Summer Serious, Some Are Not: Sweet Land, Meatballs, The Messengers

Sweet Land - Box ArtSummer is no longer purely the domain of the mindless blockbuster. Sure there are lots of big honkin’ movies out there – but there are more oddball comedies and potential Oscar®-winning dramas, too. That trend is carrying over to DVD releases, too. Sweet Land is the story of a mail order bride, just after World War I [that would be the serious film]; Meatballs – Special Edition is Bill Murray’s first movie and a truly oddball comedy, and The Messengers is a ghost story that takes some unexpected turns…

 

 

Sweet Land

It’s 1920, and Inge [Elizabeth Reaser] travels from Norway to Minnesota to marry corn farmer Olaf [Tom Guinee]. When it’s discovered that she’s actually German, the marriage doesn’t happen [two laws concerning Germans in Post-WWII Germany may seem funny to us, but they were dead serious then, and Inge and Olaf suffer because of them].

When Olaf leaves Inge at the farm of his friend Franzen [Alan Cumming] and his family [wife and nine children] – because people would talk – it takes a very short time for her to realize that this is not the place for her. One night she simply gets out of bed and walks to Olaf’s farm, drawing and falling asleep in her bath – which creates a bit of a stir the next morning.

Sweet land - Box Art

For the rest of the film, we skip from the twenties to the sixties [where Inge buries Olaf], to the present, where the dying Inge remembers her life. It’s a story of risking everything to immigrate to a new country; overcoming prejudices; falling in love, and the hard work of just living every day. Mark Orton’s remarkable score underlines every aspect of the film with a deft, finely nuanced touch.

Ali Selim, who adapted the script from Will Weaver’s short story, A Gravestone Made of Wheat], also produced and directed Sweet Land, which has won a number Audience Awards at regional film festivals and took home the Best First Film prize at the Independent Spirit Awards. Selim, who made the film for "a little over a million dollars," shot the film on location in Monteverde, Minnesota – and it shows. Sweet Land is one of the absolute best films of the year – possibly because it took Selim fourteen years of persevering to get it made.

Features include: a very revealing Audio Commentary by Selim, Reaser, Guinee, producer Gil Bellows and editor James Stanger; Sweet land: A Labor Of Love Story, and the Theatrical Trailer.

Grade: Sweet Land – A+

Grade: Features – A

Final Grade: A

Meatballs – Special Edition

"Are you ready for the summer?" cries the opening them song from Meatballs, Bill Murray’s first film. Although remarkably sedate by today’s terms, Meatballs was a roguish, ribald comedy with a mix of poignancy and gross-out humor that may be the spiritual granddad of movies like today’s Knocked Up.

More a setting for comic set pieces than a plot, Meatballs is simply the adventures of a bunch of campers, and their counselors, over one two week period in one specific summer. They may be clichés now, but they were fresh and new in 1979: the kid who didn’t want to be there; the jock; the fat kid; the cute counselor; the slob counselor; the clueless camp owner/manager, and so on.

Meatballs - Special Edition - Box Art

Naturally, the slob counselor, Tripper Harrison [Bill Murray] connects with the disconsolate Rudy [Chris Makepeace, also in his first film] through shared interests and whacked out humor. Then there’s the gags played on camp owner/manager Morty [Harvey Atkin] by the counselor [the best being saved for the closing credits]; the reading of the steamy romance by two cute counselors [and the attempt by two unlikely guys to get close enough to hear], and the romance between Tripper and fellow counselor, Roxanne [Kate Lynch]. The film culminates in the Camp Olympics, a competition between our low-rent campers and the rich snobs of Camp Mohawk, from across the lake.

Although not necessarily a milestone in cinema history, Meatballs, along with Animal House, led the way in establishing that comedies could be gross and have heart at the same time. Murray was fantastic in his first role, making Tripper the ultimate goofball with a heart [and brains]. Meatballs was also notable for giving us Murray’s very first over-the-top motivational speech ["IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!!!] – one that is, to my mind, even better than the one in Stripes.

Ivan Reitman directed Meatballs by mostly pointing the camera and capturing the improv – though the improvs were based on a solid script [by Len Blum, Daniel Goldberg, Janis Allen and Harold Ramis] or they would’ve certainly lost their cohesion. Even though they don’t try to cram as many gags into every second as a lot of today’s comedies [a nice way of saying that the pacing isn’t as frenetic as today’s audience may be used to], the minds behind Meatballs set the standard for this kind of movie – and made it possible for Seth Apatow and others to be successful, today.

"We are the CIT’s so pity us,

The kids are brats, the food is hideous…"

Features include: Audio Commentary by Ivan Reitman and Daniel Goldberg; Summer Camp: The Making of Meatballs: Role Call; Cabin Fever, and Final Campfire.

Grade: Meatballs – B+

Grade: Features:B

Final Grade: B

The Messengers

Danny Pang and Oxide Pang are not your run of the mill movie directors. Identical twins, the like to alternate, so one will direct one day and the other will direct the next – and yet, they have the such a cohesive vision that when they finish a project, you can’t tell who directed what. Another thing that they have in common is that they like to take chances.

The Messengers seems, at first, to be just another ghost story – except for the fact that a lot of the spookiest stuff happens in broad daylight.

After a rather nasty two years [they don’t really go into much detail], the Soloman family moves to a sunflower farm in North Dakota. The move is not a unanimous decision – Jess [Kristin Stewart] is definitely not happy with the situation. Still, the family gets moved in pretty well and Jess discovers a few good looking guys in the nearby town, so things look like they might just be tolerable.

Then her three-year old brother, Ben [Evan and Theodore Turner] begins to see things; there’s a stain on a kitchen wall that comes back after momma Denise [Penelope Ann Miller] cleans it, and there’s the unusual number of crows in the area. On the plus side, an amiable wanderer named Burwell [John Corbett] happens along and convinces father Roy [Dylan McDermott] that he’d be handy to have around – at least until the first crop is harvested.

The Messengers - Box Art

One afternoon, while everyone else is away, Ben and Jess are attacked by things unseen – furniture moves, or floats, smaller objects zip through the air and break against the walls. Since we see what Ben sees, when he sees something, we can tell if its’ a little girl, or a woman, or even a little boy. Unfortunately, besides Ben and, occasionally, Jess, no one else can see them, so Jess gets blamed for the mess.

By shooting much of The Messengers in the bright daylight, The Pang Brothers avoid some of the hoariest h
orror clichés – like the squeaking floors and suddenly open windows/doors that wake the victims in the middle of the night. They also show a willingness to play with convention and expectation in other ways – using the crows [in an obvious, but effective homage to The Birds] to mask other sinister possibilities.

The film is well paced and no jump moment feels rushed, or unnecessary. We get to know enough about our main characters that we can relate to them, thereby making the scares that extra little bit effective. And, again, using daylight to such good advantage really takes us out of our typical horror movie comfort zone.

There are character twists – and one significant twist with the ghosts – that come as a surprise, but after taking such care to set up the big finish, The Pang Brothers may not have picked up the pacing for the last act enough for some horror fans, but when the twists arrive and the Solomans’ reality takes that bump, it’s hard to be involved.

Features include: Audio Commentary by Stewart, Dustin Milligan [Bobby], Mark Wheaton [screenplay] and Bruce Jones [Visual Effects Supervisor]; Exhuming The Messengers – a seven featurette suite including: Pang Vision; Script Evolution; Constructing The Set; Kristin Stewart: Rising Star; John Corbett; Meet The Crows, and Exploring Visual Effects.

Grade: The Messengers – B+

Grade: Features – B

Final Grade: B

Check out our DVD page for more recent releases.

EM Review Posted by Sheldon Wiebe

Originally Posted 07/18/07

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