Tag Archives: American South

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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Rating: B/ Celie isn’t a slave, but she might as well be. At the tender age of fourteen, Celie’s abusive father passes her off to an equally abusive man in an marriage the two have already arranged. Celie’s only joy comes from her younger sister, Nettie, so when Nettie is sent away and becomes a missionary in Africa, Celie is understandably devastated and writes her sister hundreds of letters in order to keep in touch. The Color Purple is written in epistolary format, and the narrative comes either in the form of letters Celie writes to God attempting to reconcile with her horrid living situation or notes that Celie and Nettie write back and forth to each other, attempting to provide comfort in sad and desperate times. Continue reading Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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Cold in July (2014)

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An ordinary man undergoes extraordinary duress that has the potential to break him or change him forever. This is the basic premise of “Cold in July,” a bloody Southern-fried thriller that is undeniably slick in execution yet nevertheless manages to maintain a higher level of realism than many films of it’s ilk. But “Cold in July” still managed to surprise me, going in a direction I had never expected and growing twistier by the minute.

Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, Dexter) is an average schmoe who kills a home invader accidentally-ish and must protect his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and son (Brogan Hall) when a man who appears to be the intruder’s father (Sam Shepard) threatens their lives. But just when you think the grizzled old goon’s going to be the lead antagonist and pull the conflict toward a predictable conclusion- Bam!- the plot swerves another direction entirely. It’s surprising and actually really cool to see Ben (Shepard,) Richard (Hall) and a slick-as-ice good ol’ boy named Jim Bob (who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy,’ to quote Breaking Bad‘s Saul,) played by Don Johnson, join forces to fight a greater evil.

The effect of this movie is not dissimilar is digging into a happy meal to find a prize that totally isn’t what you expected, but hey, looks pretty good on your bureau after all. The color scheme is wild and crazy, and above all, striking– most scenes are shot with a filter that seem to cloak the environment either in orange and yellow or an intense cyan color. This is a daring move on the cinematographer’s part, although sometimes it doesn’t quite work- the colors are at times so turned-up that it’s hard to focus on anything else.

The Electronica-heavy soundtrack might turn off some potential viewers and drive others to agitation, but it was just fine by me. Another radically unique way they set up the movie is the atypical portrayal of action hero Richard. Unlike most of these kinds of movies, it doesn’t seem that Richard enjoys killing, although he feels compelled to do it later on in the film. The killing of the burglar is messy and violent, but neither Richard nor the filmmaker seem to particularly take glee in it.

After the event, Richard seems visibly shaken, which is a powerful anecdote to all those testosterone fueled protagonists who take pride in their first kills. When Richard kills again, it is a out of a sense of duty to his companions, but he still doesn’t seem to get any enjoyment out of it. He’s not the quipping, sneering hero of 80’s action movies. He is you. He is me. He doesn’t really know how to handle a gun, but he wields one anyway because it is what is expected of a Southern father and husband. Whether it serves him well is ultimately up to you to decide.

There are unrealistic moments in “Cold in July” (like Richard dodging machine gun shells towards the end of the film, I mean come on!,) but if you’re looking for something quite different from your average, run-of-the-mill action flick, I suggest you give this solid little thriller a try.

Warning– As the stream of violence is continual and gruesome (and because of a scene of violence against women,) weak stomachs may want to steer clear of  this gory, gutsy revenge flick.

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Hellion (2014)

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The lukewarm critical response to “Hellion” is utter bollocks. This is how indie dramas are meant to be done, rough and real and full of heartbreak. I’m not acting as a shyster voucher for “Hellion” because Jesse Freaking Pinkman‘s in it (although he is, and he’s great, guys,) but because it’s a legitimately good movie with fantastic performances all around (including from stand-out child actors Josh Wiggins and Deke Garner, who give two of the best juvenile portrayals I’ve seen in a long time.)

Despite its sensationalistic title (which puts you in mind of a “Rosemary’s Baby”-type chiller about malignant demon-spawn,) “Hellion” just feels very real. It’s an outstanding Southern-fried drama in the same league as “Winter’s Bone,” “Sling Blade,” and “Mud.” BMX-obsessed delinquent Jacob (Wiggins) is a damaged, resentful 13-year-old boy who’s leading his little brother Wes (Garner) into the same trouble that’s he’s perpetually been in since his mom died.

The boy’s exasperated father, Hollis (Paul,) is a well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual hard drinker, who hasn’t handled the death of his wife so well himself. When Wes gets taken by CPS and placed in the home of his aunt (Juliette Lewis,) Hollis realizes he has to clean his act up in order to get his child back, but his oldest is going up a rocky road that there won’t be any easy return from.

All the scenes, especially the ones involving Jacob and his group of Bravado-filled friends (who talk like real pre-teens and don’t look about thirty, as per most movie adolescents) and Jacob and his impressionable, sweet little brother seem very true to life. The Child Protective Services people and the cops are portrayed realistically and effectively (the police, particularly and due in no small part to the ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ hooplah, are often depicted as the Antichrist in less fair-minded films and TV shows.

“Hellion” is very much an improvement upon the eponymous short on which it was based, which I truthfully only watched a few minutes of.) One drastic change made was that in the short the father was a stereotypical “I’ll make a man out of you yet boy- get me the belt!” uber-hick character (coincidently, he is not played by Aaron Paul in that version.) Hollis in the feature film is much less clichéd in that he seems like a gentle person and not a mean drunk despite being an alcoholic.

When he butts heads with Jacob he is just trying to reinforce discipline, not being abusive. And he refrains from physical discipline at many times when I might’ve hauled off and smacked the kid some. However, he is not a very effective parent in the long run. The filmmaker also does a good job portraying Aunt Pam (Lewis) as meddling without making it a black-and-white situation.

“Hellion”‘s script is both tough and compassionate, the way I want to write when I ‘grow up.’ Aaron Paul proves he can do more than being Heisenberg’s sidekick (which he’s good at, admittedly) and it’ll be an f’ing crime if the kid actors don’t get a lot more work in the years to come. Sod the critics on this one, watch this movie!

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This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

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Twelve-year-old foster child Easter Quillby is the hard-knock heroine of Wiley Cash’s second novel, “This Dark Road to Mercy.” Easter and her six-year-old sister Ruby are cast adrift when their irresponsible mother OD’s, and their woes are further exacerbated when their dad Wade impulsively kidnaps them from their North Carolina children’s home. As it turns out, Wade has stolen bookoo bucks from a lowlife, who has sent Bobby Pruitt, a one-eyed bouncer with a vendetta, to kill him. Growing up’s hard when your dad’s on the lam and is dragging you along across the states, but Ruby and Easter survive, if not exactly thrive, under the care of their troubled father.

While fast-paced and compulsively readable, I did not find this book as compelling as the author’s first, “A Land More Kind Than Home.” As a character, Easter stands head and shoulders above the rest, although Ruby and Wade are pleasing leads as well. The book is narrated by three POV characters- Easter, Pruitt, the eager aspiring assassin, and Brady Weller, the girls’ court appointed guardian, who makes it his personal goal to find Wade and the kids before Pruitt does.

This slim volume has brief chapters and an exciting pace, but isn’t quite as well-written as the author’s previous work. Maybe ‘less well-written’ is the wrong phrase to use; there are no cracks in the narrative, but it makes less of an attempt to be literary as “A Land More Kind Than Home” was. Other than Easter, who was delightful, I didn’t think the characters were as compelling as those in the last book. Wade was pleasingly morally ambiguous, and I found myself trusting his intentions more as the novel progressed.

I think the biggest weakness was the portrayal and voice of Pruitt, the villain. Pruitt’s POV was decidedly meat-and-potatoes and matter-of-fact, where some creepiness and intensity may have been in order. It felt like the author, Wiley Cash, was a little scared to get deep into Pruitt’s psyche, so settles for making him a somewhat bland guy who occasionally beats old ladies with baseball bats.

“This Dark Road to Mercy” is compulsively readable, which means that even a painfully slow reader such as myself finished it in only a few days. It’s actually a really good read, my expectations were just so high after reading “A Land More Kind Than Home” that I was bound to feel a little let down by any book by this author that achieved less than greatness.

I was actually expecting things to go down a lot worse than they did it it’s conclusion. The way they wrapped it up was not bad at all, even satisfying, but I expected an adrenaline-soaked bloodbath, or at least a depressing death, at the climax. I wouldn’t say I was ‘let-down’ by the ending, just surprised that things didn’t end in literary Armageddon. If you come out with one thing from reading this book, it will be the portrayals of buoyant, happy-go-lucky Ruby and resourceful, serious Easter and the journey they take with a father who is just trying hard to be a dad.

Note- I could easily give this book 4.5/5 stars, but it would be unfair to the 4 star books I liked just as much. Therefore, four.

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

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“A Land More Kind Than Home” may well be one of the most beautiful, insightful, and gritty novels I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a rare thing for a book to take so far out of your range of experiences and hook you almost immediately, and this novel does exactly that, employing a cast of some of the most fascinating characters I’ve seen in ages. The focus is religion-gone-badly-awry and ignorance, with tragedy as a result, but never does it seem preachy or dicdactic.

Jess Hall is a precocious nine-year-old boy who is expected by default to take his thirteen-year-old, significantly Autistic brother Christopher (AKA Stump) everywhere he goes. The miracle of Jess’ character is that he doesn’t resent Stump in the least, as many young protagonists who serve as makeshift caretakers for their disabled siblings are. Jess and the gentle but entirely non-verbal Stump are as close as brothers can be expected to be, and they share a special bond that Jess doesn’t maintain with anyone else. Together they chase fireflies, catch salamanders, and amuse themselves exploring their rural North Carolina landscape.

Jess and Stump’s mom Julie is basically well-intentioned but a bit of an idiot, to be honest. She spends her time at the Baptist Church run by a shady and mysterious figure by the name of Carson Chambliss. The worshippers speak in tongues and dabble in snake-handling (AKA generally dodgy stuff,) and Jess’ atheistic pop Ben will have nothing to do with the diseased goings-on within the church. But when Jess and Stump catch wind of something they shouldn’t it is Stump who pays dearly.

The book is narrated by three POV characters- Jess, who is in too deep in the world of adults and still doesn’t entirely understand their affairs, is the center of the drama and arguably the lead. Adelaide Lyle is a good Christian and a very old lady who kind of also serves as the town wise woman. Clem Barefield is the sheriff, past his prime and dealing with his own demons. Resentments simmer in the small NC town of Marshall and explode into violent climactic confrontation.

I found the writing to be beautiful and literary without making a big show of itself (i.e. readable.) The narrative immediately grabs your attention as Addie recounts confronting Chambliss and being put in a threatening situation by the batty self-proclaimed prophet. If you’re interested in how “A Land More Kind Than Home” depicts Autism Spectrum Disorders, I found prose on Stump’s condition to be well-written and sensitively rendered.

On a side note, can I just say how much I wanted to shake Julie. I’ve NEVER seen a character in a book act as obtuse as she did. In the end, I found her almost as at fault in her ignorance as Chambliss was in his psychopathy. NO sympathy for her by the end of this novel. I thought all three POV’s worked extremely well to give us a multi-dimensional look into the story.

I want to read Wiley Cash’s second book “This Dark Road to Mercy”  as soon as possible. “A Land More Kind Than Home” is a rollicking good read and a beautiful piece of literature in its own right.

The Apostle (1997)

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There aren’t a lot of balanced portrayals of Christianity in popular culture. A few really hit you in the head with how wretched and faithless you are. Mostly, though, modern media concerning Christians are vicious and mean-spirited. The storylines in “Saved!” and “True Blood” come to mind. Mostly people try to make you feel bad for being Christian or bad for being an atheist, with very little middle ground. Here’s where “The Apostle” comes in to blow you away. “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s pet project about a Pentecostal preacher fleeing the law, played by Duvall himself, is nothing if not balanced.

Sonny (Duvall) is a man with a fire in his soul and a burning desire to spread the word of God. He truly wants to make the world a better place with his faith. He’s also a liar, a adulterer, and finally, maybe even a killer as he beats his wife’s lover into a coma and hits the road. He’s pushy, dominating, and hypocritical, but the thing is the film never stoops to demeaning or ridiculing this man or his passion for the gospel. He is who he is, and this movie is okay with that, without becoming jokey or judgmental.

“The Apostle” is, above all, a character study, as Sonny flees to a small Southern town and starts his own congregation. This is neither the story of how Sonny redeems himself and inspires many or the sad tale of how a backwards preacher-man hoodwinks the townspeople. It’s complicated and tricky, just like life. All the actors do a wonderful job here, and Duvall picks ordinary-looking people to play many of the roles. This is the South as it should be portrayed more often- not ass-backwards and evil, but not glossy and idyllic either. There is racism, there is poverty, but there is also a unity between the people.

Sonny starts romancing a lady named Toosie (Miranda RIchardson,) who doesn’t know quite what to make of the preacher. Although he never physically hurts to or forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, there’s a demanding vibe to the relationship, and we can’t help thinking she could do better. Sonny misses what he’s left behind (his kids, his mother,) but is excited for a brand-new future. Will Sonny find the solace he’s been looking for?

This is quite an extraordinary movie. It’s very thought provoking and is appropriate for teens to watch and discuss with their parents, although adolescents might have a short attention span for this kind of film. The scene at the beginning of the movie with the car crash is amazing and, in my opinion, the most powerful scene in the movie. The climax goes on a bit too long, but that is a minor quibble among the many positive attributes the film has. I consider this a Christian-friendly movie that primarily appeals to skeptics, but above all, it is fair-minded and intelligent. An overlooked gem!

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Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

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“Winter’s Bone” is the rare book that, while effective, does not exceed the merit of the movie. The eponymous film, directed by Debra Granik, is a nearly perfect work of art, and I was wary going into the book because I did not expect the it to exceed the film. While I was partially right (Woodrell’s original is more emotionally remote and the film is a masterpiece in it’s own right) the novel is worthwhile and lyrically written, while not being inaccessible.

17-year-old Ree Dolly (rendered less admirable and rougher-hewn in the book) lives in the Ozarks, surrounded by a cloistered community of violent and thuggish crystal meth cooks. Nearly everybody is related to everyone else somehow, and the mountain people defend their own kind against the cops- unless one of their own crosses the line. That’s what Ree’s dad Jessup did, and he’s missing. Worse yet, Jessup put bail bond on the house before he disappeared, and Ree has to prove that he’s dead before she loses the family home.

Ree almost single-handedly takes care of her mother, who has long ago turned insane, and her little brothers Sonny and Harold. She’s trying her best to cope with difficult circumstances. Ree’s rough, but sometimes roughness comes with persistence, and this girl’s nothing if not persistent. She tries to get the true circumstances of Jessup’s death from the locals, but they don’t like questions much. Soon she finds herself fighting for her life, desperately sinking into a situation that is fast getting out of hand.

Ree is  helped hesitantly by her enemy/lifeline Uncle Teardrop (played in the movie by the brilliant John Hawkes,) a crank cook whose criminal  activities she wants no part in. Although this is not mentioned in the movie, I got a strong feeling from the book that Ree was gay. On one level, the fact that Ree rejects the thought of pairing up with a man may stem from her fierce independence and the fact that the majority of the local men are leering, toothless pieces of white trash. But considering her activities shared with her friend Gail in her childhood and in the present (swimming together in the buff, kissing,) I got a slightly different vibe from the story.

The writing presented here is quite beautiful. You would think for a book set in such a bleak place, the writing would be similar to the setting- harsh and ugly. But it’s lovely. Sure, “Winter’s Bone” doesn’t for a minute romanticize the hardness and coldness of the Ozarks community Ree is forced to grow up and survive in. But it finds the prettiness in something nasty and tough.

“Winter’s Bone” transports the suburban, middle-class reader into a setting unlike most of us will ever experience. It may not be pretty, but it’s rough and real and thrillingly brutal. Instead of mocking its characters, it’s presents them as matter-of-fact and as direct as a slap to the face. I have to say, I could not stop picturing Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, although the novel stated the book Ree was a brunette instead of a blonde. I guess Jennifer Lawrence is so good at what she does that any other face feels like an impostor.

My mom LOVED this book and read it twice in a row; my reaction was a little more ‘meh,’ although I did think it was very good and solid. I like how in both the book and movie you felt hope for Ree and the kids. For all it’s bleakness, for all it’s toughness, you don’t see dead ends. You see opportunities. And you hope (and believe) that Ree will snatch those opportunities, which, after all, do not come easy in a place like this.