Friday, March 26, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Scared Sheepless

No one can tell a ghost story quite as effectively as the Irish, and the new supernatural thriller The Eclipse (from Magnolia Pictures, opening today in NYC and southern CA) proves it. Directed and co-written by acclaimed playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City) and drawn from a story by co-writer Billy Roche, I guarantee it will both move you and scare the bejeesus out of you.

Michael Farr (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) is still grieving the death of his wife two years prior, while trying to raise their son and daughter as a single parent and looking after his late love's elderly father (played by Jim Norton, who recently starred as Finian in the Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow). Michael is a local school teacher who is also involved in organizing his town's annual, popular literary festival.


As this year's festival looms, Michael begins to see and hear ghostly phenomenon while he becomes simultaneously attracted to a woman for the first time since his wife passed away. The woman who catches Michael's interest is Lena (Danish actress Iben Hjejle), a novelist who happens to write — you guessed it — ghost stories.

Complicating matters even more is another writer in town for the literary festival, Nicholas Holden (a great, surly turn by the usually noble Aidan Quinn; case in point: Quinn played a gay man dying of AIDS in the mid-80's TV classic, An Early Frost). Holden has a crush on Lena bordering on the obsessive, and matters of the heart build to an explosive confrontation between him, the object of his affection, and Michael.

Like the best ghost stories (and I'm thinking most immediately of the classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James), The Eclipse leads viewers to question whether the spooky visions Michael is experiencing are truly supernatural or figments of his delicate psychological/emotional state. Even though director McPherson occasionally makes the film's scares louder and ickier than they need to be, they are most effective. I jumped in my seat several times.

Hinds is wonderful as the bereaved husband and father questioning his sanity. Usually cast in authoritative and/or villainous roles (Richard III, King Herod in The Nativity Story, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life), Hinds is down-to-earth and sympathetic here. Whether it's a good fright film or a resonant love story you're looking for, The Eclipse satisfies on both counts.


Cut to a different continent and a different genre for another satisfactory movie opening exclusively at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles today, Sweetgrass. This unique documentary about Montana sheepherders and their flock will no doubt evoke memories of Brokeback Mountain for gay viewers, even if none of the cowboys featured here are gay.

Described in the film's press notes as "an unsentimental elegy to the American West," Sweetgrass recounts a final, summer-long pasture drive covering approximately 300 kilometers that occurred in 2003. Beautiful, unspoiled expanses of nature await the shepherds, but so do unpredictable weather, harsh terrain posing risks of injury, and hungry grizzly bears.


Sweetgrass, which was directed and largely photographed — superbly — by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, is mostly wordless and better for it. One shepherd's foul-mouthed tirade late in the film reveals the depths of his frustration, but it also throws off the tonal equilibrium established by that point.

Indeed, Sweetgrass is best when focused on the sheep. At times, they stare silently at the still camera, seemingly daring it to venture deeper beneath their fluffy exteriors. The flock is multi-generational and probably couldn't care less about what the filmmakers are trying to capture: the end of a tradition spanning at least 130 years. The sheep may be more aware than us that life will go on.

UPDATE: The Eclipse is available on DVD and Blu-ray and Sweetgrass is available on DVD now from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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