Once again taking a brief break from theatergoing, I’ve watched some interesting DVD/on-demand choices recently. Here are three interesting flicks to check out when you have a chance.
Based on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, this 2012 film focuses on the early 1930s bootlegging business of Matt’s grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his brothers, Forrest and Howard. It is a gritty, violent, and fascinating look at a time in American history from the perspective of one family subsisting outside the law of the times but with a code all its own.
Jack (Shia LeBoeuf) fancies himself a mobster in the making, while patriarch Forrest (Tom Hardy) is invested in the legend that he and his brothers are indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke) loyally serves as enforcer and protector. When we meet “The Bondurant Boys,” their role in their rural community is viewed with a kind of under-the-rug respect, and they are left alone and at times even supported by local law enforcement. But when a vicious and peculiar federal agent (Guy Pearce) shows up, the boys get more flack than they had bargained for.
The movie is a mini-history lesson, depicting in vivid detail the dangerous and clandestine work of bootleggers in the ’30s. It’s also filled with exaggerations for movie-watching excitement, with chases, shootouts, and closed-door atrocities that no one possibly could know the truth behind. But that’s moviemaking. Most of the facts are presented, however, as pieced together by the author of the book from reports, articles, and the bullet-would scars of his grandfather and granduncles.
Regardless of how faithfully represented the “true story” is, this film is well written, beautifully shot, and skillfully acted by the principals and supporting actors including Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and Gary Oldman. The film is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2007, The Road – 2009).
For an epic familial double feature, pair this movie with Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Legends of the Fall (1994), or the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012).
In this 2010 film by writer/director Spencer Susser, Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once of my favorite contemporary actors) is a grungy high school reprobate who muscles in on the dissolving family of freshman T.J. (fiercely played by Devin Brochu). Two months earlier, T.J. lost his mom in a car accident, and he is desolate as his inconsolable father loses himself in depression and self-medication (the father is played by Rainn Wilson in the best performance I have ever seen him turn in).
As Hesher threateningly worms his way into a place at Grandma’s house, where T.J. and his dad are staying, he seems nothing more than a dangerous blight on T.J.’s existence. Grandma (Piper Laurie) seems to be the only one to see anything more in Hesher. An unexpected ray of sunshine in T.J.’s life is meeting cashier Nicole (Natalie Portman), though Hesher ruins that for him too, along with nearly getting him arrested and otherwise making his life hell. But all is not what it seems, and when the taciturn Hesher does speak, his crude, elaborate analogies offer the true lessons in this narrative.
This movie begins coarsely, attesting to how first impressions can set our minds. It’s tough to watch as the scruffy, chain-smoking, bizarrely tattooed bully Hesher intimidates T.J. and his family. But just as we get to know people in real life, we soon see there is something more to the freaky young man. To the film’s credit, we never find out much of Hesher’s backstory or why he lives in his van (when not invading the homes of freshmen). Heck, we don’t even learn his full name.
In the end, Hesher is a life-affirming and sanguine film. It is brilliantly written and works well in great part because everyone in the cast is absolutely superb. I’m hoping to see more from Susser, the only American member of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, who has thus far focused on short films.
A fine double-feature choice for this movie is the equally disquieting yet hopeful Sunshine Cleaning (2008).
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Being a fan of Steve Carell and liking some of the past work of Keira Knightley, I had high hopes for this 2012 film. These were effectively shattered by this depressing, unfunny apocalyptic tale that wastes the talents of both actors, and everyone else in it.
Basically, the movie follows pathetic Dodge (Carell) as he awaits the end of the world. A meteor is hurtling toward Earth and the last hope for diverting it fails, so everyone knows it’s all over (don’t even get me started on the lack of science, but then the film is not meant to be realistic—I guess). Some people go on as if nothing has changed, while others try to fulfill their bucket lists, and still others simply go off the deep end. Dodge’s wife (who, we learn, was unhappy anyway) runs away—literally—and he is left to sullenly continue going to work (uh huh) and gathering with friends in the evenings. This role is yawningly dull for an actor of Carell’s comic chops.
Finally, Dodge meets downstairs neighbor Penny (Knightley), ameliorates her own existential meltdown, and then is party to cruelly abandoning her live-in boyfriend to rioting mobs so the two can advance their budding romance in the end-times. It’s just … not pretty.
Dodge and Penny try to make each others’ fondest final wishes come true as the hours count down. Thrown in is a contrived meeting, after twenty years of estrangement, with Dodge’s father (Martin Sheen, more wasted talent), again run through in a hasty way to just get it overwith. In the end, the film tries to pull the heartstrings as Dodge and Penny make their final moments content, but it seems too little, too late.
Those who read my reviews know that I like quirky dark comedies, as well as films that don’t neatly fit into one genre, which is what this endeavor tried to be, I think. But like a number of other atypical projects, it misses the mark on many scores. When it tries to be funny, it’s often painfully awkward (like during the completely pointless appearance of otherwise hysterical Patton Oswalt; all he gets to do is say “Pussy” in a bunch of different ways), and when it tries to be serious, it comes off as cloying, stuffing preachy platitudes down our throats (as when Dodge and Penny find an improvised commune on the beach, happy to just spend their last hours with one another).
Nevertheless, many people love this film, seeing something in that I do not. That rings true for me with films like About Schmidt (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); along with this movie, they are all films that you either get (they resonate for you) or not. I guess I just don’t get it.
The movie is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and has only directed once besides, an episode of New Girl).