The Dry Land


The Dry Land

Ryan O’Nan and America Ferrera look towards an uncertain future in the Heartland.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Diego Klattenhoff, Ana Claudia Talancon, Evan Jones, Zion Sandoval, Benito Martinez, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Ryan Piers Williams

 

Some see war as a grand exercise in duty and honor, a means of achieving personal glory or perhaps advancing a cause through battle. Those of that mindset are not the ones usually on the front lines. Those warriors who actually fight, who risk life and limb are the ones who pay the price – even if they survive.

James (O’Nan) has returned home to Texas from his tour of duty a damaged soul. His body is OK, but the trauma of surviving unscathed sometimes is just as bad as the trauma of suffering grave injury. He can’t stop thinking about an ambush in which his buddy Henry (Klattenhoff) got hurt.

His wife Sarah (Ferrera) is only happy to have her man home at long last but it doesn’t take long for her to notice that he’s not the man who left for war all those months ago. He’s changed; he has become distant and brooding. She tries her hardest to break through; his best friend Michael (Ritter) tries as well but to no avail.

He takes a job in his father-in-law’s (Martinez) slaughterhouse but the scenes of death and butchery only serve to remind him of the carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan. He also begins to get suspicious of Sarah and Michael, wondering if they have a different agenda than his well-being.

James starts turning towards people who might have some frame of reference in understanding him, like his combat buddy Raymond Gonzales (Valderrama) who has returned home to a neighboring Texas town as well. Raymond is a volatile powder keg who is steadfast in his loyalty to his friends but with an unbelievably short fuse when it comes to everyone else. Together they decide on the spur of the moment to go visit Henry in the VA hospital. That meeting has unexpected consequences that lead to both James and Raymond going in unexpected directions – and Sarah may end up being caught in the crossfire.

The return of veterans home from war has been fodder for Hollywood for ages and none did it better than The Best Years of Our Lives which in essence set the template for movies like this one. In all honesty, I’m not sure what sort of experience Williams has with the military – whether he himself served or someone close to him – but he has the feel of it right.

Williams captures the camaraderie between brothers – as those who serve under fire inevitably are – with brevity and depth. There isn’t a lot of posturing here, the kind of lovefest you might find between drunks which is often how Hollywood portrays it. Instead there’s that simple, quiet knowledge that something has been shared that nobody else can understand unless they were there.

It helps that his cast does an excellent job here. There are no histrionics, no grand speechifying – just people trying to live their lives as best they can, keeping their heads down as much as possible and in general just getting on with things. It’s a quintessinally American outlook, the U.S. version of the stiff upper lip and Williams captures the attitude well.

I’ve been a big fan of Ferrera since I saw her in Real Woman Have Curves during Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s Floating Film Festival several years back and this might be her best performance to date. Sarah is a complicated character, a good woman who wants to be a good wife but one who has been alone for a long time and who now finds herself alone even though her husband is back home. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the emotional center of the movie.

O’Nan plays James as a cypher who keeps his emotions close to his vest. It’s not always an easy task to figure him out, but I think that it’s an honest portrayal; James should be difficult to peg. It gives the viewer a sense of what his family and friends are going through. It’s not a sympathetic performance maybe but it is a gutsy one.

Leo is one of my favorite actresses today and even though her part is small and very much in the vein of part she has been cast in seemingly every time out, she at least gives it enough subtle shading to make it unique. Ritter is showing signs of breaking out into legitimate stardom; he could be one performance away from achieving it.

The bleak and barren Texas landscapes are fine companions to the brutal images of the slaughterhouse. Some of those images might be disturbing to the sensitive; I understand the need for them though, although I might have used them a bit more sparingly. A little brutality goes a long way in a movie as understated as this one is.

Not everything works. Some of the more talky scenes seem to be at odds with the overall feel of the movie. The Dry Land is at its best when it is quiet. This isn’t a movie about bombast and noise; it is a movie about people quietly and perhaps desperately trying to cling to something while the world strips them of their dignity and even their humanity. There are some powerful messages to be had here when the movie is at its best; I would have wished for some more consistency  but there is enough worthy material to warrant keeping an eye out on Williams as  a potentially great filmmaker in the nascent stages of his career.

WHY RENT THIS: Taut performances from nearly all the cast. Some tremendous images, disturbing and otherwise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uneven. The reach exceeds the grasp but just by a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language, some sexuality and violence as well as some disturbing situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A number of the lead actors are TV sitcom veterans (Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Valderrama in “That ’70s Show” and Suplee in “My Name is Earl”).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,777 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Wild Target

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Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen contemplate a world without the Oprah show.

(2011) Thriller (Fox Searchlight)  Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbett, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson, Adam Thompson, Allen McCullough, Gregg Burton, Diana Masi. Directed by Sean Durkin

The mind is a terribly fragile and easily manipulated thing. If you tell it something with enough conviction and enough reputation, it will largely believe anything. Someone with enough will and skill can turn a group of people into their own personal marionettes.

Lucy (Paulson) gets a phone call one afternoon from her sister Martha (Olsen) who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. Martha seems a bit skittish and somewhat confused; Lucy offers to pick her up, a three hour drive each way. She brings her sister home to a beautiful, sleek lake cottage (and I use the term “cottage” advisedly; it could easily sleep ten) where her husband Ted (Dancy) waits to meet Martha for the first time. Martha’s behavior is a bit odd, but nothing too out of the ordinary at first.

The weird things begin to happen. While Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha crawls into bed with them, seemingly oblivious to their need for privacy and intimacy. Martha seems to place no value whatsoever on possessions and has developed skills in cleaning and gardening that she never had before. She also has the look and feel of a puppy who’s been kicked by her owner too many times.

What we know that Lucy doesn’t is that Martha has been in a cult for the last two years. Introduced into it by her friend Zoe (Krause), the cult looks more like a commune at first, a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York where all possessions are shared as is the workload. It is presided over by Patrick (Hawkes), a mild guitar-playing sort. Patrick takes one look at Martha and proclaims her name is Marcy May from then on out and that’s what everyone calls her. Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She is intrigued by Patrick’s philosophy of being self-sufficient.

Except they’re not. The farm is in desperate need of things they aren’t yet able to provide for themselves, so it becomes part of the routine for members of the cult to go to neighboring homes and steal things. This leads to an unexpected and brutal conclusion after which Marcy May makes the decision to flee and return to being Martha again.

At home, Martha is still haunted by her experiences. Little things – a pebble skittering across the driveway, the splash from jumping into the lake – bring her right back into memories of the cult. She becomes paranoid, certain that the cult is after her and is out to bring her back to the farm. How much of her paranoia is real, and how much is the result of a traumatized mind?

Part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene (the Marlene is a reference to the name all of the cult’s women adopt when answering the phone) work is the chilling realism of it. Patrick takes control of the women by changing their names just slightly enough that it doesn’t seem like a bad thing and slowly but surely strips them of their own will. Of course, sex is a big part of that.

In a chilling scene, we are made to realize that Patrick himself “initiates” the women into the family by drugging them and raping them. Afterwards, the women are convinced by their “sisters” that not only was it not rape, that it was not just consensual, but it was a purification that they desperately needed and wanted. So indoctrinated is Martha/Marcy May that she assists in preparing and drugging a new member for Patrick.

Women are not allowed to eat until the men have finished; when a hungry Martha absently pops something into her mouth while preparing a meal, she is smacked upside the head and not gently. Even away from the cult, Martha is seen to be mouthing the platitudes that Patrick repeated to her. It truly is chilling.

At opposite ends of the spectrum we have Olsen – yes, sister to the Olsen twins – who plays Martha like a wounded bird; hopelessly naive in some ways, worldly in others and just barely holding it together. It is a performance that if it doesn’t merit Oscar consideration, should at least be leading to some bigger, more visible roles for Olsen who proves herself  to be a fearless actress.

Hawkes, so impressive in Winter’s Bone last year, proves that his Oscar nomination for that film was no fluke. His Patrick is mesmerizing; never overtly evil except in a couple of places, menacing without appearing to be. He’s the kind of guy that inspires trust and only too late do you find that you are ensnared in his web.

Paulson and Dancy play a very self-absorbed couple who fail to see all the warning signs that Martha’s trauma and seek out professional help for the girl. Dancy’s Ted in particular is more worried about his own comforts than he is about the well-being of his sister-in-law. They are both shallow and materialistic and are thrown into a complete quandary by the arrival of someone who is neither.

The tension here sneaks up on you. It’s evident from the beginning that something bad is going on, and it just gets worse and worse while you wait for the other shoe to drop. By the time it does, you haven’t noticed just how much the level of tension has been wound up on you. That’s good filmmaking. What doesn’t work as well is the switching of timelines between Marcy May and Martha, which is I think meant to convey the confusion going on in her mind but winds up confusing the audience as well. That could have been handled better and is the main reason I didn’t give the movie a higher rating; I still suspect I undervalued it a bit.

The movie does build towards a climax which is deliberately ambiguous. I left the theater with a creepy feeling that was unsettling, like you’d looked into the home movies of someone involved in a tragedy and the movie doesn’t make it plain what the fate of Martha and her sister were although it suggests that it doesn’t end well. While this doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Winter’s Bone, it leaves you with a good ration of something to think about. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer after watching it and quite frankly, not everyone wants to go through that at the movies. Those not looking for mindless entertainment would be well-advised to seek this out.

REASONS TO GO: Durkin establishes a tense mood from the get-go and only ratchets it up throughout, slowly and subtly until you’re a nervous wreck as a viewer. Some intense performances, particularly from Olsen.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to follow at times and an ending that is disturbing as it is ambiguous.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes of sudden violence, rape and sex. There are a few bad words and some nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Martha was the only one that the filmmakers auditioned. Durkin wanted an unknown actress for the role and after Olsen auditioned twice, she was cast two weeks before filming started.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see at home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Piranha 3D

Halloween II (2009)


Halloween II
You can’t keep a good supernatural serial killer down.

 

 

(Dimension) Scout Taylor-Compton, Tyler Mane, Malcolm McDowell, Danielle Harris, Brad Dourif, Howard Hesseman, Sheri Moon Zombie, Chase Vanek, Margot Kidder. Directed by Rob Zombie

 

Sequels can be very problematic. They’re almost never as good as the original, and when you throw in that it’s the sequel to the reboot of one of the classic horror series of all time, things get even more dicey.

 

Halloween II picks up where Zombie’s reboot left off, with Laurie Strode (Taylor-Compton) being pulled out of the house in an ambulance, while serial killer Michael Myers (Mane) is being carted off to the morgue, courtesy of a gunshot to the face by Miss Strode. However, you can’t keep a good serial killer horror film franchise down and Myers turns out to be not quite dead yet, escaping the ambulance that is transporting him to the county morgue when the unlucky ambulance hits a cow. Hey, Haddonfield is farm country don’tcha know.

 

He shows up back at the hospital where Laurie is being treated – a hospital that seems unrealistically understaffed – and hacks a few people to death, particularly a nurse whom he seems intent on pounding into hamburger. He corners her in a guard shack and – voila! – She wakes up from a dream. Actually, the sequence was an homage to the original Halloween II which took place entirely in a hospital. Zombie serves notice that this isn’t gonna be your pappy’s Michael Myers.

 

It’s two years after the events of the first film (although, strangely, the theatrical release portrayed it as being one year, but what’s a year between fiends) and Laurie is now living with Sheriff Brackett (Dourif) and his daughter Annie (Harris) who was the only other survivor of the Michael Myer’s previous Halloween rampage.

 

Halloween is approaching once again and Laurie has been beset by strange dreams. She confesses to her therapist (Kidder) that she’s concerned for her sanity, but she has no idea what kind of shellacking her sanity’s in for. That’s because Dr. Loomis (McDowell), Michael’s therapist from the first film, is on yet another book tour and in his new book he reveals that Laurie is actually Michael Myers’ sister (and Darth Vader is their father…but that didn’t make it into the movie). Since Laurie wasn’t aware of it, she goes bonkers and storms out of the Brackett’s happy home which is bad news for Laurie but good news for Michael, who is coming out for a family reunion, egged on by the Gothic ghost of his mom (Zombie) and the specter of his younger self (Vanek, taking over from Doug Faerch who had a growth spurt and became literally too big for the role).

 

All of this means there’s going to be mayhem in Haddonfield on Halloween, complete with strippers getting their face jammed into a mirror numerous times, a bouncer getting his head squashed in by Michael’s brogans, a couple of rednecks finding out the hard way why it is a very bad idea to mount antlers on the front of their pickup and a whole mess o’ carnage too disturbing to get into here.

 

There’s no doubt that Zombie is a visionary director – The Devil’s Rejects proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt as one of the best horror movies of the last decade. However, he seems oddly hamstrung here, which might have been due to the incredibly tight filming schedule (something which he mentions in the commentary track) or perhaps due to his own reluctance to do a sequel which he changed his mind about at the last moment, leading to said tight schedule. Either way, the movie doesn’t live up to most of his other work and has to rank as a disappointment.

 

That’s not to say it’s totally without redeeming qualities. For example, the violence here is excessive and realistic. When Michael Myers plunges the blade into a body, it is with full force, punctuated with an animal grunt. While that might make some queasy, it truly does work within the context of the movie and brings a new dimension of realism to the proceedings.

 

Where the movie doesn’t work is in the endless psychobabble that Zombie sees fit to insert, trying to get at the core of what drives Michael Myers. Now while I’m all for attempting to get inside the head of a serial killer, it gets a little too artsy fartsy for my way of thinking, with his mom showing up as a kind of Goth chick ghost in flowing white robes, accompanied by a white horse. It derails the oeuvre of the movie and takes audience right out of the mood.

 

He goes out of his way to make Laurie Strode shrill and unlikable. While this may be a realistic way of depicting someone who’s been through the kind of ordeal she has, what it also serves to do is alienate the audience from identifying with the heroine and that’s just bad juju. If the audience thinks the heroine is a whiny bitch, they’re not going to care what happens to her and if they don’t care what happens to her, there’s no reason to see the movie other than to watch Michael Myers carve up the citizens of Haddonfield and environs.

 

I also have to comment on the set design which is often incomprehensibly busy. Laurie’s room looks like the inside of a mental hospital cell, with a huge poster of Charlie Manson and spray painted graffiti reading “In Charlie We Trust.” This in the home of a town sheriff  mind you. Apparently Rob’s sense of realism and mine differ by quite a bit, so we’ll just leave it at that. In any case, you wind up with sensory overload in quite a few of the scenes, focusing in on the minutiae of the set design that you almost lose track of what the filmmaker’s trying to get you to notice. It kind of works at odds with Zombie’s vision.

 

I’m a big fan of Rob Zombie and the Halloween franchise both, so it is with a great deal of regret that I have to give this a poor review. I really, really wanted to like this movie and I just flat-out didn’t. While there is a third movie in the rebooted franchise slated for release next year, Zombie won’t be a part of it which may well turn out to be a good thing for both Zombie and the producers of Halloween – Zombie took an enormous amount of crap from the horror film fandom for this movie, much of it undeserved (for example, Michael is unmasked for much of the movie which many fanboys found to be sacrilegious) but some of it justified. I’m hoping his next project blows me away. This one didn’t do the job.

 

WHY RENT THIS: Some very effective scares, and a lot of insight into the background of Michael Myers. The violence is brutal and realistic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The set design is a bit of a mess, often so busy that it distracts from what’s going on onscreen. The plot meanders and gets a little too murky with the symbology.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence here is particularly brutal which works for the movie but may be difficult viewing for sensitive souls. There is also a good deal of crude language, female nudity and much sex. For teens there are scenes of teen drinking and implied drug use. All in all this is not for kids or for most teens.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tyler Mane becomes only the second actor to play Michael Myers in more than one film (George Wilbur is the other one). 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are six music videos from the fictitious band Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures. There are also some standup comedy performances from Jeff Daniel Phillips, a blooper reel and audition tapes.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.3M on a $15M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Day Four of the Six Days of Darkness

The Messenger


The Messenger

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster prepare to deliver devastating news.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker, Steve Buscemi, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Oren Moverman

It is a fact of war that soldiers die, and it is a part of the Army’s responsibility to notify the next of kin that their loved one has died. That is perhaps the most difficult assignment any soldier could ever receive. You have to wonder what it does to the people delivering the bad news to family after family.

SSgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is just back from a tour in Iraq, having been injured in battle. He has three months left on his tour and the Army, rather than sending him back overseas, decides to assign him to the Casualty Notification Service. These are the men who show up at the door in dress uniforms to inform the next of kin that their loved one is dead.

Will is assigned to Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), a veteran of the service who has written the book on how to do the job properly; use the prepared verbiage, never hug or touch the NOK (next of kin – the Army is inordinately fond of acronyms) and never, EVER get involved with them. The touch feely stuff is handled by professionals. Their job is to deliver the news nobody wants to hear. Period.

Each assignment is different. Some react with anger and resentment; others with wailing and sobbing. Some, like Olivia (Morton), a new widow hanging out the washing in her front yard, handle it with a strange kind of calm and politeness.

That particular reaction is like catnip to Will, who can’t really figure it out. He finds himself drawn to her, running into her at the mall (accidentally on purpose), fixing her car, helping her get ready to move and so on. That puts some strain on the relationship between Will and Tony, which has deepened into a strange kind of friendship. Both men have deep-seated issues; Tony with alcoholism, Will with the men he left behind. As Will encounters more and more grief, it soon becomes clear that he will need to deal with his own.

This is the first feature for Moverman, who is himself a veteran of the Israeli army. The movie isn’t a technical achievement by any means; he wisely keeps it simple and allows the powerful story and strong performances to captivate the viewer.

The performances are strong indeed. Harrelson was quite justifiably nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and this is one of the best performances of his career. His Tony Stone is a ramrod-straight by-the-book military officer who, if you rub some of the spit and polish off, is terribly wounded and weak in his own way. His last scene is pivotal and one of the highlights of the film.

Morton is not an actress I’m enamored of, but she does solid work here. While I found the relationship between Olivia and Will unlikely, it wasn’t because of Morton. Rather, I thought the situation didn’t ring true; while the grieving process can cause people to act in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily (and certainly in ways that defy logic), it didn’t seem to me that Olivia would lose her heart so quickly. It seemed at odds with the character, although again I acknowledge that grief makes people do funny things.

The movie rests on Foster’s shoulders; it is his performance that will carry or ruin the film. Fortunately, it is the former. Foster has mostly played twitchy villains in his career, but here he plays a twitchy lead. It’s a nuanced performance that really allows us to look at how war can wound in ways that aren’t always visible.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch. It deals with some of the most raw, terrible emotions that humans are capable of feeling. Particularly moving is Buscemi’s performance as a grieving dad, who screams at the soldiers’ departing backs “Why aren’t YOU over there? Why aren’t YOU dead?” It’s compelling stuff, but watching movies this emotionally charged can be very hard on the psyche – which in my opinion is a good thing.

I like that we get to see a part of the armed forces that is overlooked; when our brave warriors make the ultimate sacrifice, it is up to these professionals to deliver the worst news possible to those left behind. It takes the kind of bravery that is equal to that of facing enemy fire on the battlefield.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of Foster and the Oscar-nominated Harrelson make this memorable. The subject looks into a little-seen aspect of the Army.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much pathos and the relationship between Will and Olivia seemed a trifle forced to me.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a smattering of foul language, but it is the subject matter that makes this a bit too difficult for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sgt. Brian Scott, who served as a technical consultant on the film, was subsequently deployed to Iraq where he was injured by an IED in Baghdad.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Strangely, the DVD contains an interesting documentary on the Casualty Notification and Casualty Assistance offices of the Army that is not present on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage