New Releases for the Week of October 19, 2018


HALLOWEEN

(Blumhouse/Universal/Miramax) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Will Patton, Andi Matichak, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Haluk Bilginer, Virginia Gardner. Directed by David Gordon Green

Laurie Strode is a survivor. She survived the Halloween massacre in Haddonfield, Illinois 40 years ago. Since then she has been preparing for the night her brother Michael Myers returns. He has been thus far kept in a facility for the criminally insane but something has triggered him, he’s escaped and now he’s headed home to unleash some fresh carnage. For her part, Laurie will stop at nothing to protect her family – and kill the man who has haunted her entire life..

See the trailer, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, Dolby, GDX RPX, XD
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity)

The Oath

(Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho. When the White House institutes a loyalty oath that Americans are required to sign before Thanksgiving, high-strung social justice warrior Chris and his level-headed wife Kai are at first horrified and then defiant. But as the deadline approaches and family of varying opinions begin to appear for the holiday, things get tense but it really goes off the rails when a pair of government agents show up.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, violence and some drug use)

The Old Man and the Gun

(Fox Searchlight) Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover. Forrest Tucker captivated the American imagination when he escaped from San Quentin at the age of 70, then embarked on a series of daring robberies. This is potentially Redford’s final film acting performance, although recently he did amend that and say he’d be open to another role if it interested him enough.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

The Sisters Brothers

(Annapurna) John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed. In the Wild West, two brothers work as assassins for hire. One is a hard-drinking roustabout, the other a more introspective man who yearns for a normal life. As they ride into one dangerous assignment after another, the brothers begin to squabble and in the West, there is no forgiving anything other then total unity between killers.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence including disturbing images, language and some sexual content)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Badhaai Ho
The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man
Hello Guru Prema Kosame
Living in the Future’s Past
Namaste England
Transformer
Vada Chennai
Varathan

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Badhaai Ho
Boys
Galveston
Hal
Hello Guru Prema Kosame
High Voltage
Loving Pablo
Namaste England
Pandemkodi 2
Peter Pan: The Quest for the Never Book
Reach
Sandakozhi 2
Studio 54
Un Traductor
Vada Chennai
Wild Nights With Emily

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn
Badhaai Ho
Change in the Air
Malicious
Sandakozhi 2
Vada Chennai

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Badhaai Ho
Hello Guru Prema Kosame
Pandemkodi 2
Running for Grace
Sandakozhi 2
Vada Chennai

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Halloween
The Oath
The Old Man and the Gun

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Megan Leavey


Megan and Rex are on the job.

(2017) True Life War Drama (Bleecker Street) Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, Ramon Rodriguez, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard, George Webster, Corey Johnson, Sam Keeley, Catherine Dyer, Melina Matthews, Jonah Bowling, Parker Sawyers, Victoria Budkey. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

 

We all know who man’s best friend is; the loyal and beloved canine. Dogs not only act as companions when we get home from work, they also work with us as service dogs, drug sniffing dogs and in the military, bomb-sniffing dogs. Their sensitive noses can detect things the human nose can’t.

If you told this to Megan Leavey (Mara) back in 2000, she likely wouldn’t have cared. Adrift in a fog of alcohol and grief for her childhood best friend who had recently passed away due to a drug overdose, she lives with her mother (Falco) who cheated on Megan’s dad Bob (Whitford) with his former best friend (Patton), a chronically unemployed drunk whom Megan is well on the way to emulating. Directionless, she decides to join the Marines mainly to get out of a town that she sees no future for herself in.

As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, your problems follow you into the armed forces after you enlist. Megan gets wasted while off-duty and does something unmentionable, getting her in hot water again. As punishment, she is sent to clean out the dog kennels where the dogs who are being trained to sniff out bombs are being trained with their handlers.

Megan has trouble relating to people but for some reason the relationship between the handlers and their dogs – personified by Andrew Dean (Felton), a legend in the Corps and an unusually compassionate guy who helps Megan find her way. After pestering Gunny (Common), the commander of the K9 training unit, to get accepted into the K9 unit, she is finally given a dog to train – Rex, a German Shepherd who has bitten his former trainer hard enough to break his arm. Rex is aggressive, impulsive and difficult to control; like Megan I suppose it could be said he has trouble relating to people. The two outsiders slowly bond and eventually get shipped out to Iraq.

Megan, a tiny woman, gets little respect from her fellow handlers and from the soldiers whose lives she is to protect; the Marines is about as patriarchal an organization as you’re likely to find but Megan and Rex become very proficient at what they do, saving hundreds of lives before one mission in which….well, you’re going to have to watch the movie to find out.

Some time passes and Megan has been discharged from the Corps, returning to civilian life and once again she’s having difficulty relating to people. However this time she is coping with PTSD, understandable considering the high-stress job she did for the Corps overseas. She has pushed just about everyone in her life away from her, including Matt Morales (Rodriguez), a fellow handler whom she had been developing a relationship with in the Corps. Only her dad Bob remains and when a cause she can believe in is given to her, with her dad’s gentle prodding Megan steps back into life and fights as hard as she did not only in Iraq but to get to Iraq.

In many ways, this is like a Hollywood movie – and of course, it is a Hollywood movie – but the story is based on actual events. There is a real Megan Leavey (she appears in pictures during the end credits) and a real Rex. I don’t know if Mara captured the real Megan Leavey but she delivers a well-rounded performance that while not exceptional is enough to carry the movie nicely. Mara sometimes gets overshadowed by her sister Rooney but she’s a very talented actress in her own right who just needs the right role to really break out into the next level. This isn’t it but hopefully it will lead her to roles that can get her there.

Common is rapidly going from rapper slash actor to actor slash rapper; he channels Louis Gossett Jr. a little too much here (see An Officer and a Gentleman) but if I was going to have any actor channel Gossett, it would be Common. He has the military bearing to carry the role off; it surprises me somewhat that he didn’t have military experience himself or come from a military family. Just good acting I suppose but that tells me that the rapper is more than just a handsome guy who can rap; he is likely to have some terrific possibly Oscar-worthy performances in his future.

The best parts of the movie take place in Iraq; there is a great deal of tension throughout those sequences and even in the down time between missions we can see Megan opening up to Morales and letting him in. Before that however, the movie drags quite a bit; it feels like we’re waiting for something to happen but the filmmakers first have to go through the motion of getting us from point A to point B with stops at A.1, A.2, A.3 etc. etc. It’s a little too extended for my taste and I wish they could have condensed that part of the movie somewhat.

Cowperthwaite is best known for her documentary Blackfish which is also animal-centric. I’m a dog person so it was easy for me to get hooked on this movie; fellow dog lovers will also have the same ease in getting into the film. Film buffs might find this a bit overly sentimental but I suppose it can’t be helped; the subject matter revolves around the bond between Marine and dog and the reliance each has upon the other. It’s a strong message and while I don’t think that this movie necessarily presented it in the strongest light, it does a good enough job that make it worth seeking out among all the big budget summer blockbusters that dominate the cinematic landscape this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: The in-country sequences are the best in the film. The dogs are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is pure Hollywood (in a negative way). Too much time is spent waiting for things to happen; much of the training sequences could have been lopped off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence, profanity, a little bit of sensuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Mara and the real Megan Leavey grew up in the suburbs of New York City.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Max
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Most Hated Woman in America

The November Man


One Bond reference too many.

One Bond reference too many.

(2014) Spy Action (Relativity) Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Akie Kotabe, Will Patton, Patrick Kennedy, Dragan Marinkovic, Ben Willens, Milos Timotijevic, Dragan Dvojakovic, Tara Jervrosimovic, Nina Mrdja, Milutin Milosevic, Lena Milan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

In a recent interview, Liam Neeson, in describing his character from the film A Walk Among the Tombstones, declared that people need a hero who is a bit of a loner; one who has one foot on the side for justice and one foot on the side that is lawless. Our heroes can’t be completely pure, otherwise we have trouble relating to them.

Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is an operative for the CIA, a veteran and crafty one at that. His partner and protégé is David Mason (Bracey), a brash and arrogant sort who doesn’t always listen to those with years of experience on him. When on a mission to protect an American ambassador targeted for assassination, Mason’s inability to follow orders ends up with an innocent child getting killed in the crossfire. Devereaux takes early retirement soon after that.

He is running a small bar and cafe in Lausanne, Switzerland when his old friend and handler for the CIA Ray Hanley (Smitrovich) turns up, telling him that a double agent buried deep in the employ of Arkady Federov (Ristovski), a war hero from the Chechnyan civil war and favored to become the next Russian president, has discovered something big and needs to be pulled out. However, Peter is the only agent she trusts to get her out of Russia.

So, reluctantly, Devereaux heads to Moscow to pull out the secretary Natalia Ulanova (Musliovic) and get the flash drive with her information on it. However, things go sideways quickly and Russian security is hot on their tails. A CIA higher-up, Perry Weinstein (Patton) gives the order to terminate the asset. The woman is then shot by a company sniper.

Furious, Devereaux gives chase to the assassins and takes out most of the team. When he discovers who the trigger man is, he is momentarily shocked and walks away. The man who killed the asset – David Mason.

Now, Devereaux and the CIA are in a race to find the one connection that can take down Federov – a girl named Mira Filipova (Mrdja). The girl however seems to have completely disappeared off the face of the Earth – the only link to her is Alice Fournier (Kurylenko), the director of a refugee agency. Luckily, Devereaux gets to her first. However, now the race becomes a game of cat and mouse between Devereaux and the CIA. Just who the cat is and who the mouse is in the equation is anyone’s guess.

Based on the seventh in a series of novels by Bill Granger written back in 1979 in this specific case, the movie combines the action of a Bond film, the realistic spycraft of Le Carre and even elements of the Bourne series. That kind of leaves one with a been there-done that feel pretty much throughout.

The saving grace is Brosnan who steps into the shoes of a superspy and finds them a comfortable fit. He is just as suave and sophistication as he was in his heyday as Bond nearly twenty years ago. He dominates the screen and adds a hint of sadness and weariness to the character that was absent from Bond. Brosnan has done some really good acting jobs in films like The Ghost Writer since hanging up his Walther PPK and there is a level of depth here that wasn’t really necessary in the Bond films but adds additional flavor to the role. It might be the best action hero performance of the year. Devereaux is also far more ruthless, willing to slice open the femoral artery on an innocent girl in order to get in the head of Mason.

The action itself is pretty old school with plenty of car chases and Devereaux being chased by dozens of lethal, highly trained agents but getting away with some ease. He has survived as long as he has by always being a step ahead of his quarry or his pursuers and that aspect of the character looms large throughout the film.

The movie seems anachronistic at times, with modern cutting-edge technology on the one hand, but cell phones with flip cases – which have been out of style for almost a decade now – are everywhere. I’m wondering if that is what is new and cutting edge in Belgrade, where this was mostly filmed. I think not however and no mention is ever made of the action taking place in 2005 or thereabouts which it sometimes seems to be.

There are plenty of twists and turns as you’d expect in an espionage thriller, a little too many for my taste. While I understand the need to keep your audience guessing and as off-balance as the filmmakers can make them, the movie seems overly complicated which it really doesn’t need to be. A story like this can be told without quite so many moving parts and still be quite effective.

As action and espionage thriller material goes, well, it’s what you’d expect to find in the dregs of summer. It’s not anything that is going to make you want to run right out to the theater, but it isn’t anything that will make you regret being there either. It is nice to see Brosnan in the type of role that is right in his wheelhouse and I can’t help hope that there are more roles like it in his future, although he is getting on a bit. Still, while the Devereaux series doesn’t seem to be likely to be continuing any further given the anemic box office for this film, the acclaim for Brosnan makes me think that there may be other producers perhaps ready to hand over to Brosnan the types of roles that Neeson has been getting for the past decade now.

REASONS TO GO: Brosnan is an old pro at these sorts of movies. Some fairly nifty old school action scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems oddly dated. Plot unnecessarily over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, some of it brutal, as well as a sexual assault. There’s a good deal of foul language, some sexuality, brief nudity and one scene in which drugs are used.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When we glimpse Devereaux’s file, the birthday given for Devereaux is the same as Brosnan’s actual birth date. Also, along with Brosnan, Kurylenko also has Bond experience in Quantum of Solace.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Life After Beth

Code Name: The Cleaner


Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

(2007) Action Comedy (New Line) Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu, Nicolette Sheridan, Mark Dacascos, Will Patton, Callum Keith Rennie, Niecy Nash, DeRay Davis, Kevin McNulty, Robert Clarke, Bart Anderson, Tom Butler, Beau Davis, Rick Tae, Kurt Max Runte, David Lewis, Gina Holden, Doug Chapman, Jacquie Steuart, Joanne Pesusich. Directed by Les Mayfield

I like a good spy movie as much as the next guy, maybe even more. Sometimes, you want something that isn’t James Bond, but the truth of the matter is that few spy films that are action-oriented can live up to the Bond series. Does this one?

Jake (Cedric the Entertainer) wakes up in a plush hotel room and from that moment nothing seems right. It’s a nice hotel room and all and there’s a briefcase stuffed full of cash in the room but things are off. For one thing, he can’t remember how he got there. In fact, he can’t even remember his own name. To make matters worse, he can’t remember what that dead body is doing next to him in the bed. He needs time to think, so he runs out, taking the briefcase full of money out with him. Unfortunately, he is seen leaving the scene of a homicide, and as if things weren’t bad enough, the dead body is in fact an FBI agent.

As he scurries out of the hotel lobby, he is intercepted by a beautiful blonde calling herself Diane (Sheridan) who claims she is his wife. She smuggles Jake out of the hotel one step ahead of the police and drives him to a gorgeous estate, which she tells him he owns. He is met there by an obsequious butler (Clarke) and a sinister doctor (McNulty). Jake, not quite believing any of this, overhears a conversation between the doctor and his “wife” explaining the need for the truth and that a high dose of sodium pentothal should do the trick. Unfortunately, it might also give Jake cardiac arrest. While Diane is fine with this, Jake is not and he escapes out the window.

Some of Jake’s memories are beginning to return, and he seems to be in the military. He believes himself to be a spy, and he disguises himself as a Dutch folk dancer (don’t ask) to sneak back into the hotel and retrieve an item he’d left in their property check room, which turns out to be an electronic pass into a high tech corporation called Digital Arts. Jake goes to a diner across the street from their headquarters and meets Gina (Liu), a waitress who tells him she’s his girlfriend.

She takes him to her place to see if it’ll jog any memories, but the memories that are coming back are disturbing. Something is definitely smelling bad at Digital Arts and it isn’t the game developers after a marathon code writing session. This could only be a job for The Cleaner.

Cedric the Entertainer can be considered a poor man’s Martin Lawrence, but that’s not accurate since these days, Martin Lawrence is a poor man’s Martin Lawrence. He’s full of shtick but for whatever reason he has enough charm to pull it off. I’ve always liked Lucy Liu, but she just has the most atrocious taste in scripts. For every Kill Bill that she does, there are far more Charlie’s Angels. Mark Dacascos, a terrific martial artist who was so good in Brotherhood of the Wolf is wasted here, getting to use his considerable skills in only one badly choreographed scene. I’d love to see him get some of the stuff that is offered to Jason Statham.

There is a little bit of charm here in what is ultimately highly disposable entertainment. The movie gets by on the charm of Cedric and Liu, and having Nicolette Sheridan strip down to her bra and panties doesn’t hurt either.

The story is very cliché – the plot is lifted whole cloth essentially from Total Recall  – and the action sequences are pretty pedestrian. The budget wasn’t high enough to permit spectacular visuals, so the filmmakers had to get by on a few fight scenes. The Dutch Riverdance sequence is excruciatingly painful, but most of the jokes merely fall flat.

This is a comedy that isn’t funny and an action movie without any real exciting action sequences, so you do the math. I caught this on late night cable and it made nice insomniac viewing, but for the most part this is disposable entertainment that is more disposable than entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Cedric and Liu are charming. Sheridan is beautiful in her lingerie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks laughs and the action sequences are dull. Story is predictable and payoff doesn’t pay.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a good deal of sexual innuendo. There’s some violence but not enough to satisfy the more extreme crowd.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ecks vs. Sever
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Stop/Loss

A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

(2007) True Life Drama (Paramount Vantage) Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Will Patton, Sajid Hasan, Denis O’Hare, Aly Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Perrine Moran, Jeffry Kaplow, Ahmed Jamal, Demetri Goritsas, Mohammed Azfal, Ahmed Jamal, Imran Patel, Veronique Darleguy, Gary Wilmes, Jean-Jacques Scaerou, Jillian Armenante. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Our Film Library

On January 23, 2002, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal investigating ties between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Al Qaeda was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan by a group of Muslim extremists. His wife was five months pregnant with their son at the time.

The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is today a fairly well-known occurrence by most Americans. His wife, Mariane (Jolie) would write a biography of her husband which described their life together and the harrowing last days of his life, before he was beheaded by his captors on February 1 despite her many pleas for clemency and denials of the terrorist assertions that Pearl was a CIA spy (to this day there have been no links shown between Pearl and any intelligence agency).

The movie made from her book mostly shows Pearl through flashback in almost idyllic tones. Most of the film’s plot revolves around Mariane’s ordeal as she tries to remain as composed as possible considering the extraordinary circumstances as well as the efforts by the United States Diplomatic Security Services, exemplified by Special Agent Randall Bennett (Patton), the Department of Justice and the Pakistani Capital City Police, exemplified by Officer Mir Zubair Mahmood (Khan) to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

Throughout she is supported by close friends like Asra Nomani (Panjabi) and colleagues of her husband such as his WSJ editor John Bussey (O’Hare) and Steve LeVine (Wilmes), ultimately this is an ordeal Mariane must go through alone. That she went through it with such grace and dignity is a credit to the triumph of humanity over depravity.

Jolie delivered a performance that may be the crowning achievement of her career in this film. It was certainly Oscar-worthy, although the movie’s June release date and box office failure likely were the causes of her not receiving a nomination for Best Actress. She plays Mariane with a good deal of emotional control, although the scene in which she is informed of her husband’s death is absolutely devastating. There is also a sense of her concern early in the film as she has some friends over for dinner, but the place setting for her husband who was on his way to an interview remains empty; her glances in the direction of the empty chair are subtle yet telling.

Both Jolie and Futterman resemble their real-life counterparts somewhat eerily (particularly in Futterman’s case). In fact, I would have liked to have seen Futterman as Pearl a bit more in the storyline; after all, Mariane Pearl wrote the book about her husband and not about herself. However, the focus of the movie is entirely on Mariane and Daniel is almost an afterthought in many ways except in flashbacks which show an almost idyllic lifestyle between the two. Oddly, these flashbacks seem a little overly manipulative and overly idealized. Daniel Pearl is in many ways not present in the film that is ostensibly about his wife but is in reality more about his death. In my mind, that does a disservice to not only the good man that he was but also the work that he did.

That said, I found it troubling that the casting of Jolie was groused about by some critics who said that they found her celebrity distracting when viewing her performance. Personally, I think film critics who can’t get past the celebrity of an actor are probably not in the right profession. Every actor brings something of their own personality and experiences into the performance of their roles; if you are judging a performance by what TMZ is saying about an actor, you aren’t doing your job. But I digress.

Winterbottom adopts an almost documentary style in telling his story, although the flashbacks tend to put paid to the documentary feel of the film. After watching the film, I did feel that I wished I knew more about Pearl the man; those who feel similarly can get more of a sense of who he was should probably see the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi which tells Pearl’s story with some background on his life in addition to the story of his kidnapping and execution.

At the end of the day, what happened to Daniel Pearl was barbarous and undeserved. However, it also must be said that he was more than just the last days of his life – he was a loving husband, a dutiful son, a proud Jew, a skilled writer, an insightful journalist and a thrilled father-to-be. Looking at his life as a tragedy tells only half the story. However, one cannot deny that Mariane Pearl makes for an interesting film subject as well and Jolie’s performance is truly inspiring. I can’t help feeling however that the film would have benefited from more of her husband’s presence, rather than being just a memory. He was and remains more than that to her.

WHY RENT THIS: A magnificent performance by Jolie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Manipulative and focuses less on the late journalist than it does on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some horrific violence herein as well as some sexuality and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A featurette on the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists which rose out of this incident as well as a Public Service Announcement for the Pearl Foundation.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $18.9M on a $16M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The conclusion of Our Film Library!

Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

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

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Bryce Dallas Howard incurs the wrath of PETA.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Mamie Gummer, Jessica Collins, Will Patton, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Zoe Perry, Barbara Garrick, Zach Grenier, Laila Robins, Susan Blommaert. Directed by Jodie Markell

Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest writers in American literature so when a previously unproduced television script (meant for director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris) was unearthed, it was reason for celebration. Sadly, rather than be the subject of a major studio release being heralded for Oscar gold, instead it is the subject of a well-cast but ultimately little-promoted indie film.

Fisher Sparrow (Howard) is a Memphis-area socialite in the 1920s whose family has fallen on hard times. Her father was the center of a scandal when he dynamited a levee, causing a low lying area to flood and drowning two sharecroppers who lived there, as well as ruining land downriver of the levee. Fisher had no knowledge of that before she returned from some time in Europe.

She is supposed to be making her debut in Memphis society (a big deal back then) and because of her supposed wild behavior and her daddy’s reputation, she can’t find a decent gentleman willing to escort her to the balls and parties of the social season. She resorts to paying a field hand, Jimmy (Evans) to be her escort. Jimmy’s a decent sort who has a governor of Tennessee in his bloodlines but his family has been driven to poverty, with an alcoholic father (Patton) and a mother who is in an institution which Fisher hints she can get her out of, or at least into a better facility.

An aunt of Fisher’s gives her a $10,000 diamond earring set to wear for the season. The first party turns out to be a disaster; Fisher has a meltdown wanting the band to play music more in the flapper style which causes the party guests to say cruel things to her. Jimmy rushes to her aid and takes her home. The party invitations dry up after that and the only one Fisher can get is a Halloween party on the other side of town which was unaffected by her father’s actions.

On the way to the party, Fisher and Jimmy stop at the levee for a few moments. Fisher attempts to kiss Jimmy but he pulls away. Angered and humiliated, Fisher tries to jump out of the car as they pull up to the house where the party is being held. Shortly after she notices one of her diamond earrings is missing. A misunderstanding causes Jimmy to believe that she is accusing him of taking it.

Heartsick, Fisher goes away from the commotion to find her Aunt Addie (Burstyn) lying in bed, wracked in pain. The two have a heart-to-heart and Aunt Addie advises Fisher to leave and go back to Europe which she is more suited for. Addie makes Fisher promise to give her a bottle of pills so that Addie can die with dignity; Fisher promises she will as soon as the missing earring is found.

Devotees of Tennessee Williams will find some of the characters familiar; the down on their luck Southern family, the crumbling gentility and honor, the fiery sexual Southern belle. However, the characters and situation aren’t the best to come from his pen.

The movie is subdued in many ways and a bit mannered; modern audiences might find it too slow paced for their tastes. Still, there are some good performances here. Howard turns in one of the better performances of her career (and certainly her best since The Village). She is at once brassy and vulnerable, ambitious and un-self confident. She isn’t the most likable movie heroine ever, but she has enough flaws to be interesting.

Evans is mostly known for comic book roles in Fantastic Four and Captain America: The First Avenger. A few decades ago this kind of role would have been played by Paul Newman and not so long ago by Matthew McConaughey. Evans doesn’t have the best Tennessee accent ever but that’s ok; it’s the man inside the accent that makes the role memorable and Evans does that.

This has all the tawdriness and quiet desperation of some of William’s best work but none of the really interesting, unique characterizations that make his best work great. It’s worth seeing from a standpoint that it’s Tennessee Williams but in all honesty there are far better movies of his work out there, not the least of which are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d do better renting those to get an idea of how great a writer he once was.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard is impressive and Evans is pretty good too.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too mannered and slow-moving for modern audiences. Not one of Williams’ better works.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lindsey Lohan was originally cast in the lead role but her legal problems precluded her doing the movie. Howard was given the role instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Cast Away