Midnight Special


Abracadabra!

Abracadabra!

(2016) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, Sean Bridgers, Lucy Paust, James Moses Black, Yvonne Landry, Maureen Brennan, Ann Mahoney, Garrett Hines, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Jeff Nichols

It goes without saying that a father will do just about anything to protect his son. But what if protecting your son means the world dies? Would you trade your son’s life to save the world?

In a dingy Texas hotel room, a news broadcast tersely announces an amber alert for a young boy named Alton (Lieberher). Watching intently are Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Edgerton) – and Alton. In the dead of night, the two men grimly leave, taking their young charge with them.

A Texas ranch is raided by the FBI and the leader of the cult that lives there, Calvin Meyer (Shepard) reiterates that Alton, the boy kidnapped from their ranch, isn’t just some ordinary kid. The vision he has may be the key to Armageddon – and saving those who listen from being destroyed in the fire of the end of days.

As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s dad and he took him away from the cult, which has sent a couple of true believers to bring Alton back. Also on Roy’s tail is the NSA in the person of Sevier (Driver) who has more than a passing interest in the case – apparently the lists of numbers that Alton has been having visions about contain sensitive NSA data.

But where Roy, Lucas and Alton are headed is to see Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst). You see, they know that what Alton’s visions are telling him is that he has to be at a certain place by a certain time. And it’s literally a matter of life and death – the death of everyone on the planet.

Jeff Nichols has only four films to his credit (a fifth, Loving, is in the can and should be out in late 2016 or early 2017) but they have all received heaps of critical praise and as you can see by the scores in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so has this one. Nichols, who also co-wrote the film, makes subtly thoughtful films, movies that on the surface look pretty straightforward but the more you think about them, the more there is to think about.

He’s also a very visual director and some of the visuals here are thrilling, from the flaming wreckage coming down from the sky like meteorites to the expansive denouement which is largely computer generated. The big graphics seem a bit out of his style, but then Nichols has largely worked indie films – this is his first studio-made film. And it’s a good one.

Shannon has appeared in three of his four films, and he is his usual intense self. I have become a big Michael Shannon film in recent years and for the life of me I can’t recall a truly unsatisfactory performance that he’s given in a long, long time. He’s as versatile as they come and here, he plays the desperate loving dad with the same force of will as he plays, say, the psychotic dirty cop, or the amoral collection agency owner. Every role he takes on he makes his own and the amazing thing about Shannon is that no two characters that he portrays ever feel alike.

A lot of this movie is spent riding around in cars. There are some car chases in it (a good one during the climactic scenes) but mostly the main characters are just trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t mind some travelling scenes but I found the movie could have used fewer of those in this case. Also, the climax includes some very striking visuals but in a sense they almost felt like they come from a different movie.

There is a bit of a Spielberg vibe here, particularly in the relationship between father and son. But in a lot of ways, Nichols is the anti-Spielberg; he’s not dealing with kids in suburban homes but in kids from rural environments. Like Spielberg, growing up is a central theme in his movies but while adults can be more white noise in his movies, the adults in Nichols’ movies are often flawed and a central part of the story.

There are a lot of good elements here; I actually like it more than the rating I’m giving it, but I think most moviegoers will find this less rewarding than I did. More discerning movie buffs however might find much more here to offer than just a road movie with science fiction overtones in a family atmosphere. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts in that aspect.

REASONS TO GO: An intense yet subtle performance by Shannon. Thought-provoking material.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a little bit over the top. A little too much riding around in cars.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a modicum of violence and sci-fi action, as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adam Driver found out that he had been cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the first day of filming for this project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Everybody Wants Some!!

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Blackthorn


Butch Cassidy wants to make a withdrawal.

Butch Cassidy wants to make a withdrawal.

(2011) Western (Magnolia) Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Luis Bredow, Christian Mercado, Daniel Aguirre, Martin Proctor, Maria Luque, Raul Beltran, Luis Aduviri, Claudia Coronel, Erika Andia, Shirley Torres, Jorge Hidalgo, Daniel Acre, Fernando Gamarra, Delia Fabian. Directed by Mateo Gil

Westerns have been an important part of the movies ever since Thomas Edison invented the damn things. They have been iconic representations of America and the rugged individualism of Americans in general. They have fallen out of favor lately as we have changed as a nation and for better or for worse, our values are different now.

James Blackthorn (Shepard) is an American expatriate living in Bolivia, raising championship race horses. It is 1922 and he is an old man now although the name James Blackthorn is an invention and most people know him by a different name: Butch Cassidy. Yes, James Blackthorn is the famous outlaw who didn’t die in that notorious shoot-out but survived, although he is content to let the world think that Butch Cassidy is a corpse.

However when he receives word that his former lover Etta Place (McElligott) has passed away, he yearns to return home and visit her son Ryan who may or may not be his. He sells his horses and is returning back to his village, he is ambushed by Eduardo (Noriega), a Spanish mining engineer who insists he is shooting at men who are pursuing him, thinking that James was one. Unfortunately in the fracas, James’ horse Cinco bolts off with the money. Eduardo offers to share part of the $50,000 he stole from the mine owner Simon Patino, a Bolivian industrialist and mine operator (who actually existed, by the way) if Blackthorn can get him to the abandoned mine where the money is hidden. Needing the cash to get home, Blackthorn agrees.

The journey will take the two men across the high plains of Bolivia where they will be pursued by Patino’s relentless posse. Blackthorn will come face to face with old enemies and new lovers and more to the point, will be faced with a choice that will cut to the heart of who he always has been – and may change who he has become.

This is the English language debut of Spanish director Gil and it is somewhat fitting that he has chosen a Western to do it in. Westerns, many of which were shot in Spain during the 60s and 70s, have remained a favorite there more than here. Using one that has roots in the real American West is a note of gracia that those with Spanish souls will appreciate.

Shepard is perfectly cast as the grizzled, battle-hardened outlaw who wants nothing more than to live out the rest of his life in peace. He has the kind of face that hints at hard days and harder nights and Shepard uses his own persona as a kind of a springboard here. The ghost of Paul Newman and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hangs heavily over the production but while this is in a sense a sequel, it also is a completely different movie. This is kind of a what-if and I suppose that the original George Roy Hill movie was a little bit like that but while that movie was a product of a different time, so too is this movie a product of this time. It has kind of a somber disposition which some may find leaning too much in that direction. Caveat emptor.

Rea, who plays a former Pinkerton detective who always believed Butch was still alive, also is fine in support. Noriega is a decent enough actor but his chemistry with Shepard is a bit constrained; in many ways his character was a bit superfluous and while his robbery of the mine money is the catalyst of the events here, I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers had concentrated on Butch/Blackthorn that this wouldn’t have been a better movie. It definitely would have been better if they’d eliminated the flashbacks to a younger Butch and Sundance which do nothing for the film other than interrupt what momentum it does achieve.

Mostly filmed in Bolivia, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous and for anyone thinking of traveling to Bolivia or who have fond memories of it, this is going to be a must-see. In fact, for those who just like Westerns or movies with magnificent scenery, this is one to keep an eye out for in general.

WHY RENT THIS: Shepard is terrific and perfectly cast. Rea is fine in support. Lovely Bolivian scenery.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Flashbacks bring the film to a grinding halt. Chemistry between Shepard and Noriega not up to snuff. A little too somber in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some rootin’, some tootin’ and some shootin’. There’s also a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The survival of Cassidy in the Bolivian shoot-out is based on actual rumors. The details on the supposed shoot-out are very vague and much of the evidence conflicts so it is entirely possible that the notorious outlaw survived.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films from Gil as well as an HD-Net special on the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $623,528 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE:
Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental/Streaming), Amazon (stream only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shootist
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Inherent Vice

Darling Companion


Woman's best friend isn't necessarily a diamond.

Woman’s best friend isn’t necessarily a diamond.

(2012) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard, Lindsay Sloane, Jay Ali, Robert Bear, Casey, Paul Kiernan, Jericho Watson, Yolanda Wood, D.L. Walker, Dina Goldman, Ruben Barboza, Mark Robinette, Craig Miner, Anne Cullimore Decker, Aline Andrade. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Dog lovers are, if you’ll forgive me, a unique breed. Being one myself, I know whereof I speak. Da Queen will tell you that I’m borderline obsessive and if you pressed, she’d probably even admit that I left the rational border behind years ago. That’s okay. Guilty as charged. From time to time in movies I have to witness bad things happening to dogs. Da Queen will also tell you that there’s no surer way to turn this rational, logical critic into a slobbering mess than seeing harm come to a dog. It’s not just my dogs I love but all dogs.

I tell you this because I was a bit concerned when I heard what the premise for this movie was. When Beth (Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Moss) find an abandoned dog at the side of a Colorado highway, Beth immediately takes to her four-legged friend. Naming the dog Freeway, she adopts the critter when nobody steps in to claim it.

Her husband Joseph (Kline), a back surgeon who invests much more into his career than he does into his marriage although he is to his own mind completely devoted to his family, is a bit annoyed by the presence of the dog but when his wife insists, he capitulates grudgingly. What he doesn’t get is that he spends a lot of time away from the home while she raised her daughters. With Grace getting married at their Rocky Mountain vacation home in the fall, her nest will be officially empty. She needs something to fill it and a dog is an excellent choice.

Beth grows very fond of Freeway and the two are virtually inseparable but things get kind of crazy as the wedding approaches and of course Joseph is of little help. As Beth is helping Grace with the final details at the vacation house, Joseph – about as useful as a cell phone on top of Mt. Everest – is given the task of walking the dog. He does so, forgetting to put Freeway on a leash and so busy talking into his cell phone he barely notices when Freeway runs off after a deer.

When Joseph returns home sans dog, Beth is understandably distraught and unleashes her wrath on Joseph who doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. “It’s not like it’s a person,” he complains, “it’s just a dog” to which Beth retorts “Love is love. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a dog.” She has a point but then again I am somewhat unreliable  when it comes to objectivity in this regard.

Of course, Joseph is in the literal dog house but he searches for the dog without success. Beth, frantic, enlists Joseph’s sister Penny (Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Jenkins) as well as Penny’s son Bryan (Duplass). Neither Joseph nor Bryan trust Russell whom they think has ulterior motives when it comes to Penny but Penny appears happy enough.

For Bryan’s part, he takes a shine to Carmen (Zurer), the housemaid who claims to have psychic powers who is certain that Freeway is still alive. This only furthers Beth’s determination and as the adults travel the beautiful countryside of the Rockies in the fall, they are forced to deal with each other one on one – for the first time in a very long time in some cases.

Some may recall Kasdan as the director of Silverado and The Big Chill as well as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He co-wrote this with his wife Meg so we do get both sides of the equation in most of the relationships without being overly committed to one point of view or the other. Kasdan has the wisdom to know that there are always more than one in any relationship and the case is generally that no one person is always right or always wrong.

However, you can never be wrong when you cast Kevin Kline and nobody knows that better than Kasdan who gave the actor his big break in The Big Chill. Kline is an everyman who can play just about any role and make it believable. He’s also so damn likable that even when he’s playing a character who is a bit of a dick we still end up relating to him which is quite the gift. I think that likability is why we so rarely see Kline in a villain’s role, although he can play those with aplomb as well (see A Fish Called Wanda).

His chemistry with Keaton is genuine and unforced. Keaton who sometimes can overdo the neurotic thing at least doesn’t make her character a complete ditz. She does have some legitimate grievances and while the way things work out is a bit contrived (but what Hollywood film is not?) the character itself isn’t. The acting in fact is terrific all around – the movie in fact suffers from an embarrassment of riches with so many great actors in the movie that you wish some of them got a little more screen time and you tend to leave that kind of film feeling a little cheated – and yet if they’d made the film longer it would have been too long. Catch-22 lives.

While the movie ends up using the dog as a uniting force and the search for him/her as a metaphor as our own search for love and acceptance, it gets to its destination after a few too many convenient coincidences. Other than that though this is a beautifully shot movie – you also can’t go wrong setting a movie in the Rockies in the autumn, although it is Utah subbing for Colorado here. It leaves one with the warm fuzzies which isn’t a bad thing and although a lot of critics grouse about it, this isn’t a dog movie in the same sense as Marley and Me nor is it a dog of a movie in the sense of a whole lot of forgettable exercises in cinema but it is a movie that might just stick with you like a loyal, loving dog and who doesn’t love that?

WHY RENT THIS: Because, you know, dogs. I’ll see Kline in anything, even when he plays a bit of a jerk.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many contrivances. Too many great actors, not enough time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual content as well as a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Kasdan’s first time in the director chair since 2003’s Dreamcatcher.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with footage of the New York premiere there’s also a featurette on the casting of the dog Freeway.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $793,815 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Red Baron

Cold in July


Texas mean. Texas hard.

Texas mean. Texas hard.

(2014) Thriller (IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell, Lanny Flaherty, Ken Holmes, Rachel Zeigler-Haag, Tim Lajcik, Brianda Agramonte, Kristin Griffith, Joe Lanza, Laurent Rejto, Brogan Hall, Joseph Anthony Jerez, Joseph Harrell, Happy Anderson, Kris Elvers, Gregory Russell Cook, Soraya Butler, Rosemary Howard. Directed by Jim Mickle

In Texas, things come extra value sized. Go big or go home isn’t just a pithy phrase in Texas; it’s a way of life. Big hair, big horns, big cattle, big oil, big football, big brisket, big portions, everything is larger than life. That’s just the way it’s done in the Lone Star State.

Richard Dane (M.C. Hall) wakes up one hot summer night in 1989 to the words any husband most dreads to hear from his wife (Shaw); “Honey, I think I heard a noise downstairs.” As he comes to wakefulness, he hears the noises too and realizes there’s an intruder in the house. As any good Texas husband and father does, he has a gun for protection. He loads it, shaking like a leaf – Richard is not a violent man by nature. He goes downstairs and surprises a man robbing him. The man shines a flashlight in Richard’s face. He can’t see what’s happening; it could be the guy is pulling a gun of his own. Richard shoots and hits the intruder right between the eyes.

Richard is devastated. To the police, it’s a cut and dried case. The guy was robbing him and Richard had no way of knowing if the man was armed – although he was not. However, he had a rap sheet a mile long and Richard is a good citizen. The detective in charge, Ray Price (Damici), tells him gently not to worry about it; “Sometimes the good guy wins.”

Not everyone feels the same way, particularly the victim’s father Ben Russell (Shepard). Ben, an ex-con, is an eye for an eye kind of guy and when he sees Richard at his son’s sparsely-attended funeral, he makes sure that Richard knows that he isn’t going to get away scot-free, giving him an eerie “That son of yours. He looks just like you.” Cape Fear, here we come.

But that’s not how it plays out. This new thriller from director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) takes a couple of about faces during the course of the movie as we find out that things aren’t necessarily what they seem to be and not everyone who wears a badge can be trusted – nor can every ex-con be feared. This is Texas noir and if it smacks of Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson, well you can thank author Joe Lansdale who wrote the novel that this is based on.

The three leads also have a lot to do with it. Hall as Richard Dane is distinctly un-Dexter  like; lacking the confidence and conviction of that character, all the two have in common is that they have taken life. Dane makes up for his somewhat mousy demeanor with dogged determination and a sense of justice that gets offended more than once during the course of the film. Shepard takes a page out of Robert Mitchum’s book, making Russell menacing and evil until about midway through the movie when we begin to find out more about him and what drives him. The two sides of the role are a tough nut to crack for any actor but Shepard happens to be one of the stronger character actors in Hollywood and he is more than equal to the task.

The one role we haven’t mentioned is that of Don Johnson. Jim Bob Luke, a detective that is brought in during the second half of the film, is everything Texas – a larger than life personality, 10 gallon hat, bright red convertible with steer horns on the grille, a belt buckle the size of a basketball, and an eye for the ladies. He absolutely steals the picture and is worth the price of admission alone.

Mickle keeps the tension high from the opening scene of Hall being awakened by his wife to the final denouement. He is aided by Jeff Grace who supplies an electronic score that recalls that of John Carpenter’s horror films of the late ’80s and creates an expectation of real bad things to come. For those of a certain age, it will be a bit of a nostalgia-fest  as when Jim Bob, with his huge cell phone steps out of his car yelling into the receiver “I can’t hear you. I’m getting about one word in three. Is this any better?” as he walks around looking for a sweet spot.

Some of the moral terrain negotiated by the movie can get a little bit rough; this is rated “R” for a reason. Some sensitive sorts may find this ultra-disturbing. Still, this is the kind of thriller that crawls under your skin and burrows there, refusing to budge until you’ve seen it all. Mickle is clearly someone to look out for and even if you don’t live in Texas, you’ll appreciate this slice o’ juicy Lone Star cinematic heaven.

REASONS TO GO: Texas noir. Fine performances by Hall, Shepard and Johnson. Love the score.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a twist too many for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody and disturbing. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations as well as a plentitude of blue language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joe Lansdale, the author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as a priest at the grave of the robber that Richard Dane shot and killed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Texas Killing Fields

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Swinging With the Finkels

New Releases for the Week of June 20, 2014


Jersey BoysJERSEY BOYS

(Warner Brothers) John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken, Steve Schirripa, John Griffin, Lou Volpe. Directed by Clint Eastwood

The Four Seasons were not just pop stars from a bygone era. They were four Jersey boys who went from the mean streets of the Garden State to the highest of heights. With the signature voice of Frankie Valli, they were one of the major pop forces of the 60s all the way through the 70s. A Tony Award-winning musical about their lives and music took Broadway by storm and at last hits the big screen, directed by none other than Clint Eastwood himself.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: R  (for language throughout)

Cold in July

(IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw.On a hot summer night in Texas in 1989, a man investigates noises in his living room and surprises a burglar. A split second decision sees the man pull the trigger and become a local hero. Not everyone appreciates his actions; the criminal’s ex-con father is coming to town and he has nothing but bloody revenge on his mind.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for disturbing bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity)

The Grand Seduction

(eOne) Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Liane Balaban, Gordon Pinsent. A small Canadian town desperately needs a new petrochemical plant in order to survive. The company will not locate a plant there unless they have a resident doctor which is one thing they don’t have. When a doctor passes through, they realize that they have to convince him that this town is the paradise he’s been looking for.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive material and drug references)

Humshakals

(Fox Star) Saif Ali Khan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Ram Kapoor, Bipasha BasuAshok and Kumar are best friends who unbeknownst to them have two lookalikes, also named Ashok and Kumar who are also best friends. Unbeknownst to both of these pairs of friends is another pair of lookalikes, also named Ashok and Kumar, also the best of friends. Add to this a man named Mamaji who also has a lookalike who in turn has a look alike of his own (you guessed it – all named Mamaji) and you have chaos waiting to happen.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Rover

(A24) Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Susan Prior. In a future ten years following the collapse of society, a loner in the Australian outback has his car stolen by a gang of thieves. However, they leave one of their members behind in the ensuing chaos and the loner uses him (quite unwillingly) to track his former mates so that he can retrieve the only thing that really matters to him. The latest film from the director of Animal Kingdom.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Action

Rating: R (for language and some bloody violence)

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

(Radius)  Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas.In the annals of managers both in the film and music industries, the name of Shep Gordon looms among the pantheon of the best. One of the few in the business who is beloved by both clients and corporate alike, he has created a storied life that would make a Hollywood movie – if it weren’t true. Now, close friend Mike Myers aims to tell the story of the man who redefined the word mensch .

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for language, some sexual references, nudity and drug use)

Think Like a Man Too

(Screen Gems) Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson. This sequel to the surprise hit of 2012 finds the same couples still hanging in there after a couple of years but now they are headed to Las Vegas to celebrate the wedding of one of their own. They find themselves unable to keep themselves from getting into hot water and forget one of the most basic rules of Hollywood – what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy (opens Thursday)

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content including references, partial nudity, language and drug material)

The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!