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:

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THE BOOK THIEF (2013)

December 1, 2013

book thief1 Greetings again from the darkness. You may be familiar with the source material – the huge best selling novel from Markus Zusak. If not, you may be surprised at the “through the eyes” of an illiterate, orphaned child’s perspective of the German home front during WWII. You may be more surprised to learn that it’s narrated by The Grim Reaper (British actor Roger Allam), and includes a Nazi rally, book-burning, bomb shelters, a look at the anti-Jew and anti-Communist movements, the German conscription/military draft and the dangers associated with hiding a Jew in one’s basement (with similarities to “The Diary of Anne Frank”).

book thief2 There is no denying the melodramatic nature of the story and the presentation from director Brian Percival, but this one avoids schmaltz thanks to the remarkable performances of the internationally diverse cast led by the great Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and especially Sophie Nelisse as the incredibly perceptive Liesel who provides the innocence and powers of observation that prove to us (and Death) that good people will do extraordinary things no matter the atrocious conditions. Another young actor to keep an eye on is Nico Liersch, who plays Liesel’s Aryan schoolmate Rudy … a dreamer who imagines himself as Jesse Owens (not a popular view among the Nazi powers that be).

book thief 3 As Liesel’s foster parents, Rush plays a warm-hearted WWI veteran, and Watson plays a cantankerous, grounded woman hiding the emotion she carries for her husband and new daughter. The biggest piece of hiding involves Max, a young Jewish man who is the son of a soldier who once saved the life of Rush’s character. Max and Liesel have a wonderful bond as he teaches her to speak through her eyes and she nurses him back to health by sharing her new found joy of reading.

The ghost of the boy who lived in the shadows … from H.G. Wells “The Invisible Man” plays a key role as Liesel tries to make sense of a world that delivers a daily dose of relentless danger. As she develops her love and dependence on the written word, it’s clear that to survive in these times, one must have something that provides hope. The unusual story structure with the odd narrator, and a mix of wry humor, keep us connected with the characters and allows the humanity to shine through. Still, I challenge you to watch this without a lump in your throat.

**NOTE: the score is from the great John Williams, who once again excels in complimenting emotional storytelling.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the melding of a child’s innocence and strength can be enough to overcome the pain and shame of seeing how the Nazi movement affected so many, at least for a two hour period.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you care not to revisit any of the suffering and caused by WWII (even if it’s within a story of personal strength and survival)

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92EBSmxinus