Small Town Blues. Movies Reviewed: At Any Price, Blackbird

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Sometimes ordinary people find their trajectories at odds with the people around them. Suddenly they have to get out of extraordinary situations, ones that affect not just their own lives but that of their friends and families.

This week I’m looking at two movies when small-town fathers and sons land into terrible trouble.

At Any Price 2 QuaidAt Any Price

Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) lives in Whipple, Iowa, on the family farm. His corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye. Those genetically-modified seeds he plants sure work wonders! He should know – he’s the top seed salesman in seven counties. But in order to succeed it’s grow or die, your farm has to get bigger and bigger just to survive. So Henry’s also a land shark, snatching up any acres that come available at local funerals.

Then there’s his family. He’s happily married… but fools around on the sly. His older boy is groomed to take over as soon as he comes home from college. Then there’s Dean (Zac Efron), the black sheep, the prodigal son. He’d rather hang out with his girlfriend Cadence, and drive his car in figure-eights. Forget farming, corn sucks. He’s gonna find his fortune as a champion stock car racer.

But things aren’t quite right. First, the older son never comes home – he’s in South America somewhere finding himself. And a competing seed salesman is infringing on his territory. Henry might loses Decatur county! And that same salesman’s son is a wannabe Nascar racer, too. So he’s an instant rival to Dean. Like father, like son: a two-generation feud. Henry wants to open up to Dean. But how can he get Dean to talk to him? Or even look him straight in the eye? It’s clear: Dean hates his dad.

And on top of all this, the GMO seed company hears a rumour that At Any Price Efron QuaidHenry is washing his seeds and reselling them – a normal farming practice, but a copyright violation if it’s a GMO seed. He could lose everything. His Dad already looks down on Henry, what would he do if he lost the farm?

At Any Price is a hard movie to grasp. Is it a family drama? A grain-conspiracy thriller? A rural slice of life? This movie interests me because the director, Ramin Bahrani, made a really good, low-budget super-realistic movie Chop Shop just a few years ago. Chop Shop was a neat little movie that almost felt like a documentary about a homeless kid who lives in a junkyard in Queens N.Y. So I thought this would be “Chop Shop in the Cornfields”. It’s not. It has big stars, bigger budget.

There are some good, drawn-out scenes – the movie conveys some emotions and events visually – no talking. This is no TV movie about life on a farm – it’s cinematic, it has big skies and endless fields.

The problem is it’s just not that good. It’s really slow, it’s really long and the plot just drags its way through all these convoluted relationships. It gets exciting (or at least dramatic) and heavy toward the end – in a good way — but that doesn’t redeem the blah-ness of most of the movie. The acting was very good, especially Dennis Quaid as Henry, and Maika Monroe as Cadence, the young woman who is both Dean’s girlfriend and Henry’s apprentice. I don’t want to completely dis this movie, since it has a sophisticated and satisfying ending, but if you see it go prepared for a long and slow film about father/son relations.

blackbird_02_largeBlackbird

Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud of attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always “dressing up for Hallowe’en” as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time. Through no fault if his own, Sean is caught in a whirlpool of injustice with only his father and potential girlfriend to save him. The victim of bullying is painted as the criminal.

Blackbird is divided among a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariahblackbird_03_medium in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. And it gives an eye-opening, stark portrayal of Canada’s youth justice system. I really like Blackbird – it’s one of the best things I saw at TIFF last year, and it’s an impressive debut for writer/director Jason Buxton.

At Any Cost and Blackbird both open today in Toronto. Also opening is another father/son drama, this one a Canadian psychological thriller called A Good Lie. When his mum dies, a young man (Thomas Dekker) discovers his late mother had a secret – his dad is not his biological father. That was dangerous criminal who had raped his mother. And Workman Arts is showing an interesting  series of short films dealing with addiction and mental health.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

August 31, 2012. TIFF! Victims and Rights. Movies reviewed: The Hunt, West of Memphis, Blackbird PLUS The Central Park Five

Posted in 1980s, Canada, Cultural Mining, Denmark, documentary, Drama, Good Ol' Boys, Goth, Movies, Prison, TIFF, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on September 1, 2012

VICTIMS AND RIGHTS

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ever heard of Victims’ Rights? It’s a government policy within the justice system to consider the victims of the crimes, not just the crimes themselves – an admirable idea. But what happens when the only victims are the accused? This week I’m looking at three movies playing at TIFF that touch on this topic. There’s a Danish drama about a town’s reaction to a Kindergarten teacher accused of a crime; a Canadian movie about a high school non-conformist who finds himself unfairly trapped within the youth justice system; and an American documentary about the West Memphis 3 – high school students charged with Satanic, ritual murder of children.

The Hunt

Dir: Thomas Winterberg

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches at a small town Danish kindergarten. Since his divorce he’s been a bit lonely. He goes to drinking parties with his buddies, plays with his dog Fanny, and goes hunting for deer. But things are looking up: his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) is preparing to move back in with him, and he’s preparing him for the coming of age ceremony where boys are first allowed to join in The Hunt. And Lucas has a new girlfriend, a Swedish-speaking woman who works at the same school. But when his best friend’s daughter, Klara, an imaginative five-year-old he’s been helping, gets mad at him, she sets off a series of events with an accusation that changes his life. She tells a teacher Lucas “showed her his willy” at school – a serious crime.

The accusation spreads like wildfire in the small town, until everyone knows the rumour – except Lucas, who is kept in the dark. Her story continues to escalate as it’s passed around, until soon all the kids are saying terrible things happened to them too. Lucas must be some kind of monster – except that he didn’t do anything! He is successively baffled, offended, angered and terrified when, in a kafka-esque series of events, his friends, neighbours, and even the local shop-keepers lash out at him, violently and filled with venom. And they transfer their anger to his teenaged son, who is attacked by a thuggish, blond giant. Can Lucus ever be cleared of a non-existent crime so he can return to his normal life? Or will his former friends continue to serve as the judge, jury, and executioner?

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, is terrific in this subtle movie, a harrowing and upsetting fable about misguided anger.

West of Memphis

Dir: Amy Berg

Two decades ago, the bodies of three young boys who had been brutally murdered were found in the woods near West Memphis, Arkansas. But when supposed experts were brought in by the police prosecuters, they somehow decided the children were killed in a satanic ritual. And they quickly arrested, tried and convicted three local boys who dressed in black, and liked heavy-metal music and posters. The documentary series Paradise Lost (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky) exposed this miscarriage of justice to the world. Since then, widespread interest in the case has led to the first “defense by crowd-sourcing’, with countless people investigating online and exposing all the consistencies of the original case.

While this new documentary offers little new evidence, it is compelling nonetheless. It’s long but very well done, very methodical. I’ve been following the case since the first documentary came out, so I found it fascinating. It brings the story up to date. It shows what happens to the politicos and police  behind the prosecutions; what is the fate of the three accused boys – Damien Echols, John Byers, and Jessie Misskelly; who the potential, new suspects might be; and it talks to the original witnesses, all of whom have since recanted their testimony. And new evidence – like a forensic sequence about animal bites – is quite amazing and terrifying.

(I have to say, though, it’s seems strange for a documentary-maker to make a new film on a subject made famous by someone else’s documentaries…)

Blackbird

Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud if attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad’s lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always dressing up for Hallowe’en as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time.

Blackbird is divided between a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariah in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. I really like this movie. And it’s the first Canadian film I’ve seen about the youth justice system. (It looks like it was actually filmed on location at the Waterville Detention Centre).

These movies leave you with a lot to think about… as does another doc at TIFF, The Central Park Five, about the five black and hispanic youths from Harlem who were wrongly blamed for the terrible rape of a woman jogging in Central Park in Manhattan in 1989.

West of Memphis, Blackbird, and The Hunt are all official films at TIFF. Check out these and all the other movies playing at TIFF this year, at tiff.net. They also have daily last-minute deals for tickets and special offers for people under 25. And two movies I talked about last week, Lawless and For a Good Time, Call… open today Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

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