Thursday, April 24, 2014


Northern rural Maine is rough.  I've been there. Nine miserable months of winter are followed by a month of what Mainers call 'mud season.' A few weeks of sunshine passes for summer, then winter starts again. Jobs are scarce. I would never want to live there, and nothing about Beneath The Harvest Sky changed my mind about it.

Casper (Emery Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) are a couple of dispirited teens knocking around their desolate little town. Casper has been kicked out of school, and Dominic works on a potato farm. There's not much for them to do. They hang out in a condemned building, party in the woods, swear a lot, and have a  half-assed dream of moving to Boston. That in itself is a clue to how hopeless they are -- they have no intention of going to college, yet they want to move to a college city. Still, from where they're sitting, even a drab city like Boston looks like Rome or Paris.  Hell, at least it's a goal.

Casper's girlfriend lies about being pregnant because she doesn't want him to leave Maine, although it's hard to figure why she doesn't think she can do better than this neanderthal. All he does is hit people and say "Shut the fuck up!" Dominic, too, is strangely loyal to Casper. In a town so bleak, all they have is each other. Meanwhile, as often happens in these sorts of movies, Dominic meets a nice girl on the potato field who tells him he should break away from Casper and be his own man, or something to that effect. Dominic and the girl spend a night together, but she tells him they can't get too close because she's going off to school somewhere and he's just a Mainer, after all, with no prospects. Bored with his potato job, and rejected by the girl, Dominic seeks out the company of Casper, who  by now has started working for his shady father in the lucrative field of smuggling drugs back and forth to Canada.

Not surprisingly, the movie comes to a tragic end. See, a movie like this wouldn't get made unless the filmmakers wanted to say something about the futility of rural life in modern America. The writing-directing team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly create some bucolic scenes out of the bleak mountain backgrounds, but they tip their hand too early when the kids are shown reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. We know immediately that we're going to witness a tale of troubled teens doing battle with their harsh surroundings.

The film has been well received during its initial jaunt through the festival circuit, but some movie audiences crave anything not starring a man in a cape.  True, there are some good acting turns here - Aidan Gillen excells as Casper's smart-ass, drug dealing dad, and Timm Sharp is compelling as Badger, Casper's bumbling uncle who wants to be part of the family drug trade but keeps messing up. Even Cohen and McAuliffe aren't bad as a pair of stock rebels looking for a cause.  Otherwise, Beneath The Harvest Sky is as long and slow as a Maine winter.

When I was in New York last December I noticed several billboards in Times Square advertising Grudge Match.  More than any other movie of the season, this one was being advertised to the hilt. Enormous images of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro stared down from on high like Zeus and Hercules. The only billboard I saw that was comparable was for a Leonard Cohen concert, but that was just a single billboard: Grudge Match, meanwhile, was everywhere. The intended impression was clear: these were two legendary, almost mythical actors, and we were supposed to be in awe of them as they swooped down from Mount Olympus to entertain us mere mortals. The tepid reviews and resulting box office failure were fitting. Moviegoers know when they are being conned, and the idea of two men boxing at ages 67 and 70 was too much to swallow.

The concept of De Niro and Stallone appearing together in a boxing themed film is actually a few years old. I remember reading blurbs about them being tied to a project where they would play two aging ex-fighters who were suffering brain damage and were looking after each other.  Then I heard another story, where they would star in a boxing version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Both ideas had possibilities. Somehow, someone got the idea that the two should just star in a run of the mill boxing movie and simply fight. How could audiences resist Rocky versus The Raging Bull? Well, it turned out audiences had no problem resisting at all. 

I won't bother recounting the plot in detail. Stallone and De Niro play a couple of old rivals who are dragged out of retirement for one more bout. It turns out they once loved the same woman (played by Kim Basinger).  De Niro is always good, even in half-baked crap. His character here is the funnier of the two, and he provides a couple of mild yucks. Stallone has always been underrated, and he's not bad here, either. Still, the movie spends most of its time on jokes about senility and man boobs. Not much of it is funny.  

Also, why do boxing movies pay no attention to the rules of boxing? Can you imagine a baseball movie where a batter is hit by a pitch, and refuses to take first base because he wants to go down swinging? Forget it. Yet, in boxing movies we see all sorts of ridiculous stuff. In this one, De Niro and Stallone sit alone in their dressing room prior to the fight, which is absurd to anyone who has ever watched boxing on HBO or Showtime, and knows that the dressing rooms are swarming with people. Worse, there's a moment late in the fight where De Niro knocks Stallone down and then HELPS HIM UP so they can continue fighting. Two actors who owe much of their success to boxing films and profess to be fans of the sport should have known better. 

Movies that take place in used car lots all feel and look the same. How you view them depends on how you feel about used car salesman.  They're usually depicted as snarky wise guys trying to make a buck, little guys who aren't quite criminals but aren't quite legit, either.  Joel Surnow's Small Time is the latest, and probably won't be the last, excursion into the lives of these crooked but lovable schemers trying to pinch off a piece of the American dream. Christopher Meloni plays Al Klein, a car salesman whose son wants to join him and learn the trade.  Dad is excited at first, but the son (Devon Bostick) quickly gets a big head and starts emulating the worst traits of his dad's friends. There's a lot of stuff here about fathers and sons, friendship, and how the choices we make in life can haunt us. It's not a bad movie, but so much of Surnow's experience is from television that Small Time feels less like a movie and more like a TV show. 

Still, some of the best character actors in the business are here, including Dean Norris, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Ashley Jensen, and Kevin Nealon.  Let's get them all together for a Showtime sitcom, and see what happens.

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