I had the privilege of seeing this film at Twin Cities Film Fest last October, one of the three films I saw on the big screen. I had come into it blindly, not having seen a trailer or even read in details what it’s about at all or even seen the trailer. I find that as a rarity in the age of social media where incessant promotional campaign tend to reveal too much about a film. So for this review, I shall try not to spoil too much details about the plot, and when I absolutely have to, I’ll warn you about it and hide the spoiler-y bits.
Now, even reading its description on IMDb would reveal key details about the plot, so if you want to come into it blindly, I’d refrain from going to its IMDb page. What I can safely tell you is that the film takes place in early 1970s in South Carolina and later New York City. It’s told through the eyes of the title character Frank Bledsoe’s (Paul Bettany) teenage niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) who clearly admires his uncle and claims he’s the only one in the family who sees and appreciates her for who she is.
We first see the Bledsoe’s family at a Christmas family gathering and while everyone seems to treat Frank well, it’s apparent right away that Frank is dismissed by his dad, the family patriarch referred to as Daddy Mac. At first it’s not clear why he isn’t quite welcomed at home and my initial thought is that the family isn’t too keen that he left the South to work as a literature professor at NYU.
It’s not until 18-year-old Beth ends up going to NYU that Frank’s true identity is revealed. Again I won’t spoil that for you, but it happened at a party at Frank’s apartment where Beth showed up without being invited. The person who shows up at the door is Walid or Wally (Peter Macdissi), Frank’s roommate. He was taken aback by Beth’s presence at first, but immediately warms up to her as if he’s known about her for some time. Now, if you don’t want to know more about the plot, I suggest you stop reading.
The party itself would easily give away just who Frank really is. Spoiler alert (highlight to read) –Beth soon finds out that uncle Frank is gay and he’s been living with his lover Wally for the past 10 years. There are guests of diverse backgrounds mingling, drinking, definitely not the kind of crowds Beth was exposed to in the South. The real journey began when Frank got a call that Daddy Mac has died and he had to take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, SC for his funeral. College is naturally a coming-of-age moment for many teens, but this road trip and all the revelations concerning Frank, as well as the reactions stemming from that, ends up being a growing experience for both involved.
This film is a sophomore effort from award-winning writer Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood). He also penned the script, which apparently is partly based on his own dad’s life. I have to commend Ball’s ability to balance the drama, comedy and even tragedy aspects of the story as the film takes viewers in an emotional roller coaster. I always admire filmmakers who can tackle difficult subject matters and manage to inject humor into it without turning it into an absurd farce. This one definitely covers tricky topics and sensitive, hot button issues, yet it’s not a downer of a movie despite some harrowing scenes.
Throughout the journey south, there are multiple flashback scenes told in stages as more and more of Frank’s past is revealed. This narrative style could’ve been really clunky and problematic, yet it works quite well here to tell the source of why Frank is so ravaged with guilt and the incident that changed his relationship with his father forever. I think the lack of subtlety is deliberate, though some of the scenes and dialogue are too on-the-nose and forced emotionally. Despite the inherent conflict between Frank and his dad, however, I appreciate the fact that Ball refrains from completely demonizing him despite the intense hurt he’s caused his own son.
The performances are definitely the film’s strong suit. Paul Bettany is quite a revelation as Frank in a committed, genuinely heart-breaking performance. His character is filled with so much sorrow and self-loathing which makes him infuriating and even hard to love, but Bettany tackles the role with a nuanced emotional honesty. Peter Macdissi is simply delightful here in such a warm, lively performance. The stark contrast between the eternal-optimist Wally and the often despondent Frank make for some comic-relief moments that would make you laugh and cry. Sophia Lillis is terrific as Beth and I think the fact that the film is often seen through her perspective makes the story more relatable. The supporting cast are filled with talented character actors such as Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Stephen Root, Judy Greer, and Lois Smith. I rarely see Root play such an unsympathetic character but he’s quite believable here as the insensitive patriarch.
Lois Smith + Margo Martindale
I think the biggest issue I have with this film is that at times it feels like an ‘agenda film’ that tries to blatantly push certain values to the audience. Some of the familial scenes and Frank’s alcoholism feel a tad too maudlin and ham-fisted. Overall though, it’s a compelling and emotional drama that would definitely spark interesting conversations with people after you watch it. Definitely a perfect release around Thanksgiving, even if this year people might have to spend family gatherings virtually.
Have you seen UNCLE FRANK? Well, what did you think?
Having gotten family Thanksgiving feasting and festivities out of the way a few days early. And indulging in minor Tryptophan comas through many variations of sumptuous leftovers. I’ve decided to make good on a debt or favor and honor to our Hostess, Ruth.
Accumulating information, intelligence and perspective on a well budgeted, thought out and executed extension of the Twentieth Century Fox television derivative, FX. And their inspired doubling down and betting it all on one series. As successfully done with their previous offering,”The Shield”. And again coming out on top!
The series in question isn’t exactly a Western. Nor is it what I consider a full fledged or procedural “Cop show”. Though it has topics, drama and situations taken from both genres. Cleverly updated and blended together in ways that only veteran novelist and writer, Elmore Leonard could conjure up and bring to tense, sometimes comedic life.
So, allow me a few moments of your time to delve in, peel back layers and hopefully lay bare a perspective on one of the more enigmatic, yet surprisingly addictive series of this decade with:
5 Reasons Why FX’s ‘Justified’ Rocks Out Loud!
Though not given a numerical value that might place one specific above another. I am going to be au courant and simply state the reasons. Since each is an integral part of the others. And how well they mesh to create superlative adult entertainment.
The foundation of any series, film, feature or short subject lays trapped inside the writers’ imagination. And how well those thought and ideas flow through to paper. And later, processor or lap top. And few are better than master novelist and screenwriter, Elmore “Dutch” Leonard.
Whose pedigree runs from the 1950s heydays of Budd Boetticher’s low budgeted, Randolph Scott films (‘The Tall T’). Through the original ‘3:10 to Yuma’. Both renditions of ‘Hombre’. To ‘The Moonshine War’, ‘Valdez Is Coming’, ‘Joe Kidd’, ‘Mr. Majestyk’ and ’52 Pick Up’. And later, more recognizable efforts, ‘Get Shorty’, ‘Jackie Brown’. Television’s ‘Karen Sisco’ and low budgeted, mid west winter revenge flick, ‘Killshot’,
Add an eye for minor details with Graham Yost (HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and major Wild West meets Shakespeare cult class series, ‘Deadwood’). And you have the makings of grittily modernizing the “Old Gunslinger comes to town” premise. Add a few love interests. The odd family and home town feuds. Old school (Moonshine) and updated forms (Grass, Oxycotin and Heroin) of illegal recreational pharmacology. Bracing old friends and new snitches. Serving warrants and transporting prisoners. And you have a continuing tale and mixture that pays off in ways unimagined!
With the writing for the ever developing. overall idea nicely tied up. We move to:
With the sunny beaches south of Miami used as a backdrop for a Han Solo and Greedo like sit down showdown with a mid tier Columbian drug runner to get the story moving westward during the series’ pilot and premiere episode. Then shifting ever so quickly to the rustic, quaint and near antique confines of Harlan, Kentucky. Talent is needed to find just the right look and feel of a town and outskirts that architecturally haven’t left the 1960s.
And that’s where Jared Kurt, Andrew Keeler and Eric Klosterman come in. Finding out of the off the beaten path and less accessible way places, townships, railway heads, trestle bridges and occasional steam powered locomotives and trains to add back woods and water authenticity. Where forested, hilly, coal country Kittaning and up against the Appalachian and Ohio border, Washington, Pennsylvania come into their own. Though much more in the second season and beyond. Where coal, mining, land sales, drug deals, the “Dixie Mafia”, organized crime out of Detroit and local politics move to the fore. Not exactly a perfect, restored time capsule when dealing with contemporary eyesores, safety rails and the like. But a pleasantly rewarding treasure trove for those who appreciate the look and feel minor details add to an organic domestic mix. Accepting and often looking forward to these tidbits, because of their solidity and tangibility.
While Santa Clarita and the outskirts of Pasadena, California fill in for the rustic and slightly time warped main drag and town square of Kentucky’s capital, Frankfort. Its court houses, municipal buildings and the more affluent parts of cities and towns where the movers and shakers on both sides of the law and criminal scale live and do business,
Sets of all shape, size and devotion to detail abound. From the Marshall’s office in Harlan with computers on every desk and a flat screen televisions in the boss’ office. To the incredibly old time clap board country and general store of “Mags” Bennett (Margo Martindale, magnificent and made for the role!). The tough as nails, seemingly omniscient matriarch of a low scale crime clan way out in the hills. And several old, disused and forgotten coal mines and shafts which fill a more lucrative purpose. Add some Honky Tonk bars. Dirt floored and otherwise. Mobile home and trailer-ed brothels of the series’ main nemesis. And watch some magic go to work!
Which moves us along to those who ride herd and maintain control over all this largesse of imagination and logistics.
Far too many to mention here. Though the number tops out at twenty. With notables being Adam Arkin (Who also has a cameo role as elegant Detroit mob shot caller, Theo Tonin). Who came on board early and has a nice touch for the series tone, grit and occasional irony and humor. While honing his near veteran skills with two episodes for each season.
Followed closely by crime connoisseur and master of Neo Noir, John Dahl (‘The Last Seduction’, ‘Red Rock West’, ‘Rounders’) Who brings out the “Tough Guy” talk and image beautifully in the Good Guys, Bad Guys, crews and clans memorably the early seasons and beyond. While Jon Avnet has a real penchant for introducing and fleshing out new, often returning characters and the beginning of major twists seasons before they sometime disastrously occur. And leaves some slack to expand upon for Peter Werner, Tony Goldwyn, Don Kurt and Peter Werner to run and play with.
Creating a fluid, uninterrupted canvas for this cabal of visual choreographers to deliver solid consistent work. About the only director who hasn’t been called in to add his perspective is Peter Weller (“Robo Cop’, ‘Shakedown’), who has been doing superior work directing and being a crooked retired police chief on FX’s ‘Sons of Anarchy’!
Which brings us to the meat of the series. Split into two groups.
The GOOD and BAD Guys
THE GOOD GUYS
Relatively small in numbers. As is befitting any continuing tale of Good versus Evil.
Raylan Givens: Veteran U.S. Marshall. Tall, lean nonconformist. Made for denim jeans, jacket, chambray shirt, Tony Lama boots and a wide brimmed, down turned Stetson. That he absolutely rocks. Even in Mimi, Florida! A fast and deadly accurate shot. Reassigned back to Harlan after a controversial shooting. Played with a wise, sly, cynical smile by Timothy Olyphant (HBO’s ‘Deadwood’, ‘Live Free or Die Hard’, ‘Hitman’, ‘The Crazies’).
Art Mullen: Raylan’s unassuming “Been There. Done That” boss. Elder statesmen, mentor and conscience to Raylan and his squad. Overweight, Long of tooth. Up for retirement. Yet knowing more about his stomping ground, feuds and secrets than he lets on. Embodied near flawlessly by baritone, veteran character actor, Nick Searcy (‘Castaway’, ‘Moneyball’, ‘The Ugly Truth’, ‘To Appomattox’).
Rachel Brooks: (Erica Tazel) So much more than meets the eye. Smart, clever, efficient, quiet. Yet very proud of her being a Marshall. And not adverse to drawing and using her sidearm or shotgun.Can read most men in less than a minute. Slated to take Art’s place upon retirement. Huge potential for an actress just starting out. And showing the chops to stay ahead of the pack.
Tim Gutterson: (Jacob Pitts. HBO’s ’21’, ‘The Pacific’, ‘Euro Trip’) The squad’s long range rifleman and occasional back up for Raylan. Former Army sniper with multiple tours in Afghanistan and the desert. Equally proficient with a pistol. Doesn’t talk much, because he really doesn’t need to. Also a dead ringer for a younger Chris Cooper! Possessing quiet “Old Time Toughness” as well as a bit of sly when confronting criminals.
ADA David Vasquez: (Rick Gomez: HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers’, ‘Sin City) Up and coming Federal Prosecutor trying to “make his bones” and a name for himself far away from the power players in Washington, DC. Fast talking. Too shrewd by half. Knows Raylan’s gun slinging reputation and wants to capitalize on it to his advantage.
Judge Mike Reardon: (Stephen Root: ‘Office Space’, ‘Fargo’, ‘News Radio’) No nonsense judge who carries a licensed pistol under his robes. And has a red Swingline stapler atop his desk beside the blotter and phone in his chambers!
Which leaves the floor open for:
THE BAD GUYS
Many with extended families and cousins. Most vying for supremacy. Or control of a criminal beyond the reach of their respective towns or counties.
Boyd Crowder: Criminally under rated Walton Goggins, Channeling Shane Vendrell of FX’s earlier, ‘The Shield’. Finally being the Outlaw he was meant to be. Sly, smooth. With a chess player’s mind and a scary familiarity with violence. Had worked in the mines as a youth with Raylan. Very handy with explosives.
“Mags” Bennett: (Margo Martindale: ‘Million Dollar Baby’, ‘The Hours’, Orphan’) Hard luck woman. Matriarch of the Bennett clan. Sons Doyle, Dickie and Coover. Sells Moonshine (“Apple Pie”) and decent grass. When not trying to get family land from a fading coal company.
The Crowes: Daryl Crowe, Jr. (Michael Rapaport). Muscle bound ‘roid raged bully and small time grafter with delusions of grandeur. Danny Crowe (AJ. Buckley. Lab nerd on ‘CSI:NY’ turn in a bravura turn as a knife freak fixated on challenging men with guns from a distance. Dewey Crowe (Damien Harrison). Skinny. Loud mouthed. Former gator poacher. Possibly the most hapless criminal in Florida or Kentucky. Nose broken by Raylan early on lead to a lawsuit and payoff that bring Dewey’s cousins ruing at the scent of opportunity and money!
Wynn Duffy: (Jere Burns) Represents “The Dixie Mafia” as front man and “arranger”. Always mobile in a Winnebago. Constantly stuck in the middle of attention drawing Turf Wars. Thinks his talents are misplaced.And would rather be elsewhere.
Robert Quarles: (Neal McDonough. Another ‘Band of Brothers’ alum) Enforcer for the Detroit syndicate. Sexual sadist and usually calm sociopath. Favors a two shot derringer in a forearm to wrist slide rig.
Ellstin Limehouse: (Mykelti Williamson: ‘Forrest Gump;, ‘CSI:NY) Overseer to an historic hollow where slaves were left alone to thrive. post Antebellum. Shot caller fo many gangs throughout the state. And not adverse to the odd bank robbery.
Which leads us to:
The Ladies in Attendance
Winona Hawkins: (Natalie Zea) ADA for Harlan County. Former girlfriend of Raylan. Smarter than she lets on. Though sometimes lets emotions get in the way.
Eva Crowder: (Joelle Carter) Married to Boyd’s cousin Johnny, whom she shoots with a Deer Rifle at the dinner table in the series premiere. Falls for Raylan. Then Boyd. To become the font of knowledge of criminal activity in Harlan. And Boyd’s woman. A hard luck. Hard loving woman. Who may just be out for herself, after all.
Wendy Crowe: (Alicia Witt) The only Crowe to earn a law degree. And not bashful about using that knowledge gaming others and The System to her and her son’s advantage. Pretty, clever. Dreams big. But manages with just enough to get by.
Katherine Hale: (Mary Steenburgen: ‘Joan of Arcadia; ‘Elf’, ‘Sunshine State’) Back up for Wynn Duffy. Elegant, fetching. Heart of ice. May or may not off Wynn during this last season.
Loretta McCready: (Kaitlyn Dever) A teenage girl with the mind far beyond her years. Whose father was killed by Coover Bennett and sought revenge. Then redemption. Every bit as sly as the boys and a perfect foil for Raylan!
A series that has done surprisingly well. With its first season devoted to character introductions and small scale crime. That has smartly built on copious notes taken and expounded upon in later seasons. Whose script writing team wisely hangs around at the ready for new ideas from its constantly expanding cast and directors. Creating memorable scenes on the fly with Margo Martindale. Hints of the beginnings of the blood feud between the Bennett and the Givens clans. Or Damien Harrison’s Dewey Crowe for incredibly shameless comic relief.
But the real meat of the series is the continuous slow raging war for supremacy between Raylan and Boyd. A perfect team up of wits. The give and take of discussion that Boyd makes sure work to his advantage. Add an endless stream of often returning bad guys. And variations on slowly solidifying schemes. And an episode rarely ends the way anyone predicted!.
Toss in well tended Art and Set Direction, Dressing and Continuity. And Stunt and Special Effects men too numerous to mention. Music by Steve Porcaro. Notable late night, middle of nowhere location cinematography. And you have the makings of superb adult television!
Author’s Notes: I’ve only scratched the surface in as concise a thumb nail and sketch as I can manage. There are multiple clips, tributes, mash ups, interviews and complete episodes from the previous five seasons of ‘Justified’ n You Tube and IMDb