Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fences, A Monster Calls, Road to the Well

      “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road”
                                               Bob Dylan, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (1967)

                                                         Reviews by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                                  Fences (Denzel Washington)
Troy Maxson is an angry 53-year-old Black man (in the 1950s) who got into trouble in his youth, spent years in prison, had potential as a major-league baseball player but was too old when the sport was finally integrated, now works as a garbageman with constant invective dished out onto his long-suffering wife, mostly-estranged adult son, and frustrated teenage son.
What Happens: Adapted from August Wilson’s 1983 play of the same name (winner of the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play, 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), set in 1950s Pittsburgh, PA’s Hill District (where Wilson lived; this film shot in and around an existing house in that neighborhood), Fences (2016*) tells the bitter story of a Black man, Tory Maxson (Denzel Washington), whose anger and sarcasm about how life has treated him so far (he’s 53) leaves him in a hostile state of constant-confrontational-readiness toward anyone close to him (by relation or just proximity), making it very difficult to appreciate his good qualities, even by himself.  When much younger he got into trouble with the law (killed a man during a robbery), spent 15 years in prison, learned baseball skills, but despite some success in the now-defunct Negro Leagues he was considered too old to draft after Jackie Robinson broke the color-barrier in 1947 (celebrated in 42 [Brian Helgeland, 2013; review in our April 18, 2013 posting]) so now he’s working as a garbageman along with his old friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), where his only joy is their weekly Friday afternoon postshift-sharing of a small bottle of gin.  Otherwise, he’s complaining about how Blacks never get the better job of driver in their occupation, how his older son (34) from a former relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is wasting his life trying to make it as a musician rather than getting a more substantial job (along with only coming around when he wants to borrow money), further complaining that his younger (teenage) son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), needs to focus on his after-school job at the A&P grocery rather than wasting his time and NFL-dreams on football (given Troy’s bitterness toward a career in pro sports; they also argue over domestic matters: Cory wants a TV set, Troy insists they need a new roof), and feeling guilty the government’s $3,000 paid to his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) for his WW II injury (leaving him mentally-disabled) was used to buy Troy’s house.

*I realize in writing about recent films it seems redundant noting the release date of “2016” but in trying to make these reviews coherent (in format, if not in content) for anyone who finds them in upcoming years my stylistic decision is to cite the year of release for anything I’m writing about out prior to the year in which I’m posting, so I’ll still be doing that until we’re further into 2017 given that most of what I’m seeing now consists of things that got very-limited-releases in LA so as to be eligible for Oscar-consideration but are still in the process of getting around to the vast rest of us.

 Admitting that she’s the only good thing in his life, Troy alternates between praise for his wife of 18 years, Rose (Viola Davis), or resentment toward her for every phrase that she utters contradicting what he feels should be their unified attitude toward all of the above (especially her support for Cory’s strong football ambitions, buoyed by his hoped-for-recruitment to a college team).  Finally, Troy’s pitch to his boss about no opportunities for advancement leads to a promotion to driver (even though he has no license) but his job's now in a different neighborhood so he drifts away from Bono, then things get really bad: he dashes Cory’s hopes for football because his son stopped working at the grocery store (despite a pledge from the owner that he could return after football season) so he forces Cory off the team, refuses to meet with the college recruiter, leading to bitter estrangement between father and son heightened by a confrontation between Troy and Rose in which Cory tries to intervene, only angering his father further; Gabe’s arrested for disturbing the peace but when Troy signs papers for his release he doesn’t realize he’s committing his brother to a mental hospital (even though Troy can’t read Rose is furious with him for this); most importantly, he’s having an affair with Alberta who’s now pregnant then dies in childbirth leaving him and Rose to raise baby daughter Raynell.  In frustration with his most-confrontation-fight yet with Dad, Cory joins the Marines.  A few years later, Troy’s dead of a heart attack, Corporal Cory initially refuses to attend the funeral until he gets a tongue-lashing from Mom even as he connects with Raynell (Saniyya Sidney)—little sister finally meeting long-gone-brother—along with Lyons willingly showing up and Gabe released for the day.  At the cemetery the family tries to reconcile themselves toward forgiveness regarding Troy’s fierce treatment of them all but it’s not clear how feasible this is, despite their understanding that at best what Troy wanted for them was just a better life than he’d ever been able to live (despite his awareness of the additional miseries he brought on himself, especially his totally-loveless-affair).

So What? The literal fence referred to in this story is one that Rose asks Troy to build in their small backyard, a task that he returns to off and on throughout the plot, at one point requiring it to serve as an enforced connection between father and son as Cory’s ordered to help with the project as penance for his transgressions against Troy.  Metaphorically, Rose wants a fence to try to hold in what fragments she has left of her family (given her awareness of Troy’s willingness to wander, despite all of the love and duly-given-unearned-tolerance she’s offered him over their time together and her knowledge of Troy’s ongoing hostility toward Cory—explored so well in the “How come you ain’t never liked me?” scene, shown here in 2 great versions from the play) while Troy’s willing to build it (although it takes him forever to finish) as a symbolic barrier to what he perceives as intrusions from the rest of the world (including Lyons and Gabe, who seem to personify past failures on Troy’s part) which he addresses as the Grim Reaper, daring this beast to assume mastery over such a belligerent human, even to the point of promoting a story (that Rose laughingly dismisses) about how he beat death in a 3-day/3-night battle when he had pneumonia as a child but he’s always ready for the return bout, with his anger manifested (same with Cory) by swinging a bat at a baseball hanging from a tree in the back yard.  Baseball figures prominently in Troy’s consciousness, with most of his euphemisms taken from that game, indicating how deeply its aspects burrowed into his consciousness as a potential star player who feels he was ignored because of race, not age (even claiming to be better than Robinson or the other African-Americans who were allowed into the Major Leagues by the time Fences takes place).

 This is a horribly-depressing-story of a man burdened not only by the entrenched-racism of his era but also by the isolating choices he makes in response to the larger society’s rejection of him (in his view, although disinterest might be a bit more objective as the people Troy detests so much barely know he’s alive), leading to the burdens he places on his own kin, giving them such little reason to tolerate him (except for Gabe, who really doesn’t know what’s going on much of the time), let alone show Troy the respect he so fervently demands that he deserves.  The clashes, especially between proud husband and put-upon-wife, are hard to watch as rough transcriptions of human failure but compelling as hell when seen as demonstrations of thespian brilliance, as they are here in this film.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: You might be aware that 
I made extended mention of this film (with some useful links to the play, including footage of the Tony Award-winning-performances of James Earl Jones [in the 1987 Broadway version] and Denzel [2010 Broadway version], as well as an interview with playwright August Wilson [plus a full-length-video of the play if you’ve got that much time available to watch, although it’s another version with neither Jones nor Washington]
in my previous posting, where I was defending my decision to give this current film my first 5-star-rating (in addition to a few re-releases of cinematic classics) in the 5 years that I’ve been reviewing for our Two Guys in the Dark blog, with the promise that in this posting I’d offer a more substantial review addressing why I think this film already belongs on a list with such established-achievements as Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927; review in our March 30, 2012 posting), The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949; review in our July 2, 2015 posting), The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray, 1955, 1956, 1959: review in our June 10, 2015 posting), and Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970; review in our October 22, 2015 posting)—all back in the marketplace in recent years—along with other 5-star-material (that I haven’t reviewed but might someday, either from DVD versions or re-releases) such as Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), and Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993).  My colleagues in the criticism world might or might not agree with me as Fences has scored a lofty 94% of positive reviews at the Rotten Tomatoes accumulation site while achieving a somewhat-lower-batting-average with those surveyed at Metacritic, a 78% score there (more details in the Related Links section far below).

 For me, Fences fits easily into such company, even though it’s inarguably the least “cinematic” of any films mentioned in the above paragraph with its use of wide shots and longish takes done in circumscribed locations (although there are also plenty of effectively-used, powerful closeups during the searing speeches), but as I noted before so is this same approach successfully used in such other 5-star-worthy play-to-screen-transcriptions as A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966), and Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992) so a filmic-adaptation that stays within the bounds of its theatrical-origins isn’t a problem for me as long as something significant occurs on screen, which is easily the case with Fences (why it wasn’t nominated for Best Motion Picture, Drama at the recent Golden Globes*—in place of Hacksaw Ridge [Mel Gibson, 2016], despite the worthy impact that film does make—I’ll never know**), surely my choice for Best Film of 2016 (short of something even more amazing which hasn’t yet opened in my area, but I doubt any of the remaining Oscar-options could top it).

*A new listing in the Related Links section connects to the 2017 Golden Globe winners.

**At least Davis won the Golden Globe prize for Best Supporting Actress, Motion Picture but Washington was topped in the Best Actor Motion Picture, Drama category by Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016; review in our December 8, 2016 posting) likely focusing competition between them for the parallel-Oscar-category (unless Ryan Gosling manages to ride a La La Land [Damien Chazelle, 2016; review in our December 21, 2016 posting] wave in late February [after getting all 7 of the Globes it was nominated for, with nothing else available in those Motion Picture categories, La La Land may be in the process of distancing itself from probable contenders Manchester … and Moonlight [Barry Jenkins, 2016; review in our November 10, 2016 posting), while I’m even more confident Davis is a lock for Oscar’s Best Supporting Actress honor.

 What’s so amazing for me about Fences can be summed up in 5 words: “Denzel Washington and Viola Davis,” although Henderson, Adepo, and Williamson are also quite strong in their roles, and I should probably put in another comma along with the words “August Wilson” in my original statement because his dialogue (adapted by Wilson for a screenplay before his death in 2005, although it’s recently reported co-producer/ noted playwright in his own right, Tony Kushner, polished the final draft) is the fuel that stokes the scalding fire delivered by this forceful group of actors (especially in the near-soliloquies done by Washington throughout, Davis in her 2 outstanding scenes standing up first to her husband later to her son).  You don’t have to be Black, have lived in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, nor share any of the other specific characteristics of any of these characters to feel the deep wounds they’ve had to endure, some dished out by society along with others thrown in hard (like a 95-mph-fastball) by Troy in response to the obstacles he’s determined have prevented him from being the man he was born to be, especially his betrayal of ever-loyal-but-ultimately-wounded-Rose.  Of course, the more you might resemble the specifics of what this story’s about the more it would likely impact you, but even as an aging White guy from Texas (now California) I found it speaking directly to me about how broken a person can become by the tragedies of life (unearned or not), how uncompromising those defeats can potentially make you in blistering response (Tory was emotionally hurt early on when his mother left, felt a rough kinship with his father who stayed although raised his kids in a very harsh manner until Troy left home at 14), how you can become consumed by hated (self- and otherwise) when you feel that you’re “shout[ing] across the ocean to the shore Till [you] can shout no more.”

 Thus, I come to my tactic of choosing a (hopefully) useful Musical Metaphor to speak in a somewhat different voice to what I’ve encountered in the film under review, which in the case of Fences will be Gordon Lightfoot’s marvelous “Don Quixote” (from his 1972 album of the same name) to be found at p5Gilps (from a 1979 performance on PBS) because it reminds me so much of how Troy would like to see himself—as “a horseman wild and free [… who] was once a shining knight [… who’s] seen the strong survive And […] seen the lean grow weak [… as] the children of the earth […] wake to find the table bare [… while he’s left with nothing to help but] a rusty sword […] Then in a blaze of tangled hooves He gallops off across the dusty plain In vain to search again Where no one will hear.”  Yet, Troy “is strong but he is weak He is cruel but he is gentle” (within himself, not so that the world at large can know these “but” attributes) which means that even when he’s “Standing like a prophet bold He [merely] shouts across the ocean to the shore Till he can shout no more,” an eloquent statement made by one of my all-time-favorite-singer/songwriters, now in conjunction with one of my all-time-favorite-cinematic triumphs.
           A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016)
A young boy, Conor O’Malley, faces many problems—bullying at school, an overbearing grandmother—but the worst situation is his mother dying of cancer; suddenly, his world is changed drastically with the appearance of a giant tree-monster who’s going to tell him 3 stories after which Conor must tell 1 of his own as he tries to make any sense of his confused life.
What Happens: We jump right into the unsettling-atmosphere of this film inside the dream of 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) where we first see a countryside church collapsing, following by large segments of the ground giving way as Conor’s on the edge of a newly-created-cliff desperately holding on to a mostly-unseen-person, then tragically loses his grip.  By the light of day (in this cold, damp, grey environment) we quickly learn the cause of Conor’s traumas: he’s being bullied daily after school by 3 of his classmates (who show no qualms about punching and kicking him, just because they can get away with it—testifying against them will only lead to worse retribution); his father (Toby Kebbell) is long-gone to a new family in America; his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) wants him to leave the comfort of his home to live with her; but by far his worst problem concerns his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), dying of cancer with little hope of recovery as she attempts various medicines all to no avail but tries to keep her son’s spirits up by dusting off Grandpa’s old 16mm projector to show him King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).  As if all this weren’t upsetting enough, he’s suddenly terrorized one night (at 12:07am, an important-recurring-time throughout this story) by a Kong-sized-wooden-monster who comes alive from the yew tree in the churchyard a short distance from his bedroom window.  In a manner a bit reminiscent of A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens, published 1843), this frightful creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) says it’ll return to tell 3 stories after which Conor must explain the hidden truth of his nightmare.  (Despite the monster’s seeming-physical-presence—it knocks out the wall into Conor’s bedroom—there’s no evidence after it leaves so is it another example of the boy’s dreams?)  
 When the monster returns for his 1st story, it’s shown on screen (by way of Conor's imagination?), in exquisite-watercolor-imagery, about a king who loses his 3 sons in battle to marauding armies, dragons, etc., raises his remaining prince (a step-grandson) to be a noble warrior, marries an evil witch who rules as queen when the king dies (possibly from her poisoning him) then wants to marry the prince to preserve her place on the throne although he loves a farmer’s daughter.  The prince and the maiden run away, spend the night under a yew tree (the monster), but when she’s dead the next morning, the populace rise up to take revenge on the queen (taken to a place of refuge by the tree-monster) with the prince serving as a wise ruler into his old age; the terrible twist is that he’s who killed his lover in order to foment rejection of the queen, guaranteeing himself sole rulership.

 As the monster explains, humans are complicated creatures so that stories about us can’t be simple, that there’s often more to a situation than we see on the surface.  In order to illustrate this, Conor’s Dad arrives from L.A., proving to not be the ogre Grandma implies but a caring man torn between the love for his 2 families.  But Conor resists being forced to move in with Grandma, damaging her heirloom grandfather clock to make it time for the monster to appear with his 2nd story; this one’s (shown in the same beautiful watercolor-like-fashion) all about an apothecary (pharmacist) back at the turn of the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago being put out of business by cultural changes including the sermons of a local parson who suddenly needs the old man’s help when his young daughters are deathly ill; although he could provide a potion from the bark of the yew tree, which the cleric would accept even though it goes against all his principles, the apothecary refuses because the parson’s willing to discard his beliefs just for a pragmatic outcome.  The tree then goes on a rampage against the parson’s home in an orgy of destruction which he encourages Conor to join, but when he does we see that what he’s really smashing is Grandma’s living room, leaving both relatives shocked at these actions.  This intensifies at school when the main bully, Harry (James Melville), says he’s no longer going to bother Conor because he feels the kid enjoys the punishment, sending the boy into 
a blind rage (egged on by the monster who tells his 3rd story very quickly—there are no storybook visuals for us on screenabout an ignored man treated by those around him as invisible, then seeking revenge on them) against his schoolmate/ former tormenter, beating him bloody, but with no reciprocal punishment from the head teacher (Geraldine Chaplin) who says to him: “What could possibly be the point?” (not choosing to add further to the trauma he’s already suffering, the same response he had from his grandmother after trashing many of her belongings).  Mom’s latest medicine’s (made from yew tree bark) not working so Conor rushes to the churchyard to demand help from the monster, who instead brings forth Conor’s nightmare demanding the boy offer a story that speaks the truth.  As it turns out, the truth is Conor’s secretly wished for his mother to die in order to spare himself (and her?) the further pain of her illness.  With this acknowledgement finally out in the open, he’s able to return to the hospital, tearfully admit he doesn’t want Mom to go (even as she does, quietly), comes to a truce with Grandma (Dad has to leave but encourages him to visit L.A. soon) who’s fixed up a proper room for him in her home where he finds a book of watercolor drawings made by Mom when she was a girl, with images of the tree’s first 2 stories to Conor, implying she’d also known this creature (which we already had a hint of as she—along with her son—could see the monster in her hospital room just before dying).

So What? For me, what takes A Monster Calls out of the realm of being a simple children’s tale is the complexity of the stories that the tree-creature tells, where nothing we assume about the details leads to the simple morals that we (and Conor) expect: the 1st one reveals that while the young (compared to her late husband) queen was selfish enough in desiring to keep her throne that she’d marry an even younger man she didn’t love she was still nowhere near as bad as that young prince who sacrificed a lover for his own benefit, although his reign was beneficial for his subjects with nary a hint of further evil actions from him; the 2nd story also presents a turn in expectations as wrath befalls the parson who’s raged against by the tree-monster for being willing to abandon his true beliefs in service of the material gain of saving his daughters, even though he wasn’t offering his acceptance of the apothecary’s beliefs in herbal healing just looking for a desperation fix for his predicament, with the implication that the rage the tree showed to the parson was as ill-informed as Conor’s resentful-destruction of his Grandma’s precious objects (with a concomitant swipe at her—along with the selfish attitudes of the parson—for blindly holding onto things that seem to matter only when they’re threatened with harm); the 3rd story simply shows that despite Conor’s justifiable anger at Harry, he’s only able to muster the fury to avenge himself when his weakness is exposed.  (Harry’s right, the kid does want to suffer self-punishment for his conflicted feeling about getting his mother’s inevitable death over so that he won’t be faced with the daily burden of when it will finally occur, yet Harry’s still being cruel, calling off his attacks as a form of emotional rather than physical punishment, while Grandma and the head teacher withhold what could be their easily-enforced-retaliations in sympathy for the pain they know Conor’s already steeped in rather than adding to it.)  

 Nothing’s all that obvious in what happens in the plot of A Monster Calls, the motivations for most of those plot turns, or the message that we’re supposed to take away from it all, making this a most unusual cinematic experience, wrongly understood if seen only as a diversion for kids, especially because this film's probably a bit too scary in its destruction scenes for the younger ones anyway.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Thanks in part to some strong critical support (RT offers 86%, MC 76%), A Monster Calls has been gaining ground in its 3 weeks of release, just now going to a much wider range of theaters while beginning to make an impact at the box office, jumping from #47 in ticket sales 2 weekends ago to #12 during this last one with its so-far-limited-gross ($2.2 million in the domestic [U.S.-Canada] market) primed to climb now that it’s much more accessible (further shown by the fact that it’s already taken in $34,000,000 overseas so it does have some potential to build a bigger audience, although it probably will have to constantly struggle to overcome reviews where the critic claims it’s not solidly enough pitched to either children or adults—I disagree, seeing important adult messages throughout, even though I was at first hesitant to attend this unique film because the promotion-focus seemed oriented way below my age bracket).  But, essentially what we have here is something not truly as adultly-disturbing as Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) but more thought-provoking than the slightly-scary-but-ultimately-kid-friendly The Nightmare Before Christmas (conceived by Tim Burton, directed by Henry Selick, 1993), although individual sensibilities will ultimately determine the propriety of my categorizations.  Not up for debate, however (I hope), is the effective computer-graphics-imagery of Conor’s nightmare, the animation of the fierce-but-ultimately-caring tree-monster (with marvelous vocal work by Neeson, displaying the complex personality of this strange, revelatory creature), and the grand, exquisite watercolor-evocative-illustrations of the tree’s stories intended to challenge Conor’s assumptions.  

 Despite the uplift reached by the very end, this becomes a truly sad story upon Lizzie’s death as Conor’s defenses finally crumble—evocative for me as I’m forced to remember my own mother’s death in 2008 when her pain-wracked, morphine-filled, consciously-chosen-self-starvation-under-hospice-care body was going through its slow process of deterioration, leaving me with nothing more to do than watch and wait for the needed-end, as I admit that I joined Conor in wishing for a quicker finale because she was so far gone already—more so than Lizzie who was conscious until her departure—but still hard to admit that I wanted her death to come about as soon as possible.

 I don’t fear a wooden-monster coming after me for expressing this truth about my own parent, but it’s a truth that doesn’t lead to ethical-absolutes except in the minds of those who believe that nothing should ever be done to help someone, even in great distress, to closure for their suffering before a body gives out on its own.  I can’t agree with that, although I do agree that Conor needed to own his wishes for his mother’s swift demise, clarifying better in his own mind whether it was more his suffering or hers that he was wishing to alleviate, a nice point for viewers to debate in a heated post-screening-conversation, although one that likely won’t offer clear conclusions in our world any more than his.  Moving on to a Musical Metaphor for A Monster Calls, I’ll offer one from Lizzie’s perspective (given that the film’s already given us so much from the viewpoint of both Conor and the magical tree, with the final acknowledgement of her artistic connection with her son who’s drawn to drawing just as Mom shows at the end of the story her childhood dexterity with watercolors) provided by the song “Dedicated to the One I Love” (written by Lowman Pauling and Ralph Bass, originally a hit for the Shirelles [on their 1961 album Tonight’s the Night]) at hLz5DY as sung by The Mamas & the Papas (their version’s on the 1967 album The Mamas & The Papas Deliver; this video of a live performance adds lyrics, even though in a couple of instances they’re not synched correctly but that’s a minor confusion), with the song nicely implying a plea from Lizzie to Conor to “Whisper a little prayer for me my baby [… because] Love can never be exactly like we want it to be […] And the darkest hour is just before dawn.”  I’m also drawn to this version because Mama Michelle Phillips looks to me a bit like Felicity Jones to me, but if you’d rather go with the Shirelles then here they are at
Occasionally, Two Guys in the Dark are contacted to review something, a request which we try to accommodate in context of other plans; the following comments are the latest example of this, with our thanks to the director for making his work accessible to us and providing some extra photos.

                               Road to the Well (Jon Cvack, 2016)
A young man's having problems both at work and home when an old friend drifts into town, offering him a respite including encouragement to talk to an attractive woman at a bar; his pitch is effective as they’re soon having sex in the back seat of his car only to be attacked by a masked intruder who leaves the woman dead, with the 2 men on the road to bury her body.
What Happens: Beginning with what we come to understand is a short montage of scenes where dialogue is overlaid with music evocative of the warning sounds at a railroad tracks crossing 
(implying the drifter nature of a main character), we don’t initially know what’s going on here but in retrospect we’ll realize that we’re meeting Jack (Micah Parker) who’s hanging around with some oddball-counterculture-types, including hooker Ruby (Rosalie McIntire), in whom he’s got a strong interest.  (After a full viewing of Road to the Well, you might want to watch this opening-scene-cluster again—given that you’ll most likely be seeing this movie in some form of controllable-video-delivery—as it’ll have much more contextual-resonance once you know the full story that it serves to introduce.)  From there we enter a much more mundane office environment where our other protagonist, Frank (Laurence Fuller), is involved in some dead-end-job but for now is having an argumentative phone conversation about getting back into a Ph.D. program he previously dropped out of; next, he’s having an equally-uninspiring-conversation with boss Tom (Tim Martin Gleason) who wants him to relocate from wherever they are in southern CA (but, sadly for them, nowhere with the colorful energy of La La Land) to the far-northern Eureka, CA branch.  Frank’s not excited about this enforced-option as he explains it at home to girlfriend Jessica (Michelle LaFrance) who’s distracted, much more interested in attending Tom’s birthday party that night, which turns out to be a fateful evening as Frank also gets a call that his old college buddy Jack has wandered into town.  

 At the party, Frank discovers Jessica’s reason for being there as he catches Tom having sex with her (if you’re saying “Eureka! I know why Frank’s being sent to Eureka,” you’re in tune with the nuances of Cvack’s script), so he and Jack head off for beers where Frank laments his miserable life while Jack tries to cheer him up, encouraging an encounter with an attractive woman at the bar (whom we either recognize as Ruby or learn her fuller involvement with Jack later on).  Sure enough, Frank makes the effort; soon they’re in the back seat of his car, then his life changes in an instant.

 That poignant instant involves a ski-masked-man suddenly attacking Frank and Ruby; Frank comes to later, to find blood on his back seat, 
a knife tucked into his underwear, Ruby dead in his trunk, but with Jack conveniently nearby who encourages his frantic friend to take Tom up on the job relocation so that they can head north to find somewhere to bury the body.  First, however, they stop off to visit other old friends—Chris (Barak Hardley) and his fiancée Trudy (Caitlin Gallogly)—with long-time-tension still brewing between Chris and Frank (turns out that years ago Frank was starting to put the moves on Trudy, Chris was ready to kill him one night but Jack intervened) as our fleeing twosome are unsuccessful in getting Chris to allow them access to his cabin in the Sierra mountains (which doesn’t prevent Frank from stealing the keys)Apparently, they want the location as a base from which to dig a grave in the woods but their presence at the place is detected by neighbor Dale Miller (Marshall R. Teague).  After digging the hole for Ruby far away from the cabin during the day, then burying her body at night, they’re again confronted by Dale (an ex-Army major, now in full uniform) who invites them over for a drink (of his moonshine) and some stew, revealing that with 
the death of his wife now 3 years ago and his grim opinion of the continuing deterioration of society (“Nobody cares for anything anymore!”) he’s been trying to drum up the courage to kill himself (even though he was a military chaplain) but needs for them to do it.  To Frank’s shock, Jack takes Dale’s revolver, obliges his request, and, later, with Frank’s help finally stashes the body in Dale’s house after initially trying to put him in with Ruby but they forget to bring shovels.  Further complicating everything, Chris shows up admitting he wants them out of the cabin because he’s got an arrangement to meet a woman there for an affair but they insist he call it off so he leaves after hearing Jack tell his story about the serial rapist he and Ruby killed last week; to Frank he admits he was concerned she might tell someone so he suckered Frank into the scenario of her death (Jack was the masked attacker), which ultimately leads Frank to shoot Jack before becoming the next victim himself.  After leaving Jack’s body next to Dale’s (implying some sort of murder-suicide-event, although how they’d both get wrapped in blankets isn’t clear to me), Frank burns all evidence of the crimes, then he’s back at an office half-listening to Tom arguing with a coworker about priorities, after which he apparently quits to begin his own drifter journey as sunset approaches.

So What? The longer I watched Road to the Well the more enjoyable and intriguing it became, with a good number of flourishes that enhance its interest level, including brief scenes with Trudy’s welcoming, gregarious parents—Larry (Bill Lewis) and Barb (Marsha Rodd)—who insist that Frank and Jack stick around Chris and Trudy’s place so much longer than they want to (which allows the animosity between Frank and Chris to completely resurface) and a great scene where Dale tells our intrepid duo a story where a guy finds himself trapped in a well, barely hanging on an interior branch with a dragon below him, a monster above him, and mice nipping at his branch so, with no other option, he begins to lick some honey off its leaves, the whole thing being a metaphor for finding yourself in a desperate situation, having to make some decision among unwanted choices, just as our frazzled-protagonists are faced with, as Dale (holding the pistol at that point) makes clear to his “guests,” because either they comply with his wishes or he’s going to call the police, under the assumption that they’ve done harm to Chris (he’s half-right, just with the wrong victim).  The wry complexity by which events evolve in this film and the continuing ambiguity of the characters’ motives (not only 
how disloyal Jessica is to Frank—as well as how Jack shifts from being Frank’s secret-protector in their earlier days to his manipulating-“mentor” in the killing of Ruby—but also how Trudy and Frank briefly hint there might still be a spark between them after all, as Frank privately berates Chris to her), along with how Dale’s situation shifts him from being a dangerous intruder in the burial plans to being a desperate-suicidal-wannabe, all add up to a constant sense of surprise as our put-upon-protagonists keep finding themselves deeper in a terrible “well” of their own making, although Frank’s there out of confused fear until he realizes he can no longer trust Jack’s next move.  I was impressed by what I saw just on the story’s own merits, but, through email exchanges with Cvack, when I found he managed to make this movie for a mere $100,000 I became doubly-impressed with his result (Tim Davis’ cinematography alone is worth that much).  I don’t know how many of the 30-some-odd-thousand of you around the world who visit this blog on a monthly basis will follow my recommendation to find your own road to … the Well, but I hope many of you will make that choice as I think you’ll find it well worth your investment.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: You won’t be able to find hardly anything in critical land about Road to the Well (there’s an empty page awaiting for some reviews to be added in Rotten Tomatoes, but Metacritic doesn’t even offer that; IMDb does have 1 user review as I was gathering my info) so, until you purchase a screening (or a DVD) for yourself you’ll just have to take my word for it of Road ... being a very enjoyable experience, well worth your time and more economical to see than even a bargain matinee at your local theaters.  Essentially, it’s a movie that grows on you as it becomes more intense and unpredictable the further you get into it with very credible performances throughout (in fact, Parker won the Best Supporting Actor award at the 2016 Orlando Film Festival, well-deserved but you also get a terrific end-of-life-scene from Teague and it would have been great to have seen more of McIntire … for her acting, of course), with an overall win for ... the Well at the 2016 Long Beach Indie International Film Festival for Best of Fest (you can find out considerably more at the 1st link below for this title in the Related Links section, very informative with lots more photos than I had space to use).  So, no matter how well Road to the Well ends up doing I’d say it shows great potential for even better work as screenwriter and/or director from Cvack.  So much so that, unlike with the reviews above, when I started thinking about a Musical Metaphor to sum it all up what immediately came to mind was Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (from his 1967 John Wesley Harding album), not only because of the obvious similarities of names of the 
2 prominent characters in each diverse work (Frankie Lee, Frank; Judas Priest [from which the rock band got its name], Jack) but also because of the themes of betrayal, death, and devious, ambiguous messages to be taken from what we see and hear (in … the Well Frank seems to have inherited Jack’s drifter lifestyle with no clear direction as to what’s next on his journey; in “The Ballad …” we’re told bluntly that “nothing is revealed”—except, to quote from yet another song on John Wesley Harding: “the drifter [now Frank] did escape”) 
However, unlike with Bob's 
"Drifter's Escape" (where I can offer you a live video accompanied by the lyrics to help with your interpretation of Dylan’s delivery—which in this case is considerably up-tempo-electrified from his much-more-plaintive original recording) I can’t find a video of Bob doing “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” that easily conveys what I find to be so resonant between song and movie, so as I leave you with my final thoughts on Road to the Well I’ll offer a little montage of my own (probably a collage to be more precise) with a cover version of the song at by Ron Talley (accompanied by a lot of pictures of clouds, along with some nice harmonica work), but if you still want the Nobel laureate himself here’s he is at EFC3INU (date and location unknown), although unless you know the lyrics already (or get tired of the subpar visuals) you might want to open another web browser to this site to read along while you’re listening to him (or just refer to the subtitles on the video—but only if you speak Spanish).
Short Takes
 In closing out this time, I’ll note that I’ve seen La La Land for a 2nd time recently,  when I probably enjoyed it more because I didn’t have the distraction of taking notes (although I do remember now to call even more attention than before in my previous review to the marvelous collection of primary-to-pastel-colors in the early scenes—before the story gets more serious, as it steers away entirely from being much of a musical for awhile—along with the parallel, effective use of a marvelously-mobile-camera especially in those more boisterous earlier scenes).  Also of note, the main reason for seeing La La ... again was because my musicals-embracing-wife, Nina, felt that she was too distracted by something—possibly having to sit next to me, but I could swear that I showered that day—upon our earlier viewing, wanting to give it another chance; this time she was also swept away by it.  Along that line, I also recently had the opportunity to re-watch My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011), which was the 2nd film I ever reviewed for this blog (on December 15, 2011), starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark, who was an actual 3rd assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier, 1957), the movie this fictionalized-retelling is about where the famous star slips off for an escape with her young enamored-conquest due to pressures from both director/co-star Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and distance from her husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).  Even years later, I’ll agree with my initial 3½ of 5 rating-stars for this charming but slim story, with the now-added-pleasure of seeing what
acting-stars Williams and Redmayne have grown into (with her having already made a big impact even then, now being lauded for her small role in Manchester …, him just then emerging into what’s become an Oscar-winning-career).  I must say I’m pleased to see what I wrote so long ago, that it actually does seem to have a lot of substance (although my layout needed a LOT more photos to make the text more visually-appealing), especially because when I saw this film I didn’t know I’d be starting the blog a couple of weeks later (a long story I'll be glad to share if you'll buy me a beer sometime) so everything I wrote was from scant-memory-recollections and active-background-extrapolation (I hadn’t discovered Wikipedia plot summaries back then), so maybe I should go back to that process instead of driving myself crazy with my tiny flashlight taking notes, missing a good bit of what’s happening on screen in the process, although I do enjoy having some evidence of what I think I remember even though my quick-scrawl-handwriting often offers a mystery not even Sherlock Holmes could solve.  Therefore, if you’re looking for something to further your current options of what to watch, with a couple of now much-more-familiar-faces, I’ll still recommend … Marilyn to you, especially for Williams’ marvelous portrayal (winning her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical), not intended as an imitation but as a re-capturing as with Natalie Portman in the even-more-marvelous-Jackie (Pablo Larraín, 2016; review in our January 4, 2017 posting).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems,

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2016’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 26, 2017 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2016 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2016.

Here’s more information about Fences: (43:06 interview with Denzel Washington and other actors—Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson—from the film)

Here’s more information about A Monster Calls: (11:55 mini-documentary on the process of making the film—nothing explained, just footage, but it gives a clear sense of the endless complexity and preparation of the filmmaking process; plus, starting at 10:37 there's a quick tally of the all-time-top-10-money-making-actors based on the total grosses of their releases, with Harrison Ford topping the list, Scarlett Johansson at #10 as the only woman in the tally)

Here’s more information about Road to the Well: (contains the trailer, cast and crew bios, photos, and means of purchasing the film) (IMDb page, a bit of additional info) (17:10 comments from the Long Beach Indie International Film Festival with director-writer-producer Jon Cvack, cinematographer-producer Tim Davis, and actors Laurence Fuller, Micah Parker, Marshall Teague; not great quality in the video imagery but the sound’s functional enough)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

No comments:

Post a Comment