Greetings again from the darkness. When one thinks of casting a farmer in a legal drama, surely Oscar winner Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER, 1978) is not even on the first two pages of the casting director’s list. However, lest we forget, a great actor will make a role their own, which is exactly what Mr. Walken does here. Director Clark Johnson (known mostly for his TV acting and directing) is working from a script by co-writers Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hillary Pryor, and it’s based on the true story of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who fought corporate giant Monsanto all the way to the Supreme Court.
Walken as Percy admits, “I save my seeds.” If this were the story of canola seeds that some farmer saves each year for his crops, I’m guessing there would be little interest. But of course this is the story of one independent farmer standing up for the rights of all farmers against agricultural giant Monsanto. This is the age old story of “the little engine that could”, or the high hopes of ‘the little old ant who thought he could move the rubber tree plant.’ Percy and his wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) are grounded folks – he mostly keeps to himself, and she is known locally for her pie-baking expertise. These are good folks who are working the same land that’s been passed down for generations in his family.
The lives of Saskatchewan farmers Percy and Louise get rocked when, in 1998, Monsanto sues them for the presence of a patented formula in Percy’s canola crop. He’s no dummy, and Percy knows that he has always carefully collected his own seeds each season … just as his father taught him. He’s also a fighter, so Percy enlists local attorney Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff) to handle the case against a sea of Monsanto white man attorneys (yet another battle pitting a little guy against big money). Overly enthusiastic environmental activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci) offers help to Percy from her organization, and this leads to multiple speaking engagements for him as he literally travels around the world. Their objectives are different – Rebecca wants safe crops (not sprayed with harmful chemicals), while Percy wants independence to farm. Monsanto is there to protect their patented process that increases yields and profits.
There is a 2009 documentary that focuses on Percy Schmeiser, but I have no idea where to find it. The story is fascinating, as it involves unusual characters and the safety of food crops. Supporting work is provided by Luke Kirby and Martin Donovan, though neither are given much to work with. The joy here is in watching Christopher Walken dig in to a role that demands much from him. It’s far removed from the caricatures he often plays these days. Veteran Cinematographer Luc Montpellier (CAIRO TIME, 2009) is stuck in the courtroom a bit too much, but when the camera heads outside, he does his best work. Percy died in October 2020 at the age of 89, and director Johnson includes a photo of Percy and Louise over the closing credits. He was quite a little engine that could … and did.
In Select Theaters, on Digital and On Demand April 30
Greetings again from the darkness. We all have good days and bad. Sometimes we energetically leap from bed, while other days we barely muster the energy to push off the covers. For those who are bi-polar, those peaks and valleys are mere child’s play. When “up”, they often are filled with frenetic creativity and hyper-energy. When “down”, life holds no purpose and the simplest daily actions are deemed impossible. Medication seems to be their only hope for “normal”.
Writer-director-editor-composer Paul Dalio admits much of the story comes directly from his life and that Carla and Marco carry much of him. Katie Holmes plays Carla and Luke Kirby (Take This Waltz, 2011) plays Marco … theirs one of the few on screen meet-cutes to occur in a psychiatric hospital (not counting McMurphy and Chief). When the pendulum swings, Carla frantically scrawls out poetry based on nature and feelings. Marco is also a poet – the rapping kind – but he seems more addicted to the energy and spirit that goes with being up.
The film is really two-in-one … a star-crossed love story and a commentary on treatment (to medicate or not to medicate – that is the question). The writings and work of clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison play a vital role here, and she even appears as herself in a critical scene. Carla really wants to get “right”, especially when she discovers she is pregnant. Marco, on the other hand, spends much of his time trying to maintain the “high” as he finds life so much more fulfilling and interesting when not medicated. Marco uses the track record of many suspected bi-polar types as proof that greatness is near – Emily Dickinson, Tchaikovsky, and Van Gogh.
Bradley Cooper was Oscar nominated for his bi-polar role in Silver Linings Playbook, and both movies pay some attention to the challenges faced by families. Carla’s parents are played by Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman, while Griffin Dunne is Marco’s dad. The best intentions often fail miserably, leaving all parties feeling frustrated and emotionally distraught. The movie seems to make the argument that medication is the only real hope if a sufferer wants to live anything approaching a normal life, and it’s Ms. Jamison’s stated contention that medication will neither change the personality nor negatively impact creativity.
Katie Holmes offers up her best work since Pieces of Aprilin 2000. Of course, there was a “marriage” mixed in there that stomped down her career. This role reminds that she is capable of finding the core of a deep character. Welcome back. Spike Lee is listed as a Producer here, and Mr. Dalio says Lee, who was his NYU Film School professor, encouraged him to explore this facet of his affliction. Dalio’s wife Kristina Nikolova shared cinematographer duties with Alexander Stanishev.
The film, previously entitled “Mania Days”, does a nice job of showing us the extremism involved with being bi-polar, as well as the challenges that come from being part of the medical field or familial support staff.
Greetings again from the darkness. We have watched Sarah Polley grow up on screen. She began as a 6 year old child actress and evolved into an indie film favorite. Now, she is finding her true voice as a film director … and what a unique voice it is. In Away from Her(2009), she told the heartbreaking story of a husband’s struggle with losing his beloved wife to Alzheimer’s Disease. Now we get the story of Margot, who just can’t seem to find happiness or fulfillment within the stability of marriage.
Margot is played exceedingly well by Michelle Williams. I would say that without the casting of Ms. Williams, this film would probably not have worked. There is something about her that prevents us from turning on her character when she veers from her loyal, if a bit lacking in passion, husband Lou (played by Seth Rogen). Williams and Rogen have the little things that a marriage needs … a language until itself and the comfort of consistency. What Margot misses is the magic. She thinks she finds that in her neighbor Daniel, a rickshaw driver played by Luke Kirby. Daniel is the type that every guy inherently knows not to trust, yet women somehow fall for. He is a subtle and slow seducer. The kind that makes it seem like everything is innocent … right up until it isn’t.
Margot has that most annoying of spousal traits: she expects everyday to be like a trip to Disneyland. The best scene in the movie occurs when Lou’s sister (a terrific Sarah Silverman) confronts Margot and tells her that life has a gap and that you will go crazy trying to fill it. It’s a wonderfully insightful line from writer/director Polley. Of course, we understand that this is Margot’s nature and she learns that sometimes broken things can’t be fixed.
Another great scene occurs in the women’s locker room after water aerobics. There is a juxtaposition between generations of older women and younger ones. We see the differences not only in physical bodies, but in the wisdom that comes with age. More brilliance from the script. The one scene that I thought crossed the line was the “martini” scene. I found it tasteless, vulgar and far more extreme than what was called for at the time. But that’s a small complaint for an otherwise stellar script.
As terrific as Ms. Williams and Ms. Silverman are, I found Seth Rogen to be miscast and quite unbelievable as a dedicated cookbook-writing guy who has pretty simple, yet quietly deep thoughts about how a marriage should work. Again, this didn’t ruin the film for me, but I did find him distracting and quite an odd choice.
It’s filmmakers like Sarah Polley that keep the movie business evolving. Her viewpoint and thoughts are unique and inspirational, and should lead to a long career as a meaningful writer/director. Oh, and the use of Leonard Cohen‘s “Take this Waltz” song fit right in over the credits.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of intimate indie films OR you want to follow the career build of Sarah Polley
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer light-hearted Rom-Coms to thought-provoking relationship insights