YOUTH IN OREGON (2017)

February 4, 2017

youth-in-oregon Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those tough little indie movies that would fit right in at most film festivals. Directed by Joel David Moore and written by Andrew Eisen, the film has a few exceptional scenes, yet once it’s over, it’s pretty easy to just leave it behind. That shouldn’t happen with a story dealing with a theme of death with dignity. Shouldn’t there be a desire to talk about the issue, or at least spend some time in thought?

Perhaps the reason this one isn’t the gut-punch we expect is that while the central reason for the story is 80 year old Ray’s (Frank Langella) desire to end life on his terms, the vast majority of screen time is devoted to the exceptionally dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It’s not an “issue” movie, and dysfunctional family movies are about as common as superhero movies these days … we’ve become a bit numb.

Ray and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) are living with their daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), her husband Brian (Billy Crudup) and Kate and Brian’s teenage daughter Annie (Nicola Peltz). It’s a crowded house where emotions run high, voices are usually amped to 11, and Kate and Brian’s marriage is stressed to the limit with responsibilities.

Bad news at the doctor’s office leads Ray to the crucial decision on his future. He announces this while giving the most uncomfortable birthday speech ever at dinner that evening … “I want to die.” It’s a terrific scene and each person’s reaction is priceless – to the point where we almost wish it were in slow motion so as not to miss anything.

Typically poor teenage judgment by daughter Annie means mother Kate stays at home for discipline, while Brian reluctantly agrees to drive Ray cross country to Oregon to find out if he qualifies under the mercy killing law. Estelle and her always present booze come along for the ride, but it’s mostly the strained relationship between Ray and Brian that generate the fireworks. Along the way, they add Ray’s estranged gay son Danny (Josh Lucas), as well as Brian’s angry college age son Nick (Alex Shaffer). Once they reach Oregon, another wonderful scene/sequence occurs as Ray meets up with a longtime friend who has made the same decision. It’s a well handled and well acted portion of the story.

Ray’s decision to hide his medical diagnosis from the family is the source of the most recent conflict, but there’s a history in this family. Isn’t that always the case? A lack of communication often causes even more issues than too much honesty. The abundance of dysfunction can’t be offset by some peaceful bird-watching, and all of the frustration and anger prevents the necessary conversations on the more interesting topic … a reason to live vs. a desire to die. A slight re-focus would have taken more advantage of the terrific performance of Langella, and added some fun to the post movie discussion.

watch the trailer:

 


LITTLE ACCIDENTS (2015)

January 17, 2015

little accidents Greetings again from the darkness. You know how we always hear that there are no secrets in a small town – how everyone knows your business? This first feature film from writer/director Sara Colangelo exposes the fallacy of that notion. It seems all residents of this small mining community are carrying secrets, and some are whoppers!

The story picks up about a year after a horrible coal mining accident killed ten local miners. The lone survivor was Amos (Boyd Holbrook) who is struggling with physical limitations resulting from the incident.  However, generating more pain for Amos than his withered arm and leg is the internal battle the ongoing investigation is causing him. Should he expose the known safety issues that caused his co-workers to die?  If he does, those 10 families probably get justice and a financial reward, but the mine likely shuts down – crippling the local economy and throwing much of the town out of work.  If keeps quiet, those families get nothing and it’s business as usual for everyone else.

Amos is joined in a daily conundrum of secrets by: Owen (Jacob Lofland), who is much too young to handle the situation an accident has placed him; Owen’s brother James (Beau Wright) who has Down Syndrome and is even less equipped to keep his secret; the mine’s supervisor Bill (Josh Lucas) who defends his poor decisions by saying he only did what the company forced him to do; and Diane (Elizabeth Banks) who is Bill’s wife and reacts to the disappearance of her son and lack of respect for her husband in a manner that can’t possibly end well.

As is common in poverty-stricken communities, there is even more to add. Owen’s father was one of the miners killed in the accident, and Owen was among the group who last saw Bill and Diane’s son alive. Also, Amos is living with his father who is paying the health price for a lifetime of coal mining. The film is bookended by Amos’ testimony regarding the accident, and in between we see these intertwined lives and much soul-suffering and personal stock-taking. It’s a reminder of how powerful grief can be, especially after such an instantaneous tragedy.

Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland deliver outstanding performances. Mr. Holbrook’s career is in skyrocket mode as he appeared in 8 projects during 2013-14 (including Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins), and has 5 more for 2015 (including Terrence Malick’s next film). Young Mr. Lofland was a standout in both Mud (2012) and his recent recurring role on TV’s “Justified“. Also of note is one of the few dramatic turns for Elizabeth Banks. We have come to expect comedy excellence from her (even as Effie in The Hunger Games), but we have rarely seen the emotional depth she portrays here.

The movie is beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, and the film stock provides the grainy look that adds to the realistic feel necessary for us to be absorbed into this isolated world. Comparisons to other mining movies are expected, and North Country (2005) and Matewan (1987) come to mind, however, those were centered on mistreatment in the workplace and labor issues, respectively. This movie is much more concerned with grief, and for some reason The Stone Boy (1984) comes to mind. Dealing with tragedy does not become easier with age, financial status or social standing. Ms. Colangelo’s film provides an intimate look at this.

watch the trailer:

 


J. EDGAR

November 14, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best place to start with this one is by saying what it isn’t. It is not a documentary. It is not a very detailed history lesson. It is not the best biography of the man. It is not a behind-the-scenes of the FBI. What it is … another piece of quality filmmaking from Clint Eastwood. It’s an overview of J. Edgar Hoover and his nearly 50 years of civil service under 8 U.S. Presidents.

The screenplay is from Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the script for Milk, based on the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn). Clearly, Eastwood and Black had no interest in setting forth an historical drama that couldn’t possibly be told within a two hour film structure. No, this is more of a fat-free character study that hits only a few of the highlights from an enigmatic man’s fascinating career. With so few available details about Hoover’s personal life, some speculation is required … but Eastwood walks a tightrope so as to make neither a statement nor mockery.

 Therein lies the only problem with the film. While hypnotic to watch, we are left with an empty feeling when it’s over. How can that be? This man built the foundation of the FBI. He instigated the fingerprint system. He armed the secret police. His agency tracked down notorious gangsters. He led an anti-communist movement. He was in the middle of the investigation for the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He supposedly kept secret files on most politicians and celebrities. He viewed the security of Americans as his responsibility. He was smack dab in the middle of almost 50 years of American history … all while being a power-hungry, paranoid mama’s boy who may have been, in her words, a daffodil.

An elderly Hoover’s own words tell his story as he dictates his memoirs. We are told that his memories of these stories are blurred and he takes a few liberties to say the least. He longed to be the comic book hero like his own G-Men. He longed to be recognized for his contributions, even to the point of desiring a level of celebrity. In his mind, he was the face of national security and the hero cuffing many outlaws. In reality, he was also the black-mailing schemer who so frightened Presidents with his secret files, that all 8 of them backed off firing him. He could be viewed as the ultimate survivor in a town where few careers last so long and cross party lines.

 The film picks up in 1919 when Hoover is a youngster making a name for himself as an all-work, no play type. That reputation stuck with him until the end. When he was first promoted, he hired Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)to be his secretary. In one of the most remarkable hires of all time, she sticks with him until his death in 1972. Staunchly loyal to Hoover and totally dedicated to her job, Ms. Gandy helped Hoover with decisions and processes throughout. The other member of his inner circle was Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson was Hoover’s right-hand man at the bureau, his trusted adviser, his daily lunch partner, and speculation never ceased on their personal ties.

 Judi Dench plays Annie Hoover, J Edgar’s controlling mother, whom he lived with until her death. She was also his adviser, supporter and probably a factor in his stunted social skills. We also get glimpses of how he dealt with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and his overall lack of respect for John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Nixon. The Lindbergh case plays a key role because Hoover used it to gain more power for his bureau and increase funding for weapons, forensic labs and resources.

 As for Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to explain just how outstanding his lead performance is. It could have been a caricature, but instead he affords Hoover the respect his place in history demands. The 50 years of aging through make-up can be startling, especially since the time lines are mixed up throughout. His speech pattern mimics Hoover’s, as does the growing waist line. There are some Citizen Kane elements at work in how the story is told and how it’s filmed, but Eastwood wouldn’t shy away from such comparisons.

If you want real details on Hoover, there are some very in-depth biographies out there. The number of documentaries and history books for this era are limitless. What Eastwood delivers here is an introduction to J Edgar Hoover. It is interesting enough to watch, and Leonardo’s performance is a must-see, but the film lacks the depth warranted by the full story.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a primer to the life and career of Hoover OR you want to see DiCaprio’s performance, which will almost certainly receive an Oscar nom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a detailed history on the FBI or the life of Hoover

watch the trailer:


THE LINCOLN LAWYER

March 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Major dilemma: sucker for courtroom dramas vs. no fan of Matthew McConaughey. I decided to give it a shot, and given my low expectations, found the movie to be quite entertaining – despite its numerous flaws. If you are a fan of the endless stream of John Grisham book-turned-movie, then I expect you will find this one to your taste.

Based on the Michael Connelly series of novels built around Mick Haller, this one has the look and feel of part one (and also of a TV series). Haller is the Lincoln Lawyer, so named because of his propensity to handle much of his work from the backseat of a classic Lincoln Town Car. The choice of McConaughey as Haller seemed all together wrong given his annual appearance in some lame ass Rom-Com, where he spends most of each movie shirtless and smirking. Luckily for us, Mr. McConaughey manages to re-capture some of the acting skills he flashed in A Time to Kill, so many years ago.

 In addition to his close to the vest portrayal of Haller, the movie works because of an incredibly deep cast that includes Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and frequent courtroom adversary (she is an ADA), Ryan Phillippe as the accused rich boy, William H Macy as the long-time and streetwise private investigator, Josh Lucas as the ADA in the main case, Bryan Cranston as the detective in charge, plus Michael Pena, Bob Gunton (warden from Shawshank Redemption), John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher, Laurence Mason (Earl the driver), Shea Willingham (Boardwalk Empire), Trace Adkins (the country star as the leader of a biker gang) and Michael Pare (Eddie and the Cruisers). Seriously, this cast allows every scene to have something worth watching.

 The two things that prevent the movie from being top notch are the beyond-belief exaggerated moments (including about 3 too many endings) and the absolutely distracting camera work courtesy of director Brad Furman. In the hands of a more experienced director, many of the flaws could have been corrected.

This is not presented as an ultra serious courtroom drama in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Judgment at Nuremberg. Rather it is a character driven story with a multitude of twists … some of which work and some of which don’t. I found it to be  enjoyable despite the script issues and the hey-look-at-me direction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too are a sucker for courtroom dramas OR you doubt my claim that McConaughey can avoid going shirtless for 2 hours.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you demand perfection in your crime thriller scripts OR you believe the only reason to see a McConaughey movie is because he does go shirtless