Sunday, February 27, 2011
BECAUSE, THE SUPER BOWL NOT WITHSTANDING, THE SO-CALLED BADGER, BOOZER, CHEESE HEAD, FAT CHICK LOVIN' STATE ABOVE ALL STATES HAS NEVER HAD A REASON TO STEP ITS VOICE UP TO THIS NOTCH UNTIL A CERTAIN CROSS EYED POLITICO DREW HIS LINE IN THE FLUFFY MADISON SNOW.
Friday, February 4, 2011
(I) HOLD YOU
(TO A) SOLID ABANDON
YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE LIVED
NO LASTING IMPRESSIONS
THAT A BULLET COULDN'T TOP
YOU MADE (SELFISH) A LASTING WISH
FOR OTHERS TO CUT/ AND/ PASTE/ TO/ SUIT/ THEIR NEEDS
A FALLING, FLAILING SOUND EFFECT
SERVING DEAF EARS (YOU)
DESERVED. TO. BE. HEARD.
ON LIVING TERMS AND
SPLIT CHECKED AGAINST
MOTHER NEVER APPROVED OF
YOU LET THE
IN? (and worse)
50 states, 50 films... a non-linear, cinematic road trip (part 2)
By Richard Ostrom
Thus begins the second installment of my rather meandering attempt to marry at least one piece of motion picture art to each of the 50 of Uncle Sam’s little darlings. This month, I cast a glance at four separate slices of solid filmmaking based around criminal mindsets and/or the unfortunates who often suffer by association. Thus, the metaphoric road trip ambles on.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle: Massachusetts, don’t know it, never been there, specifically Boston, the biggest, baddest city within its boarders, working class and bullshit allergic from what I gather. I suppose there are plenty of easily accessed, highly touted cinematic essays on this city and state it is planted in. I could hit up anything from the recent spate of top dollar adaptations of native son author Dennis Lehane’s work (Clint Eastwood’s grandiose Mystic River or Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone perhaps?). I could even touch on Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort, The Town, an epic bank heist drama that batters its way through the thick of Boston’s criminal underbelly. It’s all legit, well done, commercial thriller business that goes significant lengths in cementing Affleck’s behind-the-camera cred. Props to all involved on this thing, the film as a whole conveys the specifics of its locale (explicitly, the criminal breeding ground of the rugged, blue-collar Charlestown neighborhood) and treats all involved parties (people, places, things) with a great level of respect; this is no B-grade also-ran, but, despite all this and for the purposes of this piece, I’m inclined to move on to another film altogether.
I suppose I will stick to the Boston underworld, but, how’s about we kick it back a few decades and bring up the quirk appeal in both the front line and supporting character ranks? Good idea, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and its wonderfully shopworn lead, Robert Mitchum invites any interested parties on a ride through the day-to-day struggles of the titular, low-ranked career criminal wrestling with the nagging distractions of potential incarceration and a shifty gun runner with a tendency to haggle. The film realizes this sad sack’s seemingly irrevocable dilemma by way of a polished combination of crisp screenwriting funneled through fine-etched performances by old man Mitchum, Alex Rocco, Richard (‘have a nice day’) Jordan and even the ever watchable Peter Boyle as the one “friend” that proves to be poor Eddie Coyle’s ultimate undoing.
This whole thing unfolds at a measured pace care the informed, veteran guiding hand of an Englishman named Peter Yates (who passed away just a few scant days into this year), whose body of work covered everything from an infamous Steve McQueen car chase thriller (Bullet) to would-be blockbusters that really weren’t (Krull, The Deep). This film is a semi-early career entry (circa 1973) that the director himself sites as one of his own favorites (as voiced in the Criterion edition commentary track in which Yates also emphasizes the value of the picture’s on-location shooting credo). The absorption of and interaction with the surrounding elements of the Boston metro area and related outskirts maintains a semblance of what I’d gather to be a genuine flavor of the period in this chosen locale. This Yates/Mitchum almost-classic sports more than a passing fatherly fraternity with the current, far more commercially embraced Affleck epic mentioned at the head of this article. Both trade heavy on regional accents and attitudes, both outline their illegal empires as a tad nervous and at risk of collapse, and both films address the subject of bank robbery as a greatly embraced avenue of financial gain. In the end of it all (for both pictures, actually) there is a morale the story must adhere to and justice must be meted out, often in the form of bloodshed.
‘Tis a hard form of livin’ over there in the thick of the big city, perhaps robbing banks and running firearms has something to do with it, just a passing guess. (criterion.com) spine #475.
Onward, over and up a spell to the north now.
Brother’s Keeper: One of the finest documentaries ever made. Had to say it, always wanted to put down words in favor of this baby for some time now and never got around to it, now’s the time. Upstate New York, early 1990s, is the setting (the minor townships, Munnsville and Stockbridge, in particular) and a trio of socially primitive farm-based brothers, the Ward boys, are the focal point. A fourth male sibling’s alleged murder is at the heart of it all.
It appears that said “late” Ward brother had been in nagging pain and discomfort for some time before he was finally found dead in the very shack he occupied with his fellow Wards for years on end. The surrounding, rather insulated community is thrown into a headline-making legal whirlwind when authority figures seek to convict one Delbert Ward for allegedly smothering his brother Bill out as a mercy killing, but a killing nonetheless. What follows is a hypnotic, immersive study of very off the radar, small town culture and, even more explicitly, three of the most humble “simple folks” ever uncovered by a form of media (thankfully it’s care of skilled documentarians Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger rather than some woeful, sensation-minded hacks). Each Ward brother is such a colorful shade of country character and they hold such fascinating, toil-aged faces meant to linger on in the memory.
As the drama intensifies and ol’ Delbert finds himself court bound to stand trial for that which he may or may not have gone and done, the film begins to peel away at the layers of this small-scale variant of society. Locals come out of the fog-draped countryside and area shops and diners to lend support (both moral and financial) for the Ward boys as the sheer level of shock swiftly being introduced into their basic lives threatens to upend them permanently.
You see, these boys have spent the lion’s share of their days on earth minding their own business via chores and such and they rarely set to bother with anybody. They lack even a fraction of a proper education and with minimal reading/writing skill sets, they are prime fodder for the formal brain trust of the New York legal system. None of the lads can hear worth a damn (especially Roscoe, who strains his ears endlessly) and one brother, Lyman, suffers from a naturally excessive nervous disposition which comes to an apex in an unsettling bout of courtroom questioning).
I’m not going to play spoiler and even hint at the outcome of the trial or methodically explain away all the subtleties and surprises of this longtime fave, suffice it to say, this here’s yet another pivotal reminder of the strong significance of the documentary format in cinema. No fiction film can, as the cliche so implies, render life as truly “stranger than.” You can’t so easily invent human curiosities like the Ward brothers, not in some focus group-based script conference.
This Berlinger/Sinofsky pairing has made a small, yet stable, career stake with this and a succession of non-fiction profiles lionizing grade A misfit types. Witness later films like the two West Memphis Three-based Paradise Lost pictures and even a dopey, past-prime metal band that lesser minds still ignorantly declare as “heavy” in the overlong but not entirely useless Some Kind of Monster for further evidence.
This here skin of the teeth, 16mm effort is still their finest achievement, marrying surreal (to some) small town ethics and the grander scheme of things that most folks dub “the real world.” The DVD reissue even manages to supply a previously abandoned sequence of the Ward fellas joining the filmmakers for a romp around the streets of Manhattan, giving us the chance to see the lads surrounded by the pre-9/11 sprawl of New York state’s most famous tourist haunt. Sometimes, as cultures collide, great art results. (docurama.com)
Ballast: Now on to the Mississippi Delta and another (southern) spin on the rural impoverishment thing. This spare, imperfect experiment in deep-drawn, thought-before-superficial-action storytelling seeks to weave its way into the emotional landscape of an audience member by allowing the texture of the main characters’ behaviors and gesture patterns carry the gravity of the rather sparse basic storyline farther than a wealth of hyperbole disguised as dialogue-laden screenwriting ever could. The fractional set up is thus: a man’s abrupt suicide leaves his brother (Michael J. Smith), an ex-wife (Tarra Riggs) and their heavily influential offspring (Jim-Myron Ross) to deal with the inevitable ripple effect such a violent act of self-absorbed defeatism is bound to instigate.
The trio live, work and cross each others’ damaged paths in a narrow little slice of poverty-level existence that seems to consist of desolation, petty crime, barely serviceable employment options and far too much quiet time spent alone inside one’s own head. The expected tensions arise not far removed from the moment the film establishes itself and begins to let its invented personas move about in this hope-deficient space of countryside nothingness it has cruelly provided for them. The man, named Lawrence, once held a passing dream of running a prosperous radio station with his now late sibling. In truth, the pair were forced over to the more practical constraints of owning and operating a roadside gas and stop convenience shack. The ex-wife has apparently moved on from drug addiction toward laboring over public toilets and, later, attempting to home school her son as a means to occupy his time away from depreciative nearby thugs.
The film is a stable, very credible debut from a guy named Lance Hammer (who once helped to fatten his resume with art direction/effects work on the two erroneous Joel Schumacher Batman sequels). Hammer savors the art of restraint in his handling of this heavy material and he shows a gift in his widescreen design scheme that allows the empty spaces that background the drama to, at times, even help to enhance the richness of the pervading sense of loss and dire dread at what (if anything) lies ahead. He fills his meager cast with area non pros who succeed in enhancing the regional flavor in effortless, small scale ways no top-line, overpriced line up ever could.
True to this less than perky synopsis, this is a film best suited to those with a taste for deep themes and the heavy treatment that, logically, often accompanies them. This is also not a story that has been designed to spell every moment out with utter, interpretation-defying clarity, Ballast is a tale of pain and fracture, told so as to elect intrigue if not complete understanding. This is a visit to a far to the side place that, while not all that appealing as a potential future hangout spot, is still given up as a quality study in hard living by what feels like real people at large in the same real world as ours, albeit against a bleak southern frontier of sorts, but real all the same. (ballastfilm.com)
Hold on, I gots some more depressing country shit for y’all...
Winter’s Bone: Placed deep in the Ozarks (that little plateau shared between Missouri and Arkansas) on the Show Me State side, is the strange, uncertain and not entirely how you’d think it would unfold saga of one headstrong, near-woman type named Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) who tires of aimlessly tending to her two younger siblings and vacant, speechless mother and sets to discovering the whereabouts of her wayward, drug-dealing pops. Her lack of relent gradually leads her to discover the less savory branch of the local, often interrelated, populace.
You see, believe it or don’t, one chief network of economic prosperity in these here parts involves the manufacture and distribution of that favored white trash sleep retardant, crystal meth. Also, folks who would deal in such legally unabiding practices tend not to respond in a pleasant light to any level of snooping and prying, so, in short haste, our plucky heroine finds herself skirting serious violence or worse as the shadows open up some and the bad people begin to appear.
The lass’s only dependable base of assist in all this turns out to be her, at first glance, unsavory uncle Teardrop (John Hawks), a speed-addled and emotionally conflicted hellion type who ultimately comes to rival his niece’s desire to gain knowledge of her father’s fate, even as that leads them both well away from the good graces of those with the means (and motivation) to quiet them both in the permanent sense. Given this borderline stereotype-inducing outline, one might lower expectations and proceed expecting a high-end Lifetime movie with injections of stale, hillbilly melodramatics. Perhaps a backwoods crime drama with a safe, pat conclusion that fells the baddies and whisks our girl Ree onward to finer pastures.
Not gonna happen. Director Debra Granik prefers to put an audience through much of the same uncomfortable uncertainty as her protagonist. Young lead actress Lawrence possesses her role and casts herself with fearless abandon upon a cruel environ cluttered with debris borne of both mother nature and tattered, unkempt men.
The film balances domestic simplicity and simmering, beneath the surface horror show creepiness to optimum payola. This off-radar subculture feels well developed and full bodied, which lends extra impact to the eventual moments of dire, plausible dread that come about when all bad truths come to light....sort of.
Oh, there’s even a chainsaw scene, but I’ll just let all you good folks discover the particulars of that for your own damn selves. (wintersbonemovie.com)