best when you don’t know so much about what’s coming. Some of the movie’s best moments come out of left field so I’ve left the plot description short and, hopefully, sweet.

David Morse, who plays Holmes’ therapist, is always a welcome addition to any cast. You will quickly realize the truth about his character if you’re reasonably observant and maybe have seen a movie or two. Melanie Griffith looks as good as she has in years, and this is one of her best roles ever. She is manic when she needs to be, nurturing at least on the surface and carries the wounds of a sordid past deep in her eyes. It’s a terrific role, particularly as the movie begins to divulge details about Mary’s past.

There are times that it is difficult to distinguish between Mary’s active fantasy life and reality. There is one point where the film violates its own internal logic and that has to do with Mary’s bitchy older sister Xanne and Mary’s illusory children. That’s a big no-no, but it only happens once thankfully.

The effects are pretty nifty (considering the minuscule budget the movie surely had) and the cast is impressive as well, again considering the budget. The movie looks awfully good. My issue with it is that the characters are just so damned unlikable. Nearly everyone in the movie has some sort of mental or emotional instability to varying degrees, enough so that I felt like I needed a shower after the screening was done.

Yellow was actually made in 2012 and is only getting to the festival circuit now. There hasn’t been a great deal of press on the movie thus far, at least that I could find, but nearly all of it has been highly laudatory. That should tell you something. Critics have a tendency to like films that are different. For most audiences, this is going to be a bit of a stretch. The movie didn’t connect with me personally and I found most of the characters to be repellant. There wasn’t anyone I could really latch onto and identify with which makes it difficult to engage with the film. Some of you out there won’t have that issue and will find this imaginative and innovative. I have no argument with that. However, I don’t believe that most audiences will feel the same. If you like things out there, a bit different and a bit edgy, you’ll be in heaven. Most audiences will find this bleak, confusing and too cerebral. Me, I found it to be a movie whose aims I respected but the execution for which I found unsatisfying.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative. Some of the sequences are funnier than frack.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too out there for most.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s drug use – lots and lots of drug use – and plenty of foul language with some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlquist, who co-wrote the screenplay, is Cassavetes’ wife and of course Rowlands is the director’s mother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Blue Ruin

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor