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That Evening Sun DVD Review

That Evening Sun movie poster That Evening Sun

Theatrical Release: November 6, 2009 / Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Scott Teems / Writers: Scott Teems (screenplay), William Gay (short story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down")

Cast: Hal Holbrook (Abner Meecham), Raymond McKinnon (Lonzo Choat), Walton Goggins (Paul Meecham), Mia Wasikowska (Pamela Choat), Carrie Preston (Ludie Choat), Barlow Jacobs (J.D. the Cabbie), Anthony Reynolds (Hollins the Phone Worker), Dixie Carter (Ellen Meecham), Barry Corbin (Thurl Chessor), Dually (Nipper)

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That Evening Sun is based on a short story, not the 1931 William Faulkner one of the same name but I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, published in 2002 by contemporary Southern Gothic writer William Gay, a Faulkner acolyte.

This independent 2009 adaptation stars Hal Holbrook as Abner Meecham, an 80-year-old widower who escapes from the nursing home he can't stand. The place treats its residents just fine, but it's not where Abner wishes to spend life's twilight.
That would be Ackerman's Field, the secluded, unglamorous Tennessee town holding Abner's farm. When he arrives there, paying a cabbie what he was to get for returning him to the senior center, Abner is surprised to see a family settled and living in his house.

It turns out Abner's son, lawyer Paul (Walton Goggins), wasted no time before leasing the estate (with the possibility of ownership) to ne'er-do-well acquaintance Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon). That is unacceptable to the old man who values this land more than anything else in this world. When the family produces paperwork, Abner resigns to taking over the tenant shack, to which most of his mementos have been moved. The Choats clearly oppose that arrangement, but persistent Abner has nothing better to do than stand his ground. Without a working telephone on the premises, resolution is not just a call away.

Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) stands his ground (or sits, as the case may be) at the tenant shack he moves into with newly obtained dog Nipper (Dually).

The standoff starts civil but grows tense. Abner takes swipes at Lonzo's drinking habits and inabilities to provide for his family and maintain the land. Lonzo dismisses the octogenarian's wishes as bitter and groundless. Aware of Lonzo's aversion to barking dogs, Abner acquires a restless pooch from a sympathetic neighbor (Barry Corbin), his closest thing to a friend. More than once, the canine becomes the face of this dogged struggle. Lonzo's 16-year-old daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska), adds a layer of intrigue to the conflict, taking sympathy on Abner while taking a garden hose whipping from her father's rage.

What most impresses me about the film (and by extension, the story it adapts) is that it doesn't pull punches or take easy ways out. While our sympathy remains with Abner since the film takes his perspective, we can also appreciate the Choat family point of view, their lease being on the level and their resistance to an unfriendly, non-paying boarder most reasonable. The movie even avoids painting Mr. Choat as the simple-minded villain it might be tempted to, granting him patience and restraint along with his alcoholic temper.

That Evening Sun adopts the pace of its protagonist, allowing its drama to unfold as slowly as it ought to. The low boil setting is to the film's benefit, allowing us ample time to take in the different emotions, motivations, and maneuvering at play here.

Beer-guzzling new tenant Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) makes it clear that he doesn't want Abner living on property that's no longer his. Sixteen-year-old daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska) is the only member of the Choat family who approaches Abner kindly.

Appearing in almost every single scene, Holbrook is superb. To be fair, his acting talents get a huge assist from his physical presence. It's the rare performer who can display old age and all that comes with it while delivering a nuanced characterization that drives the story. It's also the rare film that affords such a significant opportunity to a visibly geriatric actor; Holbrook was 83 shooting this and the most comparable recent vehicle I can think of is David Lynch's The Straight Story, terrifically handled by Richard Farnsworth at age 78. With this, Holbrook (who replaced an originally cast Andy Griffith) ensures that his Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild wasn't his swan song
and he's already followed Evening with further work (an imminent arc on "Sons of Anarchy", two independent films, and -- every veteran's dream -- portraying an aged Robert Pattinson, in next year's circus drama Water for Elephants).

Providing notes of sadness and poignancy to That Evening Sun is the final performance of actress Dixie Carter (to whom the film is now dedicated). Holbrook's real life wife of over 25 years, the "Designing Women" star plays his character's late spouse in now eerie silent flashback scenes. I imagine that renders this movie too painful for Holbrook to revisit, but at the same time it's sweet for the couple to have gotten a last chance to share the screen, something they had done previously in episodes and TV movies but never film.

The less famous cast members also add to the movie's grip. Prior to her bland star turn in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Mia Wasikowska provides spunk and little trace of her Australian accent. As Abner's son, Walton Goggins ("The Shield") subtly and aptly conveys the vexation created by a tug of war between rational behavior and complicated family loyalty. Barry Corbin and Carrie Preston ("True Blood") lend nice support, while McKinnon holds his own as a second lead you fear could be a time bomb.

While That Evening Sun got great reviews last fall in limited theatrical release, it clearly wasn't a film shot with commercial value in mind. That is not to say that you need to be an arthouse junkie to find this riveting, just that you may have to be an arthouse junkie to find it. After hitting theaters from Freestyle Releasing, the film finds a video home at Image Entertainment, who brings it to DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday.

Buy That Evening Sun on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: September 7, 2010
Suggested Retail Price: $27.97
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($29.97 SRP)
and in Alternate "Night" Cover (DVD, Blu-ray)

VIDEO and AUDIO

That Evening Sun looks quite nice in the DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The picture remains clean, fairly sharp, and with plenty of detail. The weakest stretch of the transfer is the least important part of the film: the end credits. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is even more satisfying than the solid video. The mix delivers tasteful ambient noise throughout, which is important on a film as atmospheric as this that places importance on setting.

Cinematographer Rodney Taylor looks through the director's viewfinder in atypical making-of reel "That Tennessee Sun..." Helmer Scott Teems directs Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook for their flashback scenes, as if they don't know how to be husband and wife. This still comes from the "Art & Craft" podcast, whose visuals remain secondary to its audio.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The hearty slate of extras begins with an "Anti-Commentary" by writer-director Scott Teems, director of photography Rodney Taylor, and editor Travis Sittard. Teems makes sense of that moniker early, explaining why he hates audio commentaries (but loves listening to them) and why he's recording one nevertheless. (Sounds like he's more bothered by deleted scenes and alternate endings and then only on dramatic films; neither are offered here.) Despite that start, the trio talks throughout, staying on point and being moderately interesting.
Some of the more notable topics touched upon are their "handmade" approach to filmmaking (avoiding digital intermediate in postproduction), deciding on the wider aspect ratio, casting Southerners, and their influences (Tender Mercies and Affliction). That these men have a clear idea of what they want for their film and this commentary renders both more interesting than their far bigger competition.

"That Tennessee Sun...: The Making of That Evening Sun in Music and Image" (9:09) sets B-roll production footage to score and performances of songs featured in the film. Depicting filming, direction, and stunts with discussions we can't quite make out, this reflects the homegrown nature of production and may be most enjoyed by the cast and crew members seen. Still, it lends insight into production without telling us how great everybody was.

Longer but as unconventional is "The Art & Craft of That Evening Sun" (33:55), a podcast from an independent film website that doesn't appear to be live yet. Enamored host Michael Dunaway plays excerpts of interviews with cast and crew members (director Scott Teems, actors Ray McKinnon and Carrie Preston, cinematographer Rodney Taylor, music supervisor Linda Cohen), while behind-the-scenes photos, publicity stills, and silent clips from the movie appear on screen. The piece primarily focuses on the technical and dramatic design of one darkly-lit scene between the Choat parents, giving it an "Anatomy of a Scene" feel that concludes with the sequence itself played in full. Though the phone interview recordings aren't of the highest quality, this is an interesting listen all the same.

In one of her final interviews given, the late Dixie Carter vouches for the film's authentic Southern flavor. Author William Gay shares his typing schedule in the DVD's second of seven Crew Interviews.

Next comes the standard Image Entertainment inclusion of long, somewhat raw on-camera interviews. Without a doubt, the highlight of the Cast Interviews reel (29:45) is the opening 7-minute stretch of Hal Holbrook, who powerfully looks into the camera and ruminates on being old, from the extreme pain of getting out of a chair to the "nonsense" that arthritis pills help. Also weighing in on their characters, colleagues, accents, and authentic location (it was shot around Knoxville) are Ray McKinnon, Walt Goggins, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston, and Dixie Carter.

Like the previous ones, the Crew Interviews (45:52) are presented in 2.35:1. Speaking here are writer/director Scott Teems, author William Gay, director of photography Rodney Taylor, production designer Mara LaPere-Schloop, costume designer Alexis Scott, producers Terence Berry and Laura Smith, and executive producers Larsen Jay and Raul Celaya. While most of these aren't people whose lectures you'd want to attend, everyone has some interesting things to say about their respective profession and input on That Evening Sun.

The theatrical trailer's interesting juxtaposition of old-fashioned man with new-fangled critic's quote makes me wonder if Hal Holbrook is an eFilmCritic fan. Abner reminiscing in the shed is one of the few clips to fit nicely in the DVD main menu's evening sky montage.

Finally, there is a trailer for That Evening Sun (2:25),
Southern Gothic fiction:
a sharp preview that would have been sharper without the Harry Knowles quote and the illusion of real active conflict.

Trailers for Blood Done Sign My Name, the terrible Multiple Sarcasms, and $5 a Day play at disc insertion.

The scored main menu plays an ill-fitting montage in the sky behind a reversed variation on the cover art.

That Evening Sun's DVD is packaged in a standardly slipcovered Eco-Box keepcase. In what must be the most random and obscure instance of alternate packaging, the movie can also be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray with a "Night Cover" that loses the dog and features a Hal Holbrook close-up and tiny shots of Ray McKinnon and Mia Wasikowska. Too bad there wasn't a Day & Night multi-cover combo pack (not that either looks particularly like night or day). Based on customers' purchases, the alternate, limited-edition "filmmaker approved" cover (quoting the movie's official Facebook page) will currently cost you an additional $12 on DVD but save you $0.50 on Blu-ray at Amazon.

With the Choats momentarily away on a legal matter, Abner (Hal Holbrook) is delighted to get reacquainted with his old home. Abner's son Paul (Walton Goggins, one of two cast member producers) believes the nursing home is the best place for his father.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Rich, methodical, engrossing, and expertly acted, That Evening Sun makes for a fine feature debut for writer/director Scott Teems and a perfect showcase for Hal Holbrook's enduring talents. The film merits a recommendation and, delivering a fine presentation and more than enough bonus features (nearly four hours including the "anti-commentary"), the DVD does too.

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Reviewed September 2, 2010.



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