BABY DONE (2021)

January 21, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I don’t want to not have a baby.” This is just one of the zingers Zoe rattles off during this charming, and often quite funny film from director Curtis Vowell and writer Sophie Henderson. Fellow New Zealander Taika Waititi is an Executive Producer, and his influences are apparent (and always welcome). In a light-hearted way, while still maintaining plenty of heart, the film explores the fear of losing or compromising one’s true self when parenthood strikes.

Rose Matafeo delivers a terrific performance as Zoe, a tree-climbing arborist by profession, and a thrill-seeking adventurer by choice. Her partner in life, and in the tree-trimming business and in the thrill seeking, is Tim (Matthew Lewis). They are the type of couple who go to a friend’s baby shower and peek into the gender reveal box before dominating the party games. Zoe is fed up with losing friends, and describes the life cycle as “Married, house, baby, done”, implying that people aren’t the same after having completing these steps and no longer want to hang out with free-wheelers and the unencumbered like her and Tim.

Denial. That’s the best description of how Zoe reacts to finding out she’s pregnant. Besides not telling Tim (a major relationship gaffe), she continues on with tree-trimming and pursues the “Tree Climbing Championship” she has qualified for (I still wonder if that’s really a thing). When Tim and her friend Molly (Emily Barclay) find out about the secret, feelings are hurt and emotions wreak havoc. Comedy is provided through the prenatal/antenatal class instructor, as well as through Zoe’s new acquaintance Brian (Nic Sampson) whom she connects with online. See, Nic … well, he, uh … has a thing for pregnant women. Not babies, mind you. But pregnant women – which by definition seems to limit the prospects of a long-term relationship.

The always-great Rachel House makes a brief appearance as the headmaster at a local school, and much of what we see is a mess created by pregnant Zoe as she attempts to stay focused on her “bucket list”. The film excels at presenting two versions of anxiety with Zoe and Tim, and it’s loaded with relatively small moments that are quite relatable – some funny, some more serious. Like it or not, parenthood creates life changes, and the topic benefits from New Zealand wit, and a cast that perfectly complements the sharp and insightful script.

In select theaters and VOD on January 22, 2021

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NO MAN’S LAND (2021)

January 21, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The title is drawn from what the locals call the gap between the Texas-Mexico border and the fence/wall that must be crossed for those looking to make their way. The film is directed by Conor Allyn and was co-written by his brother Jake Allyn and David Barraza. Jake is also the lead actor.

Bill Greer (Frank Grillo, THE GREY, 2011) and his wife Monica (Andie MacDowell) live on a border ranch with their eldest son Lucas (Alex MacNicoll, ALL ROADS LEAD TO PEARLA, 2019). It’s not an easy life, as the illegal aliens who cross their land sometimes cut the barbed wire fence for access, allowing the Greer’s cattle to escape. Their son Jackson (Jake Allyn) is home from college. He’s a baseball prospect with a trip to New York scheduled to meet with the Yankees (it’s funny how baseball players in the movies so frequently play for the Yankees). While home, Jackson rides his beloved horse Sundance, and helps chase the illegal aliens off the ranch.

One night things go horribly wrong, and Jackson accidentally shoots Fernando, a young boy who is crossing with his father Gustavo (Jorge Jimenez). As viewers, we’ve seen the caring father, referred to as “The Shepherd”, protect his son from the drug dealers and coyotes. Jackson’s dad tries to take the blame for the shooting when interviewed by Texas Ranger Ramirez (George Lopez in a rare dramatic turn for the comedian), but Jackson can’t keep quiet and he bolts across the Rio Grande on Sundance.

As Jackson makes his way deeper into Mexico, he crosses paths with a heavily-tattooed blond coyote named Luis (Andres Delgado) – one who had previously tried to scam Gustavo and Fernando. In fact, Luis shows up more often than a bad penny throughout the story. He’s the one true villain, yet even he thinks he’s doing the right thing (at least sometimes). Jackson is mostly impressed with how nice everyone is, and he ends up working for Victoria (Esmerelda Pimentel) at her father’s horse ranch. It turns out, Jackson is a horse-whisperer, in addition to being a talented baseball pitcher.

Jackson decides he must beg forgiveness from Gustavo, not knowing Fernando’s father is simultaneously tracking him down in a quest for vengeance. Mr. Jimenez gives the film’s finest performance as he flips the switch (quietly, but effectively) from protective and loving father to vengeful man on a mission. The script is filled with clichés and contrivances, with Jackson playing the role of white guilt with an emphasis on cross-cultural empathy. Mexico, and its people, are not like what he expected or had been led to believe. An elevator ride, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a rendezvous at a funeral are examples of scenes that induce cringes from us as viewers, but nothing too outrageous is included, and we are engaged enough to continue along on Jackson’s trip.

This IFC Film opens January 22, 2021

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THE MARKSMAN (2021)

January 14, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills, and his grumpy face, seem to show up on screen most every January. If there is a surprise to this year’s entry, it’s that the annual Liam action movie is not directed by Jaume Collet-Sera, as were THE COMMUTER (2018), RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), NON-STOP (2014), and UNKNOWN (2011). Mr. Collet-Sera has apparently traded Liam in for The Rock as his go-to action star. Instead, it’s director Robert Lorenz (TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, 2012) who co-wrote the script with two other first time screenwriters, Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz. As with most (not all) of Mr. Neeson’s aging-action-hero films, this one is both watchable and forgettable.

Jim Hanson (Neeson) is a struggling Arizona cattle rancher. He’s also a flag-flying former Marine, who carries a walkie-talkie so he can immediately inform the Border Patrol whenever he spots “IAs” (illegal aliens) crossing his land. Jim is a shell of his former self ever since his beloved wife passed away. He spread her ashes on the hill next to his rundown home … a home that sits on land in the final stages of bank foreclosure. Her daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is part of the Border Patrol and periodically keeps tabs on Jim.

Although he never seems to care much for those crossing the border, Jim’s quick to offer a drink to anyone stranded and injured, even as he calls the Border Patrol. A young boy and his pleading mother are no different until a carload of cartel boys show up. The subsequent shootout leaves a couple of people dead and ignites a cross-country cat-and-mouse chase. A previous scene from Mexico taught us that the mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), and her son, Miguel (Jacob Perez), were sent on the run thanks to her brother’s crossing of the cartel. Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba, THE 33, 2015) is the intimidating cartel soldier sent to kill the mother and son.

The story covers Monday through Saturday, in what would be considered a stressful week for just about anyone. Jim had promised Miquel’s mother that he would take the boy to her cousin’s home in Chicago, and being the good soldier, he is committed to fulfilling his duty. Along the way, the grizzled old man and the angry young boy bond while driving in Jim’s bullet-riddled pickup truck. Hot dogs and hamburgers play a role, but mostly a late confrontation in a barn attempts to add some character development to a story that, to this point, had very little.

Filmmaker Lorenz has a history with Clint Eastwood, and offers up a respectful nod to his mentor by including a grainy scene from HANG ‘EM HIGH on a motel television. There is surprisingly little political commentary included, which actually adds to the slowness and dryness of the material. Liam Neeson is now 68 years old, and he has developed a nice little niche for himself with these action movies that are interesting enough to burn a couple of hours for viewers.

Coming to theaters January 15, 2021

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ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)

January 10, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four grown men hanging out in a Miami motel room may not strike you as a promising premise for a must-see movie, but this wasn’t just a group of random buddies. Inspired by what actually happened on February 25, 1964, the film takes us behind the closed door that sheltered newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, pro football superstar Jim Brown, singer-songwriter-entrepreneur Sam Cooke, and activist Malcolm X, as they met to discuss their burgeoning roles as leaders in the Black community.

Each of the four main characters gets their own introductory prologue so that we have a feel for them prior to their motel rendezvous. We watch as Sam Cooke, smooth voice and all, bombs at the Copacabana Club simply because most of the rich white folks in the audience don’t want to be entertained by a black singer. In London, we are plopped into the ring of the first Cassius Clay – Henry Cooper fight, so we can witness Clay’s remarkable athleticism and showmanship … and also the rare instance of his being knocked down. We then head to St. Simons Island, Georgia, an historic spot for both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Local football hero Jim Brown is invited to iced tea on the front porch by a local rich man (Beau Bridges) and his daughter (real life daughter Emily Bridges). They fawn over his prowess as a sports figure, but after a friendly chat, state matter-of-factly why Brown is not allowed into the main house. Lastly, we pick up with Malcolm X as he disagrees with Elijah Muhammed, and the subsequent conversations with his wife about the ramifications of leaving the Nation of Islam.

These vignettes set the stage for the four men to meet in Malcolm X’s motel room after Clay’s historic defeat of Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Clay is portrayed by Eli Goree (RACE, 2016), who does a nice job of capturing the champ’s moves in the ring, as well as his charm, braggadocio, and intellect outside it. Cooke is played perfectly by Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr (Aaron Burr in both the stage and film version of HAMILTON), while Aldis Hodge (CLEMENCY, 2019) is Jim Brown and Kingley Ben-Adir (“The OA”) is a standout as Malcolm X.

Cooke and Brown are under the impression that this is going to be a wild Miami party, while Clay is in a celebratory mood, even though he knows the real reason the four men have gathered. Rather than a bash, Malcolm X has arranged an evening of “reflection” for the four men he envisions as leading the revolution of blacks against the devil known as the white man. What follows are multiple discussions – some deep, some angry, some both – about how the men view their position in society and culture. What Malcolm terms “The Struggle”, they each relate to, but have found their own personal ways of dealing. Brown wants to transition into acting as something less physically demanding, and Cooke is building his record label and buying cars to flaunt his success. Clay is young. He just turned 22 the month prior, and he is somewhat reluctantly buying into the Muslim Faith … quite the coup for Malcolm X’s plan.

The fun here is derived from the terrific interactions between four very different personalities, each with varying degrees of comprehension on their budding power. How best to utilize that power is the dilemma, and each man has their own opinions and perspectives. Cooke is on one extreme wanting to succeed in a capitalistic society, while Malcolm X is on the other extreme pushing activism and a full revolution (“blow it up”). The exchanges and conflict between these two are the highlights of the film, as Odom and Ben-Adir shine.

This is the feature film directorial debut of Oscar and Emmy winning actress Regina King, and while a screen adaptation of a stage play may be a risky first in the director’s chair, Ms. King handles the material expertly … as does the cast. Kemp Powers adapted his own stage production for the big screen, and he’s also a co-writer on the latest Pixar gem, SOUL. Supporting roles are covered by Lance Reddick (as Kareem X), Michael Imperioli (as Angelo Dundee), and Joaquina Kalukango (as Betty X). Sam Cooke was murdered later that same year. Malcolm X was assassinated by a Nation of Islam member one year later, and Cassius Clay of course changed his name to Muhammad Ali and passed away in 2016 at age 74. Jim Brown is still alive at age 84. These men each made their mark as leaders in the Black community, and even though we will never know what they talked about that night in Miami, the film digs in to personalities and leaves out the hero worship. Ms. King’s debut film will likely appeal more to history buffs and cinephiles, but it’s one that deserves attention.

Amazon Studios will release ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… in Miami theaters December 25th, 2020, in select US theaters on January 8th, 2021 and on Prime Video January 15th, 2021

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DA 5 BLOODS (2020)

January 8, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writers Danny Bilson (father of actress Rachel) and Paul De Meo, collaborators on the underrated THE ROCKETEER (1991), originally wrote this story about white veterans returning to Vietnam. That project was never able to move to production. When (Oscar winners for BLACKKKLANSMAN, 2018) Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott got involved, the characters shifted and it became a story about African-American veterans, and the film now carries a distinct message about racism and the effects of war on those who feel unappreciated.

Director Lee opens the movie with a montage of such historic events and influential people as the lunar landing, Angela Davis, LBJ, Kent State, Jackson State, Richard Nixon, Bobby Seale, and Donald Trump, along with statements from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, both vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Lee knows exactly what he’s doing, as this prologue sets such a serious tone upfront that we are maneuvered, or at least urged, into accepting his film as truth-based.

Four war veterans who served together are seen reuniting in the lobby of a hotel in modern day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). As the men warmly greet each other, we quickly grasp the individual personalities. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the hot-headed, grudge-holding, MAGA hat wearing fellow who bares his emotions on his sleeve (if he were wearing sleeves). Otis (Clarke Peters) is the former medic, and calm mediator, while Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the successful capitalist, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) is the free-wheeling, party guy. Why are there only 4 ‘bloods’? Well, officially the men are there to exhume the remains of their fallen and revered squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and return him to his family in the United States.

The official mission got the men back to Vietnam, but it’s their ulterior motive that turns this into something akin to a heist movie. The men plan to recover the millions of dollars of gold bars they buried in the jungle all those years ago. Though he has not been invited, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, intent on accompanying dear old dad and his war buddies on their big score. Cashing in on the gold requires the men to trust Tien (Y. Lan), a former local prostitute who had a relationship with Otis during the war, and Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady black market French money man. Director Lee attempts to sustain some suspense regarding the Desroche character, but as the only white man involved, that mystery falls a bit flat.

Additional supporting work is provided by Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen as a trio that inadvertently gets caught up in the bloods’ scheme. A nice touch is Veronica Ngo as Hanoi Hannah, with her lines pulled from actual broadcasts during the war – including the unsettling send off, “Have a good day, gentlemen.” There is little doubt this is meant to be Delroy Lindo’s film. His raging rants and explosive PTSD express the frustrations felt by many Vietnam War veterans, but particularly the African Americans, whom we are told made up 32% of soldiers on the battlefields. Lindo has a scene near the end of the film where he looks directly into the camera and goes off for a few minutes. It’s the kind of scene that garners award recognition. Special notice also goes to Chadwick Boseman, whose final two films were this one and the excellent MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. In Lee’s film, we absolutely accept Boseman as the spiritual and military leader of these men.

Spike Lee seemed to enjoy paying tribute and tipping his Knicks’ cap to many influences throughout the film. Especially notable are the similarities to scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), including the iconic “stinkin’ badges” line. Lee also pokes some fun at Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, and the whole genre of a white man as savior. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t escape unscathed, as he’s referred to as “President Fake Bone Spurs”. On a lighter note, the 5 Bloods plus Paul’s son share their first names of those from the original Motown group, The Temptations, as well as their famed producer (Norman Whitfield). Lee also includes heartfelt tributes to African American war heroes Crispus Attucks and Milton Olive, and then includes some tremendous songs from the late, great Marvin Gaye.

The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is exceptional, and Lee opts to change aspect ratios for the flashback scenes. Yet another interesting choice is that even during those flashbacks, the Bloods look their current age, even though it was 50 years prior. The idea being, in their memories, they see themselves as they are today. One glitch is that, periodically, composer Terence Blanchard’s score overpowers the moment. Not always, but enough to distract. Spike Lee really mixes things up, as at various times, this is a story of friendship, loyalty, history, greed, and camaraderie … and the emotional price paid for war. At 154 minutes, the run time is a bit long, but it’s one of Mr. Lee’s more ambitious films, and perhaps one of his best.

Available now on Netflix

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HERSELF (2020)

January 4, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are getting more films these days with stories about strong women, and it’s quite inspirational. This one is courtesy of director Phyllida Lloyd (THE IRON LADY 2011, MAMMA MIA! 2008) and co-writers Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, the latter of whom also stars in the film. We’ve all seen the reports that domestic abuse has increased during the pandemic, so the film is timely, as well as disturbing to watch at times – and also informative, hopeful, and uplifting.

Sandra (Ms. Dunne) lives a dangerous home life in Ireland with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and their two daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara). The danger isn’t derived from a shady neighborhood or faulty home wiring, but rather the explosive temper of Gary, and his tendency to physically abuse his wife. One particular incident traumatizes the youngest daughter and pushes Sandra to take the kids and escape. What follows is a look at the bureaucratic and legal challenges faced by a woman in this situation, as well as the grit and determination of a mother who believes she and her kids deserve a better life.

State-sponsored housing consists of a motel where Sandra and her daughters are forced to use a back entrance so as not to inconvenience the paying customers. Sandra’s flashbacks and visions of being abused by the father of her children are never absent for long. The mandated drop-offs so dad can spend time with the kids go beyond awkward and are filled with a dread that only a parent can fully understand.

When red tape and policy offer little hope of an improved life, Sandra turns to Google and YouTube, and soon she is recruiting folks to help her build a home on the cheap. One of her part time jobs leads to a generous offer that kicks things into gear. Peggy (Harriet Walker) is a retired doctor who Sandra is contracted to clean house for – just as Sandra’s mother had done. Peggy offers some of her unused land, and next thing we know, Sandra is urging a local building contractor, Aido (Conleth Hill) to spearhead the effort. He’s initially reluctant to join the cause, but his heart is bigger than his tough-guy exterior leads us to believe.

Director Lloyd’s film serves up some clichés, and struggles to maintain a balance between a heart-warming story of a tenacious mother and commentary on a system that has no place for those so independent minded. However, the performance of Ms. Dunne is so strong and creates such an easy bond with viewers, that we find ourselves feeling defensive towards her during her legal and emotional battles, and happiness as her community comes together to build. A couple of twists/surprises prevent the film from ever devolving into heavy melodrama, and there is a clever use of music throughout. An early glimpse of a Lego house is a nice touch. Anyone so determined to dig out of a bad situation and re-boot their life, and the lives of their kids, deserves just what they are after … a better life.

Amazon Studios will release HERSELF in select theaters December 30th, 2020 and on Prime Video January 8th, 2021

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SOUL (2020)

December 30, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. With their first 22 feature films, Pixar excelled at balancing the eye candy and action kids favor with the second level intellect needed to simultaneously keep adults entertained. As proof, one need only think of such classics as TOY STORY, CARS, and THE INCREDIBLES. Surprisingly, film number 23 is the first Pixar film aimed directly at adults. It’s a marvelous companion piece to the brilliant INSIDE OUT (2015), but be forewarned, there is simply nothing, or at least very little, for kids to latch onto.

The film is co-directed by 2 time Oscar winner Pete Docter (INSIDE OUT 2015, UP 2009) and Kemp Powers (the screenplay and stage production of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, 2020), and they were joined on the screenplay by Mike Jones. And yes, it’s a brilliant script to go along with the always stunning Pixar visuals and effects. Brace yourself for a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of life and finding one’s purpose. As we’ve come to expect on Pixar projects, the voice cast is deep and filled with well-known folks such as Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi, and June Squibb. Leading the way is the dynamic duo of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.

Mr. Foxx plays Joe, a junior high band teacher still chasing his dream of performing jazz and experiencing the feeling that only music can provide … “the zone”. Instead, the school offers him a full-time teaching job, and his mother demands he seize the stability (and insurance) and give up his silly dream of jazz. As seen in the preview, shortly after an audition lands him his dream jazz gig, a freak accident occurs and Joe finds himself in “The Great Beyond”, where a conveyor belt takes those souls whose time has come to that giant bug zapper in the sky. Joe’s not willing to accept his plight and finagles his way into being a mentor for Soul 22 (Tina Fey) in “The Great Before” where unborn souls search for their “spark”. It’s all very existential.

After a look back at his life, Joe takes 22 to “The Hall of Everything”, which is the one segment in the film which felt underplayed … much could have been done with 22 looking for a reason to live. Instead, it’s a few great punchlines, including a Knicks gag that will surely play well among basketball fans. We learn of the fine line separating “lost souls” from those “in the zone”, and mostly we take in the banter between Joe and 22, as purpose and passion become the subjects of chatter.

As with most Pixar movies, multiple viewings are required to catch all the sight-gags, one-liners, and Easter eggs, however, the first viewing is like unwrapping a giant Christmas present. The opening Disney theme is hilariously played by a junior high school band, and the score is courtesy of Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010). Director Docter claims Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger makes a vocal appearance, but I didn’t catch it. The film leaves us with the message that the meaning of life is simply living life … and keep on jazzing.

Available on Disney+

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PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It happens sometimes, but rarely. A single sequence in a film is so profound or unusual or artistic or affecting, that it alone makes the film worth watching. Such is the case with the labor-birth-midwife scene in this film from real life partners, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber. Much of it is an extended single continuous shot, and it occurs within the first half hour.

The only set up we get is that the husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is on the construction crew building a new bridge, and that his wife Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is extremely pregnant on her final day of work before maternity leave. A strained relationship with Martha’s mother is evident as she buys the couple a minivan. At home, the couple seems excited about the upcoming arrival of their first baby. When her water breaks, they are initially upset that their midwife can’t make it for a home delivery, but soon enough, Eva (Molly Parker), shows up as a replacement and takes charge. The remarkable sequence is filmed in tight shots that add to the tension and come across as ultra-realistic as Ms. Kirby’s strenuous performance.

The rest of the film follows the differing ways the couple, especially Martha, deals with the crushing emotional pain and unfathomable grief that comes with losing a child. It’s the kind of tragedy that can tear apart a relationship and change, if not destroy, a person. Martha becomes isolated as she tries to make sense of something where logic doesn’t apply. Sean is unable to connect with her, but falls into her mother’s camp of seeking to avenge the pain. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn plays Martha’s domineering mother, and she is determined to make the midwife pay through jail time.

The rest of the film can’t match that birth sequence for tension, but the cast is superb in capturing the various faces of grief. Ms. Kirby is a revelation and she immerses herself in the role – something frequent movie watchers will immediately recognize. Whether she’s huffing with labor pains, sniffing apples in a grocery store, or floating through days and nights in a state of numbness, we feel every bit of what she’s processing. LaBeouf handles the initial pain very well, but he’s let down by the script through the balance of the story. Ms. Burstyn and Ms. Kirby each get another chance to shine as they face off at a family dinner in Act 3. Supporting work comes from Benny Safdie (actor-director known for co-directing offbeat films with his brother Josh), Iliza Schlesinger as Martha’s sister, and Sarah Snook as the prosecuting attorney (and family member).

Scandal surrounds the project, not because of anything that happened during production, but instead due to the accusations Shia LaBeouf is facing from a former girlfriend. Separating the accusations from the performance is a choice each viewer will have to make on their own, and it can be noted that he, while a significant player in the story, is not the main focus. Chapter headings by month are used to assist us with knowing how much time has passed, and the under-construction bridge from the first scene acts as a metaphor in the film’s final scene as the new reality is faced. Despite being a tough watch at times, and having a first act that sets an unsustainable bar, there is a lot to admire about the film. Martin Scorsese is listed as an Executive Producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a nice score. Living with loss is never easy, and at times seems impossible.

In theaters December 30, 2020 and on Netflix January 7, 2021

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TWO WAYS HOME (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a bit of a rough start. The armed robbery of a convenience store doesn’t come across as menacing or threatening, but rather almost comical as the burly dude retreats, leaving the ski-capped (not masked) woman behind to face the cops. The scene does however set the stage and background for that woman’s story. Kathy (Tanna Frederick) is sent to jail where she is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Transferred to a treatment center, Kathy is given medications for control, and released early.

Kathy seeks redemption and normalcy as she heads back to her family. The reception is lukewarm at best, and her now 12 year old daughter Cori (Riley Behr) outright rejects her. Cori has been raised by her father Junior (Joel West) and Kathy’s parents, and is now the ultimate overachieving adolescent who wants nothing to do with her ex-con mother. In the midst of Kathy’s homecoming, her beloved grandfather Walter (Tom Bower) has had a heart attack on his pig farm, and now the family is trying to have him certified as “not competent” so they can take over his land (a generational farm). Kathy is disgusted by this, and wants nothing more than to give her grandfather what he wants most … a chance to live out his final days on the same land where his father died.

With no shortage of awkward conversations or situations, Kathy struggles to acclimate back into her family and small Iowa hometown. The best and most poignant scenes are with Kathy and her grandfather, and with Kathy and Cori. Kathy relates to her grandfather, as he’s being labeled just as she has been. In his case, he carries the weight of old age, while she carries the stigma of mental illness. The conversations between Kathy and Cori are more intimate, as a mother and daughter try to reconnect.

Director Ron Vignone and writer Richard Schinnow do a nice job creating small town authenticity, and proving that family dysfunction is certainly not limited to big city life. Cinematographer Christopher C Pearson captures some nice shots of beautiful Iowa farm land, and mixes it with the often uncomfortable family moments. Veteran actor Tom Bower is a real standout here, and we ultimately wish he had more screen time. Ms. Frederick captures the essence of her character, and faces the challenges of those burdened with the mental illness stigma. We should appreciate the inclusion of Kathy encouraging her grandfather to write down his memories and experiences for future generations. It’s a valuable step that too few folks take.

Available on VOD beginning December 29, 2020

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NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020)

December 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even in the midst of a pandemic, December is Oscar-qualifying time. And that means we get Tom Hanks’ latest movie. This time out, the two-time Oscar winner reunites with his CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) director Paul Greengrass (three “Bourne” movies, and Oscar nominated for UNITED 93, 2006) for Hanks’ first ride into the western genre. Luke Davies (Oscar nominated for LION, 2016) adapted the screenplay from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel.

The beloved Mr. Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. We know his full name because he proudly announces it at each stop of his news-reading route. That’s right, even in 1870, which is before television and radio and internet, a person could earn a living reading the news. OK, so it wasn’t the millions that national anchors make these days, as he was dependent on the audience dropping a coin or two in the tin cup. For this they were treated to Captain Kidd’s robust presentation of news and events (and some gossip) from around the nation … straight from the news clippings he collected during his travels.

On the trail one day, Captain Kidd comes across a horrific scene of violence, and a 10 year old girl with a shock of blonde hair. She only speaks Kiowa, but the found paperwork lists her name as Johanna (the first American film for Helena Zengel). It turns out, tragic events in her family’s home many years earlier left Johanna being raised by the Kiowa Indians. Captain Kidd is now on a mission to return her to her surviving relatives (an aunt and uncle), but there are at least three obstacles to his plan: it’s a rigorous trip of about 400 miles, the girl doesn’t want to go, and there remains much tension in the split among the post-war citizenry. So what we have here is a western road trip (trail ride) that’s a blend of TRUE GRIT (minus the witty banter) and THE SEARCHERS.

It should be noted that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has served in three wars, including the recently concluded Civil War. He may make his living wearing bifocals and reading newspapers, but Kidd is no nerd. He handles pressure quite naturally, as we witness in chase scene up a rocky hill. The resulting shootout not only creates the first bond between Kidd and Johanna, but also flashes the Captain’s calming influence. This is a soulful and principled Tom Hanks (as usual), but this time he’s riding a horse and his furrowed brow is working overtime.

The trip to Johanna’s home coincidentally takes Kidd very close to where he once lived – a place that holds his best and worst memories. As viewers we see what Captain Kidd and Johanna don’t. They are both headed back to a past they no longer belong to. Along the way, the two travelers cross paths with characters played by Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, and the always great Bill Camp. There is nothing rushed about the story or these people. Fans of director Greengrass will be surprised to find an absence of his trademark rapid-cut action sequences, but he has delivered a sweeping epic with superb cinematography (Dariusz Wolski, “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), expert editing (Oscar winner William Goldenberg, ARGO), and a terrific score (8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard). Mr. Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance (of course), and young Ms. Zengel’s assured performance likely means we will be treated to her work for years to come. It’s a quasi-western period piece that is plenty interesting to watch, yet lacks the memorable moments to justify multiple watches or a place among the genre’s best.

Opens December 25, 2020

watch the trailer