Redemption Road


Morgan Simpson is just realizing that Michael Clarke Duncan switched hats with him when he wasn't looking.

Morgan Simpson is just realizing that Michael Clarke Duncan switched hats with him when he wasn’t looking.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle Releasing) Morgan Simpson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Luke Perry, Kiele Sanchez, Taryn Manning, Tom Skerritt, Melvin van Peebles, Linds Edwards, Catherine McGoohan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Brooke Byam, Heather Simpson, Charlie Poe, James Cook, Lee Perkins, Wendy Keeling, Cinda McCain, Denise Johnson, Elizabeth Ayers. Directed by Mario van Peebles

 

Singing the blues has few requirements, but they are important. For one, you must have an expressive voice. It doesn’t need to be pretty, but it needs to convey pain and heartache. In fact, sometimes the roughest most un-lovely of voices are best-suited to singing the blues. Secondly, you must be authentic – true believers can spot a phony a mile off. Finally, you must have lived your blues to at least some extent.

In the case of Jefferson Bailey (Simpson) he’s lived those blues to the fullest. A blues singer with stage fright, he is a raging alcoholic deeply in debt living hand to mouth in Austin, Texas. One night a mysterious stranger named Augy (Duncan) shows up with news – his grandfather has passed away and has left him an inheritance. Rather than stick around and wait for an angry loan shark to take payment out of his hide, Jefferson elects to blow town and head to Huntsville, Alabama to collect. As it so happens Augy is headed his way.

The two form a kind of a bond on the way to Huntsville. This is no trip down the Interstate; this is a ride through the back roads of the Deep South. Once they arrive, Jefferson will discover that there is more than meets the eye to his friend Augy and that some things happen for a reason. There is also a cuckolded husband hot on his trail and even though the road to redemption stretches out before him, he must first confront his past in order to make his way down that road.

This is one of those movies that sounds a lot deeper than it actually is. Lots of the characters spend time pontificating on the nature of the blues and how it relates to life. The truth about the blues is this – nobody really knows what it is exactly but they know it when they hear it. Trying to put a handle on the blues is like trying to create an absolute definition of love – it changes from person to person.

The late Michael Clarke Duncan also co-produced this and this is one of his better performances since his Oscar-nominated turn in The Green Mile. There is an air of mystery about him but as the movie progresses we get to see a more human side of Augy. Duncan gives the character the distinct gravitas of his trademark baritone but also the humanity he brought to roles like John Coffey. Those fans of the actor who haven’t seen the film should by all means seek it out; it is a reminder of just what a tremendous actor he was and what a great loss his passing was.

On the flipside, Simpson – who co-wrote the script – seems to be a little bit out of his depth. Much of the movie hangs on his….well, redemption and we don’t get a sense of the journey the man is taking. Sure he has made some incredibly bad choices but we don’t get a sense of who Jefferson is, what prompted him to make those choices and to a great extent that cripples the movie overall.

Those who love the blues will be in for a treat as there are several noted blues artists on the soundtrack including the criminally ignored Blind Willie Dixon. One gets a sense of the roadhouses and juke joints, the summer night sweat with a cold beer and the blues being played well. There may be no more quintessentially American experience than that.

Cinematographer Matthew Irving and director Van Peebles both seem to have a deep abiding affection for the South because it is photographed so beautifully here. There are some beautiful Southern sunsets, small towns and rural fields juxtaposed with neon beer signs and a battered pick-up truck making its way up the highway.

This is a movie meant to appeal to both the heart and the mind. While it has its moments, it just doesn’t quite pull it all together as a whole. While the performances of Sanchez, Skerritt and especially Duncan merit a look, that’s about all I can recommend about it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great soundtrack and cinematography. Duncan, Sanchez and Skerritt excel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly sentimental. Too many homilies. Simpson lacks the charisma for a role as central as his.

FAMILY VALUES: Definite adult themes along with some violence, some sexuality and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its world premiere at the Nashville Film Festival in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29,384 on a $2.3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Snake Moan

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: My Week With Marilyn

Love Ranch


Love Ranch

Joe Pesci is thrilled to find out that Helen Mirren loves the smell of a good cigar.

(2010) Drama (Entertainment One) Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, Bai Ling, Elise Neal, Bryan Cranston, Rick Gomez, M.C. Gainey, Gil Birmingham, Emily Rios, Melora Walters, Harve Presnell. Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

Some stories are just not destined to have happy endings. They are simply put, train wrecks just waiting to happen. Even those intimately involved know that things are going to end badly.

Charlie Bontempo (Pesci) has what most would call the good life. He owns one of the first legal brothels in the United States which gives him a lot of sexual outlets, as well as being married to Sally (Mirren) who runs the business end of things. However Charlie loves the flamboyant lifestyle of the bright lights of Reno – big cigars, expensive cars, imported champagne – a lifestyle not really supported by what he’s bringing in on the “ranch” which is really a bunch of trailers surrounding an old hotel-like building. It’s a bit flea-bitten, but it’s home.

Charlie needs to bring more income in and he thinks he has the way to do that; by managing a promising Argentine boxer named Armando Bruza (Peris-Mencheta). Unfortunately, Charlie can’t get a manager’s license in Nevada because he’s a convicted felon. Therefore he persuades Sally to take on the job of managing and training Armando.

Sally is initially less than enthusiastic about the prospects of being a boxing manager. She knows very little about the sport and she would much rather be tending to the family business. But as she gets to know Armando, she finds that he is falling hard for her. At first it’s amusing, then it’s annoying – she’s a goodly number of years older than he. However, he reawakens in her that has been killed by the years of Charlie’s philandering and taking her for granted and she falls hard for Armando.

This doesn’t sit well with Charlie, needless to say and he tries to reclaim the relationship with his wife but as she rightly reckons, it’s hard to tell if Charlie really wants her back because he loves her or more because he can’t stand losing what’s his. Things begin to spiral out of control and as we mentioned earlier, everyone knows this isn’t going to end well.

This is loosely based on the story of the Mustang Ranch, owned by Joe and Sally Conforte whose love triangle with Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena ended as depicted here. Director Taylor Hackford is not one of my favorite directors; while some of his films have been passable (Against All Odds, Everybody’s All-American) most have been just plain awful with one exception – Ray.

This was his first movie since directing the Oscar-winning musical biopic and it only took six years for it to hit the multiplex – softly. There was definitely some interference in the making of the final product; more than hour of footage was left on the cutting room floor, much of it having to do with character development.  As a result beyond the ill-fated love triangle none of the characters have much personality going for them.

It goes without saying that Mirren is one of the finest living actresses; she can be icy cold or red hot or anywhere in between. Here she needs to be the former most of the time while showing signs of the latter. Her desperation and frustration clearly show through – she can more than hold her own with the flamboyant Charlie – but there is a very wounded, vulnerable core here and Mirren nails it. Whatever is wrong with this movie, it isn’t Helen Mirren.

It isn’t Joe Pesci either. Yeah, there are those who it could be said were breaking the balls of this movie because Pesci was playing a flamboyant Italian criminal as he did in Goodfellas and other movies he’s been in. Well, the guy who the part was based on was a flamboyant Italian criminal; I don’t blame the casting director one bit for going after the best in the world for that kind of role. In all honesty, it was marvelous seeing him back in the kind of part that he made famous. I am not ashamed to say that I’m one of the guy’s biggest fans and even though I tend to prefer him in comedies, I am happy to see him in anything.

Despite their chemistry and their talent, Pesci and Mirren aren’t enough to save a movie that plods through a plot that is remarkably un-sexy despite being set in a whorehouse. The emphasis is put on the love triangle which is fine – that is the crux of the story after all, but given the rich location and the possibilities for drama, why skimp on that side of it? Also some of the dialogue is a bit klunky. There are times the actors look a little embarrassed that they’re saying it…at least it appears that way to me.

I don’t know if Hackford had gotten his way that this would have been a better movie. It certainly would have been a longer one. The story would be a compelling one if only they had let it breathe a little bit. Unfortunately, it feels like there were too many fingers in the pie and when that happens, all you can taste in the pie is the fingers.

WHY RENT THIS: Pesci and Mirren make for a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: For a film set at a brothel there is remarkably little about the hookers who live there.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, a lot of foul language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mirren and Hackford are married in real life; they previously collaborated on the dance film White Nights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are pretty standard on any home video release, there are more than an hour’s worth here which Hackford had to trim in order to get the movie to a place the distributors felt comfortable with. Many of them have to do with the hookers who are nearly completely absent  from the final release version. You can watch them all here with or without commentary from Hackford.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137,885 on a $25M production budget; not the kind of numbers a film wants to have in its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:As Good As Dead