HOLLER (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Life in the Midwest rustbelt is often portrayed in movies, but rarely with the authenticity displayed in the first feature film from writer-director Nicole Riegel. These are hard-working folks who maintain hope and keep pushing through the challenges brought on by the collapse of the factory world that left generations in its wake. It’s a spinoff of Ms. Riegel’s own 2015 short film of the same name, and the story is inspired by her own upbringing in Ohio.

Jessica Barden stars as Ruth, a very bright high school senior who is struggling along with her dropout older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) to make ends meet while mom (Pamela Adlon, the voice of Bobby on “King of the Hill”) is in jail due to opioids. Dad is out of the picture. As smart as she is, Ruth is teetering on the line of graduation since she misses so much school time while hustling the streets with her brother looking for aluminum cans to redeem, or any other way to make a few bucks. Despite their lack of funds, Blaze submitted a college application for Ruth without her knowing, and now that she’s been accepted, money becomes the focus.

Desperation leads to poor decisions, and soon Ruth and Blaze are working for Hark (Austin Amelio, “The Walking Dead”) the owner of a local metal scrap yard. At night, brother and sister join the crew for illegal scrapping at closed factories. It’s dangerous work, but the pay is good. The dynamic between older brother Blaze and younger sister Ruth is interesting. He realizes his future looks something like what he’s doing now – scratching and clawing for everything. But he sees that Ruth has a path to a brighter future and he strives to keep her focused on that.

Family is key here, and Ruth struggles with how best to deal with her mother. It takes Aunt Linda (Becky Ann Baker, A SIMPLE PLAN, 1998) to explain how Ruth’s mother is a victim of the medical profession over-prescribing the pain killers that caused the downfall. In a town that’s slowly dying (plants closing), and folks fighting to stay out of poverty, this situation is all too common.

Jessica Barden is memorable from her turn as the friend in HANNA (2011) and from THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD (2017), but this could be a star-making role for her. She is outstanding in much the way Jennifer Lawrence was in WINTER’S BONE (2010), although this movie isn’t quite at that level. It’s a star turn for Ms. Barden and an impressive debut for director Riegel, who shot in 16mm film – a rarity for indie films. The story and characters are never quite as bleak as what we expect, though the ending is a bit too predictable … and we are happy for it. You might want to see this one if for no other reason than it’s a likely career turning point for both Jessica Barden and Nicole Riegel.

OPENS IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON DEMAND/DIGITAL ON FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2021

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JUNGLELAND (2020)

November 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve rarely seen more improvement from an actor than what we’ve witnessed on screen from Charlie Hunnam in his nearly 25 year career. His work was particularly strong in James Gray’s LOST CITY OF Z (2017), and he builds on that here as the older brother filled with dreams of a better life. Writer-director Max Winkler (FLOWER, 2017, and son of Henry) co-wrote the script with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith (INGRID GOES WEST, 2017), and while it has a ‘seen this before’ vibe, we remain engaged throughout.

Hunnam stars as Stanley, the visionary who manages the underground boxing career of his brother Lion (Jack O’Connell, UNBROKEN, 2014). Lion is quiet and reserved, while Stanley thinks talking is the key to life. We don’t get the full back story on the brothers, but enough to know that Stanley has made an endless stream of bad decisions that have left the brothers squatting in a deserted foreclosed house in Massachusetts that requires them to sneak in and out of windows for access. Preaching a belief in “fate”, Stanley gushes about their future, which he envisions as a beautiful house in California and tailored Italian clothes.

In a scene that we assume has occurred numerous times, Stanley finds himself unable to pay the $2000 he owes his crime boss Pepper, played by Jonathan Majors. Rather than kill Stanley, Pepper offers him the kind of deal that seems too good to be true. All the Kaminsky brothers have to do is drive Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country to Reno, where they are to deliver her to Yates (John Cullum). At this point, we only know enough about Yates to understand that he’s not an upstanding citizen. If the brothers manage to execute this “simple” task, Pepper will ensure that Lion is added to the list of fighters of “Jungleland”, a bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred fight in San Francisco where the Grand Prize is $100,000. Stanley sees this as a much better alternative than being killed, and Lion agrees to go along with the plan.

What follows is a road trip with the Kaminsky brothers, their Whippet dog Ash, and Sky, the mysterious young lady whose minimal dialogue masks intentions that don’t necessarily mesh with the mission of trip. On the road, Stanley makes a few more less-than-brilliant decisions, while Lion and Sky bond … or do they? Regardless, things get challenging and obstacles appear everywhere. Once Yates appears, it’s a joy to behold 90 year old Jack Cullum (“Northern Exposure”) as he tears into the role of tough guy.

Mr. Winkler’s film actually has very little fighting in it, especially when compared to Gavin O’Connor’s outstanding 2011 film, WARRIOR. Instead, this is about brotherly love and the ties that bind (although so was O’Connor’s film). Surprisingly, the soundtrack features Bruce Springsteen singing “Dream Baby Dream”, and we do learn how to dress a knife wound with duct tape.

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)

May 8, 2015

far from Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel or seen director John Schlesinger’s 1967 (and far more energetic) screen adaption starring Julie Christie, or even if you are a High School Literature student with the novel on your summer reading list, you will probably be interested in this more modern-day thinking approach from director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt). It’s more modern not in look, but rather in the feminist perspective of Bathsheba Everdene (one of my favorite literary character names).

Carey Mulligan plays Ms. Everdene, and she is exceedingly independent and ambitious for the time period, while simultaneously being attractive in a more timeless manner. This rare combination results in three quite different suitors. She first meets sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), who is smitten with her spunk, and he proposes by offering her way out of poverty. She declines and the next time they cross paths, the tables have turned as she has inherited a farm and he has lost everything due to an untrained sheep dog. Next up is a proposal from a socially awkward, but highly successful neighborhood farmer. Michael Sheen plays William Boldwood, who is clueless in his courting skills, but understands that combining their farms would be a make-sense partnership. The third gent is Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a master of seduction by sword. She is sucked in by Troy’s element of danger, unaware of his recent wedding gone awry to local gal Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple).

As with most literary classics … and in fact, most books … the screen adaptation loses the detail and character development that make the book version so enjoyable. Still, we understand the essence of the main characters, and the actors each bring their own flavor to these roles. The story has always been first and foremost a study in persistence, and now director Vinterberg and Mulligan explore the modern day challenges faced by women in selecting a mate: slow and steady, financially set, or exciting and on edge. In simpler language, should she follow her head, wallet or heart?

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