Mark Reviews Movies


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alison Eastwood

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Miles Heizer, Marin Hinkle, Eugene Byrd, Bonnie Root

MPAA Rating:  (for mature thematic elements, an accident scene, brief nudity and momentary strong language)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 10/26/07 (limited); 11/9/07 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Rails & Ties is either an unsuccessfully manipulative, sappy melodrama or the most deranged concept for a family sitcom anyone has ever developed. Take away the morose elements of the story (suicide, kidnapping, a lead character dying of cancer), and the premise of a childless married couple taking in a young boy and learning to be a family sounds exactly like a cheesy '80s primetime comedy. Taken with those glum components, Micky Levy's script is a messy clustering of heart-yanking clichés and disturbing, unintentional laughs at them.

This is the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood (daughter of Clint), and while it is certainly less-than-auspicious, the fact that she somehow manages to occasionally make some of the kooky family dynamics work beyond some campy Lifetime movie is at least a sign of promise for things that might come. She gets specific performances out of her actors in spite of broadly sketched characters, and Eastwood at least tries to find the human element among the heap of wrong turns. Still, that script is a real clunker.

Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) is a train engineer, and when he arrives at work today, his boss immediately wants him to go home. His wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden) has cancer, and his boss wants Tom to spend time with her now so he won't regret it later. Tom wants to work. Meanwhile, Megan is at the hospital, where she works as a nurse, but today, she's seeing her own doctor. She asks how much time she has left, and the answer leaves her crying in the hallway. Tom and his partner Otis (Eugene Byrd) are talking about love on a train, and Tom flashes back to a time when he and his wife first took their own romantic train ride.

Meanwhile, young Davey Danner (Miles Heizer) is looking after his mother (Bonnie Root), who's also sick but not physically. Today is the day: She's going to take her son to see his favorite train. When the principal calls, Davey tells him that his mother has died. Mom takes Davey to a crossing, parks the car on the tracks, and passes out. Tom is driving the train and decides to keep going, in fear of a derailment. Davey escapes, but his mother is dead.

Naturally, Davey blames Tom for his mother's death ("You didn't stop," the kid yells to the engineer in the aftermath), but Tom coldly insists he followed the rules of the rails book to the letter. There'll be an investigation and a hearing, but in the meantime, Tom's off of duty. The situation at home is not going to help matters, as Megan confides in a friend that she has decided to stop treatment, and let the disease run its course. Tom wants to hold on, but Megan has made her decision. "I'm not afraid of dying," she tells her husband as they fight about not having kids, "but thinking that I didn't live." Davey is stuck in foster care with a social worker Renee (Marin Hinkle) trying to find him a new home.

The movie pushes it a bit with all the tragedy and potential tragedy, but it's nothing compared to the forced circumstances that follow. Davey starts to hunt down Tom (After escaping from the foster home of character actress Margo Martindale, who locks Davey in his room and gets an unfortunate laugh when she finally comes in to see how he's doing the next day: "Are you ready to say you're sorry?").

After Davey gets over blaming Tom (pretty quickly, I might add), Tom, Megan, and Davey become quite the dysfunctional family unit. Tom is terrible with children, but Megan takes Davey in as her own. There are obvious problems with the situation, first and foremost that it's kidnapping. Davey's social worker tries to track the boy down and even manages to arrive at Tom and Megan's house. With all the potential trouble into which they could get, one might think the couple would stay on the down low, but no, they take Davey out to the park, to a restaurant, and, in a forehead-slapping moment, to Tom's hearing (Megan and Davey stay in the car at least).

Things are fine and dandy at the Stark house until, of course, the script realizes things are a bit too happy, and then Megan, seemingly in remission despite in the last stages of her life, takes an opportune turn for the worse (accompanied by the melancholy guitar score of Eastwood's brother Kyle and Michael Stevens). Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden do some fine work here despite the absurd setup and forced complications thrown at their characters.

There are a few small moments that work and hint that Eastwood has something to offer later on in her career behind the camera (A scene where Tom watches as Megan and Davey dance stands out), but her first step now is find better scripts. Rails & Ties is ultimately too clunky with its plotting and insincere about its characters to affect on any level.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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