Black Snake Moan


Black Snake Moan

"Pappy" Jackson will make you watch this movie by any means necessary.

(2006) Drama (Paramount Vantage) Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Cothran Jr., David Banner, Michael Raymond-James, Adriane Lenox, Kim Richards, Neimus K. Williams, Leonard L. Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Claude Phillips.  Directed by Craig Brewer

Black Snake Moan opens with blues legend Son House explaining as best he can what the blues means. It really is an impossible task; the blues can’t really be explained. The blues are felt and experienced at a deep level that is half-primitive. It is the pain that makes us feel alive, and the joy that reminds us of all our despair. Now that you’ve come to the dawning realization that I’m not going to explain the blues any better than Son House – not that I had a shot of doing that to begin with – let me just state for the record that this is a blues movie. Not in the sense of a movie with blues music on the soundtrack; there have been plenty of those. No, this is a movie that makes you feel the blues as you watch it and in watching it, you may even feel as if you’ve gained an understanding of the blues that was lacking before. Don’t kid yourself; however, it is true that the filmmakers get the blues as well as Hollywood filmmakers are going to.

Set in the South, young Rae (Ricci) is a beautiful young girl who is saying goodbye to her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) who is being deployed by the National Guard. Rae is terrified that without Ronnie, she will sink back into the nasty habits that she had before she hooked up with him. You see, Rae has a very bizarre form of nymphomania that comes on her like a physical disease, forcing her to get relief any way she can.

Lazarus (Jackson) is hurting big time. His wife (Lenox) has left him for his own brother (Thomas) and the two are leaving town, leaving Lazarus – a grizzled old bluesman – humiliated and angry. After confronting the two who have wronged him, he goes home to rid it of every trace of his ex-wife, including her rose garden which he plows under with a certain amount of satisfaction.

Rae gives in to temptation and goes out with her friends. She takes to drinking heavily and popping pills. Nothing seems to help the terrible cough she’s developed; a little physical release is what she really craves. After a night of wild partying with the town pimp/drug dealer (Banner) and what looks like the local high school football team, she is too sick to party on any further, she’s been deserted by her friends and she is out of her mind with drugs, booze and God knows what else. Her boyfriend’s buddy Gill (Raymond-James) offers to drive her home, but when he tries to take advantage, she makes a cutting remark and he beats the holy crap out of her, then panics and dumps her at the side of the road and leaves her there, bleeding and half-naked.

The next morning, Lazarus finds the nearly dead girl and brings her into his home. Concerned for her life, he figures out quickly that it isn’t the beating that is the immediate concern; it’s the fever that is more likely to kill her. He goes down to the pharmacy where a helpful pharmacist (Merkerson) supplies him with what he needs. Slowly, through her fever dreams (which are nightmarish), he slowly nurses her back to her senses. He gets tired of chasing after her, however and finally comes up with the idea of chaining her to his radiator.

He is curious as to the identity of his houseguest and since the only clue she’s given him is the name of the pimp that she mumbled while insensible with her fever, Lazarus seeks him out and questions him about the girl. When he finds out about her nymphomania, an idea takes hold of him. This girl Rae has been put in his path for a reason, and he means to cure her of her wickedness, whether she wants to be or not.

There is a great deal of sexuality in the movie. Ricci has the thankless role of playing a woman driven to doing what most of us would consider disgusting things in order to get relief. There are times when her sexuality is graphic, and that may offend some. For my money, this is her best performance in years; she makes Rae trashy and vulnerable and sexy and terribly wounded, but still capable of love despite all the pain life has dealt her. Still, as much sex as goes on in this movie, it is not a movie about sex. It is a movie about love, and not the kind of love you’re thinking of either. Rae and Lazarus develop a kind of love that is not physical, but almost spiritual; they are friends yes, but more than that. They have been through Hell together and the bond they share is as unbreakable as the 40 pound chain Rae is imprisoned by.

Director Brewer does a flawless job of making the blues a living, pulsing part of the film. During a scene where Lazarus plays at a local bar, I was vividly reminded of hot summer nights in stifling little dive bars when great bands were playing to a packed house of sweaty people. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, this is frankly not a movie you’re going to need to see. Brewer, whose previous effort was the much underrated Hustle and Flow has a real feel for the South and its music, and is putting together a terribly impressive resume. He’s currently directing the remake of Footloose and one can only hope he’ll find the big success that has eluded him so far. 

This is a great role for Jackson, who gets to take his on-screen persona and stretch it as far as it will go. In some ways, while I enjoy Jackson in nearly everything he does, I’ve gotten the sense that he doesn’t do much beyond recycling his on-screen persona from time to time. This really is his best performance since A Time to Kill. His Lazarus is quirky and well-intentioned, but in the end he has demons of his own that are driving him and he realizes that it is himself that he is trying to fix really, not so much the girl who cannot be fixed by him or anyone else. You would think the movie would end with that realization but it doesn’t – and quite frankly, I’m glad. When the movie ends, nobody is fixed. No problems are really solved. There’s just the potential for things getting better somewhere down the road. That’s the way life works in reality.

I have to mention too that Justin Timberlake does a pretty decent job in a supporting role. The one time boy band poster boy has developed into a solid actor the way former pop star Mark Wahlberg also did. This was really the first time I’d taken notice of his acting skills which he has since refined and shown to be considerable.

There is a pulp fiction feel to this, and I think that’s intentional. The lurid graphics and steamy plot would make it right at home in some of the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s (although the graphic sex and drug use depicted here would be a bit much for those eras) and even Ricci’s look in the film is a bit of Daisy Duke meets femme fatale. There is also unexpected humor at various times during the flick, keeping you a bit off-balance but in a good way.

Critical reaction has been uniformly strong, but the box office wasn’t impressive.  Even so, this is a movie definitely worth checking out, but it isn’t a movie for those with delicate sensibilities and how many of those are reading this anyway?

WHY RENT THIS: Scintillating performances by Ricci and Jackson. The feeling of being in a crowded bar on a hot summer night listening to great music.  Realistic plot line that doesn’t solve everything in a neat little package.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Graphic sexuality and drug use may be offensive to some. Definitely a Deep South feel to it.

FAMILY MATTERS: Did I mention there was a lot of sex and drug use? There’s also some violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackson learned to play guitar for this film while he was completing post-production on Snakes on a Plane.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette showing how the music for the film was chosen, and delves a little bit into the culture of the blues.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.9M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Mirrors

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Legion


Legion

It's never a good idea to cross Paul Bettany.

(2010) Supernatural Horror (Screen Gems) Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Jon Tenney, Charles S. Dutton, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki, Doug Jones, Kevin Durand, Kate Walsh, Willa Holland. Directed by Scott Stewart

Sometimes you have to wonder what God thinks of His creations when He considers war, terror, pollution, greed and all the myriad horrible things we do to one another. You have to wonder if at any point He is going to give up on us.

The angel Michael has pleaded the case of the humans, and failed. God has decided that the Flood was a warning not heeded; He wants the human race deleted. The angels will be His weapons of mass destruction.

Michael, however, disagrees with His decision. He believes that God has forgotten about such things as mercy, compassion and forgiveness in His zeal for retribution. It’s somehow comforting that God is actually a heartbroken teenager.

Michael decides to renounce his angelic status by amputating his wings and removing the collar which is, apparently, his halo. He makes a stop at the local gun store where he fills a bag full of automatic weapons and enough ammo to stave off Armageddon. Well, almost.

He steals a police car and heads out to an isolated diner in the middle of the desert. There works Charlie (Palicki), a waitress who happens to be pregnant. She works for Bob (Quaid) whose nephew Jeep (Black) is sweet on Charlie but is not the dad. So there works Percy (Dutton), a line cook with a caustic sense of humor.

Enjoying the cuisine is Kyle (Gibson), a badass from L.A.; the Anderson family – dad Howard (Tenney), wife Sandra (Walsh) and daughter Audrey (Holland) and an adorable old lady  Like adorable old ladies the world over, she notices Charlie’s pregnancy. Unlike most adorable old ladies, she turns into a spider-like demon with homicidal intent.

Into this situation comes Michael, who informs the suitably astonished diner denizens that Charlie’s baby isn’t just any old baby; it’s the savior of mankind whom God now wants to bump off. Why God needs an army of humans who have been changed by angels into demons to kill a single baby is something of a mystery – apparently God doesn’t like to get His hands dirty.

This leads to something of a Mexican standoff with the human race at stake. The odds are stacked against us – but that’s just the way we like it, right?

This is a plot of epic ineptitude. Very little of it makes organic sense and worse yet, it isn’t true to its own internal logic. That’s a deal killer most of the time in my book. The strange thing is, I actually liked this movie. Much more than I thought I was going to. There is actually some good stuff going on.

Bettany is an always-interesting actor who is always worth seeing even when he’s not at his best – as he is not at his best here. Still, he and Quaid who cuts loose with delicious scenery-chewing abandon make for good twin focuses for the film. While Palicki is a little bit bland for her role, Black does himself proud as the unrequited lover.

Part of the problem here is that Stewart seems undecided as to whether he wants to make a big action flick or a gruesome horror flick and winds up with kind of a mish mash that is neither. Also, much of the exposition is done by Bettany explaining things to his captive audience. Not only does this bring things to a grinding halt, it gets to be annoying.

I wish that Stewart spent more time doing the things that work best here. The horror scenes in particular are well done, such as the aforementioned adorable old lady spider demon, and later on, an elongated jaw ice cream man demon. The action sequences are pretty nice too, although a climactic battle between Michael and the Archangel Gabriel (Durand) is surprisingly unsatisfying.

Legion is the latest in a series of apocalyptic visions that don’t really turn out quite right. I like the idea of angels acting as exterminators, as perhaps sacrilegious as that is. Unfortunately, it was done better in The Prophecy – but it is done well enough here to earn a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice action scenes here. Bettany and Quaid pull the wagon nicely. Demon scenes are pretty awesome.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too talky for a horror/action movie. One gets the impression the filmmakers couldn’t decide between intellectual horror and visceral horror and wound up with neither.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of strong, brutal violence, some disturbing supernatural imagery and plenty of choice bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tattoos on Michael are in Enochian, supposedly the language of angels recorded by John Dee and Edward Kelly in the 16th century.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $67.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Season of the Witch

Crazy Heart


Crazy Heart

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges hold each other in a romance that could easily have been a country song...oh yeah, it is.

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, James Keane, Rick Dial, Jack Nation, Ryan Bingham, Ryil Adamson, J. Michael Oliva, Debrianna Mansini. Directed by Scott Cooper

As humans, we all make mistakes and it is sometimes the case that we pay for those mistakes for a very long time. That we sometimes pay more than we think we owe is part of the human condition and is part of what we all have in common, one of the five universal truths of our existence.

Bad Blake (Bridges) is 57 years old and nearly broke. He was once a bright star in the country music scene, making songs that have retained a certain amount of popularity, enough to keep him on the road going from dive to dive, playing his songs with local musicians backing him in front of audiences ranging from disinterested to star-struck. He is even reduced to playing bowling alleys, where he is not allowed a bar tab but is given, enthusiastically, all the free bowling he desires.

Bad is an alcoholic, a product of too many years on the road, too many disappointments. He is constantly butting heads with his agent (Keane) who clearly has affection towards his client but is just as clearly frustrated with his antics. The drinking has prevented Bad from writing new songs in several years; it has just as surely destroyed most of the relationships in his life. Mostly these days he drifts from one nameless one-night-stand to another, a different drunken encounter with past-their-prime women in each small town he plays in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico one of the musicians he has been assigned, a proficient keyboard player named Wesley Barnes (Dial) asks Bad if it would be okay if his niece Jean (Gyllenhaal), a writer for the local paper, interviews him. Bad is not real crazy about doing press, but he recognizes that he needs every bit of it he can get so he says yes. There is something about Jean that immediately connects to him. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her familiarity with the music he grew up with. Maybe it’s just that she has a smoking hot body. Either way, Bad develops a hankering for her, one that leads to romance.

One of Bad’s protégés is Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who once played in Bad’s backup band and has since broken away to become one of the biggest stars in country music. The two have had a falling-out since then, with Bad seemingly resentful of Tommy’s success, but still maintaining a grudging admiration for the man. For Tommy’s part, he is certainly aware of Bad’s role in his career and is willing to help, even if his record company isn’t so keen on the idea. Tommy arranges for Bad to open for him in Phoenix, giving the road-weary legend renewed exposure to the big time.

On the way back from Phoenix Bad decides to stop back in Santa Fe and visit Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy (Nation) who has bonded with Bad, but on the way there he falls asleep at the wheel – very likely because he’s had too much to drink – and crashes his truck. He wakes up in a Santa Fe hospital with a broken ankle and a concussion. He is in no condition to drive back home to Houston, so he convalesces with Jean. He begins to experience a sense of what it’s like to be part of a family, the kind of life he gave up, along with a son who is now grown and that he hasn’t seen since he was Buddy’s age.

However, Jean is disturbed by Bad’s excessive drinking and smoking, and asks him to tone it down around Buddy. Bad, ever-cheerful, promises to do so but he has a hard time doing it. As he is getting ready to head back home, his agent calls with the news that he has signed a contract to do some song-writing for Tommy Sweet. This could mean some real money, the first in a long time for Bad. After a tender good-bye, he drives home to Houston.

He is welcomed home by his friend Wayne (Duvall), the owner of a bar that he plays in from time to time. Inspired by his relationship with Jean, Bad begins writing some of the best songs of his career and invites Jean to visit him in Houston with Buddy. Can Bad really make a go at it this late in the game, or will his vices come boiling up to the surface with another installment payment on his sins due?

Jeff Bridges has emerged as the favorite (and, having never won one despite three nominations, the sentimental favorite as well) to win the Best Actor Oscar and with as much certainty as one can ever predict such things, will do so. We’ve seen the broken-down drunk country singer in countless movies and CMT music videos; in Bridges, we believe it. We see him seemingly hit bottom only to find a way to descend even further. He means well, and he’s not really a bad guy, he’s just possessed by the bottle.

The surprise is that Gyllenhaal emerges with a performance which stands up to Bridges. She is given the role of a much younger woman falling for a man that on the surface there is no reason for her to fall for. He stinks of cigarettes and booze, is clearly not the best-looking rider in the rodeo and can only be counted upon to mess up. Still, she manages to make us believe that the romance which is at the core of the movie is real and believable, even if we can’t quite see how it is happening.

The temptation here would have been to use music that had some pop potential, cranked out by slick Nashville songwriters or Hollywood pop producers. Instead, the filmmakers enlisted T-Bone Burnett, a producer/songwriter/performer who has never hit it really big but is well-respected within the music industry. He has managed to craft songs that have elements of Leonard Cohen, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt and even a little bit of Ryan Adams in them. The soundtrack is truly incredible, equal parts country, blues and rock. Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts (including a duet) and they do a credible job, Bridges’ gravelly road-weary voice sounding exactly what you would think a whiskey and cigarette-roughened throat would produce. It’s quite simply one of the better film soundtracks ever.

As someone who has spent enough time in bars and clubs in my days as a rock critic, I can vouch for the authenticity of the movie. I’ve been to shows where performers from days gone by come in all their faded glory to play for an audience looking to recapture their youth for just a few hours, balanced out with a select few who merely want to touch something magical while its still there. It is an environment of desperation and determined battle against the demons of drink and age. You can almost smell the roadhouse perfume of stale beer and tobacco, with a vague whiff of vomit permeating the movie. This would certainly have made the top half of my Years Best list had I seen it during 2009; I may wind up granting it an exception to appear on my 2010 list because it deserves to be lauded.

Every so often a movie comes along that just grabs your imagination and holds it, and the result is that you experience a kind of magic that changes you or at least your perception. While Crazy Heart has a few cliches in its genetic makeup, it still accomplishes that magic that occurs when the performances, filmmaking and music all come together in a perfect blend. This is Bad Blake’s journey and while it isn’t an easy one, it is a compelling ride to be sure.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime, and Gyllenhaal a powerful turn that nicely offsets his. The music for this movie is wonderful and the soundtrack worth seeking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally veers into territory that has been well-mined in the past, and it is never clear why Jean falls for him in the first place.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rather blue here, and there’s some sexuality, but more than that there is a lot of drinking (and the consequences of it) and smoking. Probably a little rough for the younger ones, but mature teens should be okay with this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The big Phoenix concert scenes were filmed between sets at a Toby Keith concert. Keith is thanked in the credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie is small and intimate, nonetheless the concert sequences work better on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: English as a Second Language