Film Review: Dispatched (dir by Gary Lee Vincent)

Dispatched, which is currently on Prime, is a low-budget film about a cop named Carl Thomas (Jeff Moore) who has an anger problem and a bad reputation.  Even though he makes a lot of arrests and gets a lot of criminals off the streets, his chief (Dean Cain) keeps having to reprimand him for using excessive force.

Anyway, one night, Carl is convinced to go to a revival meeting with some of his fellow police officers.  Carl witnesses a faith healing and, overnight, becomes the world most committed and outspoken Christian.  Suddenly, he’s able to give up his anger and now, whenever he arrests anyone, he treats them with compassion.  He tells them to follow Christ and get their lives together.  He goes down to the jail and he passes out bibles.  And….

Well, actually, that’s pretty much the entire film.  There’s really not much conflict to be found in Dispatched.  Admittedly, Carl’s first wife does divorce him because she can’t handle his sudden zeal for religion but most of that happens off-screen.  After the divorce, we don’t hear anything else about his ex-wife or his children from his first marriage.  We’re also repeatedly told that Carl was violent before he witnessed that faith healing but again, we don’t seem much evidence of it.  We do see Carl overreacting during a traffic stop and he definitely doesn’t come across as being the type of cop that anyone would want to deal with but, at the same time, the film shies away from showing us anything that could make us really dislike Carl.  That’s a mistake on the filmmaker’s part.  For a film about any type of redemption to work, you have to actually have to see some sort of difference between who the main character was before being redeemed and who the main character is afterwards.

That said, I can’t be too hard on Dispatched because, in the end, it’s a low budget message film.  The underlying message itself — that anger can be just as much of an addiction as any drug and that anyone can be redeemed if they’re truly willing to do the work — is not a bad one.  However, I think this is the type of movie that will be best appreciated by people who already agree with its religious theme.  If you’re like me and you tend to be a bit skeptical, you’ll probably zone out once the faith healing begins.  If you’re a believer in revival meetings and faith healings, you might have less of a problem with it all.  This is a film that preaches to the choir.  I doubt it will win over any nonbelievers but the choir might enjoy it and you know what?  There’s nothing wrong that.  The choir deserves to be entertained.  The real Carl Thomas appears at the end of the film.  He comes across as being sincere person, which is always a nice thing.

Anyway, Dispatched really wasn’t for me but I’m not going to criticize it the way I would a studio film with a 200 million dollar budget.  It’s a well-intentioned film, one that was made for a very specific audience and while will probably be most appreciated by those who already share its worldview.

Mistrial (1996, directed by Heywood Gould)

When a NYPD cop and her partner are murdered, overworked and stressed-out Detective Steve Donohue (Bill Pullman) follows a trail of circumstantial evidence that leads him to the door of the cop’s ex-husband, a community activist named Eddie Rios (Jon Seda).  Donohue’s attempt to arrest Rios goes terribly wrong and results in a shootout that leaves Rios’s second wife and bother dead before the handcuffs are eventually slapped on his wrists.

Rios may be the one on trial but Donohue is now the one facing judgment.  With protesters lined up outside the courthouse and the city’s mayor (James Rebhorn) more interested in his own reelection than in the pursuit of justice, Donohue knows that the only way he’ll be vindicated is if Eddie Rios is convicted.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happens.  Rios’s sleazy attorney (played by Josef Sommer) gets most of the evidence tossed out of court on a technicality and it appears that Rios is going to walk free.  That’s when Donohue decides to take the court itself hostage, pulls out a gun, and demands that Rios immediately be put on trial for a second time, with the jury hearing all of the evidence that was originally thrown out of court.

Mistrial is an example of the good-cop-pushed-over-the-edge genre.  Up until a few years ago, this was a very popular genre.  Today, of course, it feels tone deaf and it’s a lot more difficult to sympathize with a cop, even a fictional one, complaining about being restricted by the constitution.  The main problem with Mistrial is that it’s established early on that Eddie Ramos is guilty so there’s no real tension as to whether Donohue is doing the right thing by demanding a second trial.  If there had been some ambiguity about whether or not Ramos was the murderer that Donohue claims he is, it would have made the film much more interesting and less predictable.  The other problem is that Bill Pullman is just too naturally earnest and clean-cut to be convincing as an overworked cop who has been pushed into doing something crazy.  Remembering back to the 90s, I think someone like Gary Sinise or William L. Petersen could have pulled off the role but Pullman’s just not right for it.

Robert Loggia has a few good moments as Pullman’s sympathetic captain.  This was the 2nd time that Pullman and Loggia co-starred together.  The first time was in Independence Day.  The 3rd time would be in Lost Highway, a film that’s as different from Mistrial as day is from night.

Song of the Day: The Strength of the Righteous by Ennio Morricone

Since I reviewed The Untouchables yesterday, it only seems fit that it’s main title theme should be today’s song of the day.  From Ennio Morricone, it’s The Strength of the Righteous!

Previous Entries In Our Tribute To Morricone:

  1. Deborah’s Theme (Once Upon A Time In America)
  2. Violaznioe Violenza (Hitch-Hike)
  3. Come Un Madrigale (Four Flies on Grey Velvet)
  4. Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence)

Film Review: Frances Ferguson (dir by Bob Byington)

Frances Ferguson takes place in a town in Nebraska.  As the film’s narrator (Nick Offerman) explains it, it’s a town where everyone knows everyone else.  It’s a town where your mechanic knows your bartender and no one can really keep anything a secret for too long.  For instance, it’s the type of town where there’s no way that a substitute teacher in her mid-20s is going to be able to get away with having an affair with a 16 year-old student.

The teacher in question is named Frances Ferguson (Kaley Wheeless).  Frances wanders through her days in an apathetic haze.  When she steps outside of her house, she sees her useless husband (Keith Poulson) masturbating in the car.  When she spends time with her mother (Jennifer Prediger), she is criticized for every little thing.  On the rare days when she gets called to teach, the students look down on her and Frances thinks about how little she knows about any of the subjects on which she’s giving instruction.  Frances goes through her day holding back her emotions.  She only screams on the inside and, when she does, only she and the viewing audience can hear.

Things start to look up when Frances teaches a biology class and notices a handsome but vacuous student named Jake (Jake French).  When she finds out that Jake has been given detention, Frances volunteers to supervise him.  When Frances flirts with him and the scene cuts way, the narrator asks us, “Was this a crime?”

(Yes, it was.)

Frances and Jake have a short-lived affair, though it doesn’t seem to be particularly passionate.  If anything, Jake seems to be even more blase about it than Frances.  Wearing her old cheerleader uniform, Frances meets Jake in a laundromat.  “I’d never date a cheerleader,” Jake tells her.  We, the viewers, notice that there are other people in the laundromat.  Does Frances want to get caught?

Get caught, she does.  “This is the last time we see Jake,” the narrators tells us as Jake fades away.  Frances, meanwhile, sits in court.  Her mother comes to the trial and tells her that her clothes make her look fat.  Frances is convicted and sent to prison.  Her mom brings her a chocolate cupcake for her birthday.  Frances announces that she’s allergic to chocolate before taking a big bite and then pretending to die.  “Get off that dirty floor!” her mother orders her.

You may getting the impression that Frances Ferguson is a strange film and I supposed it is.  It’s a comedy but it’s an extremely deadpan comedy, with most of the humor coming from Frances’s seeming apathy to ever single thing that happens to her.  It’s not that Frances doesn’t have feelings or emotions.  We hear her inner scream enough times to know that she’s not as apathetic as she seems.  It’s just that Frances is so consumed with small town ennui that she realizes it’s pointless to react one way or the other.  Life is what it is and it continues regardless of how annoying it may all be.  Whether she screams on the inside or on the outside, she’ll still have to wake up every morning in the same situation.  One day, Frances Ferguson was a teacher.  The next day, she was a prisoner.  And the day after that, she was on parole and a minor celebrity.  (“You’re that teacher!” is a phrase that she continually hears.)  What happens, happens.

Here’s the thing …. though it may not sound like it from my description of the plot, Frances Ferguson is an incredibly funny film.  A lot of that is due to Nick Offerman’s performance as the snarky narrator.  (The narrator has a tendency to wander off topic.)  A lot of that has to do with the performance of Kaley Wheeless, who perfectly communicates Frances’s suppressed irritation.  Over the course of the film, Frances has to deal with a lot of people who, if not for her one mistake, she would have otherwise never had to deal with.  Some of them get on her nerves and some of them — well, two of them — provide her with some comfort.  I loved David Krumholtz’s performance as a beleagured but optimistic group leader.  Martin Starr also gets a nice bit at the end, though it would be too much of spoiler to say anything else about his role.  I also enjoyed the performances of Jack Marshall and Yoko Lawing, as the two detectives who investigate the charges against Frances and who explain that, because of TV cop shows, they can no longer get away with playing good cop/bad cop.

Frances Ferguson is good film.  It’s also a short one, clocking in at just 74 minutes.  To be honest, it’s the perfect running time for the story that this film tells.  We follow Frances’s story for just as long as we need to.  Frances Ferguson is on Prime so check it out.

Film Review: Burning Kentucky (dir by Bethany Brooke Anderson)

Burning Kentucky, which I just finished watching on Prime, is a film that has its own unique vibe.  You’re either going to connect with this frequently surreal film or you’re not.  If you do connect with it, you’re going to be aware that, while the film has its narrative flaws, it also has moments of visual brilliance.  If you don’t connect with it, you’ll probably dismiss it as just being another pretentious revenge thriller.  Burning Kentucky currently has a rating of 4.1 over that imdb, not because it’s a bad film but because it’s just not a film for everyone.  It’s not a crowd pleaser but it we’ve learned anything recently it’s that crowds suck.

Burning Kentucky takes place in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky.  We find ourselves observing two families.  One family lives in a shack and brews moonshine.  They eat whatever animals they catch in the wilderness and about the only thing that’s vaguely modern about them is the camera that their daughter, Aria (played, in her film debut, by Emilie Dhir), carries with her.  (And even that camera appears to be from the mid-20th century.)  Aria also narrates the film, musing about life and death.  In the country, she explains, people understand that death is a part of life.  Regardless of any sentimental feelings, everything dies.

The other family is headed by an man named Jaxson (John Pyper-Ferguson).  Jaxson is the country sheriff, so he’s a man of some importance.  However, it’s also obvious that he’s a man who has long been on a downward spiral.  He drinks too much and he spends most of his time cursing God and complaining about the local preacher, Abe (Andy Umberger).  Jaxson has two sons.  Wyatt (Nick McCallum) appears to be relatively stable.  Rule (Nathan Sutton), on the other hand, is a junkie who lives in a shack that he shares with Jolene (Augie Duke).  Jolene wants to be a singer.  She wants to get off drugs.  Rule, on the other hand, appears to be content to just slowly kill himself.

Whenever Wyatt can get away from his drunk father and his wasted brother, he spends his time with Aria.  They’ve been in love for several years, ever since the night that Aria discovered Wyatt trapped in one of the traps that her family had set around their land.  When we first see Aria and Wyatt together, they talk about how they met on the same night that they each lost their mother.

It takes a while to figure out just what exactly is going on in Burning Kentucky.  The deliberately paced first half of the film freely hops from the past to the present and then back again.  The camera glides over the misty mountains of Kentucky, stopping to linger on deserted houses and crumbling buildings.  Everything seems to be suspended in a state of permanent decay.  The wilderness appears to be both beautiful and threatening at the same time and the imagery, when combined with Aria’s narration, is often surreal.  The first half of the film plays out as if we’re watching a filmed dream.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film is a bit more conventional.  Once we finally discover who everyone is relative to everyone else and after we learn what happened in the past, the film settles down to become a standard revenge thriller, albeit one that’s very much concerned with the concepts of guilt, redemption, and human nature.  Still, the Kentucky hills remains atmospheric and dream-like and the well-selected performers — particularly Augie Duke and John Pyper-Ferguson — continue to bring their haunted characters to life.

As I said, this isn’t necessarily a film for everyone.  The film’s ending will leave a lot of people feeling perplexed but that’s okay.  A story like this doesn’t need a neat ending.  In fact, Burning Kentucky is a film that demands to end on a hint of messiness and ambiguity.  I liked Burning Kentucky.  You might like it too.