WALKING OUT (2017)

October 5, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Man vs Nature movies tend to remind us of both our tenacity when things go badly, and our lack of control or overall insignificance in the big picture of life. This tends to be true in the mountains, on the water, under the ocean, in caves and in space. Twin brothers Alex Smith and Andrew J Smith have adapted and co-directed this film from a short story by David Quammen. The filmmakers were raised in Montana, and have an inherent feel for the stunning and often treacherous landscape.

Matt Bomer, in a sharp left-turn from his usual pretty-boy roles, plays Cal, a live-off-the-land mountain man with seemingly few needs outside of food, water and a desire to connect with his teenage son through a hunting trip. Josh Wiggins (who exploded on the scene in 2014’s HELLION) plays David, a suburban Texas boy who is out of his element without his cell phone. The opening panoramic view of snow-covered mountains is contrasted with David’s engrossed concentration on his hand-held video game as the plane approaches the landing zone. “How was your year?” is David’s greeting from Cal, instantly elucidating their relationship.

Cal excitedly reports to David that he has been tracking a bull moose for 11 weeks, and wants this to be David’s first big game kill. We are constantly reminded that this isn’t trophy hunting, and that this single moose will provide Cal enough meat for a year. David has no real interest in killing a moose, but longs to connect with his father … and “longs” is interpreted through the teenager’s shrugs, glances and body language. Wiggins plays David with the subtle authenticity of the teenagers most of us have known, raised, and at one time, been.

As Cal explains the history of the mountains, he also works in stories of his youth when his father (David’s grandfather) was teaching him the ethics of nature. Numerous flashbacks feature Bill Pullman and Alex Neustaedter (as young Cal). The flashbacks are a bit artsy, and sometimes intrusive, but in the end, form a parallel story structure that works.

A couple of poor decisions lead to an accident that could be straight out of the Dick Cheney’s field guide to hunting. Cal and David are both injured – Cal severely so. It’s at this point where David must grow up quickly. The skills he has learned, or at least absorbed, are now necessary if he expects to save his father’s life. What was a story of two polar opposite blood relatives trying to connect, transitions instantaneously into one of survival, maturity, persistence, and love.

Movies such as THE REVENANT and THE EDGE come to mind, but this one is short on thrills, and is instead a trudging struggle to survive – taking a quiet approach, rather than a showy one. Lily Gladstone, fresh off her terrific work in CERTAIN WOMEN, has a brief sequence near the film’s end. The beautiful landscape and terrain is captured by cinematographer Todd McMullen, while Ernst Reijseger’s score effectively complements the odd mixture of slow pacing and non-stop danger. Whether you are trying to live a reclusive life off the land, or simply one of the many parents attempting to connect with their kids, keep in mind that regardless of the beauty of the mountains, “snow is not our friend”.

watch the trailer:

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MEAN DREAMS (2017)

March 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was one month to the day since the shocking news that Bill Paxton had died when I sat down to watch one of his final two movies (the other being The Circle, which hits theatres in a few weeks). His searing performance in this low-budget drama made me realize just what a gaping hole he leaves in the film world … and how fitting that his character is the antithesis of Paxton’s real world nice guy persona.

Director Nathan Morlando opens with a shot of a peaceful stroll through rural prairie land, providing no indication of the quietly intense misery that is coming. Jonas (Josh Wiggins) is a teenage boy working daily on the family ranch when he meets Casey (Sophie Nelisse), the new girl in town. The two quickly hit it off, and connect in a way neither has before. Jonas soon realizes that Casey’s cop dad (Paxton) abuses her, and spontaneously can shift between country charm and frightening intimidator.

Writers Kevin Coughlan and Ryan Grassby do a nice job of using minimal dialogue and subtle interactions to round out these characters. Paxton plays a corrupt cop who is an alcoholic and abusive dad, and a man overly protective of his daughter and distrusting of outsiders. Casey is played by Sophie Nelisse, who was so good in The Book Thief (2013). She is a smart girl who fears not just her father, but also a life that may prevent her from ever seeing the ocean. Josh Wiggins plays Jonas as a strong-willed young man who believes people should do the right thing, especially for their loved ones. Wiggins made a terrific film debut in 2014’s Hellion.

There is a lot going in this little independent feature. It’s a coming of age story, and a reminder of the anxiousness of youth and the power of first love. It’s also a disturbing story of a rotten-to-the-core man who has lost his way (if he ever had it). Lastly, it’s a chase movie that features a blend of beautiful and harsh scenery – filmed mostly in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. There is a tremendously tense sequence shot with the limited perspective offered by the covered bed of a pickup truck; and it’s a contrast between two youths trying to escape their situation, and two bad cops with little redeeming value. Maybe we’ve seen similar type movies, but never one with two excellent young actors and a menacing performance from the late great Bill Paxton.

watch the trailer:


HELLION (2014)

April 14, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

hellion Greetings again from the darkness. This is the perfect Film Festival movie: low budget, recognizable star trying something new, up and coming director, and potential star in the making newcomer. While it has an air of familiarity, there was enough here to make it one of my favorites from the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival.

Writer/director Kat Candler has a real feel for creating real moments for characters, as she expands her 2012 short to feature length. She was also wise enough to nab cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who did such a great job with Short Term 12 (one of my top six films of 2013). The blue collar life gets a twist here as Aaron Paul (on top of the world after “Breaking Bad“) plays an alcoholic, emotionally-distant, grieving widower having to deal with his two sons when he can barely make it through a day. This is certainly a different kind of role for Mr. Paul, and he shows real depth with minimal dialogue.

As impressive as Paul is, the real find here is young Josh Wiggins as Jacob. It’s his first screen role and he absolutely owns the role of the big brother lashing out at his dad, corrupting his little brother (due to jealousy) and dealing with things that kids his age shouldn’t have to. Not to give away much, but one too many incidents leads to a visit from Child Protective Services, and just like that … the family is torn apart again.

The real guts of the story is the parallel paths of father and son as they react to the displacement of little Wes (Deke Garner). Neither seems to fully accept the role they played in this mess, but both carry sorrow and anger the way males often do. Both pursue their own idea of proving something to Wes and to themselves – in very different ways. Juliette Lewis seems a bit out of place as Paul’s sister, and is the only minor misstep in the script. We needed either more on her, or less.

Rural Texas and the challenges of youth are captured through so many details, and the realistic feel of dialogue and setting certainly stands out here … as does the spot on camera work. This is one of the little movies I am really rooting for, because if it gets a chance, many will share my appreciation.

** watch the Sundance Film Festival interview with Kat Candler: