The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

Black Mass


You don't want to get on Jimmy Bulger's bad side.

You don’t want to get on Jimmy Bulger’s bad side.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Bill Haims, Erica McDermott. Directed by Scott Cooper

There are certain people that you meet who are corruptors. Any contact with them sends you spiraling down a rabbit hole of bad choices which once taken build upon each other until you are hopelessly lost in it. One day you wake up and realize that you are as corrupt as that which you associated with, without meaning to be.

In the 70s and 80s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) – who incidentally hated that nickname and saying it to his face was a good way to get on his bad side, a place you surely didn’t want to be – was the kingpin of crime in Boston. Something of a folk hero in South Boston where he grew up and where most of the Winter Hill Gang, the crew which he ran, were from, he was known to be less flashy than other criminal bosses but no less vicious, although he could be kind and supportive to those in his neighborhood that he felt merited it, as well as faultlessly loyal to family and friends.

One of those friends was John Connolly (Edgerton) who went into the other side of the law as an FBI agent. A rising star in the Bureau, he was brought to Boston to take down Jerry Angiulo (Haims) and his organization which at the time was the undisputed criminal leaders of North Boston and who were making inroads into Southie which was Bulger territory. The two would form an alliance that in exchange for information about the Angiulo family, Connolly would essentially protect his childhood friend and allow him free reign in Boston, which would come back to haunt him.

In addition, Jimmy’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch) was a state senator and the most powerful politician in Boston at the time. While Jimmy took great care not to involve Billy in his affairs, Billy would later suffer by association to his notorious brother and be forced out of politics.

Jimmy would run roughshod over Boston for more than a decade until an incorruptible Federal Prosecutor, Jimmy’s own hubris and Connolly’s own lies and misinformation would lead to Jimmy going on the run for 16 years until he was eventually captured in 2011 (he has strongly denied that he was ever a government informant, incidentally).

Scott Cooper, most notable for his Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, has elicited the most powerful performance Depp has given in years and one of his best ever. Barely recognizable in a protruding forehead prosthetic, receding white-blonde hairline and rotting teeth, Depp inhabits his role like it’s a comfortable apartment. Early in the film, he shows a compassionate Bulger – devoted son and father  and loyal friend – but as the film goes on, a vicious and paranoid streak begins to emerge as Bulger, prone to violence, begins to lose control. It’s a riveting performance, not unlike that of Al Pacino in the original Godfather although not quite to that level of accomplishment. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see an actor who has been on a bit of a cold streak of late return to form and deliver the kind of performance we know he’s capable of. Hopefully this will mean that Depp will have some really good roles in his near future.

The supporting cast is extremely accomplished. Best of the bunch is Edgerton who is blossoming into an extraordinary actor and building on his performance here and in The Gift is poised to ascend to Hollywood’s A-list. His John Connolly is a Southie street kid who has matured into a federal agent, but whose misguided loyalties and tragic misfire on crime fighting strategy brings the character to an inevitable fall. Cumberbatch, who has parlayed an ability to spot roles that grow his career into stardom, has little to do but when he gets the opportunity to shine makes the most of it. Plemons, Cochrane and Brown as Bulger associates Kevin Weeks, Steve Flemmi and John Martorano respectively are also outstanding as are Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and David Harbour as lawmen Charles McGuire, Fred Wyshak and John Morris respectively.

While the movie mainly takes place in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, Cooper doesn’t club you over the head with the era recreation. There is a timeless feel to Southie and it is in many ways much the same now as it was then. Cooper wisely chooses not to mess with that by throwing tons of bell-bottoms, mutton chops and floofy hair. Sure, there are period automobiles and signage as well as home furnishings but it is all rather low-key. Boston itself is given a kind of wintry patina that makes you feel a little bit on the cold side throughout, even when some of the action takes place on beautiful spring and summer days.

While I don’t think this is quite as good as some of the gangster epics of Scorsese and Coppola, it nevertheless merits consideration as a memorable addition to the elite films of the genre, which I think it will be considered as when years go by. Depp will have a good deal of stiff competition this year but his performance here will have to merit at least some Best Actor consideration for next year’s Oscars. It may lack quality women’s roles and might feel a little bit on the long side, but it is the best crime drama you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Depp’s best performance in years. Likely to become an essential gangster movie in years to come.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too long and a little too masculine.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of bloody violence, quite a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scenes depicting murders in the movie were filmed in the same locations where the actual murders took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cold Nights, Hot Salsa

Oculus


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brandon Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval, Scott Graham, Michael J. Fourticq, Katie Parker, Justin Gordon, Bob Gebert, Brett Luciana Murray, Zak Jeffries, Courtney Bell, Elisa Victoria, Allison Boyd, Toni White. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It is not always easy to distinguish illusion from reality. Our reality is based on our perceptions, which in turn are based on electrical impulses to the brain that translate the senses – taste, touch, smell, sound and sight. If those electrical impulses are manipulated however, how does one tell the difference?

Tim Russell (Thwaites) has just been released from a psychiatric hospital, eleven years after he killed his father (Cochrane) who had in turn tortured and murdered his mother (Sackhoff). He is picked up by his sister Kaylee (Gillan) who has been busy over the past eleven years.

She blamed the killings on an antique mirror that their dad had purchased to decorate the office. In the days they had owned the mirror, young Kaylee (Basso) and young Tim (Ryan) had watched both mom and dad slowly turn psychotic. Plants died, their dog disappeared and both parents had turned from loving and supportive to paranoid and cruel. They had begun to see things – visions of a haunting woman whose eyes were like mirrors.

Kaylee is determined to prove her family’s innocence; she had spent eleven years painstakingly and obsessively researching the mirror and discovered that over the centuries since it was created, the Lasser Glass (as the mirror is known) had been around during literally dozens of murders and bizarre deaths. Kaylee believes the mirror is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit and means to destroy the mirror once and for all.

Tim on the other hand wants nothing to do with it; he has spent the last eleven years learning to convince himself that nothing supernatural had occurred, that it was all a product of his young mild trying to cope with horrific – but terrestrial – events. Now, in their old family home with the mirror and a failsafe “kill switch” that they must reset every 30 minutes or a weighted anchor will smash into the mirror and end its reign of terror, past and present begin to blur and the two survivors of the first attack might not be so lucky this time around.

Flanagan has crafted one of the great mind benders of all time here. Throughout the second half of the film, I was questioning everything, thinking that this could be an illusion, or the whole thing could be an illusion and the adult Russells were really the child Russells being placated while their possessed parents came to kill them. Any outcome is possible and you don’t know which one it’s going to be, adding to the fun.

Gillan, better known as Amy Pond in the Dr. Who series, is terrific here in a character distinctly unlike the grounded Amy. Kaylee is barely holding it together, haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative. Gillan has a great deal of screen presence that holds up on the big screen as well (or maybe even better than) on the small screen. While her name value is liable to attract die-hard Whovians to a film they might not otherwise have been interested in, she will benefit in being exposed to a whole new audience who is likely to embrace her as fanatically as her previous fan base has.

Thwaites, who will also be starring in the sci-fi film The Giver this fall, also has a bright cinematic future ahead of him. He has the kind of quiet charisma that reminds me of a young Gary Cooper, minus the mannerisms. His star quality is more subtle than Gillan’s who wears her s on her sleeve, but no less intense.

Flanagan does a masterful job of keeping the two time periods parallel until the very end when he bleeds one into the other, with the adult actors appearing in the past and the young actors in the present, sometimes both together. We are also left guessing whether what we’re seeing and hearing is real or the product of the mirror and the confusion and terror of the characters is well communicated to the audience who feels their emotions. That’s all you can ask out of any director.

This has franchise potential written all over it and while the ending of the film is pretty much a given (it is telegraphed early on, giving the audience the impression that the mirror is toying with its prey), it is still satisfying. There isn’t a lot of gore here but there is some and what there is most gore fans are going to be satisfied with. Mostly this movie is about a royal mind blowing and one can be forgiven if they walk away from this moving doubting their own senses.  I know I did.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome mindf**k. Gillan shows big screen potential.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly lengthy “dead” periods.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of horrific images and supernatural violence, some pretty serious mind bending and a bit of brief bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flanagan earlier made a short, also titled Oculus on which this feature is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirrors

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: For No Good Reason

New Releases for the Week of April 11, 2013


Rio 2RIO 2

(20th Century Fox/Blue Sky) Starring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, Andy Garcia, Jamie Foxx, will.i.am, Leslie Mann, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan. Directed by Carlos Saldanha

Blu and Jewel have begun a family, but they are keenly aware that they are the last of their kind. Now word comes that some of their species have been spotted in the wilds of the Amazon – and they know that they have to make that journey to find what family they may have left. When the rumors turn out to be true, Blu will come face to face with the two most fearsome adversaries a bird could possibly face; Nigel the macaw-napping villain from the first film, and even more terrifying – his father-in-law.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, videos and B-Roll videos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Draft Day

(Summit) Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary. The embattled general manager of the woeful Cleveland Browns has the golden ticket – the first choice in the upcoming NFL draft. For the owner, it’s an opportunity to make a splash that will get fans into the seats. For the head coach, it’s a means of putting together the team he wants to coach. For the general manager, it’s one last shot at redemption.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, B-Roll video, a featurette and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Sports Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and sexual references)

Jesus People

(Freestyle Releasing) Mindy Sterling, Octavia Spencer, Joel McCray, Wendy McLendon-Covey.A pastor believing he doesn’t have much time to live forms a Christian rock band in order to spread his gospel more thoroughly. But when the talent-challenged band finds themselves with a hit single, their already fragile unity begins to dissolve.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and terror)

Oculus

(Relativity) Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Brenton Thwaites. A young boy and girl’s parents are brutally murdered and the boy is charged and convicted with the crime. Ten years later, he is released from prison and just wants to put the whole thing behind him. His sister however is bound and determined to prove that what was really responsible was a malevolent haunted mirror that can make you see things that aren’t there – and be blind to those things that are.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language)

The Raid 2

(Sony Classics) Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra. After Rama, the survivor of the pitched battle inside the stronghold of a drug gang in Jakarta, returns home, he finds that his ordeal is far from over. Higher-ups in the criminal food chain want to see him and his family made an example of. In order to protect them, he must go deep undercover in the most dangerous criminal gang in the world. The first raid will be child’s play compared to this.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, sexuality and language)

Public Enemies


Public Enemies

Johnny Depp, unphased that they didn't spring for a convertible, finds another means of open-air driving.

(Universal) Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Channing Tatum, Jason Clarke, Branka Katic, Leelee Sobieski, James Russo, Bill Camp. Directed by Michael Mann.

The difference between a hero and a folk hero is often vast. Folk heroes are often regarded as villains in their time, becoming favorites long after their deaths. Sometimes, they are terribly misunderstood by their contemporaries.

John Dillinger (Depp) qualifies as a folk hero more than a traditional hero. He robs banks yes, but he has a certain ethical code; the movie starts out with the jailed Dillinger being broken out of prison by his gang members. When the brutality of one of the men leads to the death of Dillinger’s mentor Walter Dietrich (Russo), an enraged Dillinger kicks the offender out of the escape car.

G-man Melvin Purvis (Bale) receives notoriety by gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum). FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Crudup) promotes him to a task force with one directive: capture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. The ambitious Purvis immediately heads to Chicago to do just that.

Dillinger, relaxing at a restaurant between train robberies, meets coat check girl Billy Frechette (Cotillard) and immediately falls for her. He woos her by buying fur coats and expensive gifts. Even after he tells her who he is, she decides to stay with him.

A failed ambush at a hotel that leads to the death of an agent at the hands of the brutal Baby Face Nelson (Dorff) leads to Purvis calling in seasoned professional lawmen, Texas Rangers led by the dour Charles Winstead (Lang) despite the objections of Hoover. Shortly afterwards, Dillinger is actually captured after a hotel fire in Tucson and extradited to Indiana. He boldly escapes from the “escape-proof” prison there by ingeniously whittling a fake gun out of wood.

Dillinger returns to Chicago and finds himself unwelcome there. The heat the manhunt for him is bringing down on the city is interfering with the mob’s lucrative bookmaking operation, and Mafioso Frank Nitti (Camp) has hung out the get out of town sign personally. Dillinger is short on funds and reluctantly takes a squirrelly bank job, despite the presence of the twitchy Nelson. Predictably, Nelson opens fire on a cop outside the bank, leading to a shoot-out.

The G-Men capture a wounded gang member who is tortured until he reveals the location of the gang, the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin. The feds surround the lodge and would seem to have the element of surprise, but trigger happy G-Men open fire on civilians mistaken for gangsters and a gun battle ensues. All of Dillinger’s gang, including Nelson die in the gunfire as does Purvis’ partner Carter Baum (Cochrane). Dillinger barely escapes with his best friend, Red Hamilton (Clarke) who is mortally wounded. Dillinger, alone, buries his friend.

Things are spiraling towards the inevitable for Dillinger. Frechette is captured by the G-Men after Dillinger drops her off at what he thought was a safe location. She refuses to divulge the location of her lover, even after being beaten by a brutal agent, although Purvis and Winstead stop the assault before it gets out of hand.

In the meantime, Purvis is pointed at Madam Anna Sage (Katic) by a crooked cop. He threatens her with deportation unless she co-operates. The stage is set for the denouement that even Dillinger knew was inevitable given his lifestyle.

One has to admire the look of the film. Michael Mann went to great lengths to insure historical accuracy in the set design, costumes and vehicles (going so far to use a car that Dillinger actually drove). Unfortunately, he wasn’t a stickler for it in his script. Glaring inaccuracies – for example, Baby Face Nelson did not die in the Little Bohemia gunfight as depicted here, but several months later and not in the presence of Purvis. In fact, none of Dillinger’s gang perished in the battle.

This is meant to be a vehicle for stars Depp and Bale, but turns out a bit disappointing. Depp is so low-key as to be nearly comatose, and Bale, so good in The Dark Knight, seems unsure of what to do with his character. Mann has successfully directed two stars in the same film before (Collateral) but for some reason their performances fall a little flat here.

The gun battles are impressive and exceptionally LOUD. Throughout, the film looks impressive and I really wanted to like it more than I wound up doing. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods at the time, or maybe I missed the point. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really connect with the movie. I found myself feeling like I didn’t know either Dillinger or Purvis any better after the credits ran than before I walked in. I also found the liberties taken with the facts disquieting; especially in light of how hard Mann worked to make the look and sound of the film more authentic (Crudup perfectly catches the Cagney-like staccato of Hoover’s voice). In fact, some of the supporting performances make this worth seeking out.

In the end, it compares unfavorably with other gangster action movies such as The Untouchables. It re-creates the Midwest of the Depression era near-perfectly, but doesn’t really make you want to spend any time there. Now there’s a crime even Dillinger would never have committed.

REASONS TO GO: A near-perfect re-creation of Depression-era Chicago and the Midwest. There are some superb supporting performances, particularly from Crudup, Clarke and Lang.

REASONS TO STAY: Oddly enough, the leads are almost un-interesting. Sticklers for historical accuracy will be dismayed at the sometimes unnecessary gaffes that permeate the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a heavy serving of violence and graphic carnage, including scenes of torture and brutality. Definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was shot in locations where the events depicted actually happened, such as the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin (site of the famous shoot-out) and the Lake County Jail in Indiana, where Dillinger’s daring “wooden gun” escape took place.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The standard DVD edition includes a featurette called “Larger Than Life: Adversaries” which discusses the rivalry between Purvis and Dillinger, featuring newsreel footage, interviews with Purvis’ son as well as the actors from the film. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD featrues a featurette entitled “Last of the Legendary Outlaws,” a feature on the real-life Dillinger with some wonderful newsreel footage. Finally, the Blu-Ray has an interactive historical timeline as well as a gangster movie trivia game in addition to the featurettes previously mentioned.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine

Right at Your Door


Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

(Roadside Attractions) Mary McCormack, Rory Cochrane, Tony Perez, Scotty Noyd Jr., Max Kasch, Jon Huertas, Will McCormack. Directed by Chris Gorak.

When the chips are down, how will we respond? Will we take heroic measures to save our loved ones from harm, or will we save ourselves first?

Brad (Cochrane) and Lexi (McCormack) have moved in to a new home near downtown L.A. She works in an office, and he is a musician, so his hours are far more irregular. Still, he’s a good husband, preparing her coffee for her before she must get up to go to work and taking care of affairs for the couple while she is busy on the job.

It’s a morning like any other; traffic is bad as always but the smog’s not too bad, even if it promises to be a warm summer day. Lexi takes off for work, promising to use side streets after reports of badly backed up traffic on the freeways. Then things take a left turn.

Reports of explosions throughout the city cause mass confusion. Brad can’t get in contact with his wife, who was in the area of the first explosions and he is frantic. He decides to go and get her, or at least find out what happened. This proves to be impossible, however, as the police are blocking access to main streets leading to the downtown area in order to facilitate emergency vehicles.

Still, the reports get worse. It turns out that these explosions weren’t just ordinary bombs; they were dirty bombs, loaded with a lethal toxin that is being carried on the ash. Brad makes it to a hardware store where he buys duct tape and other material to seal his house. He then returns home to wait for his wife but not before encountering Timmy (Noyd), a small boy whose mother hadn’t picked him up from school. Brad urges Timmy to run home as fast as he can, then continues to his own home.

As he frantically listens to the news awaiting any information, there’s a knock on his door. It’s Alvaro (Perez), the neighbor’s handyman. He is a long way from his home and there’s no way he’d get there in time before the ash overcame him. He asks for shelter in Brad’s home. Brad is at first reluctant, but then agrees.

Time passes and still no word from Lexi. Her mother calls and Brad assures her that they are both fine and riding things out at home. When she demands to speak to Lexi directly, he hangs up on her, unsure what to do and helpless to act. Alvaro is urgently badgering Brad to seal up the house, promising him that Lexi has probably taken shelter somewhere already. The ash cloud is getting closer and closer. Hammered by Alvaro’s urgings and his mind numbed by panic, Brad and his guest use sheets of plastic and the duct tape to seal up the house as best they can. He waits as long as he possibly can until, with the ash falling outside, he seals the front door.

The next day, there is a frantic knock at the door. It is Lexi, who has come on foot from downtown after her car was damaged in the blasts. She herself is all right, but she is coughing violently. She wants in. She is obviously infected, terrified and in need of comfort. Does Brad let her in and risk exposure, or does he keep himself quarantined and safe?

Director Gorak crafts a nice, taut drama that puts his characters in an unimaginable situation. To his credit, he doesn’t make Brad particularly heroic. Certainly he loves his wife and his worry for her is genuine. Given a choice to save his own life and hers, he makes a choice that might make some take pause, but seems to be pretty authentic to my eye.

The situation certainly seems realistic. The information that Brad receives is piecemeal and often wrong. Rumor and innuendo are valid sources of information in the world where the news is often confusing and nonsensical. He has to make decisions based on often-faulty or untrustworthy information. He relies on Alvaro who while seemingly calm is just masking an inner hysteria which is close to coming to the surface.

Nobody really goes into a full-on meltdown. There really isn’t any time for it. The panic shows in the irrational decisions, the eagerness to believe what they want to believe despite having no basis for it. Having been through a natural disaster, I can tell you that much of what Gorak is describing here is absolutely dead on. Remembering how official agencies and the media reacted in the wake of 9-11, it’s easy to see how misinformation would be spread by agencies eager to report any news at all, even if it can’t be verified.

This is certainly a study in human nature rather than an examination of how official agencies react in crisis. Our tendency is to do what is most beneficial to us at the expense of others even in the best of times, and crises tend to amplify our basic behaviors. The acting here is solid and authentic-feeling; nothing rings false. There is also a nice but unexpected ending, the nature of which I won’t reveal here.

This is not a spectacle in the least. The disaster is reported in an almost matter-of-fact matter and for the most part is described rather than actually seen. The fall of ash is eerie and snow-like, unsettling more because we know what the ash is carrying. We associate big special effects with most disaster movies and in a way, this is a disaster movie but this is entirely low-key. The special effects occur almost completely in our imaginations, where the budget is unlimited.

I liked this movie while I was watching it, but I liked it even more when it was done and the longer time has passed since I’ve seen it, the more I like it. To me, that’s the mark of a good motion picture, when the movie gets better as you think about it more. You may not find spectacle, but you’ll find insight and authenticity. Perhaps that’s what makes this all the more frightening; the unseen generally is the most terrifying thing of all.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at human nature in a severe crisis. The filmmakers rely on the description of events rather than on special effects to make this more taut and effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people may want something more spectacular than this in a disaster movie.

FAMILY VALUES: The situation is fairly adult and there is a child placed in harm’s way. The depiction of the toxin taking effect is scary, and the description of the explosions and their aftermath may be too graphic for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming took place in the Silver Lake districte of Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cache