Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

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The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

Soul Surfer


Soul Surfer

Helen Hunt doesn't even realize that the wrong husband is next to her.

(2011) True Life Drama (TriStar) AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Jeremy Sumpter, Sonya Balmores Chung, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson, Branscombe Richard. Directed by Sean McNamara

 

It is a fact of life that things happen, sometimes terrible things. We want our lives to be sweet and easy but they never are. You can call it God’s will, or bad luck but we are often put into positions where in order to achieve our dreams we must first re-imagine them.

Bethany Hamilton (Robb) lives in paradise. It may be called Hawaii to you and me but she knows as most of those native to those beautiful islands that there are few places on Earth like it. The Pacific swells that rage against the nearby beaches are her heartbeat, and she lives to put board to water and foot to board. She has a talent for surfing and with her blonde hair blue-eyed good girl next door looks, she is already attracting endorsement deals and is a sure bet to turn pro.

When she is attacked by a shark and loses an arm, her plans are put on hold. The media descends on her family and their faith is tested. Dad Tom (Quaid) wants to fix things, while mom Cheri (Hunt) prays for guidance, unable to fathom God’s plan when a spirited good-hearted teen’s dreams are cut short so cruelly.

At first Bethany gives in to depression and despair but gradually realizes as her plight gets more and more coverage, that she is no longer living just for herself and her dreams. Indeed, the dreams of millions of physically challenged people are riding on her as their inspiration to continue and achieve. With that kind of impetus behind her, how could she fail to at least try?

This is of course based on a true story. Hamilton to this day continues to be one of the world’s top surfers and her story is inspirational, not just to those who have physical challenges but to those who don’t as well.

Now, the actual Hamilton family are devout Christians (Bethany often makes personal appearances at churches and for church youth groups) and there was some fear from Hollywood executives early on that a faith-based film might alienate secular audiences and I have to say myself I don’t go to the movies to be preached to. However I was pleasantly surprised – the issues of faith are handled as a natural part of the Hamilton’s lives and I never felt at any point like a message was being pushed on me. If anything, the message is more secular than religious – while Bethany’s faith sustains her and comforts her, it is her desire and will to compete that conquers the mountains that were laid before her. I found that refreshing.

Robb is a sterling actress growing graceful and beautiful as she moves into her teen years. With wonderful performances in Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain, she has a bright future in the business if she chooses to continue along that path. She largely carries this movie, imbuing the real Bethany’s determination and faith into her performance. She’s deserving of the kudos she’s been receiving for the role.

Oscar winner Hunt is a welcome addition to the cast; an actress this good should be around more often. I do hope we see more of her – while she doesn’t have a lot to do, she does have a  couple of scenes that are really effective, elevating the role. The likable Quaid is once again…err, likable. With maybe the best grin in the history of movies, he’s had a soft spot in my critical heart for more years than probably either of us would like to admit. He’s another actor that I wouldn’t mind seeing get more compelling roles.

Now I’ll admit that surfing isn’t really my thing and surfing movies even less so. The mysticism that some of the sport’s faithful attribute to it is something I don’t really tap into. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the draw of the ocean in the same way, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate the athleticism, the sacrifice or the passion that comes with the sport. It just doesn’t always translate well to the screen and while the surfing sequences are solid, they aren’t enough to get me hooked.

The ending is a bit cheesy and in my opinion does the movie a disservice. Creating a rival (Chung) that treated her like dirt was unnecessary, as is the conversion from rival to admirer. The target audience here is obviously kids from about 11-16 and girls in particular. I think that that audience would have been just as inspired by Bethany’s accomplishments without the jealous rival. She wasn’t needed – there were obstacles a ‘plenty for the real surfer girl.

Bethany and her parents get the lion’s share of character development here and the movie suffers for that too. Too many cliché characters spoil this soup, as does the pulling of the rival onto the medal stand. I don’t know if that actually happened but it seemed disingenuous the way it was portrayed here. So to sum up, a solid movie that is inspirational in places and serves it’s teen and pre-teen audience nicely, one which any family mindful of the values being presented onscreen should feel secure in presenting to their kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Great surfing footage. Robb does an impressive job. Displays the family’s faith without becoming preachy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit heavy on the schmaltz. A few cookie-cutter characters added for dramatic value and some factual inconsistencies..

FAMILY VALUES:  The shark attack sequence may be a little too intense for impressionable sorts (although it isn’t especially gory or realistic) and some of the thematic elements might go over the heads of the smaller set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog in the movie is Bethany’s own dog Hana; she makes a cameo appearance herself carrying a large box in the Thailand relief scene and her family can be seen just behind Quaid and Hunt in the church scene and Bethany performed the surf stunts for Robb.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on how Robb learned to surf and, eventually, inhabit the role of Bethany. There are a couple of featurettes on the real Bethany Hamilton, including some actual camcorder footage shot by her brother.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44.3M on an $18M production budget; the movie had a slightly profitable theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan