The Unknown Known


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2014) Documentary (Radius) Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris. Directed by Errol Morris

documented

He sits in an immaculate suit that speaks of good taste. He has an almost professorial air about him, discoursing easily on philosophy, language and politics. He has a grandfatherly smile that beams out at the screen, but when you look deeper there’s an almost Machiavellian calculation going on behind his eyes. He is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and there are those who despise him with a passion – and others who hail him as an American hero.

Now in his 80s, he is remarkably spry and articulate. During his tenure in public office which started in Congress in the 1960s, he wrote what he called “snowflakes” – memos that discourse on every subject you can imagine, ranging from dictionary definitions to discussions of military strategy. He has served as Defense Secretary to three different presidents – Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, more than any man in American history. He has presided over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, starting wars that have not ended to this day, making them the longest armed conflict in American history.

On the other side of the camera is Oscar-winning documentary director Errol Morris, a truth-seeker who has challenged the judicial system as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He would be one of those sorts who would tend to despise Rumsfeld. On paper, it would seem to be a volatile mix, but both men are far too polite and professional to allow an emotional response derail their purpose here.

The movie mainly consists of Rumsfeld reading his memos aloud along with his interviews with Morris, mixed with archival footage and some graphic animations. However, it is the interview with Morris that takes center stage. Rumsfeld is smooth, even charming. He sidesteps questions he doesn’t want to answer, obfuscates often when he does and sometimes flat-out contradicts himself. At one point Rumsfeld claims to not have read the report on misconduct at Abu Gharib prison, to which an incredulous Morris inadvertently blurts out “REALLY?!?!?”

Still, his Midwestern grandfatherly demeanor lulls one into underestimating him, a tactic he’s used throughout his political career. That demeanor hides a sharp, analytical mind. As much as I dislike his policies and his philosophies, I can’t help but admire the intelligence, and trust me that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about anyone in the Bush administration.

Danny Elfman’s score nicely enhances the film, although from time to time there’s a bit of false bombast, but overall I noticed the music only in a positive way. Really though, there’s not much to say about this film; it is well-enough made from a technical standpoint, but it is the subject that is the attraction, a contradictory but compelling individual whom history has not yet fully judged and it will be decades before it does.

Still, there is an awful lot of watching Rumsfeld and it might get a little wearing after awhile. For those political junkies looking to try and make sense of the man, I doubt you’ll come away feeling that you know him any better than you did before. Still, as maddening as Rumsfeld is to the left, one can’t help think that we’re all getting played just a little and that truthfully, it is unlikely we’ll ever know the real Donald Rumsfeld.

WHY RENT THIS: Rumsfeld is engaging but elusive. Terrific music.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwhelming amount of talking head time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris interviewed Rumsfeld on eleven separate occasions and shot over 33 hours of film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Morris where he describes the process of getting Rumsfeld to agree to the interviews. There is also a Georgia Public TV production called Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense in which six former Secretaries of Defense (including Rumsfeld) are interviewed by former Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith as well as an op-ed piece by Morris for the New York Times.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $301,604 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Iraqi Odyssey

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Monsters: Dark Continent


Doing the monster mash.

Doing the monster mash.

(2015) Action Horror (Radius) Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Sawyers, Philip Arditti, Sofia Boutella, Michaela Coel, Hassan Sha’er, Uriel Emill Pollack, Jessie Nagy, Wael Baghdadi, Jacqueline Hicks, Amanda Kaspar, Donna-Marie Foster, Orlando Ebanks, Tonya Moss-Roberts, Billy Roberts, Lulu Dahl. Directed by Tom Green

It’s often hard to tell the monsters from the non-monsters. Sure, there may be some dead giveaways – fangs and claws dripping blood, for example but often the greatest monsters hide in the skins that blend in with everyone else.

Those who remember the predecessor to this film will know that a NASA probe had crash-landed in Northern Mexico, releasing alien spores that grew into life forms large and small (mostly large). The whole portion of the country had been cordoned off by both governments, designated an infected zone and few beyond the military were allowed to enter.

Ten years after, it’s discovered that a fragment of the probe had also landed in the Middle East and that part of the country had been infected as well. The United States military were conducting bombing raids on the gigantic creatures. The collateral damage of homes destroyed, lives lost and lives altered had infuriated the local populace who want the Americans to go away post-haste. Insurgent groups were now proving to be as deadly to American troops as the monsters themselves.

Four guys from Detroit who’d grown up together – Michael Parkes (Keeley), Frankie Maguire (Dempsie), Karl Inkelaar (Soller) and Shaun Williams (Sawyers) – and are marching off to war together. One last night of drug-fueled debauchery with strippers and they’re in-country. Heading their unit is Sgt. Noah Frater (Harris), a tough as nails sort who has no compunction shooting an insurgent leader from hiding while in disguise or leading his team in full uniform.

They have a mission to head into the boondocks to find an American squad who is missing. Frater and his right hand man Forrest (Pinnock) don’t have much faith that these still wet-behind-the-ears recruits will be of much use but they will have to make due. Of course, things go sideways and the group is under attack from insurgents who are as well-armed as they are, and who have a good deal of military savvy too. Soon the mission is put aside for survival as Parkes watches his friends die, and begins to suspect that Frater may not be altogether stable.

The first movie was something of a romance road movie hybrid with the monsters thrown in for good measure. Here, this is like a mash-up of Full Metal Jacket, American Sniper and Cloverfield.

The first film’s director Gareth Edwards rode the critical success of it straight into the recent reboot of Godzilla and so he was unavailable for the most part for this film, although he does carry a producer credit; his input was fairly limited. His absence is notable; the movie here has some elements of his style but it’s certainly completely different in tone. I have to say that in many ways this doesn’t measure up to the first film very well.

The monsters are more numerous in the sequel, with the gigantic skyscraper behemoths, herds of tentacle-covered gazelles (why do alien life forms always have tentacles in the movies?) and tiny little things that fit in a jewel box. The creature effects here are outstanding and the movie is better when the monsters are around.

The humans don’t fare as well. The soldiers are chest-thumping, gung ho hoo-rah sorts that have populated American films depicting the military to the point where you would wish for a behemoth to come and crush the lot of them just to get the stink of testosterone out of the air. I get it, this is a band of brothers. Now get on with the movie. This tendency is particularly ironic as the actors are all British and this is a British film.

There are some beautiful images here; the monsters themselves can be majestic and have a curious dignity; when mating, they create a light show that is absolutely thrilling. The Jordanian desert (where this was filmed) is stark and beautiful in its desolation. For the soldiers it must have seemed an alien landscape indeed, particularly for those used to the urban decay of the Motor City.

However, the beauty is marred by occasional confusion, at least on my part. The soldiers are kind of interchangeable and one can mix one up with another, other than the officers and of course Parkes. The plot occasionally meanders into “doesn’t-make-sense” territory as the soldiers go deeper into the desert, not unlike Benjamin Willard getting deeper into the jungle in Apocalypse Now. Maybe this is meant to be something of a tip of the hat to that film.

The point here is that the monsters are not the insurgents and they aren’t the aliens either. The Americans insist on seeing the things that are different from them culturally and biologically as threats and react to them with fear and violence. While Parkes, as the main character in many ways, grows into learning not to fear, Frater certainly doesn’t get it and is determined to complete his mission even if he’s the last survivor to do it.

I appreciate the parallels to our mis-adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and am willing to take responsibility for my country’s often ill-advised forays into the Middle East. I don’t appreciate our the military bro-hood being emphasized to the point that I kind of got sick of it. I know the military can sometimes be a little too….enthusiastically military shall we say? Those of us who haven’t served likely don’t understand the culture and the intensity of their feelings. Life and death situations will do that to you. However, I can’t help if this is how the world sees us…and how much truth there might be to their viewpoint.

REASONS TO GO: Creature effects are striking. Captures chaos of war nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too gung-ho American in places. Detroit prologue a bit too long. Too many interchangeable characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic war violence, disturbing images, plenty of salty language, nudity and sexual content, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scoot McNairy, the lead actor in the original Monsters doesn’t appear in this movie but he is an executive producer on the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring commences!

It Follows


Post-coital bliss.

Post-coital bliss.

(2015) Horror (Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams, Ruby Harris, Linda Boston, Leisa Pulido, D.J. Oliver, Ingrid Mortimer, Kourtney Bell, Alexyss Spradlin, Mike Lanier, Scott Norman, Claire Sloma. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Horror films are kind of the bastard stepchildren of cinema. Disrespected critically, nonetheless horror films have a rabid following that have kept it the most profitable genre in movies as they tend to cost very little to make but when they connect with audiences, they can bring in hundreds of millions in revenue.

However, horror movies tend to attract a lot of hack filmmakers who assume that they can just recycle a tired concept, throw some fake blood at the camera and that millions of teenagers will automatically love them. It doesn’t work that way. Truly innovative horror movies are a sad rarity these days and ones that are skillfully made even less so. We’ve been in a drought over the past six or seven years in terms of really good horror movies, but there are indications that not only is that drought over but we may be entering a new golden age of really good horror movies much as we did back in the late ’70s.

This movie is giving me reason for that kind of hope. The premise is terrifyingly simple; Jay (Monroe), a beautiful blonde teen girl living in the suburbs of Detroit, has been dating a sweet young man named Hugh (Weary). As teenagers will do, they have sex together in a parked car. Then the wheels fall off.

It turns out that Hugh – which isn’t his real name – has a curse. Not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is sexually transmitted, and he has passed it on to Jay. She is now being stalked by a demonic presence that approaches at a slow walking pace. If it touches her, she’ll die. The only way to stop the curse is to pass it on to someone else – by having sex with them, and then telling them the rules. If the demon kills one of the cursed, it then goes after the person who gave the curse back to them and then down the line, presumably to the person who started it all. Oh, and the person infected is the only person who can see the demon, who takes human form, often of people that the victim knows.

Of course, Jay’s circle of friends – her sister Kelly (Sepe), their bookish friend Yara (Luccardi) and their quiet friend Paul (Gilchrist) who has a huge crush on Jay which he’s had since grade school, as well as neighborly stud Greg (Zovatto) – are skeptical at first. Then, they experience the demon themselves, which has a physical presence, they just can’t see it so it manifests itself by moving objects or throwing them about like rag dolls. Since they don’t have the curse, its touch isn’t deadly to them. See how that works?

Mitchell, whose previous film was the gentle comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover shows that he has the proper chops for a horror master. Few movies have ever pulled off the kind of tension that Mitchell has. Basically from the first ten minutes on most audience members will be on the edge of their seat. Think about it; any person at any time that is walking towards the main character can be the demon. It can make for some harrowing viewing.

Mitchell doesn’t give a lot of information about the rules beyond what I’ve already explained; this is a good and a bad thing. Good in that it doesn’t overburden the movie with exposition, bad in that at some points the movie could have used some.

The teen characters here act a lot like teens; they don’t always make smart decisions and they tend to operate more on hormones and emotions rather than good sense. They aren’t bad kids, mind you – they’re more like normal kids who are capable of being both real sweet and real assholes. Like I said, just like normal teens. The acting is solid though not spectacular and all of the kids here are more or less attractive.

One of the ongoing bits of business in the movie is that Yara, the bookish friend, is constantly reading from a Kindle-like device that’s shaped like a clam shell for no discernible reason although for the sake of transparency I did hear one teen in the audience at my screening exclaim “I want one” so maybe there was a reason. This leads to the point that the time period that the movie is set in is kind of indeterminate; the cars and houses look like they came from the early ’80s, the clam shell device from a few years from now and the movies the kids watch are all at least 50 years old. That makes It Follows kind of timeless.

There are a few nitpicks. The book Yara is reading is by Dostoyevsky which isn’t what I would call normal teen reading; it would have been more believable to have her reading one of the Twilight books although I would imagine getting the rights to use the name of that series might have been too dear for a micro-budgeted indie horror film like this.

The main problem is the climax, set in a gorgeous public swimming pool in Detroit which provides a spooky enough setting without adding a CGI thunderstorm (which they add anyway). The idea of lining the edges of the pool with electrical devices plugged into wall sockets with the idea of kicking them all in simultaneously once the demon gets into the water without knowing whether or not the thing is immune to electrical shock seems a bit dumb; clearly the electrical devices don’t work on Jay because the creature tosses them in the pool while she’s in it to no discernible effect. The last image in the movie is rather ambiguous but I kind of liked that; I respect any filmmaker who lets audiences draw their own conclusions.

I was strongly reminded of the feeling I got seeing the John Carpenter Halloween in theaters back in ’78. It Follows has the same Midwestern suburban vibe but as a modern twist it adds the crumbling structure of Detroit itself with ruined and abandoned buildings providing an eerie backdrop, like pretending to be normal as the world is ending. I suspect that this will be considered a horror classic the same way Halloween was and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of imitators that come out after this, but hopefully that will also spur a lot of really good directors and writers to try their hands at making a horror movie that’s smart, scary and innovative. The fact that the response at the box office was so strong that Radius was prompted to change their distribution plans from a slight release in a few select theaters with a simultaneous VOD release to a wide release while postponing the VOD release. Horror fans should make a point of seeing this as should fans of good movies. Definitely one of the year’s best thus far.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most tense horror films of the past 20 years. Imaginative concept. Propulsive score.
REASONS TO STAY: The climax is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexuality with graphic nudity, terrifying images, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Redford Theater depicted in the film really exists in Detroit. It has a Wurlitzer Organ and is one of the finest revival houses in the Midwest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween (1978)
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Higher Ground

Snowpiercer


Chris Evans is preparing a strongly worded letter to management.

Chris Evans is preparing a strongly worded letter to management.

(2014) Science Fiction (Radius) Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Ah-Sung Ko, Alison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic, Emma Levie, Stephen Park, Clark Middleton, Marcanthonee Jon Reis, Paul Lazar, Tomas Lemarquis, Kenny Doughty, Robert Russell, Magda Weigertova. Directed by Joon-Hoo Bong

It is an illusion of humanity that we have control of anything. Control of our environment, control of each other – the only thing we really have control over is our own actions. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying to make everyone and everything around us conform to our own needs.

In the near future, the reality of climate change has finally been accepted universally and the governments of the planet have decided to do something about it. Sadly, they’ve waited so long that all they can do is the environmental equivalent of a Hail Mary end zone pass on the last play of the game. A gas, released into the atmosphere simultaneously all over the globe, should reduce global temperatures significantly and give us a chance to clean the carbons out of the atmosphere.

As with most things governments undertake, things go completely, horribly wrong. The temperature does reduce down to the levels that we need them to – and then keep falling, and falling, and falling. In a matter of hours, the planet is frozen solid and all life on it has ceased to be.

That is, except for the life on a kind of Supertrain. Those aboard the Snowpiercer at the time of the freeze all survived, along with a few stragglers who made their way on board before the end came. The train circles the globe on a specially built track, taking roughly a year to make each circumference.

Instead of being powered by nuclear energy, it’s powered by a perpetual motion engine. It’s the brain child of Wilford (Harris), a mysterious industrialist who now lives a reclusive existence in the engine room of the train. In the rear of the train are the half-starving lower class, barely able to eke out a living and subsisting on gelatinous protein bars that keep them alive (although you really don’t want to know what they’re made out of). In between is the upper class, living with a bounty of food and clean water and in excessive luxury. From time to time, representatives of the upper class – and by representatives I mean armed guards – come to the back with spokesman Mason (Swinton) to cart off children from the back, to distribute the meager supplies that the front gives out, or to perform all manner of humiliations and torture on the back-dwellers.

Well, Curtis (Evans) has had enough. He is brewing revolution, aided by his mentor Gilliam (Hurt) who has been through several of these. They are waiting for the right time to make their move, although many of the tail end inhabitants grow restless, particularly Edgar (Bell) who looks up to Curtis with something like hero worship, Tanya (Spencer) whose son Timmy (Reis) has been taken by Mason and her goons, and Fuyu (Park) who just wants to kick some ass.

Their plan hinges on springing the drug-addicted Namgoong Minsoo (Song) who designed the train’s security system and would be able to deactivate the gates that separate the back of the train from the front. However, even if they spring him (with the promise of plenty of the drug Kronole as reward) and his perky daughter Yona (Ko), getting to the front of the train and taking over the speeding missile on rails will be no easy feat, if it can be done at all.

This is based on a French graphic novel written back in the ’70s although the climate change element (among others) has been added on by the filmmakers. Like much art from that era, there is a decidedly grim and dark element to the movie. It carries very much a 70s vibe, although there is a 21st century Looney Tunes element to it as well.

Evans, better known as Captain America in the Marvel movies, is as grim and gravelly voiced as a poor man’s Clint Eastwood here. The All-American Cap would be absolutely horrified by some of the things Curtis must do to survive and he certainly wouldn’t approve of the class system on the train. In many ways this is Evan’s most complete role to date – this isn’t the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing and that’s a good thing. Not that the Chris Evans you’re used to seeing isn’t worth seeing.

Swinton is so over-the-top that you half expect a giant hammer to suddenly materialize out of the screen and smash your pointy little noggin like so many nails in a board. Her Mason comes off as a cross between Dolores Umbridge, Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand with emphasis on the latter. Her fake overbite reminds me of one of those “Stay Calm” memes come to life.

Bong, who previously directed the comic horror film The Host, brings from that film the broad comedy with a dark edge while adding some fairly serious social commentary as well. Certainly this is about the sharp divide between the privileged wealthy class and the desperate poverty class but it’s also about the economics of survival and the folly of human arrogance. Some conservatives see liberals as the villains here while liberals will likewise see conservatives as being the targets of Bong’s criticism. I’m not sure he had American politics in mind when he wrote and directed this but I suppose we all see what we want to see.

A few words of caution. First, as to the dialogue – it’s atrocious, especially as the film winds down. There’s a confrontation between Wilford and Curtis in which the two say things that sound like they came out of a middle school book report on Atlas Shrugged. Actors the caliber of Ed Harris shouldn’t have to say dialogue like this.

Second, the violence. There’s a lot of it and it ranges from brutal axe attacks to some silly shoot-outs. While you will get somewhat numb to it by the end of the movie, those who are sensitive to such things should have a care about seeing this.

Finally, the ending. It’s a humdinger in terms of visuals but when it hits it’s both coal-black grim and to be honest, ludicrous. Again, think 70s cinema when you watch it and it may make more sense to you but even with that in mind you might end up tearing out your hair, assuming you have any.

The set design here is amazing. Each train car is its own world and as you move from the bleak and monochromatic rear, the cars become more colorful and decadent. Some are downright beautiful. This is a world both familiar and alien to us and while the imagery has elements of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the French sci-fi graphic magazine Metal Hurlant and the art deco of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it is a world unique to itself and completely imaginative.

I ended up being quite entertained, although many of my friends ended up disappointed by the film with some outright despising it. All I can say about that is that it is likely this will affect you in unexpected ways and will draw out of you your own individual reaction which is to me something that is the mark of a good movie. You may not agree with me in terms of my admiration for the movie, but you won’t walk away from this with an indifferent point of view.

Speaking of view, Snowpiercer is taking something of an unusual release strategy for movies that are in national release. Unlike most limited releases which don’t make it to every market, this film is in nearly every market although on a limited number of screens. It is likely playing somewhere near you. If you can’t find it, it is available on most major Video On Demand systems, including DirecTV, iTunes and most digital cable systems.

REASONS TO GO: A different kind of role for Chris Evans. Class warfare in a dystopian society done with some really dark humor.

REASONS TO STAY: Piss-poor dialogue. The ending is disappointing albeit spectacular.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of violence and foul language and quite a bit of drug use (although it is a nonexistent drug).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The drawings in the tail section of the train are by Jean-Marc Rochette, original artist of the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the work that this movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Colony

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Deliver Us From Evil

Blue Ruin


Fear comes home.

Fear comes home.

(2013) Thriller (Radius) Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson, Bonnie Johnson, Daniel L. Kelly, Ydaiber Orozco, Erica Genereaux Smith. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

When we commit a heinous act, the ripples from that act often reverberate for years and decades. We may consider the incident at an end, but those affected by it may not.

Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car. He talks to nobody, eats out of garbage cans and basically is completely off the grid. In the quiet beach community in which he’s taken up residence, he bothers nobody and from time to time can be seen under the pier staring out at the sea. His is a wounded soul and people generally stay away from him.

One morning a cop (Anderson) raps on the window of his bullet pock-marked blue Buick and informs him that one Wade Cleland has just been released from prison. That seems to wake him up from his fog. After all, Wade was the one who murdered both his parents some years before. So Dwight does what he thinks he ought to – head back home and take the vengeance that the justice system didn’t give him. He finds Wade and murders him. That should be the end of it but it’s only the beginning.

Now the Cleland clan is out looking for revenge of their own so Dwight needs to protect his sister Sam (Hargreaves) from the rampaging Cleland brothers Teddy (Kolack) and Carl (Werzner) as well as rabid sister Hope (Rock) and matriarch Kris (Plumb). Dwight isn’t ex-Special Forces. He’s no martial arts expert nor is he a marksman with a gun. In fact, when he tries to steal a gun from the front seat of a car, the trigger lock the owner installed is enough to defeat him.

With the help of his friend Ben (Ratray) he will go after the Cleland family but being something of a bumbler, Dwight is going to make a mess of things and certainly he’s not getting out of this in one piece. Then again, revenge isn’t exactly known for being the type of affair that leaves those who seek it intact.

This low-budget affair which was financed almost entirely through Kickstarter has been receiving rave reviews from filmgoers and critics alike and for good reason. You are unlikely to find a film that will be more intense and stressful to watch (in a good way) than this one. From nearly the opening scene to the final denouement the tension never lets up. Part of the reason for that is that Saulnier wisely adds no extraneous parts to this. Every scene is necessary to the plot; there’s not an ounce of fluff to this film. Perhaps that’s due to the budget as it is to the filmmaker but either way, that’s a good thing for the viewer.

Blair does a bang-up job as Dwight. His eyes show the wounds that never healed and throughout the movie his expression is one of near-panic, as if he is the lone passenger on a runaway train which isn’t far from the truth. One of the more original aspects of the film is that Dwight is an ordinary guy who is somewhat of a screw-up to begin with, so his plans for vengeance and protection of his sister are pretty much prone to being messed up more than they are being successful. He isn’t Dwayne Johnson, an expert in hand-to-hand fighting or a crack shot; he’s more likely to miss from point blank range than he is to hit his target. He’s basically in every scene, so the movie relies on him to carry it and Blair does. It’s a career-defining role for him.

Certainly the plot isn’t necessarily a new one – we’ve seen revenge films before, and in environments as rural as this one. It’s the way that Saulnier and company handle the premise that is refreshing and exciting. The suspense that is created is at times excruciating and I loved every minute of it. While veteran moviegoers may have a pretty clear idea how things are going to end up, the ride getting to that point is one worth taking.

REASONS TO GO: Great tension and suspense. While the premise isn’t original, the execution is. Dwight is realistic and not a superhero.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The violence is strong and bloody and there’s plenty of cursing going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yes, that’s the actress who once played Jan Brady playing the Cleland matriarch.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: Metacritic: 77/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lawless

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Butter


Butter

Jennifer Garner’s limo isn’t what it used to be.

(2012) Comedy (Radius) Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Phyllis Smith, Dodie Brown, Joe Chrest, Shelli Fox. Directed by Jim Field Smith

We are all of us good at something. Some of us are good writers, others good at sports. Still others are trivia whizzes while others can sing like an angel. However, it is only a select few who excel at butter carving.

Of course the first question is how do you find out that you’re good at that, but apparently Bob Pickler (Burrell) did, and he is so good that he has won the championship of Butter sculpting at the Iowa State Fair 15 years running. He is so good that those who run the competition have asked him to retire so as to let other people win, which seems pretty un-American to me – did David Stern ask Michael Jordan to retire so that other guys could be the best basketball player in the world?

This does not fit into the plans of his wife Laura (Garner) who was looking to use her husband’s fame and…well, not fortune but fame anyway – to catapult him into a political career and now is left scrambling to figure out some other way to do it.

She determines to enter the contest herself. Bob himself is a bit put out over the turn of events. He finds himself at a strip club where he propositions Brooke (Wilde), a somewhat volatile stripper, for sex in his van. This ends abruptly when Laura t-bones his van with her SUV.

This doesn’t sit well with Brooke, especially since Bob ran out on her without paying. Now she wants the $600 he owes her – yes, apparently that’s one thing that’s really expensive in Iowa. She decides to enter the contest to spite Laura, and to further cement her contempt she has sex with Bob and Laura’s daughter Kaitlen (Greene).

Destiny (Shahidi) is an 11-year-old African-American girl who has been shuttled in and out of foster homes most of her life. She is starting out anew with Ethan Emmett (Corddry) and his wife Julie (Silverstone)  They are decent people who become caught up in Destiny’s little hobby – butter carving. She caught the bug when she’d gone to the State Fair the previous year and been taken by Bob’s carving of Michelangelo’s Last Supper (which the Des Moines Register proclaimed as “better than the original” – BWAHAHAHAHAW!) Now she wants to try her hand at it, which her new foster parents enthusiastically encourage.

Destiny and Laura both have real talent. Both want to win for different reasons. Laura, on the one hand, will do anything to win – including seducing an ex-boyfriend (Jackman) into doing her dirty work for her. Still, when Destiny discovers the truth about her birth mother, she is moved into creating a carving that threatens everything Laura is trying to build. Laura will be left with the prospect that she may not be good enough to beat the 11-year-old girl.

There is a very dry, Midwestern sense of humor here, more like the love child of the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor. That appeals to me, although not everyone might get it. There were parts I might have laughed out loud more had I been in a theater (we saw this on VOD) but there were a few I did anyway. That’s always a good day for a comedy.

The cast is impressive. Not everyone in it is a household name but all are terrific comic actors. Burrell here continues his impressive work as seen on TV’s “Modern Family.” He’s not exactly the same guy but he is a very flawed but basically good man who makes one gigantic mistake and winds up paying for it. Wilde has done a number of different roles, like sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens), medical dramas (“House M.D.”) and horror (Turistas). She has done some comedic roles before but none as memorable as this one. I’m beginning to become a big fan of her versatility as an actress.

The biggest surprise is Shahidi. She’s a new talent and if her performance here is any indication she’s got a bright future ahead of her. She is compelling and holds the attention of the audience whenever she’s onscreen. It’s a shame her part was written to be a little too perfect – no 11-year-old is that poised, that sweet and that talented all in one package, at least not so many that any of us would know one. A tantrum or two might have been more realistic.

There are definite political overtones here. While some have compared Laura to Sarah Palin (and she does copy some of the former governor’s mannerisms and speech patterns), I thought of her more as a Hillary Clinton type – a super-ambitious wife cuckolded and frustrated. I could be wrong though.

Like a lot of films that have hitherto played only in limited release, the studio has seen fit to put it on VOD to allow viewers who don’t live near the handful of theaters that will be playing it theatrically to get a chance to see it without having to wait a year for it to come out on home video and cable. Most of you can take the opportunity to see it there or, if you want to spend less money, wait for it to make its home video release. Either way, this is a solid comedy that is smartly written and quirky enough to be different but not so quirky that it becomes just another indie comedy.

REASONS TO GO: Dry Midwestern humor that is laugh out loud funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters in one place. Destiny is a little TOO perfect.

FAMILY VALUES: Well, the language is bad in places; there is some sexuality and a moment in which drug use is depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Iowa, it was mostly filmed in Louisiana for tax purposes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews have been weak.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cedar Rapids

JFK ASSASSINATION LOVERS: Laura’s run-off entry into the butter carving contest is a depiction of the open limo at the moment of the killing, complete with the President’s head exploding.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frankenweenie