#118 - Veni Vidi Veni
The Lusty Lady
1985 (?) - 2010
Hollywood appears to be on a mission to drive me away from cinemas, perhaps forever. Checking my local listings has become almost as depressing a read as a Sylvia Plath book. About the only trick the studios haven’t tried is convincing theatre-owners to hose down their lobby with urine and fill every auditorium with angry bees. But the majors’ loss is the indies’ gain. There are still plenty of good reasons to head out to the movies. They just require a bit more of a search. This weekend, instead of wasting my time on sparkly vampires or the latest death spasm of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, I played catch-up in the minor leagues with two movies hopefully now playing at a theatre within a 100-mile radius of you.
NOW IN THEATRES
Authenticity is a difficult trait for movies to capture. At the risk of pointing out the blatantly obvious, there are too many factors that go into making reality real. Even if every actor is perfectly cast, every costume and set is perfectly detailed, every accent is spot-on and every line of dialogue is natural and unaffected, movies are still only working with two of the five senses. Debra Granik’s spellbinding Winter’s Bone is the real deal. This movie is so authentic, I could smell it. Every shot smells of livestock, axle grease and blood.
Jennifer Lawrence is forceful and confident as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old Missouri girl forced to drop out of school and raise her younger siblings after her mom suffers a nervous breakdown. Her drug-dealing father is out of the picture, that is until the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) stops by looking for him. It seems the old man has a court date coming up and put up the house and property to pay his bond. But now, no one seems to know where he is. To keep her family from losing everything, Ree goes looking for her dad, poking into some dangerous, tight-knit corners of her family tree with secrets they’d prefer stay buried.
In mood and tone, Winter’s Bone bears a certain similarity to Frozen River, the 2008 drama that nabbed an Oscar nomination for star Melissa Leo. If there’s any justice, Winter’s Bone will also be remembered come Oscar time. Jennifer Lawrence certainly deserves a nomination for her mature, multi-faceted performance. Equally deserving is John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. Hawkes was terrific as Sol on Deadwood and as the divorced shoe salesman in Miranda July’s Me And You And Everyone We Know. Winter’s Bone shows us an entirely different side of him. It’s a dangerous, frighteningly intense performance that only gets richer and more complex as the film goes on.
With Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik creates a movie that is both a gripping suspense thriller with creepy Southern Gothic overtones and a raw, insightful human drama. The actors are ideally cast down to the smallest role. Michael McDonough’s cinematography is cold, sparse and haunting. The screenplay by Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell) propels the story without ever sacrificing character. Winter’s Bone is a brilliant and utterly compelling film not to be missed. (* * * ½)
The Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, have been sort of hovering around the periphery of my film knowledge for awhile now. Their movies, including The Puffy Chair and Baghead, seemed interesting enough to add to my rental queue but not so compelling that I’ve made them a priority. Their latest effort, Cyrus, piqued my interest with a genuinely funny trailer and a rock-solid ensemble cast. And while it may not be a perfect movie, it’s definitely worthwhile and more affecting than you might expect.
The always great John C. Reilly stars as John, a desperately lonely and depressed guy who’s been struggling to get over his divorce for the past seven years. His ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is about to remarry and encourages John to go to a party with her and her fiancé. He meets Molly (Marisa Tomei) and immediately hits it off with her. Things are going great until he meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s 21-year-old son who still lives at home. John thinks he’s kind of a weird kid but isn’t prepared for how far Cyrus will go to break them up.
The movie’s cast and premise might lead you to expect something from the Judd Apatow School of R-Rated but Heartfelt 21st Comedy. I could easily see it myself and it would probably be pretty good. But the Duplass brothers do something riskier and far more interesting with the material. The movie’s funniest moments are little gems of subtle deadpan humor. And just when you expect the movie to explode into broad comedy, the Duplass brothers turn serious and scale back even more. A lot of the credit for making this work belongs to Jonah Hill. I like Hill and thought he was very funny in movies like Superbad but never really considered him as an actor. He’s surprisingly good as Cyrus, making him devious and more than a little creepy but also making us empathize with this socially awkward young man whose best (and probably only) friend is his mother. Reilly and Hill play off each other brilliantly and it’s great fun watching them spar. The movie’s biggest weakness is Marisa Tomei’s character, who is never developed quite as much as I would have liked. As usual, Tomei does terrific work with what she’s given but I wanted to know more about what made her tick.
By the time it was over, Cyrus hadn’t made me laugh out loud quite as much as I’d been expecting (although I did laugh on more than a few occasions). But I had become invested in these characters and their story. It’s a slightly unusual take on a timeworn genre, just different enough to give the movie an edge all its own. Immediately afterward, I wasn’t sure the movie would stay with me but it has and gets better the more I think about it. (* * *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
I have very mixed feelings about Lawrence Kasdan as a filmmaker. On the one hand, he’s made Body Heat, Silverado, and I Love You To Death, all pretty good movies. On the other, I’m not a great fan of The Big Chill or Grand Canyon, both of which I find pretty insufferable. His most recent directorial effort, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, was so awful that I don’t even want to put it in either of my hands. Mumford was released in 1999 and all but vanished from public consciousness about two weeks later. I’m not terribly surprised it failed to find an audience because it is an odd duck of a movie. But it’s also strangely endearing, pleasant and worth revisiting on DVD.
Loren Dean stars as Mumford, a newly-arrived psychologist to a small town of the same name. He quickly attracts a lot of attention, beloved by his patients (including Jason Lee as a high-tech billionaire and Pruitt Taylor Vince as a lonely pharmacist) for his advice and non-judgmental style. But Doc Mumford has a few problems of his own. For one thing, he’s falling in love with one of his patients (Hope Davis). On top of that, the other mental health professionals in Mumford (David Paymer and Jane Adams) are digging into his secret past, egged on by a weaselly attorney (Martin Short).
Kasdan’s movie is most assuredly a throwback to the folksy comedies made by Frank Capra in the 30s and 40s. Capra loved idyllic American towns populated by large, quirky ensembles. The idea that all you need to become a psychologist is common sense and the ability to listen well would definitely find a sympathetic ear with Capra. I think part of the reason Mumford failed to find its audience is its wholly unnecessary R rating. Clean up some of the language and cut a few instances of gratuitous nudity and the movie might have resonated with the same audience who embraced Pleasantville. As it stands, these more modern elements stick out like a sore thumb. But the cast is strong (always a pleasure to see Martin Short in action) and the overall vibe is friendly and good-natured.
For a movie that bills itself as a comedy, Mumford doesn’t have many laughs. It’s the kind of comedy that works on good will and sentiment more than gags. It’s a light puff pastry of a movie, enjoyable and satisfying without really filling you up. It doesn’t quite make the case that Lawrence Kasdan is a great filmmaker but he’s certainly capable of good work and it’s too bad that we haven’t seen more from him lately. (* * *)
See Spot Run
Every so often, I’ll receive a TFTQ recommendation that I’m highly dubious about. But since the whole point of this exercise is to see movies I otherwise wouldn’t…in for a penny, in for a pound. I was not chomping at the bit to see See Spot Run, a slapstick family comedy starring David Arquette from 2001, and probably could have comfortably lived the rest of my life without it. But now that I have seen it, I have to admit that it’s certainly not as dreadful as I was expecting.
Arquette plays a dog-hating mailman who volunteers to look after his sexy neighbor’s son to try and score some points (Leslie Bibb plays the neighbor, Angus T. Jones from Two And A Half Men is the son). The two of them end up taking in a dog who, unbeknownst to them, is an FBI K-9 that mobster Paul Sorvino wants rubbed out. Also on the dog’s tail is FBI agent Michael Clarke Duncan, frantic with concern for his partner.
No fewer than half a dozen writers are credited with cobbling this film together, including Midnight Run scribe George Gallo, which gave me some hope. That hope dimmed when I learned that director John Whitesell’s other credits include Big Momma’s House 2 and Malibu’s Most Wanted. Admittedly, I am by no means the intended audience for this movie. It’s aimed squarely at kids who aren’t going to mind the fact that the movie stops dead to allow David Arquette and Anthony Anderson to show off their breakdancing skillz because they got served. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Leslie Bibb has to go through hell to get back home. If you see a puddle of mud, rest assured it will wind up all over her. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
But (and I’m only a little ashamed to admit this) parts of the movie did make me laugh. It’s a silly slapstick comedy and a lot of the ridiculous Three Stooges aspects of the movie are executed quite well. It’s obvious, predictable and as low-brow as you can get, but it works. Arquette frequently gets a bad rap, probably because of those god-awful commercials he used to make that really did make you want to punch him in the face. But he’s pretty good in this, carrying the movie with energy and gleefully playing an idiot. Like I said, this movie isn’t for me but if I had kids, See Spot Run wouldn’t be the worst movie I could imagine them enjoying. (* *)
Thanks to Greg Robinson and Ron M. Hatchell for this week’s TFTQ suggestions! Got a movie that you like that nobody else seems to know about? Sure you do! Send me an email or click the happy little “thumbs-up” icon on JET’s Facebook page and tell me all about it. I look forward to having my horizons broadened.