Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right and Oscar Pics

With Stan’s Choice winning this week’s movie poll, I decided to take a little different approach with my review.  Normally when it’s my choice, I will pick something that I’m eager to see or believe a true movie fan should see.  With the Academy Awards coming up on Sunday, February 27th, I decided to see the last two remaining Best Picture nominated films I had missed when they were in theatres:  “Winter’s Bone” and “The Kids Are All Right.”  Using my Netflix membership to full effect, I sat back in the comfort of my own home, where popcorn and soft drinks are much more reasonably priced, and popped the DVD’s in the machine.

Winter’s Bone

Seventeen-year old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is tough as nails and far older than her years.  Ree takes care of her younger brother and sister, as well as her mother who has had a nervous breakdown.  With jobs hard to come by in rural Missouri, Ree’s dad, Jessup, cooks and sells methamphetamine.  He got arrested and is due in court in a few weeks.  Jessup has used the family home as collateral on his bond.  If he doesn’t show up for court, the family will lose their house, but he’s nowhere to be found.  Ree goes to Jessup’s brother, known as Teardrop (John Hawkes), for help in finding her father.  Teardrop warns Ree not to ask too many questions of their neighbors, otherwise she might go missing too.  Ree ignores Teardrops advice and soon finds herself on the wrong side of a local crime family.

I don’t know if there is such a thing, but the best way I can describe “Winter’s Bone” is redneck noir.  The movie has all the gritty, dirty feel of a crime film set in a big city; but also has a down home sensibility to it which both matches and broadens the genre.  If you took “The French Connection” and merged it with “Deliverance,” that’s “Winter’s Bone.”

Jennifer Lawrence, who has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, is terrific as Ree.  She has been made hard by her life in the Ozarks and will do whatever is necessary to protect her family home, even at the risk of her own safety.  Lawrence plays the part as a no-nonsense young woman who, deep down, yearns to break free from the oppressive poverty and lack of opportunity yet knows she will probably never escape.  John Hawkes as Teardrop, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, is scary from the first time you see him.  Teardrop has the look of someone who has seen too much and has shut down emotionally as a defense mechanism.  He also is known as someone who can go from zero to psycho in less than a second; and this reputation prevents people from starting trouble, keeping Teardrop and those around him safe.

The movie has a cold, gray tone to it, matching the season of the title.  You can feel the chill coming from the screen as Ree walks from place to place, looking for her father or asking for help from a neighbor.  The movie is very effective at drawing the audience into this sad and dangerous underbelly of rural life.

“Winter’s Bone” is rated R for drug material, language and violent content.  On a couple of occasions, a powder is shown being snorted.  Most of the actual violence is done off screen but we see its aftermath.  Foul language is scattered throughout the film.

“Winter’s Bone” is a dark thriller that may leave you feeling like you need a shower after you see it, but it is well worth the walk through the muck.

“Winter’s Bone” gets five guitars.

The Kids Are All Right

Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple who have been together over 20 years.  Using artificial insemination, each woman had a child using sperm from the same anonymous donor.  The children, 18-year old Joni and 15-year old Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), are two normal, mildly rebellious, teenagers.  Laser is curious about who their father is and encourages Joni to call the sperm bank and find out.  Paul (Mark Ruffalo) runs a small restaurant and lives a carefree, spontaneous life.  He gets a call from the sperm bank asking if he would allow one of the children he helped conceive to learn more about him.  He agrees which leads to a meeting with Joni and Laser.  That eventually leads to Nic and Jules meeting Paul and everyone trying to figure out how they can make this work.  Nic doesn’t much care for Paul and the influence he seems to have over the children, but Jules tries to work it out for their kids.  Jules, a landscape architect, eventually begins working at Paul’s house to tame his neglected backyard.  This close interaction leads to an affair between Jules and Paul, further complicating an already unusual situation.

“The Kids Are All Right” takes a non-traditional family and shows us the dysfunction we see in traditional families:  There’s a lack of communication, power struggles, doubt and fear.  We are also shown how this family also loves each other deeply.  In other words, they are just like everyone else.  While the story of these people could be viewed as somewhat groundbreaking, I would argue it isn’t brave enough.  If you replaced Annette Bening’s character with an actor of a similar age (Tom Hanks, for instance) the movie would probably have been criticized for being too conventional.  It’s a slightly more serious romantic comedy that follows a predictable path; but what makes this movie rise above the genre are the performances.

Annette Bening, nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, plays Nic as a tightly-wound spring who could snap at any second.  A doctor, Nic is a perfectionist who wants to impose her idea of perfection on everyone around her, including her kids and her life partner.  She drinks wine to relax but never seems to be able to wind down.  There are problems in her relationship with Jules before Paul steps in and his arrival is just another issue between them.  I wasn’t all that impressed with Bening’s performance until the scene where she figures out that Jules and Paul are sleeping together.  The array of emotions that play across her face without a single word of dialog is astounding, especially because of the scene that happens just before it.  It’s rare to be able to pinpoint the moment an actress does the kind of work that gets her nominated for a major award, but this scene is it.

Julianne Moore is sweet and funny as Jules, the middle-aged hippie who is constantly trying to find herself.  Jules is really much more compatible with Paul than with Nic which is part of what leads the two to have an affair.  Moore has a vulnerability that makes you want to hold her and forgive her when she does something wrong.  You feel sorry for her when she begins the affair with Paul since you know it won’t end well and lead to pain for her, Nic and the kids.  Moore is one of my favorite actresses who can handle both artsy and emotional roles in films like “Magnolia” and running and jumping parts in action films like “Jurassic Park:  The Lost World.”  No matter what kind of role she’s in, Moore always seems to find something deeper than the word on the page in her performance.  That’s true here as well.

Mark Ruffalo is also very good as Paul, bringing awkwardness to the role that is probably more honest than most actors would have done.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to get a phone call from a child I didn’t know existed.  Not knowing what to say or do is probably the perfect way to play the part and Ruffalo sure seems like he doesn’t have a clue, at least at first.  His role as new dad to two teenagers puts him in a tough position:  He wants to bring aspects of his life to his kids, but he gets in trouble with Nic and Jules for violating their rules.  Paul doesn’t handle this part very well and it doesn’t get any better when he starts sleeping with Jules.  It’s a good piece of work that many actors should study to learn how to play the role of a clueless outsider.

“The Kids Are All Right” is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use.  There are a couple of rather graphic sex scenes that appear on screen with little warning.  There’s one instance of a pill being crushed and snorted by one of Laser’s friends.  Joni gets drunk at a party.  Foul language is not that common but sprinkled throughout the film.

While not as groundbreaking as the story might lead you to believe, “The Kids Are All Right” is still a very entertaining look at an unconventional family that has some pretty conventional problems.  How they deal with those problems, along with some very strong performances, is part of what makes the film so good.

“The Kids Are All Right” gets five guitars.

Nicolas Cage escapes damnation and Owen Wilson gets a week off from fidelity in this week’s movies.  Vote for the film you’d like me to see and review next.

Drive Angry 3D—Nicolas Cage is a hardened felon who breaks out of hell on a high-speed pursuit of the bloodthirsty cult that killed his daughter.

Hall Pass—Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are best friends who are granted one week of freedom from their wives...no questions asked.

Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

Questions?  Send them to stanthemovieman@att.net.  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Here are my Oscar Picks for this year:

Best Picture—The King’s Speech
Best Director—David Fincher for The Social Network
Best Actor—Colin Firth
Best Actress—Natalie Portman
Best Supporting Actor—Christian Bale
Best Supporting Actress—Hailee Steinfeld
Best Original Screenplay—Inception
Best Adapted Screenplay—The Social Network
Best Animated Feature Film—Toy Story 3
Best Visual Effects—Inception

Watch the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 27th to see how my picks pan out.