PERCY VS GOLIATH (2021)

April 29, 2021

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

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CRISIS (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best thrillers often interweave multiple story lines to create a complex web of detail for viewers to unwind. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (ARBITRAGE, 2012) serves up three story lines, all related to the current Opioid crisis. Although the film looks great and has a deep cast, we’ve seen most of this before and no new insight is provided in regards to the struggle. Instead, it’s really standard thriller fare that never goes deep enough into any of the characters to make us care.

Armie Hammer (along with the recent personal baggage attached to him) stars as Jake Kelly, a DEA Agent who has worked undercover in hopes of exposing the Armenian-Canadian-American drug traffickers responsible for a significant portion of opioids crossing the border. Hammer spends the entire movie with an intensely furrowed brow that would likely inspire distrust amongst any potential drug syndicates.

In storyline number 2, Evangeline Lilly (Wasp in the ANT-MAN movies) is Claire Reimann, an architect and recovering drug addict, who is out for vengeance when her beloved high school athlete son is found dead with drugs in his system. The third segment features Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) as Dr. Tyrone Brower, a science professor at a private Detroit university. He runs a drug-testing lab and faces a moral dilemma when questionable lab results for “the first non-addictive painkiller” puts people at risk, not to mention funding for his work.

Any one of these actors or stories could carry the weight of a movie, but when combined, they succeed only in crushing the entertainment value and tension level. Oldman’s story is easily the most interesting. It addresses how Big Pharma gets new drugs rubber-stamped by funding otherwise cash-strapped labs and schools. There is also the skepticism involved with the drug-producer’s influence over the supposedly independent FDA, and on top of all that, there is the ethical concerns of everyone putting the almighty dollar ahead of safety.

Director Jarecki (the brother of Andrew Jarecki who directed the superb 2003 documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS) kicks off the movie with a beautifully filmed, albeit brief, chase scene through the snowy Canadian forest. In fact, the camera work throughout is fine. It’s really the overloaded script that prevents any of the stories or characters from clicking. Mr. Oldman seems to sense that he needs to overcome the lack of complexity in his story, and because of the effort, loses his usual reserved cerebral approach for which he’s known.

Supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as the Dean willing to sacrifice ethics and friendship for money, Michelle Rodriguez as the DEA supervisor in a budget crunch, and Lily-Rose Depp as Jake’s strung out sister. Also contributing are Indira Varma, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Mia Kirshner, Kid Cudi, Michael Aronov, Luke Evans, and Veronica Ferres. The weakest link here is director Jarecki himself, who for some reason, thought he could play Jake’s partner … a role that would have benefited from a more refined actor.

The horrific effects of the Opioid crisis are known to most, and the film plays like a Wikipedia explanation for anyone who doesn’t read or watch the news. Certainly not helping is the “Miami Vice” type score that accompanies many scenes, and the choppy editing that causes many scenes to fail. Better movies in this genre would include THE INSIDER (1999, ironically directed by “Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann) and Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000). The obstacles faced by whistleblowers, the importance of funding to academia, budgetary concerns for law enforcement, the tragic impact of drugs on families, and the systemic corruption that has fueled the epidemic … all of these are touched on. It’s just that it all seems too obvious. If somehow you didn’t already know, the money-hungry don’t play fair – whether they be drug dealers or drug companies.

The film will hit theaters on February 26, 2021 and Digital and On Demand March 5, 2021

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NED RIFLE (2015)

April 2, 2015

ned rifle Greetings again from the darkness. The third and final entry to writer/director Hal Hartley’s trilogy provides a fitting end to the saga that began in 1997 with Henry Fool, and continued in 2006 with Fay Grim. Mr. Hartley’s style lends itself well to the indie world and film festival circuit, as he connects with unusually paced and elevated dialogue, an arid-dry sense of humor, and a slew of misfit characters.

The four main characters have been played by the same actors across all three films. Liam Aiken was only 7 years old when he first played Ned, and he becomes the focus of this final chapter. Ned is the son of Fay (Parker Posey) and Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan). When this story picks up, Fay is serving a life sentence in federal prison for terrorist activities, and Henry’s whereabouts are unknown … except by “Uncle” Simon (James Urbaniak), the garbage man-turned-poet laureate.

Ned is turning 18 years old and has spent four years in witness protection as part of a family led by a guilt-ridden Reverend (Martin Donovan). Ned has really taken to religion – especially the fire and brimstone vengeance parts. See, Ned blames Henry for Fay’s life turn and aims to gain revenge.

The first part of the movie has Ned and Susan (Aubrey Plaza) tracking down Henry. Susan is the grad student supposedly working with Fay on her autobiography, and stalking Simon for his poetic metaphysics. But of course, Susan has secrets and some are less than pleasant.

Once Henry is located, Mr. Ryan provides a nice energy boost and shift in tone. He is one glorious film character … unless of course, you are his son or some other poor schmuck left floundering in his wake of life. He and Ned don’t really have much of a bond, but Ryan and Plaza create some fireworks that some may find a bit creepy.

Just keeping up with the rapid-fire dialogue from Henry, Simon and Susan is a cinematic joy, and the off-beat humor prevents the dark material from ever reaching a bleak stage. When Ned visits Fay in prison she asks disgustedly “You’re religious?” – making it clear that she, a convicted felon, is extremely disappointed in her 18 year old son. It’s played for a laugh and gets one. There is another line spouted by Susan that includes a review of “obscene work indifferent to mainstream approval“. We have little doubt that line was written by Mr. Hartley to describe his own work.

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INHERENT VICE (2014)

January 12, 2015

inherent vice Greetings again from the darkness. What is an absolutely critical element to a good whodunit? The answer is “it”. By definition there must be an “it” that someone has performed or carried out.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel kicks off with a terrific scene that appears to set the stage for a big mystery that must be solved. But don’t fall for it … it’s really a parody of film noir that depicts the end of the care-free hippie era in southern California. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the paranoid era in southern California. Or maybe it’s something else all together. Whatever it’s meant to be, it is certainly a wild ride with a never-ending stream of colorful characters in strange situations.

Many of us consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the true creative geniuses of the film world. His 2007 There Will Be Blood was a towering achievement and complements his other films such as The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and the underrated Hard Eight. His latest veers into new territory and features one of his more outlandish characters in “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped hippie Private Investigator who never misses a chance to indulge in his marijuana habit. Welcome to 1970 SoCal.

It seems new characters and scenarios are being thrown at us in every scene, as Doc readily accepts new cases and new leads … only there really is no case, even though he spends most of the movie looking into things. His efforts find him crossing paths with his ex-girlfriend, the wife of a missing real estate tycoon, the Aryian brotherhood, a sax player who is either a Federal informant or a student dissident, a coke-fueled dentist, an Asian massage parlor, the FBI, a maritime lawyer, his pizza-delivering sometimes girlfriend who is also a District Attorney, a mysteriously named entity Golden Fang, and the tightest-wound/probably corrupt/ TV-acting police detective named Bigfoot.

Should you require additional weirdness, check out how many character names come right out of cartoons (Doc, Mickey, Bambi to name a few). Need more?  How about a soundtrack that features Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Can’s “Vitamin C”, and a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Or film stock that has the look of 70’s vintage … shot beautifully by Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit. There is just no describing the shenanigan’s other than to say the characters, situations and dialogue are alternatingly confounding and humorous. Our movie-watching brains are trained to follow a plot, but Anderson and Pynchon seem to be laughing in the face of this tradition as we try to assemble the nominally related puzzle pieces.

The cast is varied and fun. Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) plays Doc’s ex who kicks off that first scene, Eric Roberts is the kinda missing rich guy, Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a clue, Benecio Del Toro is the maritime lawyer, Owen Wilson is the sax player, Jena Malone is his clean and sober wife, Reese Witherspoon plays the DA, Martin Short is the horny dentist, Martin Donovan is another creepy rich guy, Joanna Newsome is the narrator and periodic assistant to Doc, Serena Scott Thomas (sister of Kristin Scott Thomas) plays the wife of the missing rich guy, and Maya Rudolph (the director’s real life partner) is Doc’s receptionist … and Maya’s late mother Minnie Ripperton sings “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin who really take this thing to the edge. It’s clear both are having fun, which is the best you can hope for while watching this one.

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