The Dry Land


The Dry Land

Ryan O’Nan and America Ferrera look towards an uncertain future in the Heartland.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Diego Klattenhoff, Ana Claudia Talancon, Evan Jones, Zion Sandoval, Benito Martinez, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Ryan Piers Williams

 

Some see war as a grand exercise in duty and honor, a means of achieving personal glory or perhaps advancing a cause through battle. Those of that mindset are not the ones usually on the front lines. Those warriors who actually fight, who risk life and limb are the ones who pay the price – even if they survive.

James (O’Nan) has returned home to Texas from his tour of duty a damaged soul. His body is OK, but the trauma of surviving unscathed sometimes is just as bad as the trauma of suffering grave injury. He can’t stop thinking about an ambush in which his buddy Henry (Klattenhoff) got hurt.

His wife Sarah (Ferrera) is only happy to have her man home at long last but it doesn’t take long for her to notice that he’s not the man who left for war all those months ago. He’s changed; he has become distant and brooding. She tries her hardest to break through; his best friend Michael (Ritter) tries as well but to no avail.

He takes a job in his father-in-law’s (Martinez) slaughterhouse but the scenes of death and butchery only serve to remind him of the carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan. He also begins to get suspicious of Sarah and Michael, wondering if they have a different agenda than his well-being.

James starts turning towards people who might have some frame of reference in understanding him, like his combat buddy Raymond Gonzales (Valderrama) who has returned home to a neighboring Texas town as well. Raymond is a volatile powder keg who is steadfast in his loyalty to his friends but with an unbelievably short fuse when it comes to everyone else. Together they decide on the spur of the moment to go visit Henry in the VA hospital. That meeting has unexpected consequences that lead to both James and Raymond going in unexpected directions – and Sarah may end up being caught in the crossfire.

The return of veterans home from war has been fodder for Hollywood for ages and none did it better than The Best Years of Our Lives which in essence set the template for movies like this one. In all honesty, I’m not sure what sort of experience Williams has with the military – whether he himself served or someone close to him – but he has the feel of it right.

Williams captures the camaraderie between brothers – as those who serve under fire inevitably are – with brevity and depth. There isn’t a lot of posturing here, the kind of lovefest you might find between drunks which is often how Hollywood portrays it. Instead there’s that simple, quiet knowledge that something has been shared that nobody else can understand unless they were there.

It helps that his cast does an excellent job here. There are no histrionics, no grand speechifying – just people trying to live their lives as best they can, keeping their heads down as much as possible and in general just getting on with things. It’s a quintessinally American outlook, the U.S. version of the stiff upper lip and Williams captures the attitude well.

I’ve been a big fan of Ferrera since I saw her in Real Woman Have Curves during Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s Floating Film Festival several years back and this might be her best performance to date. Sarah is a complicated character, a good woman who wants to be a good wife but one who has been alone for a long time and who now finds herself alone even though her husband is back home. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the emotional center of the movie.

O’Nan plays James as a cypher who keeps his emotions close to his vest. It’s not always an easy task to figure him out, but I think that it’s an honest portrayal; James should be difficult to peg. It gives the viewer a sense of what his family and friends are going through. It’s not a sympathetic performance maybe but it is a gutsy one.

Leo is one of my favorite actresses today and even though her part is small and very much in the vein of part she has been cast in seemingly every time out, she at least gives it enough subtle shading to make it unique. Ritter is showing signs of breaking out into legitimate stardom; he could be one performance away from achieving it.

The bleak and barren Texas landscapes are fine companions to the brutal images of the slaughterhouse. Some of those images might be disturbing to the sensitive; I understand the need for them though, although I might have used them a bit more sparingly. A little brutality goes a long way in a movie as understated as this one is.

Not everything works. Some of the more talky scenes seem to be at odds with the overall feel of the movie. The Dry Land is at its best when it is quiet. This isn’t a movie about bombast and noise; it is a movie about people quietly and perhaps desperately trying to cling to something while the world strips them of their dignity and even their humanity. There are some powerful messages to be had here when the movie is at its best; I would have wished for some more consistency  but there is enough worthy material to warrant keeping an eye out on Williams as  a potentially great filmmaker in the nascent stages of his career.

WHY RENT THIS: Taut performances from nearly all the cast. Some tremendous images, disturbing and otherwise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uneven. The reach exceeds the grasp but just by a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language, some sexuality and violence as well as some disturbing situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A number of the lead actors are TV sitcom veterans (Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Valderrama in “That ’70s Show” and Suplee in “My Name is Earl”).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,777 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Wild Target

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Larry Crowne


Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts smirks at Tom Hanks' new CHiPS-inspired look.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Bryan Cranston, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Rita Wilson, Jon Seda, Rob Riggle, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tom Hanks

There are occasions in life where it becomes necessary to reinvent ourselves. We are almost forced to take stock, figure out what’s not working and attempt to fixing.

Ex-Navy “culinary specialist” (read: cook) Larry Crowne (Hanks) is sailing along at the big-box chain where he works and has won eight employee-of-the-month awards. He figures he’s being called in to win his ninth; but instead is dismayed to discover that he is being downsized. The reason? He has no college education (having chosen to serve his country instead) and has gone as far as he can go at the company without one. Not wanting to leave him in the same position for years to come, he is instead let go. Nobody ever said that big companies are logical.

He is underwater on his mortgage after buying out his wife after a somewhat messy divorce. After an unsuccessful attempt to refinance with an unctuous loan officer (Wilson), Larry is forced to start selling off his stuff at a perpetual yard sale run by his grouchy neighbor Lamar (Cedric) and his friendlier wife (Henson), who turns Larry on to the idea of going back to school. Larry also buys a scooter to get him places more economically.

At the local community college he takes a speech class with Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Roberts), a somewhat burned-out teacher who uses alcohol to numb out and help her forget she’s married to Dean (Cranston), formerly a promising science fiction author turned into a slacker with a penchant for commenting on blogs and surfing for porn on the internet. Mercy has the distinct impression that she is making not a whit of difference in the lives of her students.

He also takes an economics class under the watchful eye of the quirky Dr. Matsutani (Takei) who isn’t above a little self-promotion but has a distinct hatred of cell phones. In the class is the free-spirited Talia (Mbatha-Raw), who brings in Larry into her scooter gang, led by her boyfriend Dell (Valderrama). Talia decides to take Larry on as a bit of a project, remaking his house and his appearance in a more modern image.

Gradually Larry begins to rediscover himself, getting a job at a local diner and finding self-confidence through his speech class. Meanwhile, as Mercy’s marriage continues to fall apart, Larry begins to fall a little bit for the attractive but closed-off teacher, although Mercy assumes that Larry and Talia are together because of her clear affection for him.

That’s essentially it for plot. Hanks co-wrote and directed this star vehicle (this marks his second feature film as a director after the far superior That Thing You Do! back in 1996) tends to a gentle, inoffensive style in both writing and directing. I’ve often characterized Hanks as a modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman with a heart of gold. He plays that role to the hilt here.

He is matched by Roberts, whose luster is undimmed 20 years after Pretty Woman. She still has one of the most radiant smiles you’ll ever see, although you’ll see far more frowning from her here which is a bit of a shame – but she nonetheless fills her role well. While the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts isn’t as electric as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War, they still work well together onscreen.

In fact this is very much a project moved forward by star wattage. The likability of Hanks and Roberts lies at the core of the film, and Hanks the director wisely utilizes it. He has a pretty strong supporting cast, but it is Mbatha-Raw who charms most. Best known here for her work in “Doctor Who,” she is incandescent and lights up the screen whenever she’s on. “Star Trek” veteran Takei also is strong as the curmudgeonly economics professor, while Cedric recycles his stage persona adequately enough. Valderrama breaks out of his “That 70s Show” type as the tough-seeming teddy bear Dell.

There are a lot of quirky characters here, from the self-absorbed student (Malek) to the slacker husband (Cranston) and most of them aren’t developed all that well. We could have done with a number of them altogether, quite frankly. Also, I felt Larry is a bit too passive here. He reacts to people who essentially re-shape him. He just kind of goes along with it; Lamar suggests he goes to college, he goes to college. The proprietor of a local diner suggests Larry start working for him, Larry goes to work for him. Talia wants Larry to change his wardrobe and add a wallet chain, Larry does. Larry becomes a blank slate which everyone around him draws their version of him on; he could have used a little more self-assertiveness.

The movie takes a situation that all too many Americans are feeling – laid off, middle aged, at a crossroads of life – and really doesn’t do a lot with it. There isn’t a lot of angst here; Larry has a few depressed moments, caught in montage early on, and then rolls up his sleeves and gets about the job of finding himself a new job. He meets with rejection but that doesn’t really figure much into the plot. It’s more of a means of getting the story from point “A” to point “B.” To my way of thinking, there were some lost opportunities here for commentary on the current economic state of things but apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to do that

Be that as it may, the movie still makes you feel good. There is no raunchiness here at all as there is at most of the summer comedies you’ll see this year. That in itself is rather pleasing; it’s nice once in awhile to see a comedy that doesn’t rely on pushing the boundaries for humor. The good thing about Larry Crowne is that no matter what kind of rotten mood you’re in (and I was in a foul one when I saw it) you’ll leave the theater feeling good – and if you’re in a good mood to begin with, you’ll leave the theater feeling better. I’m sure some Hollywood blurb-writer will coin it “the feel-good movie of the summer,” but for once the blurb will be accurate.

REASONS TO GO: A warmhearted comedy that relies heavily on the charm of its stars. Will pick you up even on a bad day.

REASONS TO STAY: A few too many quirky characters. The character of Larry might be a little too passive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual content but otherwise pretty mild.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Talk of the Town.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

New Releases for the Week of February 11, 2011


February 11, 2011

Adam Sandler wonders where his career went.

JUST GO WITH IT

(Columbia) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman, Nick Swardson, Brooklyn Decker, Bailee Madison, Griffin Gluck, Dave Matthews, Kevin Nealon, Rachel Dratch. Directed by Dennis Dugan

An aging lothario who was once jilted at the altar is able to romance women by convincing them he’s a good guy in an awful marriage by wearing a wedding ring. This all works out nicely for him until he finds a girl he wants to marry – and she finds his ring. In order to save the relationship, he convinces her that he’s getting divorced but she wants to meet his ex. Desperate, he turns to his best friend to play the part of his ex. Cue comedy.

See the trailer, promos, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for frequent crude and sexual content, partial nudity, brief drug references and language)

 

The Eagle 

(Focus) Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong. A young Roman centurion is assigned to Briton, determined to discover the fate of his father who commanded the fable Ninth Legion which disappeared north of Hadrian’s Wall. Obsessed with restoring the family honor and retrieving the Eagle, symbol of the Legion, he ventures north to investigate rumors that it had been seen there, accompanied only by his slave, whose identity may tie in with the secret of his father’s fate.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG-13 (for battle sequences and some disturbing images)

From Prada to Nada

(Lionsgate) Camilla Belle, Alexa Vega, Adriana Barraza, Wilmer Valderrama. Two spoiled Latina sisters find their world turned upside down when their father passes away suddenly, leaving them penniless. They are forced to trade their Beverly Hills mansion for a Boyle Heights home with their lively aunt. They will learn the meaning of family, the importance of their cultural heritage and how to live without Gucci.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for brief drug use and a sexual situation)

Gnomeo and Juliet

(Touchstone) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith. A retelling of Shakespeare’s greatest romance (and arguably the greatest romance of all time) as done by garden gnomes. You’re welcome.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, a promo and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

The Illusionist

(Sony Classics) Starring the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Elidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil, Raymond Mearns. The newest animated film from the director of The Triplets of Belleville is based on an unproduced screenplay by the great French comedian Jacques Tati. It concerns a down on his luck stage magician in the 1950s who finds his profession being eroded by rock and roll. In a remote Scottish village, he encounters a young girl who will change his life forever.

See the trailer, clips and an online review here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

(Paramount) Justin Bieber and – oh who are we kidding, does anybody really care who else? Bieber Fever is in full bloom and every girl under the age of 15 has it. Does anybody over the age of 15 really know any of his songs? Will his star still be on the rise by next year? Does anybody remember the Jonas Brothers?

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Music/Concert

Rating: G

The Darwin Awards


The Darwin Awards

It's not so much flying as falling with style...

(MGM/Bauer Martinez) Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, Wilmer Valderrama, David Arquette, Juliette Lewis, Nora Dunn, Lukas Haas, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Penn, Julianna Margulies, Alessandro Nivola, D.B. Sweeney, Kevin Dunn, Ty Burrell. Directed by Finn Taylor

The human race numbers nearly seven billion people. That’s a lot of variety in the gene pool. That also means there are a lot of people whose genes the human race would be better off without; sometimes they demonstrate this in the method in which they remove themselves from said gene pool.

Michael Burrows (Fiennes) is a police detective in San Francisco with a brilliant mind. In true Sherlock Holmes-like fashion he is able to observe the smallest details in order to create a profile of the criminals he is investigating. Unfortunately, he does have a slight hang-up; he has a phobia about the sight of blood. It causes him to faint. In that particular line of work, this can be a liability.

This comes to pass when he, through brilliant deductive work, manages to corner the North Beach serial killer (Nelson). However, when blood is shed, Burrows passes out and the killer gets away. He loses his job because of it.

Burrows is a methodical and logical sort, so he doesn’t panic. He knows that his gifts would be of great use in other industries. He has also developed a fascination for the recipients of the Darwin Awards – people who die in foolish and bizarre manners, so-named because those who cash out in these manners have failed the basic law of evolution: survival of the fittest. He realizes that the insurance companies pay millions out to survivors of these people and that his expertise might be useful in not only determining the difference between legitimate accidents and Darwin Award candidates, but also in pinpointing people who exhibit the kind of behavior that would make them susceptible to that kind of demise. 

He interviews at a large insurance company to pitch them his skills. At first, the executive (Kevin Dunn) who is interviewing him is skeptical but when Burrows makes some observations of the executive that are painfully close to home based on almost no information, the executive changes his tune. He pairs Burrows with Siri Taylor (Ryder), an investigator who specializes in bizarre cases.

She is none too thrilled to have a new partner, but has to admit grudgingly that Burrows is good at what he does when he figures out that what appears to be an industrial accident when a vending machine falls on a hapless office worker (Burrell) is actually a result of that worker over-balancing the machine in violation of the warning plainly visible on it.

As they travel from city to city, Taylor is at first a bit put off by the fastidious Burrows’ quirks and mannerisms, and his almost total lack of social skills. However, as she begins to see the man behind the mannerisms, she grows softer towards him, especially as he saves the insurance company millions. However, Burrows has some unfinished business to take care of; a serial killer in San Francisco with whom Burrows must face down one last time.

I have to admit liking the concept for The Darwin Awards a great deal. The execution is another matter. Director Taylor stages the death sequences well enough and there is some morbid humor in them, but they aren’t enough to carry the movie. Fiennes isn’t a bad actor – he has shown some chops in Shakespeare in Love but he is very low-key, which works to a certain extent here but at times he is too deadpan. He could benefit from an infusion of a little Nicolas Cage.

Ryder is a fine actress as well, but the chemistry between her and Fiennes isn’t really there. Their romance isn’t really convincing and in all honesty, I think the plot could have done without it. It’s a cliché that brings things down a little bit.

One of the conceits used in the movie is that Burrows is being followed around by a documentary filmmaker (Valderrama) who is using the footage (starting when Burrows was a police officer and carrying over to his new job) for a graduate thesis. There are moments when the movie benefits from it, but the filmmakers try too hard to integrate the documentarian into the action, especially joking how he is unwilling to help when someone is in trouble, even refusing to dial 911 when the serial killer is cornered. That whole component could have been done better, and have still been funny.

Black comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off. The filmmakers have to walk a very thin line between funny and grim, and sometimes it pays off – and other times it doesn’t. There are moments that make The Darwin Awards worth a look, but too often I found myself wishing the filmmakers had come up with a better film.

WHY RENT THIS: The premise is mightily intriguing. Some of the death scenes are cleverly staged.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fiennes’ character gets a little bit too over-the-top with the quirkiness. Deadpan humor gets to be so deadpan as to be un-funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some squirm-inducing death scenes, a little bit of drug usage and sexuality as well as a fair amount of blue language, all enough to make this unsuitable for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Mythbusters” hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage appear as surplus store salesmen to the rocket car driver; in the first episode of the show, they dealt with this very urban myth.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Amateurs