Embracing the Melodrama #60: Blue Ruin (dir by Jeremy Saulnier)


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Well, all good things must come to an end and here it is.  This is the final entry in a little series that I like to call Embracing the Melodrama.  For the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, 60 of the most and least memorable melodramas ever filmed.  We’ve looked at everything from films that were nominated for (and occasionally won) Oscars to films that played in a few grindhouses and drive-ins before disappearing into obscurity.  We’ve reviewed big budget spectaculars and movies that were apparently filmed for less money than I typically spend during a weekend shopping spree.  I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading these reviews as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.  If I’ve introduced you to a film you previously did not know or if I’ve inspired you to track down and watch an old classic, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do and I’m happy.  We started this series by looking at a film from 1916 and now, we end it with a movie that was released into theaters just a few months ago.

That film is Blue Ruin and, if you haven’t seen it yet, you really should.

Now, I want to be careful just how much I tell you about Blue Ruin‘s story because, much like the thematically similar Cold In July, Blue Ruin may start out like a standard thriller but it soon moves in unexpected and surprising directions.  It’s not so much that the film’s plot is unpredictable (in fact, one of the film’s strengths is that the story told is essentially a simple one) as much as it’s the fact that the film adds an element of ambiguity to that plot that forces you to reconsider all of your preconceived notions.  Blue Ruin is a revenge film for people who like to think.

Blue Ruin opens with the bearded and clearly unstable Dwight (Macon Blair) going through trash cans and dumpsters in search of food.  Dwight lives in his filthy car and it quickly becomes obvious that, despite Dwight’s disheveled appearance, he’s not really much of a threat to anyone.  Instead, he simply wants to be left alone.  However, one day, Dwight is approached by a friendly police officer who tells him that a man named Wade Cleland has been replaced from prison.  The suddenly motivated Dwight responds by driving his car to the prison and watching as Wade is released.  Dwight than manages to get a knife (after first trying to steal a gun and failing so completely that you can’t help but feel sorry for him) and goes to the small country bar where Wade and his family are celebrating his freedom.  Dwight manages to get into the club and, after a brutal fight, fatally stabs Wade in the temple.

Macon Blair in Blue Ruin

Macon Blair in Blue Ruin

The rest of the film deals with both the reasons behind and the consequences of Dwight’s actions and it would not be right for me to spoil the film any more than I already have.  Let’s just say that neither Dwight nor the Clelands turn out to be quite who we believed them to be.  The crimes of the past aren’t quite as clear-cut as either Dwight or the Clelands initially assumed.  All that is clear is that now that Dwight has taken his revenge, the Clelands now feel the need to take their own revenge.  It’s an endless cycle that’s made all the more complicated by the fact that neither Dwight nor the Clelands are as good at this whole revenge thing as they think.

Chances are that you’ve never heard of Macon Blair.  I hadn’t heard of him until I saw him in this movie.  But, obscure or not, that doesn’t change the fact that, in the role of Dwight, Macon Blair gives one of the best performances of the year so far.  He turns Dwight into a sort of mentally unstable everyman and, as a result, Dwight is a truly memorable and unexpectedly poignant lead character.

It’s interesting that 2014 has seen the release of several films that feature unlikely and morally ambiguous protagonists dealing with violence, revenge, and secrets in the South.  Blue Ruin joins Cold In July and Joe as one of the best films of 2014.  And it also provides a high note for which to close out Embracing the Melodrama.

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Embracing the Melodrama #59: At Any Price (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


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With Embracing the Melodrama coming to a close (only two more reviews to go, including this one!), I want to take this opportunity to tell you about a good film from last year that didn’t get quite as much attention as it may have deserved.  The Iowa-set At Any Price is a look at greed, family secrets, and even murder in rural America.  It’s not a perfect film but it features a perfect lead performance from Dennis Quaid and it’s worth taking a chance on.

Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who also works as a sales representative for the Liberty Seed Company.  Henry sells genetically modified seeds and one thing that this film gets absolutely right is just how cut-throat the seed business truly is in the heartland.  Henry is very proud to be the top seed salesman in the county, with only Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) coming close to matching him.  The film’s best scenes are the ones that follow Henry as he travels along his route, selling seeds, giving away candy bars, and always flashing his wide grin.  It’s only as the film progresses that we start to notice how desperate that grin really is.  Henry, we soon realize, is motivated mainly by greed and fear.  He’s the type of farmer who will go to a stranger’s funeral just to try to buy the deceased’s land.  Henry is also the type of guy who is willing to cut ethical corners to sell seeds as well.  As far as Henry is concerned, he’s only doing what he has to do to make sure that he has a successful business to pass on to his family.

Henry is all about his family and, while that may be his redemption, it’s also his family’s curse because Henry is something of a control freak.  Henry’s loyal wife (Kim Dickens) turns a blind eye to Henry’s mistress (Heather Graham).  Meanwhile, his oldest son has fled Iowa and moved down to South America.  Henry’s remaining son, Dean (Zac Efron), is more interested in pursuing a career in NASCAR than on the family farm.  Eventually, as the result of a shocking and almost random act of violence, Dean is forced to pick his future.

With both Neighbors and That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron has been reinventing himself as a skilled comedic actor.  Before that, however, he appeared in a series of movies that were meant to show his dramatic range, films like The Paperboy, Parkland, and this one.  These films ranged in quality from terrible to good but, in all of them, Zac Efron felt miscast.  Efron is the weak link in At Any Price.  Dean is supposed to be a character driven by both anger and a need to win (at any price — we have a title!) but when we look at Efron’s pretty blue eyes, we’re left with the impression that there’s not much going on behind them.

Far more effective is Dennis Quaid.  Quaid is so likable in the role that it takes a while to realize that Henry is essentially a monster.  And yet, you never totally lose your sympathy for him.  He has his own demons, demons that he’s passing down to his son.  The power of Quaid’s performance is that you can tell he knows he’s wrong but he just can’t stop himself.

At Any Price is a good farmland melodrama, full of beautiful landscapes and carefully observed details.  It’s not a perfect film but it is one worth watching for anyone who is wondering whatever happened to the American dream.

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Embracing the Melodrama #58: The Place Beyond The Pines (dir by Derek Cianfrance)


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First released in 2013, the underrated (and, as far as end-of-the-year awards ago, underappreciated) The Place Beyond The Pines is actually three cinematic melodramas in one.  Much like a great novel, this movie is split into multiple pieces with each part telling a different part of a larger story.  It’s an interesting and ambitious concept, the type that we sometimes fear that audiences are no longer capable of appreciating.

The first third of the story centers on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who performs at state fairs.  During one such fair in upstate New York, he meets and has a brief affair with Romina (Eva Mendes, giving an excellent performance).  When he returns to New York a year later, Luke discovers that he is now a father.  Luke quits the fair and decides that he wants to be a part of his son’s life but Romina, who is now in a stable relationship with a good man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali), asks him to stay away.  Determined to be part of his son’s life and also looking to win back Romina, Luke stays in town and gets a job working with Robin (the always excellent Ben Mendelsohn).  Robin owns an auto garage and, as he explains to Luke, he also used to be a bank robber.  Soon, with Robin’s help, Luke is robbing banks and sending the money to Romina.

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Luke’s story is probably the strongest in the film.  Ryan Gosling is charismatic as the dangerous yet likable Luke and he and Eva Mendes have a lot of on-screen chemistry.  Ben Mendelsohn brings yet another one of his trademark burned out characters to life and Mahershala Ali is sympathetic as Kofi, a man, who despite being good and responsible, is simply no Ryan Gosling.

The second part of the story deals with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), the cop who chases Luke after one of his bank robberies.  Avery is the politically ambitious son of a former judge (Harris Yulin) and, much like Luke, he also has newborn son.  When Avery is originally hailed as hero for his pursuit of Luke, Avery’s feelings are far more ambivalent.  It gets even more difficult for him when he catches some of his fellow cops (led, of course, by Ray Liotta) stealing the money that Luke sent to Romina.  When Romina rejects Avery’s attempt to return the money to her, Avery is left with little choice but to try to take down the crooked cops himself.  It’s the only way for him to clear his conscience.

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And, finally, in the third part of the story, teenager Jason Cankham (Dane DeHaan) meets and befriends Avery’s son, AJ (Emory Cohen).  What neither one of them realizes is that Jason is Luke’s son.  The interesting thing here is that the two sons have, on the surface at least, turned out to be the exact opposites of their father.  Jason is the good kid while AJ is probably one of the most despicable movie teenagers of all time.  When Jason learns the truth about both of their fathers, he has to decide whether he’s his father’s son or if he is his own human being.

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As you might be able to guess from the above plot description, The Place Beyond the Pines is a big epic of a film and, perhaps not surprisingly, the end results are intriguing if occasionally uneven.  The film starts out so strongly with Ryan Gosling roaring down empty roads on his motorcycle that it’s hard for the rest of the movie to live up to that opening’s promise.  And yet somehow, the film manages to do just that.  Even the parts of the film that didn’t particularly intrigue me — like the whole subplot with the corrupt cops — were saved by the efforts of a perfectly chosen cast.  The third and final part of the film provides the perfect climax, helping us to both understand the legacy of Luke Glanton and Avery Cross but also to understand why both of their stories are important, both as individual tales and as parts of a greater whole.

The Place Beyond The Pines may not be perfect, not in the way that a film like Winter’s Bone is perfect.  However, we should still be glad that films like it are being made.

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Embracing the Melodrama #57: Winter’s Bone (dir by Debra Granik)


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I can still remember what it felt like, back in 2010, as I stepped out of the theater where I had just watched Winter’s Bone.  I had just spent 100 minutes engrossed in that film’s world and it was somewhat jarring to suddenly find myself back in my world.  The air around me was still.  The clear sky above me seemed to be a totally new shade of blue.  The sounds of passing cars and overheard conversations echoed in my head.  When I walked, I felt as if I was moving at a different, dreamier pace than everyone else, as if I was still only partially back in my world.

That’s the type of film that Winter’s Bone is.  It’s a film about life on the fringes, a portrait of a very real part of America that a lot of people don’t even realize exists.  It’s a film that sticks with you and dares you to try to forget the people who it has introduced you to and the stories that it tells.

Winter’s Bone takes place in the Ozarks, a society and world that is dominated by meth and secrets.  Speaking as someone who still has family who live on the outskirts of the world depicted here, I can say that Winter’s Bone gets both the big picture and the little details right.  Everything from the unbreakable cycle of poverty to the defiant resilience of the people is depicted just as it is.  Make no mistake about it — the people in Winter’s Bone may not have much but they do have their pride.  It’s portrayed best in the scene where meth head Teardrop (John Hawkes) glares down the county sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), letting him know that, regardless of who is wearing the uniform, this is Teardrop’s world.

Teardrop is the uncle of 17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who is considering joining the army once she graduates from high school but, for now, spends all of her time taking care of her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings.  Her father, who is one of the county’s best meth cooks, was recently arrested and has a court date approaching.  However, he has apparently skipped bail and disappeared.  When Ree is told that, unless her father shows up for his court date, she and her family will lose their house, Ree sets out to try to find him.

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Ree, however, knows that her father would never have jumped bail and she also knows that there’s no way he died in a meth lab fire, as some people are claiming.  She knows that her father has been murdered but, unlike Teardrop, Ree has no interest in getting revenge.  She just wants to find his body so she can prove that he’s dead and her family can keep their home.  Unfortunately, even this brings Ree into conflict with the local crime boss.

Taking place on a blasted landscape of dilapidated farms, rusty pickups, and the burned ruins of abandoned meth labs, Winter’s Bone is an unusually powerful piece of Southern gothic. It’s also a film that — unlike a lot of other acclaimed movies — actually gets better with repeat viewings.  When you first see it, you’re overwhelmed by the film’s bleakness.  When it ends, you’re not sure if you should be happy or sad.  The second time, however, you can better appreciate the skill with which director Debra Granik tells her story, the way she frames Ree against the landscape as if Ree was the lone hero in a classic western and how the scenes where Ree searches for her father in a swamp are full of shadows and menace.  The third time, you can better appreciate the performances of characters actors like John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, and especially Dale Dickey.  The fourth time, you no longer have any doubts.  Winter’s Bone is one of the best films that you’ve ever seen.

And, through it all, Jennifer Lawrence is there and reminding you why she became a star in the first place.  She may have won her Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and she may be best known for being the face of The Hunger Games franchise but Winter’s Bone remains Jennifer Lawrence’s best and bravest performance.  Without a hint of vanity or reluctance, Lawrence portrays Ree as a resilient and unsentimental survivor and you can’t help but cheer her on as she refuses to back down to any authority, legal or otherwise.  By the end of the film, you know that Ree is probably as trapped as anyone but you can’t help but hope that she’ll somehow find something better.

If you haven’t seen Winter’s Bone, you need to.

Target Practice