Nicolas Cage gives a rare internalised performance in this atmospheric drama, which has a stronger sense of its location than it does of its story. It's been so long since Cage has been this good that we've almost forgotten that he can do it (see Adaptation or of course Leaving Las Vegas). And he shares the screen beautifully with rising-star Tye Sheridan (Mud) in this strikingly observational tale about second chances.
It's set in the rural South, where Joe (Cage) is an ex-con who has rebuilt his life as a contractor. His big job at the moment is to kill trees on land being developed outside a small town. While Joe is haunted by his past, he is respected by his work crew. His only companions are his faithful dog and a prostitute (Adriene Mishler) who serves as his makeshift girlfriend. Then the 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan) arrives looking for work, and Joe takes him under his wing. Gary's father G-Daawg (Gary Poulter) is a waste-of-space drunk who causes trouble everywhere he goes, leaving the family to live squatting in a falling-down house. Joe can identify with this troubled situation, and Gary needs a real father figure, so the two begin to rely on each other.
This is about as far as the film's narrative goes, apart from a side strand that cranks into gear to push things into a somewhat overwrought final act. This relates to Joe's violent past refusing to fade away, as a local thug (Ronnie Gene Blevins) continually goads Joe to revive a long-simmering feud. Which of course threatens the delicate balance of his positive friendship with Gary. Cage and Sheridan are terrific as the soft-spoken tough-guy mentor and his fiercely determined protege who help put each others' lives into focus. And the surrounding actors are strikingly authentic, especially non-actor Poulter as the relentless loser G-Daawg, a performance made even more poignant with the news that Poulter died while living on the streets shortly after filming finished.
Continue reading: Joe Review
For this low-key comedy-drama, writer-director David Gordon Green harks back to the quirky charms of his 2003 gem All the Real Girls (rather than the overt silliness of Pineapple Express or The Sitter). This is an astute story about two men who are begrudgingly forced to look at the truth about themselves while isolated from the rest of society. It's a simple idea, beautifully shot and acted.
Set in 1988, the story centres on Alvin (Rudd), who hires his girlfriend's brother Lance (Hirsch) to work with him one summer repairing a rural stretch of Texas highway that was damaged by wildfires. These two guys have nothing in common, but share a tent as they move along the road and work through their private issues. Lance just wants someone to love, and is annoyed that he can't get a girl during weekend trips to town. And Alvin is so devoted to his girlfriend that her break-up letter comes as a deep shock. So now there's nothing really holding these two guys together aside from their pathetic loneliness.
Both Rudd and Hirsch give offhanded, natural performances that play up the comical clashes between them while hinting at much darker issues gurgling beneath the surface. Neither is very good at striking up a conversation, and their awkward interaction is both hilarious and realistically messy. But they don't have many other people to talk to. Although there's a trucker (LeGault) who provides a super-strong homemade hooch, and they have a haunting encounter with a woman (Payne) who lost everything in the fire.
Continue reading: Prince Avalanche Review
If a movie's success is measured by its ability to get under our skin and provoke a reaction, then this might be the film of the year. Designed to make us furious, this drama pushes us to the brink as we shout at the characters for being so naive. But the events depicted are based on actual experiences, and the more we think about this, the more unnerving it becomes. It might be impossible to believe that anyone could be this stupid, but can we really be sure we'd make better decisions?
Award-winning actress Ann Dowd (who also played Channing Tatum's mum in Side Effects) stars as Sandra, manager of a ChickWich fast-food outlet in Ohio. She has the usual issues with her young employees, who think she's out of touch, but is happy because she expects her boyfriend Van (Camp) to propose tonight. Then she gets a phone call from Officer Daniels (Healy) telling her that her young employee Becky (Walker) has stolen cash from a customer. He asks Sandra to detain Becky in the office and search her belongings. Sandra makes sure the assistant manager (Atkinson) is present, but she becomes more hesitant about Daniels' more extreme demands. And over the next few hours, he pushes things much further, getting Becky's young colleague Kevin (Ettinger) involved, as well as Van.
Writer-director Zobel structures the film perfectly to strike a nerve. As outsiders we are naturally more suspicious, wondering how Sandra knows that the man on the phone is actually a cop, especially when be begins to bully her with threats. She just wants to do the right thing, and questions all of Daniels' requests, but for us looking in we can't help but think that what he's saying is so preposterous that she needs to just put a stop to it. Cleverly, each character has a very distinct reaction when they get on the phone with Daniels. But as the situation escalates into something unthinkable, we can't understand why no one becomes a voice of reason.
Continue reading: Compliance Review
Set in a small and snowbound Pennsylvania town, Snow Angels at the very least looks like a town from reality, as opposed to the idyllic villages filmmakers create when they want to tell moral fables about violence and family (see Reservation Road, In the Bedroom, and so on). It starts with a high school marching band practicing in the cold, performing in a lackluster fashion that brings about a hilariously stern lecture from their instructor (played to icy perfection by Tom Noonan). Then a pair of gunshots are heard cracking through the cold air and the film flashes back to "weeks earlier."
Continue reading: Snow Angels Review
The 32-year-old director Ramin Bahrani caught my eye two years ago when his debut film Man Push Cart opened in the New Directors/New Films Festival here in New York City. Cart was based in New York, specifically Manhattan; Shop is also immersed in New York, specifically Willet's Point in Queens. The Country Club sodas, the subway-car sales-pitches, the grapefruit glow of the street lights, the flavored-ice vendors: They should print the movie tickets on MetroCards and be done with it.
Continue reading: Chop Shop Review
The same could be said for Undertow, a richly filmed human drama of two boys being raised by single father John (Dermot Mulroney). Chris (Jamie Bell), being the stronger teen, is forced to do much of the labor around their small rural farm while little brother Tim (Devon Alan) eats poorly due to stomach problems. John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) comes to stay after being released from prison to exact revenge for losing his woman and his inheritance to John, and Chris must forget his illusions of leaving familial obligations to ensure his and Tim's survival.
Continue reading: Undertow Review
Paul (Paul Schneider) is a local guy working for his uncle and living with his mother in the same house he's always called home, and his abundant sexual conquests have earned him a well-deserved reputation as a licentious heartbreaker. He spends his free time with a group of lifelong buddies, drinking and looking for his next female conquest. As one former girlfriend wisely observes, Paul's the type of sleazy good-for-nothing who'll never amount to more than what he is now: a drunken, childish buffoon with no ambition. His mother puts it more bluntly: Paul is "not educated, honest, or strong."
Continue reading: All The Real Girls Review
Recalling Days of Heaven and Sling Blade, George Washington takes us on a tour of the Deep South, centering on a preteen African-American named George (Richardson, not Washington -- played by Donald Holden), a boy whose skull bones have never fully developed. With his soft head, he wears a helmet wherever he goes and isn't allowed to go swimming, as the water would in some way soak into his brain, causing extreme pain.
Continue reading: George Washington Review
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