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:

 

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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


DUE DATE (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Todd Phillips has become comedy director du jour thanks first to Old School and the more recent mega-blockbuster The Hangover. This film is not quite at the level of the two prior films, but it certainly holds it own in today’s multiplex. In other words, it has some laughs … even a few laugh outloud moments. Especially if you have somehow managed to avoid the trailers.

The best way I can describe this one is as an updated Planes, Trains and Automobiles, only with Todd Phillips humor, rather than John Hughes humanity. That being said, Mr. Phillips does work hard at minimizing the gross-out factor and does try to instill some true character development with Robert Downey, Jr and Zach Galifianakis. The element of fatherhood, both loss of and becoming one, plays a role as these two polar opposites bang heads for 3 days.

Ethan (Zach G) is an actor-wannabe, motivated by the sitcom “Two and a Half Men”. He is an excessively annoying individual who displays only the rarest moments of rationale behavior. Downey, Jr is reunited with his Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (a former DF Best of the Year) co-star Michelle Monaghan as an uptight architect (Peter) and his soon to deliver first child wife (Sarah). They get little screen time together, but the relationship plays a role. Circumstances cause Ethan and Peter into a rental car and cross country race to get Peter home before Sarah delivers.

The road trip includes a Western Union run-in with Danny McBride, a pit stop for glaucoma “meds” with Juliette Lewis and a quick ride from Jamie Foxx, after Ethan falls asleep at the wheel and they fly off a highway ramp. Just when things seem better, Ethan partakes in some of the medication, takes a wrong turn and the two find themselves at the Mexico border, glassy eyes and all. This all occurs while Ethan and his dog work to befriend Peter, while transporting not only the “meds”, but also Ethan’s deceased father’s ashes … in a coffee can.

Many of the gags are predictable, but some are quite funny. It doesn’t have near the gross-out element of The Hangover, except for Ethan’s pre-bedtime ritual and his matching dog. Would have liked a few more segments with cameos – maybe the other guys from The Hangover, because the attempt at making these guys appreciate each other falls a bit short. The soundtrack includes Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Cream and Pink Floyd, so there is usually a nice background tune playing. Additionally, RDJ and Zach G prove once again that they are forces of physical comedy when provided decent material.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you recognize the shooting star known as Zach Galifianakis OR road trip humor is your cup of coffee

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a masturbating dog is an automatic scene-killer for you OR you believe no one can match Steve Martin and John Candy


CONVICTION (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on a compelling true story and spurred by a “60 Minutes” segment, the film tells the story of Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank) who dedicated 18 years of her life to proving the innocence of her incarcerated brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

The natural assumption would be that Betty Anne wrote letters and hounded police and attorneys so that no one would forget Kenny. The truth is far more fascinating. From an abusive and underprivileged childhood, Betty Anne rose above all and reinvented herself once her brother was found guilty of murder. She got her GED, graduated from college, then law school, and became his attorney. With assistance from Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, old evidence was re-analyzed and witness testimony was contested. The outcome is public record and more proof that fact can be stranger than fiction.

Pamelay Gray’s script is handled by director Tony Goldwyn, who is known mostly for TV projects. He is talented enough to let the story and his excellent cast do the work. Swank, of course, is the perfect choice for this role and seems quite at ease. Rockwell, one of the more under-appreciated actors around, is very strong in capturing the lovable Kenny, as well as the red-hot tempered alcoholic who was always in trouble with the law. The relationship between this brother and sister is established via childhood flashbacks and prison visits. We never once doubt that Betty Anne would commit to this challenge, even if we do question the wisdom of doing so.

Have to mention some of the rest of the cast. Minnie Driver is Abra, Betty Anne’s law school classmate who joins her in Kenny’s cause. The movie never really explains why she does this, but she adds a nice element. Melissa Leo is the cop with a chip who railroads Kenny. We see later how her life turned out and can only think she deserves every bad thing that can happen. Ari Graynor plays Mandy, Kenny’s teenage daughter and an almost unrecognizable Clea DuVall is excellent as her mother Mandy. The performance that really jumps off the screen is that of Juliette Lewis. We first see her testifying in court and then again almost two decades later as a burned out shell of a person. Her few minutes here are staggering to watch.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another melodrama, but it is really fascinating to see what the love of a sister can accomplish. I was shocked that the end trailer didn’t mention that Kenny died in a freak accident just 6 months after his release. Betty Anne is on record as saying that while tragic, at least he died a free man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the words “based on a true story” make your heart race OR you have always wondered what a drugged-out Juliette Lewis would look like (yikes!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: movies about dirty cops annoy you OR you wouldn’t lift a finger, much less dedicate your life, to help your brother or sister