The Keeping Room


Augusta, get your gun!

Augusta, get your gun!

(2014) Drama (Drafthouse) Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Sam Worthington, Muna Otaru, Kyle Soller, Ned Dennehy, Amy Nuttall, Nicholas Pinnock, Charles Jarman, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Luminita Filimon, Delia Riciu, Stefan Veiniciuc, Bogdan Farkas. Directed by Daniel Barber

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we think of war, we think of the men (and lately, women) on the battlefield, the ones actually shedding the blood and dying for their cause. We rarely think of those left behind to take care of things while their kinfolk are off to war.

As the Civil War was coming to an end and William Tecumseh Sherman was making his inexorable march to the sea, three women on a bucolic South Carolina farm were desperately trying to survive. Augusta (Marling), the eldest, is the most practical and the hardest working. She has come to realize that her daddy and her brothers are not coming back and that whatever they have to eat is what they grow and what they hunt, so she’s getting to business.

Louise (Steinfeld) is a teenager, spoiled by her place as the younger daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. She’s used to be coddled and cared for, her every little whim taken care of by someone else. She’s never worked a day in her life and still thinks that once the war is done and the Yankees vanquished, things will return to the way they were.

Mad (Otaru) is a slave that has become indispensable, strong and tough by years as a slave but compassionate for the girls that were once her mistresses. She, like Augusta, knows the war isn’t going well and hopes it will come to a swift conclusion so that her man Bill (Pinnock) will come home to her and help her tend this farm.

When Louise gets bitten by a raccoon, Augusta realizes that medicine will be needed or Louise might die. She stops at a neighboring plantation, only to discover horrors that she never could have imagined. She continues on into a nearby town which is mostly deserted except for a kindly bar owner (Dennehy) and a compassionate prostitute (Nuttall) – and two scouts for Sherman, Henry (Soller) and Moses (Worthington). Henry has lost any sense of decency; he’ll kill anything that moves and rape anyone who’s female and will drink anything that will banish such demons as men like this possess. Moses is looking for love in all the wrong places and by all the wrong means. The two had recently murdered a white woman they’d raped, a carriage driver and a passing slave. When Augusta gets away from them, they decide to track her and follow her back to the farm. What they don’t know is that the women don’t plan to give up without a fight.

Barber has a keen eye and an understanding of setting a mood; often his scenes are shrouded in midst or bright sunlight depending on the mood. He uses a lot of stunning images to get across more than any dialogue could tell; for example, early on he shows a flaming carriage pulled by terrified horses in the night. The spooked equines are galloping as fast as they can to escape the flames, not realizing they are pulling their own destruction with them. I don’t know if you could get a better metaphor than that.

Marling is becoming one of my favorite young actresses; she’s very poised in her roles (this one included) and seems to have a very good sense of which projects to choose as I haven’t really seen her in a movie that doesn’t showcase her talents well yet. She has the kind of self-possession that Robin Wright has always carried, which bodes well for Marling’s future.

Steinfeld who is no stranger to period pieces isn’t given as much to do, mainly acting the spoiled brat and then the frightened young girl. When backed against the wall Louise comes out swinging but for the most part she’s been used to depending on others all of her life and not on herself; the chances of Louise surviving the post-war South will depend very much on her ability to find an eligible husband.

Otaru is a real discovery. I hadn’t heard of her before, but she holds her own and then some against two very capable young actresses. She is mostly silent throughout the beginning of the movie but she has a couple of long speeches in the movie that really give you a sense of who Mad is and what drives her.

Barber also knows how to ratchet up the tension to high levels and the second portion of the movie is basically up to 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 in that regard. There are those who may say that there’s too much of a good thing in the tension department, but I would guess that Alfred Hitchcock might disagree; while this isn’t Hitchcockian in the strictest sense, I think the Master of Suspense would have approved of this. Some of the cliches of the genre however are very much in evidence, maybe a little too much so.

I found myself completely immersed in the film and committed to the story, which is exactly where you want your audience to be. While there are a few missteps – some stiff or awkward sequences by some of the actors, an overuse of an unconscious hero waking up just in the nick of time to save one of the others – by and large this is a beautifully crafted, intensely thrilling work of cinematic art. Definitely one to keep on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful images. Beautifully atmospheric. Impressively tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Overuses the same thriller cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of violence, a bit of sexuality, some cussing and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set during the American Civil War in South Carolina, it was entirely filmed in Romania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Uncle John

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127 Hours


127 Hours

James Franco might just be looking at Oscar gold.

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Posey, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, Sean Bott, John Lawrence, Rebecca Olson, Lizzy Caplan, Pieter Jan Brugge, Jeffrey Wood. Directed by Danny Boyle

Being capable can sometimes be confused with being arrogant. However, being capable can sometimes cause one to become arrogant. Arrogance can then lead to hubris and that can lead to the kind of disaster that can change a life completely.

Aron Ralston (Franco) is the prototypical Type A personality. He never met a physical activity he didn’t like, a challenge he couldn’t face. He’s at his happiest when he’s alone in the canyons of Utah’s Canyonland National Park, even though it’s a bit of a hike from his Colorado home. Sure, he has friends like Brian (Lawrence) whom he works with and even Rana (Olson), an ex-girlfriend who sees through the cocky bravado and pronounces that he will end up alone.

Still, Aron is naturally charming as he proves when he meets a couple of pretty young women (Mara, Tamblyn) out hiking. They’re lost, he knows his way around and soon they’re frolicking around in an underground pond. When they separate, one leans into the other and says “You know, I don’t think we even figured into his day.” And they’re right, although he will eventually look back on their encounter with some regret.

He’s going to have the opportunity to dwell on that, and other aspects of his life. While crossing a cut canyon, he steps on a boulder he thought was stable and goes plummeting, downwards-like. When he lands, he discovers the rather inconvenient fact that his arm is pinned to the canyon wall by a boulder the size of a home AC unit. He tries to move the boulder, but no good. He tries pounding the boulder, unsuccessfully. He takes a deep breath, lays out all the contents of his backpack and tries to think. The sinking realization is that nobody knows where he is. Nobody can hear his cries for help. His water supply is limited as is his food. He has no real tools that can extricate him from the situation apart from a multi-purpose tool with a dull knife blade.

After freaking out a little bit, Aron realizes the grim situation he is in. He has only enough water to last him a few days. Nothing short of a jackhammer is going to get that rock off of him. He is going to die. 

Dying is a funny thing, particularly when you have time to wait for it. You are given a chance to reflect back on your life, see the road not traveled and figure out who you are and what didn’t work. And, as his water begins to run out, the lack of sleep and the exposure to the elements begins to play with his mind. And as his time runs out, he is faced with a devastating choice between the will to survive and a horror that thee and me could never contemplate.

Most of you know by now that Aron Ralston is an actual person who went through this, and that devastating choice was whether to saw off his own arm with the dull knife or else wait to die. Obviously he chose the former, and stumbled out of that canyon to be rescued by a pair of hikers who alerted authorities.

You wonder how a film set in a cramped space for 127 hours – a little over five days – can be a riveting experience but Oscar-winning director Boyle makes it so. Even though for the most part you know what everything is leading to, you get to see inside the person that Ralston is. During his ordeal, he made several entries on a digital video camera that essentially detailed what he was going through but also served as a goodbye and apology to his family for the times he put his own needs ahead of theirs. In the end, he realizes that he had insulated himself from the things in life that were most important.

Franco is an expressive and often physical actor who is perfectly cast here. This might be the defining performance of his career; it is as sure a bet to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in a few months as any performance this year is. He is onscreen for the entire movie and spends much of it alone. He has to capture the attention and imagination of the audience without interacting with anybody other than himself, and he does it in a way that is both natural and unforced.

The amputation scene is not as graphic as you might think, although there are reports of people fainting during it. It certainly is disturbing and I would think long and hard if I were the sensitive sort about putting myself through it. If you have someone who is affected by such, you might want to take it under advisement that they might not do well at this movie although the scene isn’t gratuitous in the least.

The cinematography here is breathtaking, utilizing the majestic desolation of the Utah landscape as a character in the movie. It is this that Aron disrespects and winds up paying a heavy price.

REASONS TO GO: A career-making performance by Franco and another great movie by Boyle. This is the kind of movie that stays with you long after its over.

REASONS TO STAY: Sensitive sorts will be disturbed by the amputation scene, and claustrophobics might be made uncomfortable with the surroundings in the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of bad language (hey, you’d curse if you had a boulder on your arm) and some pretty disturbing scenes of self-amputation that are definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The camcorder that James Franco uses in the film is the same one used by Ralston on his ill-fated trek. The video he shot had only previously been shown to family and close friends, but Boyle and Franco were allowed to watch it for accuracy sake. The video is kept in a vault for safekeeping.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the film takes place in a cut canyon, a very narrow environment, but some of the shots of Canyonlands National Park are just breathtaking and should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Police, Adjective