Harlan County War is a rare little TV movie that takes a partly fictional look at the union wars in rural Kentucky during the 1970’s, when a plucky band of coal miners and their wives took to the picket line in attempt to establish better working and living conditions. The story and title of the film have roots in the union wars of the 1930’s, which set the stage for this tale. Holly Hunter plays Ruby Kincaid, wife of Silas (Ted Levine) a miner who suffers through the harsh labor everyday. The townspeople are tired of the injuries, the deaths and the deadly black lung infections, and are given reluctant hope when compassionate union official Warren Jakopovich (Stellen Skarsgard) arrives to their county, promising change. Many locals are skeptical due to past corruption and disloyalty, but soon the company gets nasty and they realize that Jakopovich may be their only chance. Hunter is as fired up as she always is, her accent thicker than the moonshine everyone swills. I tracked this film down for Levine (Skarsgard too), and this is one of the best roles he’s ever gotten. He’s usually in character parts like the violent thug, stern general, gruff cowboy or yes, the skin stealing serial killer. Here he’s just a plain rural family man, a good hearted fellow who wants the best for his kin and county. Levine works wonders playing it straight here and I wish he’d get thrown more meaty and down to earth roles like this. Skarsgard can jump between being the most terrifying psychopath to the most comforting, sympathetic characters, and plays Jakopovich with compassion and dogged determination. The character building scenes between the three actors is brilliant. I feel like there’s a longer edit out there somewhere, because it jumps a bit and forgets to address one plot turn entirely, but alas it’s a tough one to affordably track down and this is the only version I could get. It’s made for TV and that shows at the seams sometimes, but it’s still solid drama about something important, and crafted very well.
The Fifth Patient is a super awesome amnesia thriller, in the tradition of The Bourne Identity. It stars Nick Chinlund (in one of his rare lead roles) as John Reilly, an american who awakens in a remote rural hospital somewhere in Africa, with no memory of who he is, how he got there or what’s going on. A local military official (Isaach De Bankolé) interrogates him, believing that he works for the CIA. He has several visitors including a woman who claims to be his wife (Marley Shelton) and a former colleague (Henry Czerny). Gradually he pieces together the fragments of his damaged mind and suddenly has memories of being involved in a terrorism plot, planting seeds of doubt and causing him to suspect he isn’t who they think he is at all. Now all he can trust are his instincts, wary of everyone around him and unsure of his own past. It’s a serpentine story with hefty work from Chinlund who handles all facets of the character superbly, including some third act surprises. Sometimes these type of thrillers fall apart at the seams in the conclusion, tripping over the rug they’re trying to pull out from the audience in terms of plot points. Not this one. It’s well constructed and makes concise sense of its story right up to the last frame. Also watch for work from Brendan Fehr, Olek Krupa as a mysterious russian prisoner and the great Peter Bogdanovitch in a nearly unrecognizable turn. Now, I’m fairly certain that this one was never officially released back in 2007, because you literally cannot find it anywhere, it doesn’t have a legit poster and even seems nonexistent in some databases. Years ago it popped up on Netflix canada for about a month, thus ending my tedious quest to see it. You’d think that such a solid film with the prolific actors in it would have been treated better, but for one reason or another, it’s been forgotten. Hopefully one day a distributor will pick it up, because it’s quite the well made, entertaining thriller with a crackling lead performance.
Undertaking Betty (or Plots With A View, as it’s called in the UK) is British black humour at its most brilliant, hilarious and surprisingly touching, in the tradition of stuff like Waking Ned Devine and Monty Python. It’s carefree and harmless but not without a raunchy sting that can’t help but be met with loving reception due to its charm and top drawer silliness. Brenda Blethyn plays a woman who has spent thirty years of her life in a small Welsh town, married to an absolute pig of a man (Robert Pugh). He’s a sleazeball who is shagging his slut of a secretary (Naomi Watts in full gumball sickening skank mode). Blethyn is secretly in love with the local undertaker and mortuary owner (Alfred Molina), the romance sparking up as the two try to find a way to get her away from Mr. Awful husband. Molina has the brilliant idea to fake her own death, letting her off the hook and allowing them to elope. She’s willing but reluctant, and so they proceed. Only one problem: Molina isn’t the only funeral outfit in town. Garish eccentric Frank Featherbed (Christopher Walken) and his peevy associate (Lee Evans) owns his own business and plans to steal Blethyn’s funeral for his own. Walken dials up the kook factor to the maximum and is pure genius, an entertainer at heart who believes that every funeral should have the showmanship and dazzle of a broadway show, leading to some amusingly awkward scenes. Just the fact that an american Chris Walken is working as a funeral home director way out in rural Wales is enough to bust a gut, let alone his off the wall performance. The resolution reaches comic heights that made me truly query why this film’s praises weren’t sung to high heaven upon release, but such is life, and death. The romance between Blethyn and Molina is sweet, endearing and balances out the larger than life sense of humour that the film keeps tossing around like confetti. Walken fans, dark comedy fans, film fans alike…please check this out.
David Twohy’s Below cleverly combines two genres which seem to be made for each other, yet had never met up until this film. The atmospheric ghost thriller goes on an underwater ride with the submarine film for quite the unique and eerie experience. Strange occurances happen aboard a US army submarine during a routine WWII patrol mission, starting with the rescue of several stranded British castaways from a decimated ship, including Olivia Williams and Dexter Fletcher. The Captain (Bruce Greenwood) attempts to keep his crew calm, but apparantly it’s bad luck to have a woman onboard and soon uneasiness creeps in amongst them. There’s a mystery about their quarters as well, involving the supernatural, and pretty soon crewmembers are seeing, hearing and reporting eerie stuff, which adds to the tension. The crew is rounded out by an eclectic bunch of actors including Nick Chinlund, Holt McCallany, Matthew Davis, Christopher Fairbank, and Zach Galifianakis as a guy named Weird Wally who really lives up to the name. There’s some spooky moments, high drama between the cast which they pull off well, and a twist ending that explains the ghostly elements. Underrated stuff.
I have never read the Hunger Games books, and didn’t rush out to see this first installment when it was released. I have this thing where I sometimes resist a largely popular project simply because it’s buxzingwith so much hype. There’s a word for that that I resist even more, which starts with H, but good luck getting me to admit to that. Anywho, I did watch it one day on netflix, loved the hell out of it, and have seen every subsequent entry, up til last year’s final one. It’s damn great storytelling that soars on a brilliant extended performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who is the actress of her generation and a genius of the craft no matter what anyone says. People called this a slick version of Battle Royale, and while that may be true, it’s certainly not a bad thing, and not the sole extent of what the franchise achieves. There’s stinging social commentary which both condemns and makes satirical light of modern North American culture. It examines the power of propoganda for both good and bad ends. It looks at the abuse of power, and the potent rise of fascism and fear tactics, and how quickly they can become commonplace. And this is all in a young adult orientated film that stars a strong, unhindered female protagonist. Gives you hope for the world. Lawrence is powerful as Katniss Everdeen, a young woman chosen from her district to compete in the much celebrated and very violent Hunger Games, a death tournament which serves as a purge and reminder to the citizens what it cost them to rebel against their oppressors years before. This is all at the behest of mega villain President Snow (Donald Sutherland oozes quiet malice with every articulate and icy syllable), who lives in the wealthy and decadent capitol city of Panem, a dystopian version of North America. Along with Katniss there’s also Peeta (but no hummus) a local baker’s boy played by Josh Hutcherson, who really struggles to match the skill level of almost everyone around him, especially Lawrence. They are thrust into the posh and stylized razzle dazzle of Capitol life as they train for the ruthless games, watched over by previous Victor and proud alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), as well as preening diva Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks channellig Marie Antoinette crossed with a poodle). The film takes some time to ramp up to the games, but as soon as it does the events unfold in breathless fashion set against a lush wilderness background, each and every member fighting tooth and nail to stay alive against both each other and the obstacles which gamesmasters have placed in their way. Anyone with an intense fear of wasps will want to be warned. A clever riff on the talk shows of our climate is shown, as the competitors are quizzed by Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) a manically hopped up pop personality with a hairstyle that would make a samurai jealous and teeth so white they get accused of stealing oscar nominations. Tucci is truly a well of energy and the proceedings go electric whenever he’s around. Watch for Paula Malcolmson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, a kindly fashion guru who takes a shine to Katniss and designs her a dress to end all dresses. Lawrence carries the entire thing on her mockingjay wings, making Katniss a spirit of unrest, a true symbol of hope and above all, a scared girl tossed into events she can’t possibly imagine navigating. Her performance is most of what makes these films so solid, and they couldn’t have made a better casting choice. Be sure to stay fpr the credits to hear ‘Abraham’s Daughter’, a fittingly grandiose original song by Arcade Fire.
Spotlight focuses on a devastating turn of events which were ripe for melodrama, and instead turns out to be a spare, minimalistic entry that knows how to keep things close to the chest and still be deeply affecting. Director Tom McCarthy takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to his technique, showing us an intimate glimpse at what it no doubt must have been like for these Boston reporters as they brought to light one of the most sickening and heinous atrocities of our time, the sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church, which rotted through many a priest, parish and law firm who insidiously kept their mouths shut about the whole deal. For the reporters, ignorance was just not on the table, no matter what the consequences. Rachel McAdams is tender and fearless as Sacha Pfeiffer, a keen operative who is first to smoke out a lead, bringing it to her boss, the legendary Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, (Michael Keaton), and the executive in charge of the paper, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). The matter is brought to further attention by Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who arrives from out of state. It’s Mike Rezendes though, played by a stunning Mark Ruffalo, who drives the point home, refusing to give up and shoving loads of empathy down the throats of those who would look the other way. Ruffalo is note perfect, his determind sentiment delivered with compassion and impact that lingers. He hounds diamond in the rough lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci hides the sympathy behind the sass) to allow him access to the victims, giving him something concrete to go on. The bitter side of the lawyer coin comes in the form of Eric McLeish (underrated Billy Crudup), a passively belligerent guy who is anything but cooperative until the hammer comes down. Richard Jenkins proves that he can turn in excellent work with nothing but his voice, playing a source who is heard only via phone calls. Keaton is brilliant, bringing the laid back nature and giving the character an easy listening style Boston accent. McAdams mirrors the hurt in those she interviews with eyes that echo years of suffering. Tucci comes the closest the film gets to comic relief, and then veers into dead serious mode as he realizes his character is in control of lives with the info he has, snapping to rigid attention. Watch for work from Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou, Brian D’Arcy James and Paul Guilfoyle as well. The film arrives at its destination free from obvious emotional fireworks, on screen text or sensationalism, elements which often permeate true life stories. It’s simple, to the point, grounded and diligent to story, character and truth. That approach makes it all the more shattering.
Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is a powerful, smart, grounded drama revolving around the seriousness of one’s actions, the consequences they may make even decades down the road, and the lengths that some people will go to put things right. Redford has shown only improvement throughout his career, and has been really awesome as of late (All Is Lost was a favourite for me) and he directs here with as much confidence and empathy as he puts into his performance. He plays Nick Sloan, a former underground activist who was involved in a tragic accident as a result of his protesting, and branded a domestic terrorist. He went into hiding for nearly 30 years, until an intrepid journalist (Shia Lebeouf) uncovers traces of his tracks, and he’s forced to go on the run, leaving his young daughter with his brother (Chris Cooper). Lebeouf suspects his agenda is to do more than just hide, and indefinitely stay on the run. A federal agent (Terrence Howard) makes it his tunnel vision mission to find him. Sloan’s agenda only gradually becomes clear to us, as he navigates a tricky, treacherous web of former acquaintances, trying to locate his former lover and fellow activist (Julie Christie, phenomenal in a comeback of sorts). Old wounds are slashed open, the law closes in, and Nick wrestles with the notion that despite the good he tried to do in his idealistic youth, he is indirectly responsible for bloodshed. It’s enthralling to watch Redford play this man in his twilight years trying to put things right, waist deep in decades of acting experience, supported by an amazing script and a supporting cast that you couldn’t dream up . There’s memorable appearances from Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Stephen Root, Susan Sarandon, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Susan Hogan and Nick Nolte, all in top form. For a thriller that takes itself seriously, takes its time building character and suspense, and sets itself in a realistic, believable tale that completely engrosses you, look no furthe