Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Each week new movies come out, a number of which are highlighted as the best to choose from either online or as advertised in the front window or Redbox. You never know what to expect when you look at the picture and more often than not you recognize a face or two and let that be the deciding factor. That would be my guess why many will rent SERENA this week. It offers a lesson as to why you should look deeper.

The movie stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, two actors who have starred in two other movies together, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE. They’re both at the top of their game at present coming off these as well as other hugely successful films. I’m guessing their reason for starring here was that it was the original material that sparked their interests. The end result leaves much to be desired.

The story takes place in 1929 in North Carolina where George Pemberton (Cooper) owns and runs a logging operation. At present he’s in the midst of a battle to retain his company as there is a push to turn the land he owns into a national park. Pitted against a sheriff (Tobey Jones) who has no liking for him and a representative for the park service determined to take the land, he has his hands full.

On a trip away George meets Serena (Lawrence), a women with a damaged past who catches his eye and his heart. They marry and he returns with his new bride in tow to continue his battle for his land. She takes to the business easily and wins the respect of the workers there when she helps find solutions to things like the snake problem they find on the mountains. Adapting to this life is easy for her but the battles that are being waged will take their toll on both her and George.

Ghosts of the past come to haunt the couple. In her case it is the terrible tragedy, a fire that killed her family that left her scarred and filled with guilt. In George’s case it comes in the form of a baby boy given birth by a woman who he slept with when the need suited him prior to his meeting Serena. To ensure he remains with her Serena gets pregnant but that leads to other complications. George has secrets of his own as well when he kills a man trying to help the sheriff bring him down.

All of these threads come together with a resolution to each problem that some will see coming and other may not. The trip to get to that solution is well made and looks great with some fantastic shots of the landscape that is called into question from the very beginning of the film. And yet for me the journey lacked something.

There are no bad performances to be seen here in this film. Even those in lesser roles handle them with skill and ease making them all believable. The story seems to be well thought out, taken from a novel by the same name. The photography, as I mentioned, is breathtaking at times. And yet all of these strands to not come together to make a satisfying end product.

I had a hard time putting my finger on just what was missing. I did notice that the actors, though doing a great job, never seemed to have any passion. Maybe it wasn’t the actors but the characters they were playing. Their voice levels all felt so low key and subtle as to go overboard with that emotion or lack thereof. I can recall only one incident where a voice was raised in the entire movie no matter what was going on.

Thinking back I also realized that the music was that same low key tone as well. No rising tones to elevate a scene. Just to make sure I wasn’t just imagining things I went back to a scene where a worker has his hand cut off with an axe before being rushed to help. I was right. The music takes a sudden swell for a brief moment then goes back to softer tones with no sense of urgency as he is rushed to help. The importance of music is highlighted in this film and here it does little to help.

In the end the movie isn’t the worst thing ever made but I have a hard time recommending it to anyone. Fans of Cooper and Lawrence will no doubt want to add it to their collections. But with all the ability to carry a movie on display in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, a movie I loved, none of it can be found here nor would it have helped raise this one higher. Watch it if you choose but don’t expect the spark offered in that film.

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Movie fans have loved the movies of Alfred Hitchcock for decades. He was noted for suspense filled films that kept you guessing not only for the whodunit aspect of the movie but for the twists and turns in the plots that had you making the wrong guesses as to the outcome. This has come to be known as a McGuffin, the definition of which is “…a device or plot element in a movie that is deliberately placed to catch the viewer's attention and/or drive the logic of the plot, but which actually serves no further purpose”. His best example of this was PSYCHO where for almost a third of the movie you thought it concerned a woman stealing money but in the end was about a young man who was a serial killer.

Many directors have tried to follow in Hitchcock’s footsteps trying to create that same atmosphere while adding McGuffin’s of their own. Most fail tremendously so. But on occasion there are some that get it perfect. Such is the case with the movie CUT BANK.

Liam Hemsworth is Dwayne McClaren, a young mechanic who works for Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton) while at the same time dating Stan’s daughter Cassandra (Teresa Palmer). As Cassandra rehearses for a local beauty pageant in a field just outside of town, Dwayne is videotaping her performance. Unnoticed by both is a mail truck parked nearby but as someone walks up and shoots mail carrier George Wits (Bruce Dern), Dwayne and Cassandra duck down. Caught on tape they immediately take the video to local sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich).

The evidence is clear that Wits was murdered. Dwayne goes to the post office to apply for the reward money the goes to anyone who turns in evidence of a postal worker being murdered. And here is where the first of several McGuffin’s pops up. If you’d rather watch than hear this one stop reading now and just go watch this movie, it is worth your time. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out that Wits isn’t dead at all and that this is a scam propagated by Wits and Dwayne so that Dwayne can take the money and leave the small town of Cut Bank, MT, along with Cassandra (who is unaware of the scam).

That’s when the next twist happens. Among the packages that were to be delivered that day was a parcel addressed to Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlberg), a package he deemed important enough that he goes looking for it. Finding clues on his own this strange little man follows one to the next in the hopes of finding that parcel. What was in it? No one knows nor finds out until the end of the film.

The movie takes it’s time revealing each and every plot line that stems from one to the next but never so as to be boring. Instead it meticulously lays out all sorts of stories that pass each other from time to time but never intersect until the end of the film. That a movie can accomplish that in this day and age when we’ve seen nearly every story told on film makes this one special. It holds your interest, keeps you guessing and in the end brings everything around full circle for a satisfactory conclusion.

The performances in the film are wonderful to behold. Billy Bob Thornton might not have a ton of screen time here but his character is at first easy to access and understand due to his acting skills. Hemsworth shows that he’s not just another pretty face and Palmer plays the innocent part to perfection. Best of all here is Malkovich who turns in yet another quirky performance that is so much more low key than anything I’ve seen him in before. Between him and Stuhlberg as the misfit Derby Milton you have two performances that make the film.

While I’ve noted Hitchcock here there is another set of directors that this movie is bound to find comparison with and that’s the Coen brothers. If you’ve ever seen the movie FARGO then you’ll know these two. Between the setting of a small Midwestern town, the involvement of a sheriff and the plot device of several twists and turns the comparison are going to happen. Just note that this movie is as original as FARGO was and while offering similar items is not a copy at all. Instead it’s a solid mystery that will keep you guessing until the final moments of the film. On top of that it entertains as well making this movie one that not only needs to be seen but possibly be added to your collection.

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Hard to believe but it’s been 46 years since the musical 1776 opened on Broadway. While 1969 proved a tumultuous years for politics, the reverence that the material this musical dealt with was well founded and spoke not only to those who supported the government but who questioned it as well. It was only natural that the hit make its way to the silver screen and in 1972 it did just that. And while it’s been available on DVD before, it just now makes its way to blu-ray with a special edition director’s cut.

If you’re not familiar with the musical or the movie then by all means become acquainted. It tells the story of the Continental Congress and how they came to decide the fate of this nation, the United States of American. As seen through the eyes of John Adams (William Daniels) the movie opens with most of the congress tired of hearing his call to arms wanting to declare independence from England. Some are content with the way things are, other side with him and several are indecisive as of yet.

Adams here is portrayed as a man with a short temper and a very vocal demeanor. Siding with him all the way is the ever well-spoken Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva). They both have the same goal in mind but go about it differently, all the time working united to get this congress where they believe it and the country should go. Periodically word arrives from Gen. George Washington concerning the country’s battles against the better organized British army as they make their way inland doing what they please. The battle of Concorde is long past but the memories of it weigh heavy in the mind and words of Adams.

Eventually Adams gets his way enough that the Congress must at least discuss the idea of independence from Britain. But that nearly gets derailed as John Dickinson, one of the representatives from Pennsylvania, presses the issue that this must be a unanimous vote or it fails. To sidestep immediate failure, Adams proposes that a document be made first that offers what it is they are seeking. A committee is formed and the man given responsibility for bringing these ideas together is Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard).

Once the document is written more maneuvering is called for to get the needed votes to pass it. Not an easy task as the southern states aren’t in favor of language that considers slaves to be people and not property. Adjustments are made, clauses stricken and the language finessed until that document, the Declaration of Independence reaches its final form and is voted on. A familiar story, right?

It is indeed but as presented here in musical form it brings the men who formed that Continental Congress to life. It shows their intolerance for one another but respect at the same time. It displays the fact that they were simply men and longed for their wives. It shows that they didn’t agree on everything but were willing to compromise to get started on independence. And in the end it shows the courage that it took to make the decisions they made as well as to follow through with them, placing their own lives and all they owned at risk.

The music flows with ease here and is quite enjoyable but I didn’t find any single song that I felt I would be humming in my head days after watching. It didn’t matter. Between the performances and the subject matter it stirred emotions of pride and wonder at these men who have been besmirched in more recent years on film. What a difference nearly 50 years makes. We’ve gone from noting with distinction the sacrifices and bravery of these men to treating them more like news items on TMZ instead. There are few people without faults in their lives, but in the end the achievements of these men deserves more note than their bedroom activities.

At the same time those items are discussed in this movie but not focused on. Jefferson’s longing to be alone with his wife, Franklin’s love of the ladies and the love of rum by most are all seen. But that’s the point, they are merely touched on rather than making the movie about those things. The major focus is what they accomplished with creating this document known as the Declaration of Independence.

The movie is sure to create a feeling of patriotism for those who are still inclined to feel that emotion. With hope it will do the same for those who lack it these days. Coming out as near the Fourth of July celebration as it is, merely a month away, it might make a good movie to watch on that day. On the whole the movie entertains, informs and will hold your interest from start to finish even if it runs almost 3 hours long. Some might find that too much time to spend hearing about this act, but isn’t it’s a small sacrifice compared to those made by these men. I highly recommend not just watching this but adding it to your collection as well. 

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