BURDEN (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For someone to truly change their core being, they must have a reason. “Because it’s the right thing to do” is usually not enough … it must be something much deeper like self-preservation or love. For Mike Burden, self-preservation was what kept him loyal to the Ku Klux Klan, while love is what drove him to walk away. The film is based on a true story from 1996 in Laurens, South Carolina, and it’s the feature film directorial debut of Andrew Heckler (who also wrote the screenplay).

Garrett Hedlund plays Mike Burden, a war veteran and dedicated Klan soldier who helped open the Redneck KKK Museum. The leader of the local KKK chapter is Tom Griffin, played by Tom Wilkinson. Griffin is a despicable man and a father figure to Mike. The great Forest Whitaker (Oscar winner for THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, 2006) plays local Reverend Kennedy, who preaches love and forgiveness while leading his congregation in protest of the new museum.

Poverty permeates the town of Laurens every bit as much as racism. Mike is employed by Griffin in his repo business, and drives around town in a truck advertising ‘Plantation Concrete’, a business name obviously selected for effect. These poor southern whites take out their frustrations on the only group they view as lower than themselves – local black folks.

Mike’s job has him crossing paths with Judy (the always excellent Andrea Riseborough), a single mom just trying to survive and raise her son the right way. Sparks fly between Mike and Judy, and she delivers an ultimatum. His choice to walk away from the Klan for love means his life, and Judy’s, gets immediately much tougher. An extraordinary act of kindness from Reverend Kennedy has its own ramifications, and the complexity of racism begins to show.

Supporting characters are played by Tess Harper (Tom’s wife), musician Usher Raymond (Judy’s friend), Crystal Fox (Reverend Kennedy’s wife), and Dexter Darden (Reverend Kennedy’s teenage son). Each of these characters offers a glimpse at how hatred evolves and perpetuates, especially in a poverty-stricken small southern town. Unfortunately, two hours is simply not enough to dig deep or make sense of systemic racism. However, personalizing the feelings can shine some light on the topic.

Director Heckler met with Reverend Kennedy in the late 1990’s and was able to write the story based on the conversations. As the film ends, we see actual clips of interviews with Reverend Kennedy, Judy, and Mike Burden … leaving us to wonder if a stellar documentary might be buried in the video vault. The film was an audience winner at Sundance in 2018, and it appears 8-10 minutes have been edited out, leaving a better paced film. The hand-held camera work works against the natural drama and tension of most scenes, although the film does provide some insight into how a person might go about rehabilitating their own poisoned thoughts. And that’s certainly worth a look.

watch the trailer:

FRANK (2014)

August 31, 2014

frank Greetings again from the darkness. Most movies fit pretty easily into a genre: drama, comedy, action, etc. This latest from film festival favorite Lenny Abrahamson is tough to classify. It begins with silly and funny inner-dialogue from an aspiring musician/songwriter (Domhnall Gleeson), transitions into a dark dramady with complex characters and dialogue, and finishes as a bleak statement on mental illness and the music business.

That’s more than I would typically disclose, but some have described the film as an outright comedy and I find that unconcsionable. If you are expecting a laugh riot, you will not only be disappointed, but are likely to miss the unique perspective provided.

The screenplay is written by The Men Who Stare at Goats collaborators Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. Clearly inspired by the late British comedian and musician Chris Sievey (and his character Frank Sidebottom), Mr. Ronson’s work with Mr. Sievey is the driving force. It’s also the reason Gleeson’s character is emphasized over Michael Fassbender‘s titular character who dons the paper mache head for the bulk of the movie. This script decision probably keeps the film from reaching greatness.

The exceptional and attention-grabbing first 15 minutes set up a movie that dissolves into an exploration of the creative process within mental illness … Franks states numerous times that he has a certificate (certifiable). There is also an ongoing battle between art and commerce, as waged by Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s character and that of Gleeson. Social Media power is on full display as this avant-garde performance art band gathers a huge following prior to ever really producing any music.

Fassbender is somehow exceptional in his “masked” performance, and it’s very interesting to see Ms. Gyllenhaal in a different type role. Gleeson lacks the charisma to carry the film, but the supporting cast of Scoot McNairy (who I think should have played the Gleeson role), Francois Civil, Carla Azar (Autolux drummer) and Tess Harper all deliver and prevent the film from drooping.

Without seeing Frank’s facial expressions, we witness his transformation from mystic/guru to an unstable and socially uncomfortable dude striving for likability, but unsure what the term really means. Must artists suffer for their art? Why does society latch onto the newest social media gimmick? What is creative success and why are so many afraid of it? The film begs these and other unanswerable questions. Certainly interesting, but definitely not 90 minutes of laughter.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have always had a secret desire to be a rock star wearing a giant paper mache head at all times (and who hasn’t?) OR you have an interest in the role of creativity in treating mental illness.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are expecting some gimmicky comedy like Ted … though this one is funnier than Howard the Duck.

watch the trailer:



TENDER MERCIES (1983) revisited

January 22, 2014

tender mercies Greetings again from the darkness. What a cinematic treat to revisit this movie on the big screen some 30 years after its release. Standing in stark contrast to the superhero and graphic novel special effects extravaganzas of today, this little film takes a slow, simmering approach as it deals with real emotions of life.

Robert Duvall won his only (so far) Oscar (he’s been nominated 6 times) for playing Mac Sledge, a divorced former C&W singer/songwriter who spends each day trying to kill the pain by draining bottles of booze. The similarities to Jeff Bridges’ 2009 film Crazy Heart are unmistakable, but this film is much quieter with emotions being relayed through the eyes and body language of the key characters.

Mac’s gradual path to redemption comes courtesy of war-widow Rosa Lee, played exceedingly well by Tess Harper (her first feature film). Rosa Lee runs a gas station/hotel while raising her young boy named Sonny (Allan Hubbard in his only screen appearance). As the story develops, we meet Mac’s ex-wife Dixie, played by a bombastic Betty Buckley (the mom from TV’s “Eight is Enough”, a Tony winner, the helpful teacher in the original Carrie) as she lives a life of luxury and insecurity courtesy of a career singing Mac’s songs. Their daughter is played by Ellen Barkin in only her second screen appearance (Diner, 1982). Dixie’s manager offers us a chance to see the always superb Wilford Brimley with his drawling charm.

The story was written by the remarkable Horton Foote (a native Texan), who also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Mr. Foote also won an Oscar for adapting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen, was nominated for The Trip to Bountiful, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and was nicknamed the “American Chekov”. His works always captured the essence of what makes people tick, and how they deal with adversity. He passed away in 2009 at age 92.

Australian director Bruce Beresford was coming off the masterful Breaker Morant (nominated for his screenplay) and was surprised to be chosen to direct his first American film. He would later go on to direct Driving Miss Daisy, winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Mr. Beresford is now in his 7th decade of film work spanning his 1959 short film and his TV mini-series “Bonnie & Clyde” from 2013.

This is such a no-frills, down-to-earth presentation that it’s easy to be tricked into thinking it’s a simple story about simple people. Instead, these are complicated folks leading complicated lives in a seemingly quiet manner. Mostly they are re-assembling the pieces as best they can … some are better at it than others. The core of these people is captured in Mac’s line: “I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will“.

***NOTE: Wilford Brimley, a former Marine in the Korean War, spent time as personal bodyguard to billionaire Howard Hughes.

***NOTE: Not to be outdone in reference to billionaires, Ellen Barkin spent 7 years married to Ron Perelman, billionaire Chairman of Revlon.  She has since resumed her career.

watch the original trailer: