MY DAYS OF MERCY (2019)

July 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. There have been some fine movies centered on death row. These include: THE GREEN MILE (1999), DEAD MAN WALKING (1995), THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (2003), and TRUE CRIME (1999). The only one I can remember that even comes close to also being a love story is MONSTER’S BALL (2001), and if you’ve seen it, you would likely agree that it’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy story of romance. With this latest, however, Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer and British writer Joe Barton combine for a romantic story where death row plays a vital part.

Ellen Page stars as Lucy. She travels around the country in a well-worn motorhome with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz, UPSTREAM COLOR) and their little brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC), as they partake in the anti-death penalty demonstrations outside the prison gates as the next execution takes place. Across the parking lot, the pro-death penalty side hold their own signs and keep their own vigil. Lucy’s eyes lock on those of a striking young woman from the other side. When they meet, the ironically named Mercy (Kate Mara) aggressively flirts with the shy and confused Lucy, and the two sneak out for drinks at a bar.

Soon Lucy is anxiously awaiting the next protest so that she can meet up with Mercy. The sexual tension builds as they get to know each other, and their awkward friendship turns romantic. Their activism for different sides of an important topic doesn’t have any negative impact on their attraction to each other. Each woman has been personally affected by the death penalty, and as viewers we struggle with the idea that these two lovebirds part each time with what amounts to ‘see you at the next execution!’

Elias Koteas (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1990) plays Lucy’s death row dad, and Brian Geraghty (THE HURT LOCKER) plays the attorney who is simultaneously working on his case and on Lucy’s sister Martha. The acting here is top notch as Kate Mara balances the two sides of Mercy, and Ellen Page flashes her familiar JUNO snark – albeit with the heft of a wisened adult. Ms. Seimetz adds to her list of always-interesting characters, and has a couple of truly outstanding scenes.

Blending love and the death penalty makes for an unusual combination, and we do understand that folks choose their side based on personal belief and circumstances. For the film, the death penalty issue is a bit of a distraction to the story of these two people, though it’s admirable that Mr. Barton chose to give them a personal stake in two different cases, rather than the same – which we would expect in a lesser movie. The use of “last meals” is quite creative, as we see the actual food, as well as the name of the inmate, the crime, and the prison.

The fallout from executions is widespread. Perhaps no one wants a narrative film focused entirely on such a depressing and divisive topic. We do ask ourselves if a romantic relationship is even possible for two who are diametrically opposed on such an emotional topic. It’s an ending that lets no one off the hook easily. Life is hard. So is death. Make your choices wisely.

watch the trailer:

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LEAN ON PETE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his gut-wrenching 45 YEARS (2015) is “a boy and a horse” movie that is every bit as emotionally draining, and secures his spot as one of the best filmmakers at bringing characters we thoroughly believe to the screen. It’s based on the novel by Willy Vlautin and could be described as coming-of-age, slice-of-life, or even a road movie. While it’s each of these, it is also much more … though I fear it is one of this year’s indie gems that will likely slide between the cracks with far too few taking the time to experience it.

Charlie Plummer was most recently seen in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD as Getty’s kidnapped grandson. Here he stars as Charley, a 15 year old boy living a half-step from poverty with his caring, but unprepared single dad (Travis Fimmel). Charley goes for morning runs around town, and his polite mannerisms include effusive praising and expressing gratitude to his dad’s mistress (Amy Seimitz) for cooking a full breakfast – a rare treat for this growing teenager. Charley stumbles into part time work with has-been horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), a man whose career, health and demeanor have all seen better days. Horse trainer in this context is far removed from the glamour of the Kentucky Derby. Del works his horses hard for meager winnings on the county fair circuit, and when their time is up, the horses are shipped to Mexico for ‘processing’.

Charley and Del form a bond based on Del’s cheapness and Charley’s work ethic and love of the horses. When tragedy strikes, the movie shifts to a road trip vibe, with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) joining on as a jockey. The three are a quasi-family but mostly they are each just trying to get along in a life that isn’t always kind. When Charley ignores Bonnie’s advice to not get too attached to the horses, he and the titular Pete are soon trudging across the backcountry.

Charley’s life on the streets provides many life lessons, but not much joy. He crosses paths with an initially friendly addict named Silver (Steve Zahn), and along the trip, his childhood memories provide some hope – especially as related to Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott). These all feel like real folks that we could meet at any time. Some are helpful, yet the biggest life lesson of all comes roaring through these mostly quiet scenes – people care most about themselves.

This most certainly isn’t a Disney-style horse movie like DREAMER, and in fact, it’s much less a horse story than it is Charley’s story. The core message seems to be that no matter how gentle one’s soul, human nature adapts in times of desperation. It’s pure cinematic pleasure to have both Mr. Buscemi and Ms. Sevigny in the same film, but the shining light here is Charlie Plummer. With little dialogue, he conveys so much about what he is thinking and feeling. His desire is to have some stability – someone or something that he can depend on. It’s the security many of us take for granted. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (A WAR, 2015) beautifully captures the endless Pacific Northwest landscapes, while also managing the intimate and thoughtful moments. Mr. Haigh’s two most recent films add him to my must-see list … I just wish there were more who would find pleasure in his displays of lack of joy.

watch the trailer:


UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

April 19, 2013

upstream Greetings again from the darkness. This is no typical movie, so these will not be typical comments. In 2004, Dallas-based filmmaker Shane Carruth became something of a cult hero with the Sundance Festival crowd when his debut film PRIMER won a Grand Jury Award. Nine years later, we get his follow-up … the ultimate artsy, indie film for those who thrive on analysis and prefer to avoid a story-ending wrapped up with a neat bow.

These comments will not give you much, but I can tell you the screening and subsequent Q&A with Mr. Carruth had many viewers who were frustrated and confused. The fragmented narrative can be a bit disorienting and it avoids the usual staple of a resolution at the end. The audience knows more than the characters, yet the audience is baffled while the characters just continue on.

upstream2 The first segment of the film is when it’s at its most traditional. We see Thief (Thiago Martins) perform some type of worm/parasite procedure that slowly brainwashes Kris (Amy Seimetz) or leads to mind control or loss of personality … just depends how you prefer to describe it. We then see The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) help her overcome thanks to a blood transfusion on his pig farm. Yes, really. Finally, Kris bonds with Jeff (Shane Carruth) as they seek to reassemble their lives and re-discover themselves. Watching them bicker over who belongs to what memory is frightening and fascinating. It makes you question the definition of personal identity, and what if we lost that (or it was stolen).

upstream3 Nature plays a huge role her, along with the connection to Thoreau’s “Walden”. Many will use the term pretentious. Some will call it boring without a point. Still others will be drawn in by the imagery and sound (or sometimes effective lack thereof). Shane Carruth does not fit Hollywood and neither do his films. He is a writer, producer, director, co-editor, cinematographer, and actor. He clearly has a love of the material and his choice of Amy Seimetz really makes the film work. She is outstanding (and also a filmmaker). The tired phrase “it’s not for everyone” certainly applies here, but if you are a Terrence Malick fan or just enjoy being challenged by somewhat abstract themes, this one is worth a look.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U9KmAlrEXU