SAVANNAH (2013)

August 13, 2013

savannah Greetings again from the darkness.  Beginning with “Based on a True Story”, the movie takes us on a bumpy ride known as the life and times of Ward Allen, a silver-tongued duck hunter with a free spirit like few others.  Director Annette Haywood-Carter utilizes Jack Cay Jr’s “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter” as her source material, and the marsh lands of Savannah make for a beautiful setting.

Jim Caviezel dives into the role of Ward Allen and it’s initially quite startling to see him play such a loqacious character … we are so accustomed to his normally quiet and stoic nature. Caviezel seems to revel in the courtroom scenes where he recites Shakespeare and charms the judge (Hal Holbrook) and gallery.  Flip a switch and the next scene will have Allen exchanging familiar glances and verbal jousts with his duck hunting buddy Christmas (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed slave who is the perfect companion for Allen.

Evidently the real Mr. Allen was smart and engaging, but drank too much and constantly pushed the limits of legal hunting. His loyal dog, Rock, follows him everywhere and seems to anticipate his every need. This odd life takes a turn towards normalcy as Allen falls for a beautiful socialite played by Jaime Alexander. The two hit it off and get married, against the wishes of her father played by the great Sam Shepard. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the movie gets convoluted and loses focus, trying to be too many things at once.

Caviezel and Ejiofor have a really nice screen presence together, but the interjections of home life between Caviezel and Alexander just stomp out any flow to the story telling.  The attempts to make Mr. Allen a legendary, larger-than-life figure fall short because of the clunky script structure. The bookend with Christmas telling the stories to both a young and adult Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford) just beg for continued focus on the bond between kindred spirits Allen and Christmas.  The enigmatic Ward Allen was clearly an interesting man and I look forward to reading Cay’s book … it’s just disappointing that the script was not sharpened prior to filming.  It should be noted that there are a few tremendous songs throughout, including two very different versions of “Wade in the Water”.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xsvg_zgbB1c

 


PROMISED LAND (2012)

January 7, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog was set up to provide thoughts and commentary on movies through the eyes of someone who loves and appreciates the art of cinema. Most of the time, these comments focus on the positive aspects of each movie, while also mentioning any particular areas which, by opinion, seem to fall short of acceptable.  It is rare indeed when a movie is so annoying and lacking in merit that I find myself with mostly negative comments to make.   Typically I would just skip the commentary, however, I believe Promised Land deserves to be exposed for the fraud that it is.

promised Greetings again from the darkness. On paper, a story about a controversial environmental issue (fracking for natural gas) presented by a respected director (Gus Van Sant) and featuring a strong cast (Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook) would be a welcome cinematic contribution, despite an expected slant to the story-telling. Most of us enjoy, or at least accept, a well presented argument that brings light and substance to at least one side of the controversial issue. What no one appreciates is having their time wasted … which is exactly what this ridiculous movie does.

Fluff is fluff, regardless of the subject matter that acts as a backdrop. Matt Damon and John Krasinski combined to write the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. The screenplay is simple-minded, uninformed promised3and amateurish. Did they do any research? It seems more likely they got together a couple of times, sipped a few imports, and threw together an outline. If they had then turned that outline over to a REAL writer, the ensuing mess of a movie could have been avoided. Instead, they somehow tricked Gus Van Sant into becoming the director. This process worked just fine 15 years ago when Ben Affleck collaborated with Damon and Van Sant for the excellent Good Will Hunting. That film shouldn’t even be tarnished by mentioning it here.

There is no shortage of articles available with actual facts on the companies and process involved with natural gas fracking. In 2010, Josh Fox even put together GasLand, a very effective documentary on the subject. So, the idea of formulating a Hollywood dramatic version makes sense. Matt Damon’s name alone ensures better exposure in one week than Mr. Fox’ film has had in two plus years. What doesn’t make sense is a version that is so lightweight and lacking in details, that a convoluted, half-assed love triangle steals the spotlight off what should be the real story.

promised2 What is the real story? A fictional $9 billion company with the generic name Global Crosspower Solutions sends their crack closing team of Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) into rural Pennsylvania to buy up the land leases from the area’s struggling farmers. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Steve, this hotshot rising star, makes two blunders in the first couple of days – allowing the town to vote, and getting blackout drunk in the only town bar. Then, this brilliant executive totally loses his equilibrium when a small time environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up and starts charming the locals with his horror stories of fracking.

Steve walks around telling people “I’m not a bad guy“, McDormand shakes her head at him and says “It’s just a job“, and Krasinski buddies up with everyone … including local school teacher Rosemarie DeWitt, on whom Damon has a bit of a crush. One of the more ridiculous bits is that Damon’s character supposedly grew up in a farm community just like this and saw it shrivel up when the factory closed. He is probably the only guy to ever grow up on a farm who can’t drive a stickshift and has to be chauffeured around by McDormand. As if all of that isn’t ridiculous and lame enough, here comes the most absurd movie twist of all time. Since the first 2/3 of the movie promised4lacks any sense of realism, the twist is not surprising, but rather just plain ludicrous. It’s a cheap writing device.

As for positives, it’s always a joy to watch 88 year old Hal Holbrook on screen. More attention to his character could have saved the movie …he is far and away the most intelligent and interesting character. Also, Damon’s character goes on a heartfelt rant towards some drunken rednecks. It’s his only scene that works and ends, logically, with a punch to nose. Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy and Lucas Black all have moments of support that deserve a better movie. The same can’t be said for Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant … the blame and embarrassment falls at your feet, gentleman.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you shut your eyes and plug your ears for all except Hal Holbrook’s scenes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to reward a couple of Hollywood stars for their lackadaisical efforts

watch the trailer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo


WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

April 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Everyone loves the circus (except those who are scared of clowns). Everyone loves trains (except those who are scared of wrecks). Everyone loves performing animals (as long as they are a safe distance). Combine those elements with a best-selling novel, three popular actors and a twist on Titanic and you end up with a very watchable, though slightly mundane dramatic love story.

You are probably wondering where I came up with the Titanic reference. Allow me to explain. The story begins with an old man caught in a rain storm. We quickly find out Hal Holbrook is playing the Robert Pattinson character as an old man. Mr. Holbrook’s character corresponds to Gloria Stuart‘s character in Titanic. Both provide flashback detail to a love story engulfed in tragedy. On top of that, both have twinkly blue eyes! Paul Schneider is in the Bill Paxton role … trying his best to get the secrets of what really happened so many years ago.

 The story is based on Sara Gruen‘s best selling novel and is set in depression-soaked 1931. Jacob (Pattinson) is sitting for his Cornell veterinarian finals when he is notified of a family tragedy. He promptly sets out on the road and jumps a train. Not just any train … the Benzini Brothers Circus train! He is taken under the wing of Camel, the old timer played well by silky-voiced Jim Norton. Soon enough he is summoned to meet the circus owner. A brief meeting leads first to the order to toss Jacob off the train, but he is saved by his knowledge of animal medicine – a valuable commodity in the circus world.

Now is as good of time as any to let you know that the great Christoph Waltz plays August, the circus owner. As in his Oscar winning role for Inglourious Basterds, Waltz’ August is alternatingly charming and chilling. He is a ruthless circus owner who values no man or animal. He values only making money and his star attraction and wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Oh, and just because he values her, doesn’t mean he treats her well. He is near-psychotic when he goes off on her or anyone or anything else. Pause … then a few minutes later, he is back to his charming self. Very frightening stuff.

Of course, it’s not surprising that Jacob is enchanted with Marlena (a bareback rider) or that she returns the affection. What is surprising is that they continue to push the boundaries of good sense while within the confines of the circus group – and August. You can imagine the confrontations and situations that arise, but Marlena’s insistence that no life exists for her outside the circus is a head-scratcher.

 The story really picks up when the struggling circus purchases a performing elephant named Rosie. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Rosie may be the smartest character in the film. She is certainly the most crucial for Marlena and Jacob.

The screenplay is from Richard Gravenese who has a track record with this type of story. He was also responsible for The Horse Whisperer and Bridges of Madison County. What’s surprising is the director is Francis Lawrence, previously known for I Am Legend and Constantine. This movie has (thankfully)no resemblance to those films and his cast and crew obviously help him adjust to a more melodramatic storyline.

What I like about the film are the realistic characters and the setting. The trains, big top, circus performers and workers all seem real, as do the few circus scenes presented. Without the Christoph Waltz character and performance, this film would be truly just a run-of-the-mill dramatic love story. His element and the realistic circus life make this one worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are fan of the circus or the book or the three lead actors OR you thought Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes was the creepiest Ringleader ever

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you can’t handle a bit of melodrama with your trip to the circus OR a performing elephant who understands Polish is just a bit too far outside the comfort zone