10,000 SAINTS (2015)

August 13, 2015

10,000 Saints Greetings again from the darkness. Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll – not just a bumper sticker, but also frequent and fun movie topics. Throw in 1980’s New York City, some excruciatingly dysfunctional parenting, and the coming-of-age struggles of three youngsters, and you have the latest from co-writers and co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the real life couple behind American Splendor, 2003).

Based on the novel from Eleanor Henderson, it’s a nostalgic trip with little of the positive connotations usually associated with that term. The surprisingly deep cast features Ethan Hawke and Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County, 2013) as parents to son Jude played by Asa Butterfield (Hugo, 2011). Emily Mortimer plays Hawke’s new girlfriend and mother to Eliza played by Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, 2010). Avan Jogia plays Jude’s best friend Teddy, and Emile Hirsch is Teddy’s big brother Johnny. It’s an unusually high number of flawed characters who come together in a story that features some familiar coming-of-age moments, yet still manages to keep our interest.

The story centers on Jude as he comes to terms with finding out he’s adopted, works to overcome his less than stellar parents, and spends an inordinate amount of time finding new ways to experiment with drugs. One night changes everything as it leads to a tragic end for one character and pregnancy for Eliza. Ms. Steinfeld is extraordinary as Eliza and really makes an impressive step from child actress to young adult. Julianne Nicholson is also a standout, and Ethan Hawke provides some offbeat comic relief.

So many elements of 1980’s New York are included, and no effort is made to add any touches of glamour. The Tompkins Square park riots also play a role, if only briefly as the key characters realize life is just not so simple … a consistent theme for both kids and parents. The fragility of life is always an interesting topic, and the filmmakers bring this to light through some characters that we feel like we know – and wish we could help.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE HOMESMAN (2014)

December 1, 2014

homesman Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).

Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.

Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.

The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.

Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.

The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.

watch the trailer:

 

 


TRUE GRIT (2010)

December 17, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Just back from a Dallas screening of the Coen Brothers latest, and once again I am in awe of their filmmaking proficiency. For those concerned about a remake of the John Wayne classic, fear not! Joel and Ethan instead remain true to the Charles Portis novel. In fact, the Portis prose is what adds the uniqueness to this story of revenge.

One may assume that Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn would dominate the movie, but I suggest to you that relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (as Mattie Ross) more than holds her own, and in fact, often carries the story. We never once doubt her commitment to the cause … hunting down the man who shot her father. That man, Tom Chaney, is played in a most peculiar manner by Josh Brolin. Brolin’s dim-witted Chaney borders on a cartoon character, except he has a real mean streak.

There are so many wonderful touches in this film that I am not sure where to start. Obviously, the Portis dialogue jumps out immediately. Watching the grizzled, grungy cowpokes and this 14 year-old farm girl spout off such beautiful prose forces a smile to your face. It is an enjoyable challenge just to keep up with the banter between Cogburn, Mattie and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who also happens to be hunting Chaney. There are also hilarious exchanges between Mattie and a local horse trader, and later Barry Pepper (as Ned Pepper) joins in with some top notch verbal sparring.

 DP Roger Deakins does his thing with the camera and landscape. We feel we are right there on the dusty trail or on a snowy ride. The wardrobe, guns and town all come across as totally authentic and add to the richness of the film. There are no hokey vista shots without purpose. Everything in the film has a reason and contributes to the cause of presenting a terrific western story of revenge and retribution. Watching the bond develop between the main characters is quite moving, and though I wasn’t ready for it to end, I found the ending quite satisfying.

The trailer for this film is one of my favorites of the year. Johnny Cash singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is not in the film, but it certainly set the mood. So, no real surprise here, but another fantastic film from the Coen Brothers. You don’t have to be a lover of westerns to enjoy this one and, please, no worries about Jeff Bridges facing off against John Wayne. There is room for both!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the blend of sparse landscape, gruff cowboys and beautifully written dialogue OR you just want to see Matt Damon uphold the Coen Brothers tradition of one atrocious haircut per film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe no one can top John Wayne, by golly OR you prefer your westerns to be only dark and bleak in the vein of Unforgiven.