DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Tully, Winter Solstice , An Unfinished Life, Sweet Land, Sarah, Plain and Tall (& Skylark, Winter’s End), This Boy’s Life, Seraphim Falls, 3:10 to Yuma, Appaloosa, The Yellow Handkerchief, Winter’s Bone


Title:  Tully   (or, The Truth About Tully)

Release Date:  2002

Nationality and Language:  USA, English

Running time: 102 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13 ? (Not yet officially rated?)

Distributor and Production Company:  Small Planet

Director; Writer: Hilary Birmingham

Producer: Annie Sundberg

Cast:  Anson Mount, Julianne Nicholson. Glenn FitzGerald, Catherine Kellner, John Diehl, Natalie Canderday


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There are not a lot of quality films or television series about young men, and the most interesting of these vary from “Smallville” to “Spider Man” all the way to “Queer As Folk” (here, Harry Potter doesn’t count). So along comes an outdoor farm drama, shot mostly on location in Nebraska (also Iowa) about the end of adolescence. The look and tone of the film remind me of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.”  Here, the setup seems rather static: two brothers, apparently in their early twenties, seem indistinguishable at first glance but quickly seem to grow apart, and their difference becomes a bit of a mystery. The story is told from the point of view of Tully, an attractive kind of Romeo who gets his hands and arms dirty and cut up often enough on the farm and doesn’t seem to be moving on. His interest in young ladies, like Ella (Julianne Nicholson), when she returns to the “countryside” from college, seems natural and restrained enough, yet it seems to drive away his more reserved and laconic younger brother Earl (Glenn FitzGerald), whom you eventually find out is actually straight (pun intended) too.  Both have been raised by an apparently widowed father, and their family starts to unveil its secrets one day when the dad receives a hand-delivered letter threatening foreclosure of his farm—but it’s not just because of farm prices.


The film really kept me engaged in the characters, noticing all the little details: The  movie reference to “The Trouble with Harry,” the Marky Mark-like appearance of Tully when he takes off his shirt (the camera angles seem to make a 50s –style slam with the hairlessness of his chest), the voluptuous farm scenery (almost as rich as in “Signs”), the George Elliot-like denouement of the plot. Is there a dead hand here? The end result is a film that looks big and carries the viewer along its mysteries with a Hitchcock-like focus.


Winter Solstice (2005, Paramount Classics/Sound Pictures, dir. and wr. Josh Sternfeld, R, 93 min) presents a widower Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) with two teenage sons (Gabe, played by Aaron Stanford, who looks a bit more grizzled and scraggly in this film than he did in Tadpole, especially in the cagey lake swimming scene, and Pete, played by Mark Webber). Gabe wants to get his adult life moving by moving to Florida (Tampa) and becoming a boat bum of sorts, whereas Pete, who wears a hearing aide, sloughs off high school and has to repeat courses in summer school.   Ron Livingston is the philosophical history teacher who can get students into things like why the Mongels did not move on and capture all of Europe when they could have. Allison Janey plays Molly, a female paralegal and jeweler-artist wannabe who could become a second wife some day, but the film doesn’t take that too far. The story is told visually, in simple dialogue, but tends to leave a lot of loose ends. Yet this was intentional, a slice of life. The film makes an interesting comparison to some shows about teens on TheWB, especially One Tree Hill and Everwood. The title of the movie is metaphorical ( shows two other unrelated films with this title), as most of the film seems to take place in the fall and spring. I attended a screening at the 2005 DC International Film Festival and the Landmark E-Street Cinema, and the director was present for questions.


An Unfinished Life (2005/2003, Miramax/Revolution, dir. Lsse Halstrom, 102 min, PG-13) was one of the last releases from the old Miramax, and it reportedly sat on the shelf for two years. It comes from a production studio that usually works for Sony/Columbia. An autumn release, it bears some visual semblance to the more “notorious” Brokeback Mountain, which also happens in Wyoming (near Ishawooa) (and was filmed in the Canadian Rockies). In fact, this film is full wide screen and looks even more “real” visually. But it is more a film to watch than experience. It is slow moving and character centered and illustrative, like a Lifetime movie. Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) brings her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) back to her father-in-law’s dilapidated ranch. Einar (a very ripe Robert Redford) lives with his injured hand Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who was mauled by a grizzly bear some time back. The grizzly, in fact, creates the first image in the movie. Jean will be chased by a mean-minded Gary (Damian Lewis) and Josh Lucas rounds out the cast as the sheriff. The tragic story Jean’s husband’s death will occur in conversation, as will the bear mauling. A major subplot will be to free the bear and release him (“Bart the Bear”) back into the wild. In one scene, Griff speculates about lesbians and suggests that Einar and Mitch could be gay lovers. But the story doesn’t go anywhere with that line. 


Sweet Land (2005, Libero/Forward/Beautiful, dir. Ali Selim, 110 min, PG, English and German) is a period piece, post WWI, set around Montevideo, MN. Since I lived in Minneapolis for six years (1997-2003) and participated with IFPMSP, I recognized some of the credits. The other important thing here is that the story is about the meaning of marriage, which here is arranged, and about all the things people in a community had to do to live together, even if they were prejudiced. Here, in retrospect, Inge (Elisabeth Reager) arrives from Germany as the arranged bride for Olaf (Tim Guinee) but the Lutheran pastor (John Heard) won’t marry them because she speaks only German (which is rendered without subtitles) and because she comes from an enemy country. Worse, she is a socialist. Even though this area of the country is liberal now, we see a society of friends and enemies, where alien ideas are rejected. (At one point, a leaflet opposing conscription occurs, which would have violated Woodrow Wilson’s sedition laws in the era.) There is a subplot, reminiscent of the Tully film, about an auction foreclosure of a farm. But we come back again to seeing this film as a statement about how marriage was a means to social validation, a way of establishing a domain that allowed a man to carry out his obligations.


Sarah, Plain and Tall (1991, Hallmark, dir. Glenn Jordan, novel by Patricia MacClanahan, 98 min, G) is another, simpler story about “arranged” (of sorts) marriage and “growing into love” in a bare bones world that offers limited choices. In 1910, a widower Jacob Witting, living on the frontier near Hays, Kansas, writes an newspaper ad for a bride to help raise his two kids. Sarah Wheaton, a mature spinster who seems like a teacher, comes from Maine on the train (on car) and settles in. As all women on the frontier, she had to find her own way to be independent, and she challenges Jacob’s sorrow over his loss of the first wife, which we learn was during childbirth. After a tornado and a neighbor’s childbirth, they finally have “learned to fall in love.” Again, the film is being shown on cable right before the 2006 elections, with all of the debate over the “meaning” of marriage. This was a world that would have had no place for someone like me; you simply had to fit in to what was expected of you as a man (or a woman). The script makes it clear that on the farm, children of both genders were an economic necessity.  The dog and vocal cat (which she brings in a box) do get along. The movie has two sequels: a 1993 film with the title suffix "Skylark" and a 1999 sequel with the title suffix ‘Winter’s End.”  The second film has Sarah going back to Maine with the kids (“back to what I knew first,” as one of the kids writes in a diary) for a while after dry lightning destroys much of the farm in a drought. In the third film. An old man shows up on the farm in March (1918?) who purports to be Jacob’s father, with a long hidden history of Tully-like family secrets. Another young man is wounded in World War I and returns. The three films do show a gradual progress of technology (cars, phones, telegraph). 

This Boy’s Life (1993, Warner Bros., dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 115 min, R, book by Tobias Wolff) is one of Leonardo Di Caprio’s first important films, here the autobiographical boyhood of the author. Here his voice hasn’t quite changed yet. His divorced mother (Ellen Barkin), in 1957, moves them out west, eventually to Seattle, where she meets concrete company owner Dwight (Robert De Niro) who tries to make a “man” out of him as a Boy Scout. Thomas read’s a boy’s magazine that looks like “Boy’s Life.” Two years later, Dwight won’t let his wife work for the Kennedy campaign because most of the customers are Republicans. (That’s how people thought.) Though the kids smoke and demonstrate their interest in girls with crude language, one of his classmates, Chuck Bolger (Tobey Maguire) develops an interest in him, kissing him at the piano in one scene in front of the family dog. To get into Princeton, he will falsify his grades. He is rejected theren but he does get to a prep school, which makes Dwight mad, and leads to an almost deadly fight, since Dwight's sense of manhood has been eroded ("I did the best I could." Tobias would still flunk out or prep school, but in the endnotes the credits say that Vietnam made a man of him and he became a famous literature professor. The film bears no relation to the gay “Boys Life” franchise.


Seraphim Falls (2007, Samuel Goldwyn / Destination / Icon, dir. David Van Ancken, 115 min, R) is an indie “western” of the Shane variety, with mixed reviews and only a very minimal theatrical release before the DVD came out. Around 1870, former Union officer Gideon is on the run high in the Nevada mountains (most of the film was shot in New Mexico, some in Oregon). A personal Confederate enemy Carver (Liam Neeson) with a private posse is hunting him down, for killing his family during the war (shown in very quick flashbacks only). An odyssey of escape and reconciliation follows. Gideon is shot in the shoulder, but escapes over the falls, to dig out the bullet himself. Gradually, he comes into contact with forces from Carver and perhaps supernatural forces like Madame Louise Fair (Angelica Houston) and will have a faceoff in the desert, in an expansive scene that curiously reminds one of “Gerry”. Will the idea of forgiveness overtake the need for revenge or personal justice? Expansive mountain and desert photography and an emotional music score by Harry Gregson-Williams gives the film an epic quality, recreating the psychological westerns of the 50s. This film shows how much can be done today on a small budget. The title of the movie is obviously a metaphor (moving from snowy Cascade-like mountains to desert, where water goes from a threat to a life-saver) as well as literal reference to the opening. “Seraphim” used to be the low-budget record label for Angel Records (EMI).


3:10 to Yuma (2007, Lions Gate / Relativity / Tree Line, dir. James Mangold, 117 min, R). Here is another good example of big stars getting together to make an indie “art western,” again with expansive scenery and a big look (even if a moderate budget), and a real face off at the end. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) has lost a leg in the Civil War and struggles on a ranch in northern Arizona (the film was shot in New Mexico, more or less in the Sandia mountains; there is plenty of snow). He picks up a man wounded in an ambush by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) who has just held up a railroad payroll, and takes him to Bisbee. He gets hired with a posse to take Wade to take Wade to the train station in Contention to catch a train to Yuma (down in the low country) where he will be executed. There are plenty of perils, from Indians and from Wade’s boys, and Evans’s precocious teenage son William (Logan Lerman) sneaks out to accompany the posse and winds up playing hero. There is a fascinating sequence where a tunnel is being blasted, and where Wade is almost executed once (he is tortured with electricity). Great looking steam train at the end, even if it could fit on a kid’s model railroad. The final confrontation may remind some viewers of High Noon, but this film is a remake of a 1957 western classic. The film reminds modern viewers of legal issues, like due process, that probably did not mean as much in the 19th Century (the 14th Amendment had been passed);  in those days, a lot of justice was a lot more private. (It reminds me of the “vigilante” issue with some of Dateline’s work.) One of the year’s best films, and once again arthouse fare may get in the Oscar race for best picture. 


Appaloosa (2008, New Line, dir. Ed Harris, novel by Robert Parker, R, 114 min). Two “private” goons are hired to run a town and get the killer of a marshall tried. Ed Harris stars and directs, and Renee Zellweger complicates. Blogger. 


The Yellow Handkerchief (2009, Samuel Goldwyn, dir. Udayan Prasad, 110 min, PG-13) Three strangers come together on a road trip through post Katrina Louisiana. Blogger.  Kristen Stewart is very Bella-like.


Winter’s Bone (2009, Roadside Attractions, dir. Debra Granik, 100 min, R). A teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence) holds her siblings and mother together when dad puts up the house as bail money and disappears in the Missouri Ozarks.  Blogger.

Related reviews:  Tadpole;   Everwood  Loggerheads  Brokeback Mountain  Grizzly Man  September Dawn


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