Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

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Robot Overlords


Robot riding: the next Olympic sport.

Robot riding: the next Olympic sport.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Ben Kingsley, Gillian Anderson, Milo Parker, Callan McAuliffe, Geraldine James, Steven Mackintosh, Tamer Hassan, Ella Hunt, Justin Salinger, Craig Garner, Roy Hudd, David McSavage, Michael Stuart, Jimmy Johnston, Laurence Doherty, James Tarpey, Sonny Green, Ciaran Flynn, Edna Caskey, Neil Brownlee, Abigail Castleton . Directed by Jon Wright

So, let’s say that a race of giant robots have occupied the planet. We’ve all been essentially grounded, informed in no uncertain terms that we are to remain in our homes at all times or be vaporized (which must absolutely suck for the homeless). What’s a teenager to do?

That’s what’s happened to Sean Flynn (McAuliffe), whose RAF dad (Mackintosh) has been missing for two years. He’s living with single mum teacher Kate (Anderson), her comely daughter Alexandra (Hunt) and her jokester brother Nathan (Tarpey). Added to the mix is Conor (Parker) whose dad just lost it and ran outside, which led to him being disintegrated in front of his own son and now has joined Kate’s sorta happy family. Her ex-colleague, Smythe (Kingsley) is a collaborator with the robots and quite sweet on her, although the feeling isn’t reciprocated. The kids despise him, rightfully believing him to be a traitor to his own species.

Whilst fooling around in the basement, Conor discovers that electrocuting himself with a car battery can short out the tracking devices installed on every human’s neck, which allows them to go outside without being detected by the robots. At first it’s a lark until it gets curmudgeonly grandpa Morse Code Martin (Hudd) captured and essentially lobotomized, all his thoughts stolen from his head by something called a Deep Scanner. The robots are apparently studying humans and intend to take their ideas from them and use them for their own. Let’s hope they didn’t scan the humans who created this film.

While out they make the amazing discovery that Sean has the ability to control the robots through telepathy, albeit only one at a time. Still, this could be the turning point in getting the robots off our planet and allowing humans to take back their homes after all, although not if Smythe and the robotic Mediator (Garner) have anything to say about it.

This is a family-oriented sci-fi action film which should appeal to Anglophiles and Giant Robot enthusiasts alike. The story is a bit disjointed and the ending a bit anti-climactic but there’s nothing here that is likely to offend anyone, unless they have an unreasonable hatred of all things British. Although filmed in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man, the story is set in what appears to be either a Northern English or Scottish town – the accents run along those lines and they can be thick at times.

Kingsley has made a career of being a smarmy villain and while I’d prefer to see some different roles for him because he is such a talented actor, he does make a superior bad guy and he is one of the highlights here. Anderson is a fine actress but doesn’t get a lot to do here. Most of the focus is on Sean, Conor, Alexandra and Nathan and quite frankly they’re okay but little more. McAuliffe is an Australian actor who has received rave notices in his homeland for other roles and some say is likely to become a big star worldwide eventually, which can only help this film that has bombed at the box office both in its native land and here.

There are a few other interesting performances besides Kingsley’s; Hudd does a fine job as the defiant pensioner, while Tamer Hassan is excellent as Wayne, a criminal sort with a heart of gold who assists the kids. He is a right proper villain, you might say, although he feels like he comes from an English gangster flick and was deposited somewhat unceremoniously into this Transformers-like affair.

The story tends to be a bit on the kid-friendly side; teens and kids save the world, which might not appeal so much to adults. What really doesn’t appeal to adults is thinking about the mechanics of the story; if people are confined to their homes and are never allowed out, how do they get groceries, clothes and other necessities? What do people do when they get sick? Who ya gonna call?

The special effects range from awful to not bad, although they’ve been savaged pretty thoroughly in the British press. While the explosions looked cheesy, the robots were effective enough although not as detailed as others in bigger budgeted films. Still, I found the entire movie to be entertaining overall in a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. And we all know you never outgrow those.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent special effects. Kingsley is always swell.
REASONS TO STAY: Story is disjointed and ending anti-climactic. Most of the rest of the cast is merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: Robot violence and some human-on-human violence, a rude gesture and a few sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Deep Scanner resembles the main monsters from the film Grabbers which Wright also directed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Men in Black II

Child 44


You've got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

You’ve got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

(2015) Mystery (Summit) Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Agnieszka Grochowska, Mark Lewis Jones, Petr Vanek, Jana Strykova, Ursina Lardi, Michael Nardone, Lottie Steer, Zdenek Barinka, Ned Dennehy, Finbar Lynch, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Sam Spruell, Tara Fitzgerald, Lorraine Ashbourne. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

I wonder sometimes if the current American regime misses the Soviet Union. After all, they gave us someone to hate and an ideology to deride. Then again, I suppose that ISIS has given that to us as well.

But in the bad old days there was Stalin and the Russians but despite everything they couldn’t have been worse for us than they were for the Russians themselves. The country was rebuilding after suffering horribly during the Second World War but after having Hitler’s troops knocking on their doorstep they had somehow managed to push them all the way back to Berlin. Orphan Leo Demidov (Hardy) had distinguished himself during the war, taking the Reichstag and planting the Soviet flag, becoming a national hero in the process. Boyhood friends Alexei (Fares), a wild but loyal man, and Vasili (Kinnaman), a vicious coward, had been at his side (and in Vasili’s case, slightly behind him).

These days, instead of chasing the German army Leo is chasing Soviet traitors for the MGB along with Alexei and Vasili. Their latest case, a veterinarian named Brodsky (Clarke) had resulted in Vasili shooting a mother and a father who had harbored the fugitive before Leo stopped him and humiliated him in front of the men. This makes Leo Vasili’s sworn enemy, one who will plot and scheme Leo’s downfall.

But things are already in motion. For one, Alexei’s child is found dead by the railroad tracks. It is officially ruled an accident but Alexei knows better – he knows his child was murdered. However since Stalin declared that murder was a Western capitalist affliction, it wasn’t possible for murder to occur in the Soviet Union. “There are no murders in paradise” goes the refrain (and it is repeated more than once, usually ironically). When Alexei questions the official ruling, he runs afoul of the authorities who quickly force him to recant. Leo is in fact the one who warns his friend what is happening.

Leo should be watching his own back. His wife Raisa (Rapace), a schoolteacher, has been getting restless in her marriage to the driven Leo and has been having an affair. However, Vasili makes a case against Raisa for being a traitor because the man she is seeing, a fellow schoolteacher, seems to have non-communist (or at least non-Stalinist) sympathies. When Leo refuses to denounce Raisa, he is punished by being sent to a backwater town under the command of General Nesterov (Oldman), himself in disfavor with the current Soviet regime. Normally Leo would have been executed but being a hero of the Soviet Union has its perks.

But there have been a series of child deaths in the vicinity, all with similar wounds to what Alexei’s son had suffered. Leo realizes that there is a serial killer in their midst. And since murder doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union (much less serial killers), the official position is that these deaths are all accidents. However Leo realizes that in order to protect the children of the district he will have to risk everything – including his own life – to bring the killer to justice. In the meantime, Vasili, who sees the perfect opportunity to take Leo out permanently, is closing in.

I expected this to be not very good, given that it got almost no push from the studio and received pretty miserable reviews but this is one of those times I got to be pleasantly surprised. The setting of the old Soviet Union filmed mostly in the Czech Republic – the Russia of Putin found the movie to be insulting to their history and promptly banned it – is unusual for Hollywood thrillers. The depiction here is of a drab and paranoid world in which the only colors seem to be grey and red and the only way to survive is to assume that everyone is out to get you which it seems is pretty much the case.

Hardy has become one of my favorite actors at the moment. Poised to be Hollywood A-list royalty (and will probably achieve that status with Mad Max: Fury Road later this month) he is on a role in which he seems to be incapable of delivering an uninteresting performance. His Leo is like a pit bull in many ways, but an honorable one – he doesn’t attack indiscriminately but only to those who in his view deserve it, such as traitors to his motherland. He chooses not to question the corruption that is in plain sight all around him, merely accepting it as part of the Way Things Are and when he becomes a victim of it chooses not to complain but simply adapt.

The rest of the supporting cast is for the most part solid; Rapace seems oddly subdued but still remains a very underrated actress, one who underlines how few really well-written roles for women there are out there. She makes the best of a fairly undefined character. Oldman is also another one of those actors who seems to always elevate the part he’s in whether it’s well-written or not.

While based on an actual case, this fictionalized movie comes across as a fairly predictable thriller despite being based on an international best seller which was reportedly anything but (I haven’t read it as of yet). It is the first of a trio of novels and no doubt Summit was hoping for a franchise here initially but given that the movie has been given little push and has been a box office disappointment, the other two are unlikely to be filmed.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. Now largely out of first release theaters with the first blockbusters of the summer season taking the lion’s share of screens, you can still catch it in second run theaters and likely soon on VOD. It’s actually a pretty interesting film and a well-made thriller worth taking the time to seek out. It isn’t perfect but I found it to be entertaining enough to overcome its flaws.

REASONS TO GO: Hardy continues to be a reason to go see a movie all by himself. Captures the paranoia and political infighting of Stalinist Soviet Russia.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit too rote in terms of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a few disturbing images, adult themes, some foul language and a scene involving sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel the movie is based on was inspired by the hunt for the real serial killer Andrei Chikatilo which was chronicled in the excellent HBO movie Citizen X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen X
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Misery Loves Comedy

Answers to Nothing


Dane Cook emoting.

Dane Cook emoting.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Dane Cook, Elizabeth Mitchell, Julie Benz, Barbara Hershey, Zach Gilford, Erik Palladino, Gillian Vigman, Kali Hawk, Hayes MacArthur, Greg Germann, Tony Denison, Alan Rachins, Mark Kelly, Caitlin Gerard, Karley Scott Collins, Jacqueline Pinol, Brian Palermo, Aja Volkman, Miranda Bailey, Leslie Durso. Directed by Matthew Leutwyler

Ensemble movies with inter-weaving storylines can be really interesting when done well. When they’re not, they can be exceedingly frustrating to the viewer.

Here the lives of several people entwine and intersect in L.A. against the backdrop of a high-profile child abduction case that has Angelinos riveted to the unfolding events. Here we meet Ryan (Cook), a psychologist who is having an affair with a singer (Volkman) that is strongly conflicting him. His wife Kate (Mitchell) is an attorney and the two of them are having trouble conceiving a child. She finds out about his affair just before going under anesthesia for an in vitro fertilization although unbeknownst to her he has already decided to call off the affair.

One of his patients is Allegra (Hawk), an African-American who writes for TV. She also hates African-Americans which is not as unusual as you might think. She has been dating a young white guy (Gilford) who is sort of caught in the middle of her identity issues. Meanwhile one of Kate’s clients, Drew (Bailey) has all sorts of guilt issues. Her brother Bill (Palermo) is completely disabled but was only a year earlier an accomplished marathon runner. She feels guilty because his injury occurred in a post-race car crash after a celebration in which both Bill and Drew, who was driving, had both been drinking. She means to run the same marathon in tribute to her brother. Meanwhile she is fighting her parents who want to put Bill in a home.

Frankie (Benz) is Kate’s best friend and the lead detective on the child abduction case. She initially suspects Mr. Beckworth (Germann), the next door neighbor of the family but when some questionable porn is found on the father’s computer the suspicion shifts over to him. Lonely school teacher Carter (Kelly) becomes even further obsessed with the case and pesters his neighbor Jerry (Palladino), a police officer and a fellow gamer, to do some investigating. Jerry, a beat cop, tries to keep Carter calm but Carter is growing more and more psychotic about the case and the fate of the little girl.

That’s an awful lot of stuff happening for a single film, even one that’s more than two hours long. I think a good deal of the fluff could have been trimmed, as much as half an hour’s worth. As it is there are too many characters, too many storylines and not enough really holding it together. The entire Allegra subplot could have been excised from the story quite easily and really, so could the Drew and Bill story.

It’s not that I mind character studies – in fact, I love them but there has to be some strong characters worth studying and there simply aren’t many here. I did like Palladino’s performance as the police officer and Mitchell, a veteran of Lost, as the lawyer. Both were the most sympathetic characters. As for most of the rest of them, I really didn’t want to get to know them any better. That spells bad news for any film.

Leutwyler has been involved with some pretty impressive films before now as producer, writer and/or director (he performs all three functions here) but this is sadly not one of them. There are some worthwhile moments if you want to check them out but quite frankly this is a bit of a hot mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the performances here are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many storylines and not enough story. Way too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly strong sexual content and nudity, a fair amount of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leutwyler studied film at the San Francisco Institute of Art.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,029 on a $3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

The Forgotten Kingdom


An African road trip.

An African road trip.

(2013) Drama (Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube,  Sam Phillips, Jerry Phele, Reitumetse Qobo, Silas Monyatsi, Leonard Mopeli, Jabari Makhooane, Khotso Molibei, Mokoenya Cheli, Stephen Mofokeng, Harriet Manamela. Directed by Andrew Mudge. 

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

When one is a young man, one tends to judge the actions of their father quite harshly. We think of our old man as just that – an old man, ignorant in the ways of the modern world, one who doesn’t understand us and what we’re going through, one whose own actions are as unfathomable as a Lars von Trier film. Yet when we get some life experience of our own, most times the sins of our fathers (real or imagined) are brought into crystal clarity.

Joseph (Ngqobe) is a young man, living in Johannesburg, South Africa with a huge chip on his shoulder. He drinks, he carouses, he womanizes and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anybody. When he hears his father is ill, he’s not too concerned – his father has always been ill. When he goes to visit him in a mean, dirty tenement in a shantytown outside of the city, he discovers that his father (Phele) has passed away.

It becomes apparent that his father wants to be buried in Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa where Joseph (whose tribal name is Atang, which seems to irritate him) was born. After the death of his mother and after his father contracted AIDS, Dad had sent Atang into Jo-burg, which didn’t sit well with Joseph/Atang – ah hell, Atang – at all. However, he can’t deny his father his final rest so he takes the body back to the village in Lesotho.

The priest (Chabeli) seems to think that Atang’s father was a good man but Atang is having none of it – to him, his father was a coward who abandoned him when he needed him most. Atang is getting ready to go home when he is reintroduced to Dineo (Nkelemba), a childhood friend who has become the local schoolteacher. The two catch up somewhat and Atang realizes that his feelings for Dineo have deepened. However at last he has to go back to Johannesburg.

He gets a job, motivated to make some money and marry Dineo. However, when he arrives back at the village, he discovers that Dineo’s father (Mofokeng) has moved the family to a distant, remote village inaccessible by road or train. Dineo’s sister (Qobo) has also contracted AIDS and the shame has prompted dear old dad to move the whole family away, where he can lock up his diseased daughter away from the world.

With the aid of an Orphan (Ntsane) who happens to have a couple of horses, Atang goes off on a journey across the vast landscape of Lesotho. It is a journey in which he will discover who his father was, who he is and what is truly important.

Putting it bluntly, this is an early contender for the Best Movie of 2013. It is rare to find a movie that packs such narrative impact as well as emotional connection without having to sacrifice one for the other. The cinematography is breathtaking and Robert Miller has contributed a wonderful score that enhances the mood without distracting you from it.

While there are plenty of veteran South African actors in the cast, there are also many local actors and non-actors also in the cast. The performances are all compelling, but particularly that of Ngqobe who undergoes quite a transformation during the course of the film, from a somewhat sullen and self-centered man into one who has become much more self-aware and loving. His transformation is the center of the film, and the journey that he and the Orphan take across the stunning landscape of Lesotho is centered on that change.

Yes, in some ways this is a road picture in the tradition of Hope and Crosby but while there are some moments that are funny, this isn’t a comedy – but the basics are there. This is more of a self-discovery rather than a means to find laughs and as Atang discovers himself, so too will the audience. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt very keenly the need to explore my own relationship with my father and my son, as well as my own roles as both. I felt my own background wash over me like a warm blanket, followed by the sense of Africa covering me and holding me in a warm embrace.

It is easy to sentimentalize Africa (considering that most of us, myself included, have never been there) but it is the cradle of civilization and evidence points that we all have a connection there in one form or another as human life began there. This movie neither sentimentalizes Africa nor demonizes it; we get a sense of some of the problems there, but we also get a sense of the beauty of the environment and of its people, not to mention the wisdom of their civilization which in many ways far outdistances that of our own. This is a movie everyone should experience and I’m very grateful that I got to see this with my own mother. It’s one that will dwell in both your heart and mind for a very long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and a story that will grab hold of you from beginning to end. Surprisingly well-acted.

REASONS TO STAY: American audiences seem to have a built-in prejudice against subtitled films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes, some bad language and a lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ngqobe and Nkelemba were cast members in the popular South African soap opera Rhythm City.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just embarking on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Straight Story

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 5

Promised Land


Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

(2012) Drama (Focus) Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, Tim Guinee, Terry Kinney, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Gerri Bumbaugh, Frank Conforti, Joanne Jeffers. Directed by Gus Van Sant

Rural America is often depicted as an idyllic place. Small towns where everyone not only knows one another but cares for one another as well. A place populated by hard-working folk who have farms that go back generations in the same family, a place untroubled by the bustle and stress of city life.

But that life is largely dying. Family farms are becoming an endangered species as agribusiness crowds them out of the marketplace. Many family farms require subsidies to get by. People in desperate situations are often vulnerable to any suggestion that might well save them from financial catastrophe.

Steve Butler (Damon) works for Global, a natural gas company, and he’s very good at what he does. What he does is go into small towns where Global wants to drill and secures contract granting drilling rights to their land. He and his partner Sue Thomasson (McDormand) are successful more than their peers by triple digits in terms of percentages. He is up for an executive position and the company has sent him to a small Pennsylvania town which Global wants to be the beachhead for their penetration into the Keystone State.

Normally, Steve is in and out of a town like this in a matter of days. He grew up on a family farm in Eldridge, Iowa and speaks the language of these people. He knows what buttons to push. But there is a science teacher, a retired engineer by the name of Frank Yates (Holbrook) who raises some questions at the town hall meeting about the natural gas drilling. He brings up fracking, the technique of breaking up shale and releasing the gas by creating cracks in the rock with huge drills and by forcing water, sand and chemicals into the shale to speed up the process. He’s read some pretty disturbing stuff on the internet and Steve, who had tied one on the night before, wasn’t in any shape to deliver answers.

To make matters worse, an idealistic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) blows into town to ally himself with Frank. He disseminates all sorts of information on the effects of the chemicals seeping up into the groundwater, with graphic photos of dead cows, brown land, dreams of five generations of farmers withered up and dead in a matter of months.

Things turn into a war of wills between Dustin and Steve. Dustin seems to have the upper hand – including with a teacher named Alice (DeWitt) who Steve has become sweet on. But for the battle of the hearts and minds of the town, Steve and Sue are losing the battle until a turning point comes. However, that moment of victory turns to ashes when Steve comes to a terrible realization that turns his viewpoint on what he has worked so hard to accomplish on its ear.

There are some political ramifications to the film and we might as well get those out of the way first. Detractors have proclaimed this a hatchet job on the natural gas industry, using fear tactics to unfairly portray fracking as being far more dangerous than it is, and using sensationalism and exaggerated cases to make its point. They also point to the participation of ImageNation as a producer. ImageNation is a production company based in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates which is of course an oil-producing region who would have a vested interest in creating a hatchet job on the production of U.S.-based natural gas.

There’s no doubt that the filmmakers have taken a stance of being against fracking and have used twisted the facts somewhat. While it is true that fracking has been connected with groundwater pollution and the release of methane gas into the atmosphere, it must be said that the kind of destruction depicted by the Dustin Noble character has yet to be determined to be a product of fracking exclusively (ordinary drilling for ground water well can also lead to methane gas release) and while I think it’s safe to say that there is some room for discussion as to the long-term effects of fracking on the environment and human health, it certainly isn’t the problem it is made out to be here, at least not in a way that could be proven in a court of law – at least not yet.

So keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary and as such there are some things to recommend it. Damon is so darn likable that you end up rooting for him even though you know the company he works for are a bunch of jerks. He believes in his company with almost child-like faith; they wouldn’t lie to him and they certainly wouldn’t do anything immoral or wrong.

Damon has a strong supporting cast behind him. McDormand plays Sue with laconic strength and a sense of big sisterness that creates an appealing chemistry between the two. Sue does most of her parenting via Skype and being a city girl, has less connection to the people she’s dealing with than Steve does which makes it easier for her to separate herself. Krasinski gets Dustin’s character down note-perfect while Holbrook could do the sage/oracle role in his sleep but nonetheless does it here like a pro. Welliver does some of the best work of the veteran character actor’s  career as the proprietor of a general store who becomes sweet on Sue.

Van Sant enlists cinematographer Linus Sandgren to deliver some really pretty shots of the rural countryside. There’s often a misty quality adding to the allure. It’s all calculated to deliver to audiences the most nostalgic of visuals. In a sense, it becomes a special effect.

I will say that in an effort to show how dastardly and ruthless that corporate America will go the filmmakers go to absurd lengths. I think keeping things in the realm of reality would have been far more effective. Big corporations have been guilty of plenty of abuses to make them look villainous without having them resort to what they do here.

This is a decent enough movie as long as you go in realizing that they adhere to a specific point of view. Liberals may well embrace the doctrine here while conservatives may decry it. I’m on the fence about fracking; I certainly think there’s enough evidence warranting further study into the practice and maybe looking into ways to making it more safe. While I realize that in most instances fracking has caused zero environmental damage, there have been instances where it has not.

This is one of those movies where your political leanings may well determine how much you appreciate the movie. In all honesty the movie isn’t really stirring – at least not in the way that a great film is – nor is it so well-made that you can overlook the manipulative nature of the script. However the performances are such that you’ll forgive a lot of sins assuming you can get past your views on the environment.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic cinematography. Damon plays his natural likability to a “T.” Welliver, McDormand, DeWitt, Holbrook and Krasinski deliver solid performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Stretches believability. Takes a controversial subject and turns it banal.

FAMILY VALUES:  There was enough foul language to net this an R rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon was originally slated to direct the movie but had to pull out because of time constraints and creative differences. He did remain aboard as an actor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty darn mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up in the Air

MINIATURE HORSE LOVERS: Hal Holbrook’s Frank Yates character raises them and they make several appearance, often puzzling Steve and Sue as they see them in the field.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Game

Stone


Stone

Milla Jovovich gets steamy with Robert De Niro in hopes it might win her an Oscar.

(2010) Thriller (Overture) Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Rachel Loiselle, Peter Lewis, Sandra Love Aldridge, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sarab Kamoo, Dave Hendricks, Rory Mallon. Directed by John Curran

Some of us go through life as blunt objects. We’re cudgels, beating people over the head until they realize what we’re trying to get across. Others of us are sharp objects. We’re scalpels, sliding in unnoticed and making changes in the minds of others sometimes without them even knowing it.

Jack Mabrey (De Niro) is a cudgel. He is a parole officer at a Michigan prison, close to retirement and welcoming not having to deal with the lowlifes and scumbags that he is forced to release back into society. Then again, Jack is no saint either; when his wife threatened to leave him some years back, he counter-threatened her by dangling their baby out the window and promising to drop it three stories onto the pavement. Mrs. Mabrey (Conroy) decided to stay, finding solace in religion which Jack seems to accept; he listens to religious programming on the radio.

His last case is to be Gerald Creeson (Norton) who goes by the nickname of Stone. All corn rows and badass talk, Stone wants to be paroled in the worst way. He’s quite a manipulator, not above using his very hot and sexy schoolteacher wife Lucetta (Jovovich) to seduce Jack. And Jack, for all his Christian values and professional ethics, isn’t above being seduced.

The questions become who is playing who in this scenario. How far is Lucetta willing to go to get her husband out of prison? Is Stone aware of what she’s doing or she the one pulling the strings? Is Jack more aware of what’s happening than he lets on?

This is not your typical drama – it’s not a procedural on the parole system, for one. It’s almost Southern gothic despite its Michigan setting and it’s a script that doesn’t assume the people who are watching the movie are drooling idiots. No wonder it bombed at the box office.

In fact, sometimes the movie is a bit too smart for its own good; you’re constantly left wondering who’s doing what to who and what’s really going on and at some point after all that build-up you want an answer to those questions that will be impressive – and when you don’t get one, you kind of feel let down.

You won’t be let down by the acting here. De Niro is a powerful presence and while this isn’t Jake La Motta or Vito Corleone, he imbues Mabry with a kind of brutal gravitas. It’s the kind of work only De Niro can do, and when he is on his game as he is here, you can see why he’s one of the best that ever was.

Norton is also one of the best actors out there and he has an entirely different role, one which shows his versatility. He is white ghetto trash; a rap-listening corn-rowed trickster who gets off on making people dance to his tune. It’s a powerful performance, as different as night and day as De Niro’s but equally as impressive.

What is surprising is Jovovich who isn’t ordinarily thought of as the same caliber of actress as the two male leads but she holds her own. Her character is vivacious, charming, calculating, cunning, sweet, sexy and devious all at once. It’s a marvelous character which makes you look at your local schoolmarm with different eyes.

Where the film falls down is surprisingly on one of its strengths; it’s intelligence. You are given so many scenarios and so many questions that your head can’t really wrap around them all. While repeated viewings might solve this problem, this really isn’t a movie I’d want to see repeatedly. Also, I had trouble with the relationship between Stone and Lucetta; it needed to be spelled out a bit better.

Usually I don’t have an issue with smart films, but you can’t be smart for no other reason than to be smart. There has to be some rhyme and reason and if it isn’t there, you’re going to give your audience a headache. You don’t want your viewers first impulse to be to grab the Excedrin; that’s a bad thing. Still, there are some elements that are gripping and seeing De Niro and Norton at their best is surely worth considering.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro, Norton and Jovovich all contribute strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cerebral plot overthinks things. Some of the characterizations don’t ring true.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, a little violence and a whole lot of cussing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filming location for the prison scenes, the Prison of Southern Michigan, was once the largest walled prison in the world.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Cell