Suburbicon


Matt Damon is having a really bad night.

(2017) Black Comedy (Paramount) Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Richard Kind, Gary Basaraba, Leith Burke, Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Megan Ferguson, Corey Allen Kotler, Steven Shaw, Steve Monroe, Allen Wasserman, Rupert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Biff Yeager, Lauren Burns. Directed by George Clooney

 

Suburbicon is a black comedy. Suburbicon is a treatise on social injustice. Suburbicon is a crime drama. Suburbicon is a period piece. Suburbicon is all of those things and none of those things. It’s a pastiche of different things that flutter through the proscenium and then wither on the screen. It’s one of the most disappointing movies of 2017.

Based on an unproduced script by the Coen Brothers, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov have added a bit of contemporary social commentary – white racists in a suburban planned community in the Northeast talk endlessly about erecting a giant wall around the home of the first African-American residents of the community but this is no mere Trump-bashing exercise although it is that too.

The arrival of the Meyers family into  lily-white planned suburban community in the Eisenhower 50s only shows the insidious racism lurking just beneath the surface of America’s golden age – and by implication, continues at present. However, that’s not the only story going on here. During a home invasion, Rose Lodge (Moore) dies of a chloroform overdose, leaving her grieving husband Gardner (Damon), son Nicky (Jupe) and twin sister Margaret (Moore again) to pick up the pieces.

Much of the comedy centers around the blatant consumerism of the suburban 50s and as well there are certain Coen moments (like an oily insurance investigator (Isaac) who figures out what’s going on or a chase scene between a thug (Fleshler) and Gardner in a VW and child’s bike, respectively) that will delight their diehard fans. Still, there aren’t enough of them to overcome the curiously flat energy and the wildly all-over-the-place script that derails the project despite the presence of high-wattage stars. There are enough moments to make it worth checking out, but not enough to go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon plays way against type. There are some occasional moments of offbeat humor.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy is scattershot and the energy is flat. The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (some of it graphic), profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Clooney directed a film in which he did not also appear as an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downsizing
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Your Feet

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Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You


Little Norman at the lectern.

Little Norman at the lectern.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Amy Poehler, John Amos, Russell Simmons, George Clooney, Louise Lasser, Mel Brooks, Bob Saget, Carl Reiner, Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart, Lyn Lear, Kate Lear, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Jay Leno, Martin Mull, Jimmie Walker, Bud Yorkin, Sally Struthers, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Bertinelli, Adrienne Barbeau. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Florida Film Festival 2016

One of the giants of the television landscape is Norman Lear. While there are those who criticize his politics (he’s an unabashed liberal who brought progressive thought to the airwaves back when it was dominated by conservative sorts) nobody can deny the success that he enjoyed (the only man to have six shows in the top ten simultaneously) nor the legacy he left behind.

This documentary is mainly aimed at the glory days of Lear’s career in the 70s, as we follow the creation and execution of shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons among others. There are some interesting things worth noting, like Carroll O’Conner had a very hard time reconciling his own liberal beliefs with the racist dialogue his character had to say. He often fought Lear on certain elements of dialogue because he felt so uncomfortable about saying it, even as a character not himself. Generally, Lear prevailed and as such we got Archie Bunker, America’s favorite bigot as TV Guide once termed him.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews, the most interesting are with Lear himself who even as a nonagenarian is clear-eyed and a charismatic raconteur. While some of the interviews come a bit close to fawning, certainly if anyone warranted such treatment its Lear. As we hear from such modern comedy icons as Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart (as well as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal) one gets a real sense of just how influential the man continues to be. Certainly the modern television landscape would be a very different place without him.

Best of all, we get to see a goodly amount of clips of some of the various shows’ best moments. For those like myself who grew up in that era, the sense of nostalgia is palpable, and very welcome. While I didn’t religiously watch these shows (I grew up in a conservative household with a dad who thought Lear was too political and certainly too much of a leftie for his tastes), I did watch them often and enjoyed them.

There is a bit of a misstep; there are some linking devices here with a young boy, wearing a hat similar to the one that Lear has become known for wearing (for more than 50 years, no less) apparently playing Lear as a young man re-enacting some of the events of Lear’s life on a bare stage. While I give the filmmakers props for at least trying to get out of the typical talking head/archival footage mode that characterizes most profile documentaries, it just doesn’t work.

What does work is Lear himself. He had a difficult relationship with his own father, who was jailed when Lear was just nine years old. One of the more powerful moments is when Lear unexpectedly breaks down when discussing his relationship with his dad. It’s one of the times we get to see inside the inner Lear.

And there’s the rub. I don’t think we get a very complete view of who Lear the man is, but you’re not really going to do that in an hour and a half in any case. Thinking that any documentarian can do so is simply unrealistic. We do get a good sense of Lear’s accomplishments and what he means to modern television in general. We also come to the understanding that as influential as Lear is, and as much as his work echoes into the modern day small screen ethos, nobody makes ‘em like the master anymore and there is a hint of the bittersweet in that fact that is inescapable. There will never be another quite like him.

REASONS TO GO: Some very powerful emotional moments. A trip down memory lane. Really gives you an idea of how influential Lear is.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure we needed Little Norman.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lear was 93 years old when interviewed for this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Wrestling Alligators

Frankenweenie


Frankenweenie

Good doggie!

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchatta Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny, Christopher Lee, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker. Directed by Tim Burton

 

The bond between a boy and his dog is something that ranks right up there with the closest relationships that we know of. Lonely boys, in particular, seem to become more attached to their canine companions. It is that feeling of unconditional love that is reciprocated; the dog can do no wrong, whether they bark at passing cars or leave an indiscretion on the living room carpet. These same boys as men will rarely love anyone or anything as much as they love their childhood dog.

Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) lives in the quiet suburban neighborhood of New Holland with his parents (O’Hara, Short). He is a smart kid, a science whiz who is something of a loner. He doesn’t have friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, he doesn’t need any – he has Sparky (Welker), an affectionate dog of indeterminate breed. Sparky goes everywhere with him, although he sometimes annoys the neighbor, the Mayor (Short again) by tearing up the flowers and marking the territory (ahem).

The mayor’s niece – Elsa (Ryder) is staying with her uncle, along with her poodle Persephone (Baker). She and Victor are in science class together at school, being taught by the somewhat haughty Mr. Rzykruski (Landau), a sinister looking soul but one who loves science with a passion. Along with Victor and Elsa are Edgar (Shaffer), an unlovely hunchback who can’t keep a secret; Bob (Capron) a rotund young boy with an easy-going nature and an insatiable appetite and Toshiaki (Liao), an Asian boy with ambitions of winning the science fair that go well on the road to obsession.

Tragedy strikes however when Sparky is killed. Victor is inconsolable, despite his mom and dad’s best efforts to cheer him up. He misses his dog terribly – his only companion. Victor watches a film that he made with his dog over and over again, unable to let go. Then, a lecture by Mr. Rzykruski that involved stimulating a dead frog’s muscle with an electric charge suddenly turns a light on in Victor’s brain. He would bring Sparky back to life.

He digs up his beloved dog from the local pet cemetery and turns his attic into a lab using whatever he can scrounge from around the house. There are lightning storms in New Holland regularly and that very night he uses one to revivify Sparky, whom he’s had to patch together with sewing thread. Still, the dog seems no worse for the wear (with an occasional ear or tail being thrown off when he gets excited) but Victor realizes most people will fear what he’s done and certainly nobody will understand it. Sparky needs to remain hidden but there’s not much chance a dog as rambunctious as Sparky will remain cooped up in an attic for long.

This is more or less an “old home week” kind of project for Burton. Way back in 1984 he did a “Frankenweenie” short which this comes from, albeit far more involved and expanded upon both from a cinematic and story standpoint. This is stop-motion animation just like The Corpse Bride was and has a similar spindly pipe cleaner leg oversized head saucer eyes kind of look to it, kind of like a gringo Day of the Dead look.

SCTV vets Short and O’Hara work nicely together as the parents while Tahan, whose Victor resembles Burton facially (and is likely meant to be his surrogate) doesn’t overplay, which sometimes happens in animated features. Landau does an excellent job with the science teacher who looks like a kind of cadaverous Vincent Price. The Eastern European accent also brings Bela Lugosi to mind.

There is a definite love letter to classic horror films here (as mentioned below), with appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, Ghiderah and the Mummy. There is also a good deal of heart here, particularly when it comes to a boy’s devotion to his dog. I cried twice during the movie (no points if you can guess when) which takes some doing. There is also a certain amount of quirkiness that you would come to expect with a Tim Burton movie – his trademark, I’d say. It’s different from indie quirkiness in that it has a more ’50s suburban feel as interpreted by Roger Corman.

While the movie seems to have a difficult time deciding what era it’s in (at one point there are references to home computers but the look and feel is definitely more 1950s Americana), there is no doubt that this is a movie that knows its own roots and sticks to them. I hadn’t expected much from Frankenweenie after Burton’s misfire with Dark Shadows earlier this year but I should have known better. This is certainly one of his best movies in the last 10 years.

REASONS TO GO: Hits some powerful emotions. A return to form for Burton after his last misstep.

REASONS TO STAY: A little mannered in places. Some era confusion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a tad scary for younger tots. The theme of losing a beloved pet might also be too much for sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Tim Burton-directed movie not to feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter since 1996.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews have been strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nightmare Before Christmas

CLASSIC HORROR LOVERS: There are homages throughout the film to various classic horror films and genres from the obvious Frankenstein to Vincent Price, the Toho giant lizard films, gothic Hammer horror and Gremlins among others.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Taken 2

Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?)


Where Do We Go Now?

The Lebanese team voguing competition is underway.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Claude Baz Moussawbaa, Leyla Hakim, Nadine Labaki, Yvonne Maalouf, Antoinette Noufaily, Julian Farhat, Ali Haidar, Kevin Abboud, Petra Saghbini, Mostafa Al Sakka, Sasseen Kawzally, Anjo Rihane. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

It is sometimes mystifying why men fight and kill over religious belief. It’s not like our religions vary to so much degree that they are completely incompatible; at the end of the day, they’re more like than unalike.

A small village in an unnamed country (but thee and me can call it Lebanon, where the movie was filmed) has been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines, leaving the only way in and out a tiny road over a terrifying bridge. In some ways this has benefitted the village; the Muslims and Christians who make up equal parts of the population live in relative harmony, the mosque and church alongside each other and the priest and imam both in agreement that peace between their flocks would be beneficial to all.

That doesn’t mean they achieved it without cost; the town’s cemetery is littered with graves of men and boys taken well before their time over religious violence. The women of the town have grown tired of endless funerals and mourning their husbands, sons and fathers. They all get along famously; why can’t the men?

When Roukoz (Haidar), whose scooter trips to neighboring towns for supplies represent the only contact with the rest of the world, brings in an antenna, the town once again is blessed with television reception – albeit on a single television set. With it comes news of strife between Muslims and Christians elsewhere in the country. This sets the men to muttering amongst themselves.

Some have no time for this. Beautiful Amale (Labaki), a Christian, is having her cafe repainted by the handsome handyman Rabih (Farhat) and she dreams of a relationship with him. He also finds himself attracted to her but neither know how to breach the subject of actually dating.

However, little incidents begin to inflame the men of the town. The holy water in the Church is substituted by chicken blood. A herd of goats is let into the mosque. The women do whatever they can to defuse the situation; Takla (Moussawbaa), the mayor’s wife, fakes a miracle. Ukrainian strippers are brought in to distract the men. When that fails, the women host a party in which treats laced with hashish are served to mellow out the boys.

However, things get a great deal more serious when Roukoz, on one of his trips to town, is caught in the crossfire between Christian and Muslim militia and is killed. Nassim (Abboud), his cousin, mournfully brings back the body, unable to tell even which side shot the fatal bullet. Realizing that this incident could set off the powder keg, the women resolve to keep the incident quiet until tempers cool down. But can they be successful, or will more bodies be joining Nassim in the graveyard?

This is a story that in many ways is close to Labaki’s heart. Obviously she’s passionate about it, having co-written, starred in and directed the material. She grew up in Lebanon where, as she put it, time was equally divided between home and shelter. There were many days, she said in a studio interview, when it was too dangerous for her to go outside. She got a front row seat to religious conflict.

A significant number of the cast were locals with no acting experience and yet they perform well as an ensemble here. Labaki and Farhat by necessity take much of the attention, having a romantic attraction but even the Ukrainian actresses who plaid the strippers have a naturalistic feel to them. The people here seem comfortable in their roles; one wonders how much of it is what they are used to in their real lives.

This is definitely a bit of a fantasy, a what-if women were in charge in that region. When given the more subordinate role women play in that part of the world, it’s a legitimate question and I’m sure one that many women in that war-weary region must ask themselves as they attend another funeral, or read in the newspapers of another atrocity.

My issue with the movie is the attempt to juxtapose levity and pathos. When it’s done right, it’s seamless and natural but here it’s kind of jarring. On the one hand, there’s a fairly comic scene of the men high on hashish, but prior to that the mother of the slain Roukoz is comforted by the women of the village. It’s an extremely emotional scene whose effectiveness is cut off at the knees by the blissed-out men thereafter. The movie could have been that much more powerful had it been more successful at balancing the two elements.

The village life depicted here is endearing and comforting in its own way; even big city dwellers long for the familiarity of small town life (although not necessarily the insular attitudes which are largely absent here). While there is an element of the fantastic here (there are musical numbers here which also serve to jar the audience out of the movie a bit, although they are admittedly well-staged), it is the realism of the village life that I found stayed with me most, although I admired the subject matter a great deal. It’s not as effective as it might have been in addressing it but the movie is still one I can give a strong recommendation to without hesitating.

REASONS TO GO: Moving in places and amusing in others. Fascinating subject matter and canvas.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks focus.  

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, some images of violence and thematic drug use in one scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Where Do We Go Now? is the highest grossing Arabic language film in Lebanese history and the third-highest overall.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lysistrada

VOGUE LOVERS: In the opening scene, a group of women walk in to the town cemetery. Along the way the walk evolves into a bit of a dance which looks very much like Madonna’s old Vogue thing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Eclipse

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross

 

For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan’s Run

GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Julianne Moore and Laura Dern have varying degrees of '50s enjoyment.

(2005) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Simon Reynolds, Monte Gagne, Robert Clark. Directed by Jane Anderson

Raising a family is never an easy proposition, even under the most ideal of circumstances. Raising a family of ten children when the father is an alcoholic who spends most of what little he brings home from the machine shop on booze is nigh near impossible.

Somehow, however, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) does just that. A promising journalist, she left her career to wed aspiring crooner Kelly Ryan (Harrelson) and like a good Irish Catholic, proceeds to pump out a wagonload of kids while putting her own career on hold. Unfortunately for Kelly, a tragic traffic accident ends his singing career and sticks him in the Ford machine shop in Defiance, Ohio. Always partial to liquor to begin with, he begins to really get cozy with the bottle.

With bills due, the mortgage past due and the kids needing one thing or another, Evelyn puts her writing skills to use by entering the tremendously popular (and profitable) jingle contests that were a staple of the ‘50s, when this movie is set. She’s good enough to win appliances, shopping sprees, cars, bikes, vacations, plants, toys and yes, cash. She also manages to keep a positive outlook despite Kelly’s need to lash out and her own children’s need to find themselves. She yearns for things beyond the city limits of Defiance and makes a connection with other contesters, as she calls them, led by the affable Dortha (Dern). Denied even the comfort of friends, she becomes the rock of the Ryan household, and her older kids know it, even as their father continues to make horrible mistakes one after another.

Based on a true story (written by Evelyn’s real-life daughter Terry, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie), this is a nice portrait not only of a time and place, but a look a poverty in America, a subject that we rarely turn our attention to. It is also a peep into the role of women in the household, and while it is certainly more a view of the place of women in the 1950s, it resonates to the modern woman (and the modern man as well).

Told with a spiffy voice over by Moore and some nicely done asides that advance the story from one trauma to the next, Anderson made her feature debut with this after years in television. She uses her skills from the small screen nicely here, further giving this a kind of ‘50s “All’s well in America as long as the TV is working” gloss. In fact, if there is a problem with her work, it is that sometimes it seems a bit too small screen for the silver screen, if you get my drift.

Moore, who has four Oscar nominations to her credit, does a very nice job with this. Having to play a saint who is forced to turn a blind eye to the injustice of her situation while nonetheless aware of its inequities, she manages to convey her frustration that she hid carefully from her children and even from her husband. Harrelson tones down some of the acting excesses that took him from A-lister ten years ago to the B-list where he is now. He does some of his best work since The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Kelly as a guy helpless to his own inadequacies, wanting to do the right thing but always, tragically, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

While this was sadly overlooked during its late-2005 run, there is a lot to like here. The attitudes of the 50s male towards women, particularly when the woman you love is turning out to be a better breadwinner than yourself, are the kinds of feelings men grapple with today a half-century later. While most of the Ryan offspring wound up as faceless, being too numerous to keep track of as they aged during the course of the film, nonetheless I found this exceedingly entertaining. You may not remember the Ryan children when all is said and done, but you will certainly remember their parents.

REASONS TO RENT: Nice evocation of the ‘50s. Strong performances by Moore and Harrelson. Storytelling is quirky and fun.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many kids who tend to all blend together. Some of the vignettes seemed to be “same stuff different day” without offering much more than the vignette before it.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some mild language concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the dresses worn by Julianne Moore dresses that actually belonged to Evelyn Ryan, whose daughter Betty saved them and offered to the film for use.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PRFORMANCE: $689,028 on a $12M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paris

The Signal


The Signal

End transmission.

(2007) Horror (Magnet) Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian, Scott Poythress, Christopher Thomas, Lindsey Garrett, Chadrian McKnight. Directed by David Brucker, Jacob Gentry and Dan Bush

When the end of the world comes, how would you spend it? Would you want to be with the one you love to face the inevitable or would you fight for survival?

The end of the world has come to Terminus, although the people there don’t know it. Mya Denton (Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Welborn) who begs her to come with her to the bus station and leave her abusive husband Lewis (Bowen) behind. Mya can’t quite bring herself to do it and she goes home to her husband, who is having an argument with two friends as they watch the ball game. Suddenly, Lewis grabs a baseball bat and begins beating one of his friends to death with it. Batter up.

This section, titled “Transmission I: Crazy Love” was directed by Brucker. Up next is “Transmission II: The Jealousy Monster” directed by Gentry. Mya and Lewis’ friend Rod (Ngaujah) try to get away but Rod has been infected by the signal and causes their car to crash. Nice guy Clark (Poythress) tries to make sure Mya’s okay but she doesn’t trust anyone so she warns him off and makes for the bus station on foot. Meanwhile Clark’s neighbor Anna (Christian), who is throwing a New Year’s Eve party, is distressed over having had to murder her husband who was trying to strangle her. This has driven her over the edge and she thinks that Clark is her husband. Lewis arrives, completely enraged and hallucinating badly, believes that Anna is Mya. Jim Parsons (McKnight), an invited guest, arrives and believes he wants to get laid. Lewis kills everybody just to make things less confusing.

The final section is “Transmission III: Escape from Terminus” and is directed by Bush (by a process of elimination). In this portion, Ben escapes to try and find Mya and Lewis heads over to try and find her first, as the city crumbles into chaos. What state will she be in when they find her?

Each of the three sections is done in a different style; the first is a kind of indie drama, while the second is black comedy; the third is action packed. It can get a little bit jarring moving from section to section, but mostly, the actors all remain the same.

While these are essentially unknowns, the acting is pretty decent enough – I’ve seen worse with bigger budgets. The effects are essentially bargain basement as you might guess, but there are so few of them that mostly it’s about fake blood and make-up wounds which are relatively inexpensive compared to CGI. Everything else is just a matter of planning and luck.

Most indie horror movies have a tendency to either be too cerebral to be truly terrifying, or too gory to be terrifying (one gets numbed to gore pretty quickly). The Signal finds the right balance and ends up being terrifying. While the concept of signals sent over the airwaves to cause mass psychosis is nothing new, this is one of the best versions I’ve seen. It’s equally irreverent as it is relevant to our use of technology and the dangers of being too reliant on it. If you’re looking for a scare flick you haven’t seen yet to while away a Friday night, this one might be for you.

WHY RENT THIS: As indie horror films go, this is a gem. Less claustrophobic than Pontypool and certainly a little wackier.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Three separate directors directing separately make for some interesting style differentials, but this can also be unnecessarily distracting.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of bloody, gory violence and a good deal of filthy language. There’s some brief nudity and sexual innuendo as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fictional city in the film is called Terminus, which was the original name of the city of Atlanta, Georgia where the movie was actually filmed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several online viral videos that marketed the movie before its limited release, including the bloody results at a television station when the signal first arrives as well as a cheerful family picnic amidst the carnage and mayhem of the apocalypse. Two minutes of the short The Hap Hapgood Story were aired during the film; the entire ten-minute short is thoughtfully provided here. Finally, you can see the signal itself, eight hours and 24 minutes worth, if you really want to.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $371,568 on an unreported production budget; while there’s a chance the project made money, it probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Celestine Prophecy