Writer-director Jeb Stuart can't pin down tone in 'Blood Done Sign My Name'

The ambitious civil rights docudrama "Blood Done Sign My Name," drawn from the racial tensions and awoken activism surrounding the 1970 murder of a young black Vietnam veteran in Oxford, N.C., is itself a struggle. In this adaptation of Tim Tyson's historical memoir of being a progressive white minister's wide-eyed son during that time, screenwriter-director Jeb Stuart laterals from the perspective of the Rev. Vernon Tyson (Ricky Schroder) -- nudging his church toward acceptance of blacks -- to the blooming of young teacher-businessman Benjamin Chavis (Nate Parker) into an impassioned rabble-rouser after his cousin is brutally killed by a white shopkeeper and his two sons.

With narrative sprouts into the killers' home life, a peaceful march to the governor's mansion co-organized by self-professed "stoker" Golden Frinks (Afemo Omilami, giving the film's best performance), and the action minutiae of a tobacco warehouse firebombing, Stuart -- best known as an action screenwriter ("Die Hard," "The Fugitive") -- is aiming for something immediate and expansive. But the material gets away from him quickly, leaving emotionally forced, clunky filmmaking that feels simultaneously rushed and dawdling, like a chopped-down TV miniseries. (It even has natural commercial breaks.)

Despite some solid touches, "Blood Done Sign My Name" is a regrettable case of skimmed history, well-meaning but dismayingly flat.

-- Robert Abele "Blood Done Sign My Name." MPAA rating: PG-13 for an intense scene of violence, thematic material involving racism, and for language. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. In selected theaters.

Sisters cope with their aging dad

In his second feature, writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein (whose first was the cultish "Teeth") deftly turns the familiar story of two daughters (Parker Posey and Demi Moore) faced with the onset of dementia in their widowed father (Rip Torn), a still randy blue-collar guy, into a comic journey of self-discovery on the part of Posey's flighty, self-involved Jayne; she's as neurotic as her wealthy San Francisco art dealer husband (Christian Camargo), with whom she craves to conceive a child.

Jayne arrives at the family home, a comfortable but rundown Pittsburgh Victorian, wearing a pair of $2,300 boots and heavier luggage than she can carry up the front steps. Moore's level-headed Laura has left her three young children with her husband, to care for Torn's rambunctious Joe, but she's soon to leave on an assignment as a water quality consultant.

Credit Lichtenstein for finding humor in the sisters' predicament, and a witty, wide-ranging performance on the part of Posey as a ditz beset by memories of the past and revealing nightmares yet from time to time capable of tender concern for others. No less impressive is Moore's lovely, caring yet sensible and realistic Laura. Posey and Moore's portrayals are among their career bests, and Torn is at once comical and poignant while Ellen Barkin, as his woozy, drugged-out girlfriend embraces deglamorization with a vengeance.

-- Kevin Thomas "Happy Tears." MPAA rating: R for language, drug use, some sexual content, including brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Portrait of a blue-collar clan

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's "October Country" is a beautiful evocation of a time and place -- Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, spanning from one Halloween to the next -- and a loving but unflinching probing of the lives of Mosher's family in the course of a year. What emerges is a portrait of a blue-collar family in which the parents, Don, a retired policeman and a Vietnam vet still haunted by war, and Dottie, a loving, affectionate woman, are a steadfast and enduring couple, despite Don's self-acknowledged emotional scars. (Although it's not mentioned in the film, Donal Mosher is their son, and as such, gets all involved to open up with remarkable candor.)

Daughter Donna and granddaughter Daneal are drifting in a society of diminished financial security, opportunity and alternatives. Early on, Donna embarked on a series of relationships with abusive men that has been carried on by Daneal, who realizes she may not be able to break the pattern. The family's best hope lies with her precocious 11-year-old sister Desi.

Sparked by the stalwart Dottie, the Moshers are a loving family, and she extends that affection to a deeply wayward foster son, even though she senses the next word of him will be that he's back in jail or dead.

Through it all, the film is permeated with Dottie's abiding love of family and her belief that it is the only thing you really have in this world.

-- Kevin Thomas

"October Country." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills.


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