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

A Bag of Hammers


A Bag of Hammers(2011) Dramedy (MPI) Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston, Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Josh Cooke, Micah Hauptman, Barbara Rossmeisl, Devika Parikh, Greg Clark, Ricardo Chacon, Dale Waddington Horowitz, Jordan Green, Sally Kirkland, Elmarie Wendel. Directed by Brian Crano

Responsibility for a lot of people is a four-letter word. While it’s true there are few who eagerly go out looking for it, most of us are able to accept it when it comes time. However there are those who flee it at every available opportunity.

Ben (Ritter) and Alan (Sandvig) are really good friends and why shouldn’t they be? They have a great deal in common. For one thing, neither one is particularly interested in growing up. Neither of them are out to make a conventional living and for the most part, neither one cares what the rest of the world thinks one way or the other.

They make a living with a scam in which they set up a valet parking stand at funerals. Someone gives them their keys, they give the bereaved a ticket, drive off with their car…and keep going. The bereaved will have something else to mourn.

Mel (Hall), Alan’s sister, works as a waitress and nags them both to find a respectable occupation but neither one is ready to. They’re having too much fun. Then Lynette (Preston) moves into their neighborhood along with her son Kelsey (Canterbury). Kelsey takes a liking to the boys and they to him. He begins to accompany them on their scams and actually turns out to be pretty helpful.

When a sudden tragedy forces the boys to take stock, they begin to see the world as finally not revolving around their immediate gratification. In short, they grow up fast. But is it too late for them and more importantly, for Kelsey?

In many ways this is a coming-of-age indie comedy although it is also in many ways a forced-to-face-responsibility indie drama. It blends both of those chestnuts together into a kind of hybrid which, even if it isn’t exactly fresh is at least diverting.

Ritter and Sandvig play their roles like they’d been acting together since childhood. They have an easy banter that goes beyond the occasionally very witty one-liners they’re given to work with. They have that ability to anticipate each other in an organic way so it at least seems like people who are familiar with each other doing the give and take thing. You know, like real people actually conversing.

The dialogue also for the most part impresses. So often in indie films the screenwriters sacrifice authenticity for hipness, which might appeal to the horn-rim glasses-wearing PBR-drinking bearded guy crowd but few others. Here yeah there is a certain patina of smug hipness but there is also at least some reasonably genuine emotional content too.

This is more of a pleasant diversion than it is a deep-thinking exploration of The Way Things Are, but there’s much to be said for the former. It won’t challenge you overly much but it will draw you in if you’re anything like me. I liked the vibe here and it was a place I wanted to stay in after the movie ended. You can’t ask for more than that from any film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Ritter and Sandvig. Well-written dialogue.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seen it before kind of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, adult themes and disturbing parenting techniques.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Simmons, who plays Kelsey at age 18, is the same age as Jake Sandvig who plays his adoptive father.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: To Be Takei

Big Stan


Big Stan

The authorities catch up to Rob Schneider after the last Deuce Bigalow movie.

(2007) Comedy (Crystal Sky) Rob Schneider, David Carradine, Jennifer Morrison, Scott Wilson, Richard Kind, Sally Kirkland, M. Emmett Walsh, Henry Gibson, Jackson Rathbone, Kevin Gage, Bob Sapp, Brandon Jackson, Dan Haggerty, Richard Riehle, Marcia Wallace, Randy Couture. Directed by Rob Schneider

 

Fear can be an awfully effective motivator. When something makes us quake in our boots, it’s amazing the things we can do to protect ourselves or at the very least, keep our worst fears from coming true.

Big Stan (Schneider) is a real estate salesman whose real job is to swindle the elderly out of their hard earned dollars to buy timeshares in undesirable neighborhoods and make a killing by convincing them to pay luxury accommodation prices. He gets caught eventually and convicted although his conniving lawyer (Walsh) convinces the judge (Riehle) to give Stan six months to settle up his affairs before heading off to jail.

Stan is not the biggest rooster in the henhouse, although he has a gorgeous wife (Morrison) whom he’s crazy about. However, what he’s even crazier about is the thought that he’s going to be raped repeatedly in prison; he’s paranoid about it like Nixon. He finds himself a martial arts teacher who calls himself The Master (Carradine) who agrees to teach him how to defend himself. His methods are, to say the least, unusual. Even so, Stan manages to become an adept martial artist, so much so that the Master labels him his number two disciple.

Eventually Stan is sent to prison where he encounters some of the meanest, roughest prisoners you’ll ever meet – and Stan kicks all of their asses. He becomes the prison’s number one badass and the warden (Wilson), knowing about Stan’s real estate expertise, seeks out his help in a scheme to raze the prison and turn the site into luxury condos. Stan and the prisoners get together to expose the warden’s nefarious plan but can they stand together? Or will Stan, targeted by the Master’s number one student, fall alone?

Schneider’s film career has been checkered to say the least. His Deuce Bigalow films have made Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura films look positively highbrow by comparison. Schneider himself however has always been a likable presence even in the movies with the least amount of appeal. I was fortunate enough to interview him years ago (just after he left SNL) and found him to be a really nice guy and one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done. I know there are a lot of people who don’t like his persona, but I’m not one of them.

This is a bit of a departure for Schneider in that there are martial arts sequences and action, something he hasn’t done in most of his studio films except for comic effect. The action sequences here – considering that Schneider hasn’t directed such things before and he has to direct himself in them – are surprisingly well done, and Schneider (who does his own stunt work) is a very competent martial artist. I was mildly surprised to say the least.

Now the movie is almost like two movies – the first part when the Master trains Stan is one movie with one tone and the second part set in the prison another movie with a different tone. I’m not sure which movie I liked better – the first part had the most funny portions of the film (and there aren’t many) but I liked the action portions in the second, so I’d give it to the second by a hair if pressed. The tonal shift however is a bit disconcerting to the casual viewer.

I wish the script had been funnier but there is a sweetness factor that gives it some points. There is far too much reliance on prison rape and the fear of it as a comedy point and it gets driven home a little too much. We get it. Prison rape is bad. Stan doesn’t want to get raped in prison. His butt is sacred. No need to nag.

The movie never got a theatrical release despite being on the schedule for five different dates. The distributors ultimately thought the movie would be unprofitable in any sort of limited release (although it did surprisingly well overseas) and wound up being sold to another distributor who immediately put it on direct-to-video. I’m not going to lie and tell you that this is the second coming of Gone With the Wind but it’s better than a lot of releases that make it onto the schedule. You could do a lot worse than renting this.

WHY RENT THIS: Despite everything Schneider is kind of lovable despite himself. He acquits himself nicely doing his own martial arts sequences. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not particularly funny and there’s a little too much emphasis on prison rape.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is crude and sexual in places. The language is pretty rough throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The prison scenes were shot in a closed women’s prison in Stockton. During filming there Schneider collapsed from heat exhaustion and food poisoning  when temperatures soared during the summer shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.7M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the movie broke even at least or made a modest profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Yard

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Chop Shop

Bruce Almighty


Bruce Almighty

Walking on water is no big deal to these guys but STANDING on water, now that's a feat!

(2003) Drama (Universal) Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Phillip Baker Hall, Catherine Bell, Lisa Ann Walter, Steve Carell, Nora Dunn, Eddie Jemison, Paul Satterfield, Mark Kiely, Sally Kirkland, Tony Bennett. Directed by Tom Shadyac

Not being the biggest fan of Jim Carrey in the world, I came into this movie fully expecting to, at best, just tolerate my two hours in his company. Then, something funny happened on the way to my expectations; I actually found myself laughing. I was enjoying America’s favorite rubberface.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, an on-camera reporter for a Buffalo television channel who dreams of being an anchor, of being respected and admired by the community. He is known for doing the “lighter” news and for being taken less seriously, both by his colleagues and the community. Just when he thinks he’s getting somewhere, a smarmy colleague (Carell) goes behind his back and nabs the anchor job Bruce wanted. When Bruce finds out (in the middle of a live feed from Niagara Falls), he loses it and consequently, gets canned.

His long-suffering girlfriend Grace (Anniston) waits patiently for Bruce to commit, but he is way too absorbed in his own career to notice. And as things begin to go wrong, Bruce looks to God for answers. The answers that come, however, aren’t much to Bruce’s liking, and the newscaster launches into a tirade against the Almighty, blaming Him for all of Bruce’s troubles.

Of course, this being Hollywood, God hears Bruce and God responds with an invitation to visit Him in His office. And God looks uncannily like Morgan Freeman, which is pretty much how I imagined Him too … well, OK, more in a George Burns kind of way, but close enough.

Since Bruce thinks he can do a better job than the Big Guy, God invests Bruce with His powers and invites him to take over the job (which works out, since Bruce is between positions at the time). Now, Bruce happens to be a broadcast journalist, which is to say, completely self-absorbed, so naturally he uses his powers to resurrect his stalled career, utilizing a few “scoops” (conveniently “discovering” the body of Jimmy Hoffa in a police training ground, and “happening” to be around when a meteor hits. And when it comes time to answer prayers, Bruce just grants them … with devastating effect.

Of course, the consequences of these events are more far-reaching than Bruce realizes and things go from bad to worse in the world. And, as Bruce gets everything he wants, he realizes that everything he wants isn’t necessarily what is important to him. And what is really important to him is drifting away.

I like the movie for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s not an over-the-top Jim Carrey-fest, which I feared it would be. If the Ace Ventura movies were your speed, you may be disappointed with how subdued Carrey is here. Aniston is wonderful; at this point in her career she was catching up with Meg Ryan as the queen of romantic comedy, a title which has sadly eluded her since.

This is a movie that is not so much about faith as it is about values. Bruce is unhappy mainly because he confuses his own needs with his value system. The things that he is chasing with nearly obsessive focus are transitory and in the scheme of things, only self-defining at the surface. The deeper, intrinsic things that define us are the things we tend to push aside in favor of career and acclaim. Faith merely helps us see what is already there.

The sight gags and effects are pretty nifty, and there’s a really awesome sequence wherein Bruce sabotages the backstabbing anchor using his powers to – well, make him speak in tongues.

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. There is a certain sweetness to it, and the leads are well-cast and lovable, and the message is a bit deeper than the average summer comedy. Any movie that can make me cry and laugh in the same two hours is doing something right.

WHY RENT THIS: Carrey is at his most appealing and Aniston shows why she is one of the best comediennes today. Appealing, warm-hearted and doesn’t beat you in the face with a message of faith. Freeman makes an awesome God!

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more schtick than there needed to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the humor is a little crude, and there is a bit of foul language and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The riot scene was filmed in the Universal backlot set made famous as the town square of Hill Valley. The clock tower can clearly be seen.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are some outtakes and bloopers, but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $484.6M on an $84M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Contagion