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

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LET HIM GO (2020)

November 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner reunite on screen, only this time it’s not as the earthy and earthly parents to Superman (MAN OF STEEL, 2013). Instead, this film from writer-director Thomas Bezucha (THE FAMILY STONE, 2005), based on Larry Watson’s 2013 novel, features the two stars as long-time married couple, Margaret and George Blackledge, living a peaceful existence on their Montana ranch. Well, it’s peaceful now, as George is retired from his career as a lawman.

Their son James (Ryan Bruce), his wife Lorna (Kayli Carter, “Godless”), and young son Jimmy live on the ranch with Margaret and George. Grandma Margaret’s devotion to her grandson and judgmental nature sometimes crosses the line, creating quiet tension with his mother Lorna. George’s trained eye sees it all, but he mostly keeps his thoughts private, although the communication he shares with Margaret is often through a simple gesture or nod. Their chemistry is one that’s only built through time (and fine acting).

When a freak accident leaves James dead, we flash forward three years as Margaret and George attend Lorna’s wedding to Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, who was excellent in this year’s BLOW THE MAN DOWN). George senses that Donnie does not possess the highest moral character, but Margaret is hit hardest by the newlyweds moving off the ranch and taking her beloved grandson with them. Concern escalates quickly when Margaret witnesses Donnie being physically abusive to Lorna and Jimmy, and then he relocates them to North Dakota to be near his family … without so much as a warning or goodbye to Margaret and George.

Crossing Grandma Margaret is like kicking the hornet’s nest. Poor George arrives home one day to find the car packed and Margaret on a mission to bring Jimmy home. George’s feeble attempt to reason with her fails (as he knew it would) and the two are soon on the road through some gorgeous countryside captured by cinematographer Guy Godfree. Along the way, they cross paths and befriend Peter (Booboo Stewart), a Native American who deserted “Indian School” for a life of solitude on the plains. It’s also on this road trip where Margaret and George are inundated with every possible warning about the notorious Weboy clan of North Dakota. No specifics are provided, but the message is clear … no one messes with the Weboys.

A tip leads the grandparents to Bill Weboy (Jeffrey Donovan, “Burn Notice”), and he provides living proof that the Weboy clan is rotten to the core. Behind an evil grin, Bill invites Margaret and George to the family ranch for dinner and a visit with their grandson. At the ranch, we are introduced to the twisted matriarch, Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville, PHANTOM THREAD, 2017). This meeting of the families is about as tense as any we’ve seen on screen. A clash of good versus evil is always welcome, which makes it so disappointing that a film so stellar to this point, abruptly shifts from an intriguing psychological thriller into a ludicrous circus of violence, poor decisions, and absurdity.

There is a lot to like here, before it spins off the axis. Diane Lane is ferocious in the role, and Costner is very effective as her ‘still waters’ husband. It’s a hoot to see Ms. Manville lose her British accent and go over-the-top as nasty Blanche, and the early 1960’s setting looks great, including the vehicles. As mentioned before, the scenery is breath-taking, with Alberta (Canada) standing in beautifully for Montana and North Dakota. Composer Michael Giacchino is more accustomed to working on superhero and animated movies, and the score is often distracting in the first half, but fits better in the final act. Brace yourself for a couple of tough to watch scenes and a jarring tonal shift.

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TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening title card states “Nothing you are about to see is true” … and then it dissolves, leaving the word ‘true’ as the first word in the film’s title. Of course, some of the things we are about to see are true, though it is a dramatized version with a screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant (BERLIN SYNDROME, 2017) from Peter Carey’s 2000 novel. Director Justin Kurzel (MACBETH, 2015) takes a very artsy and stylistic approach in telling the story of the notorious Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, while still including the expected violence and brutality.

Opening in 1867 Australia, we first see young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwert) spying on his mother (Essie Davis, THE BABADOOK, 2014) as she provides service to Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam). It’s the kind of service a young boy should never see his mother perform, especially as the father/husband (Ben Corbett) hovers outside the cabin with Ned’s siblings. Life is difficult for the Kelly family. Dad has some issues, so mom does what she has to in order to keep food on the table. Ned’s life and family dynamics change quickly when his dad takes the fall for a crime Ned committed.

Harry Power (played by hefty Russell Crowe) arrives on the scene, and becomes Ned’s mentor in song (a sing-a-long title that can’t be repeated here) and as a bushranger. It’s not long after this when the movie shifts from Ned as a boy, to Ned as a man (played by George Mackay, 1917), who spends a few years away from home. Ned crosses paths with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) numerous times, one which results in Ned meeting, and falling for, a young prostitute named Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT). Ned and Mary return home to visit his mother, and they find she’s now engaged to a younger man, George King (Marlon Williams). George has been teaching his “trade” of horse-thieving to Ned’s brothers, including Dan (played by musician Nick Cave’s son, Earl Cave). It’s at this point we learn about how the Kelly Gang was formed, and why they took to wearing dresses … “Nothing scares a man like crazy.”

There is a lot going on in this story for the tale of a man who was executed at age 25. We see Ned evolve from a curious youngster to a bare-knuckle boxer to an outlaw who became an anti-hero cult icon. Witnessing the father figures he endured leaves little wonder why he turned out the way he did – an angry, cross-dressing outlaw leading the Irish rebellion in hopes of taking down the Crown. Ned is told that “a man can never outrun his fate”, and we know Ned’s fate upfront. We are there as Ned gives a motivational speech to the Kelly gang, and we watch in awe as they self-test their own body armor.

My Dear Son …” are the first words we hear as Ned writes a letter promising to tell no lies about his history. The letter acts as somewhat of a framing device for the film, and covers the entirety of the Kelly Outbreak, as it’s now referred. There have been numerous projects (movies, mini-series, docu-dramas) over the years, including Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as those who have portrayed Ned Kelly on screen. Director Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner offer up quite a stylish look for this vast wasteland, and even utilizes some Terrence Malick-type editing for effect. Even the closing credit sequence is a work of art. It’s a family affair for director Justin Kurzel, as his brother Jed Kurzel delivers the music, and Justin’s wife Essie Davis plays Ned’s mother. It’s certainly not a typical western, and Ned is difficult to relate to as a character, but the look and style of the film keep us engaged. Perhaps the oddest decision was to have MacKay clean-shaven, as most of us have seen the photos of Ned Kelly and his beard … a beard that seemed to inspire modern day hipsters. Filming took place at Old Melbourne Gaol, which was the actual spot where Ned Kelly was hanged. His last words were: “Such is life.”

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BADLAND (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Westerns are always a risky proposition for a filmmaker, but some are drawn to the genre and seem to thrive on the intricacies that fans have come to expect. Justin Lee is one such filmmaker. He wrote and directed this film and follows the familiar tropes: a quiet, proud protagonist; the strong, lonely woman; the corrupt gunslinger – maybe wearing a badge, maybe not; and of course, the battle of good versus evil.

Kevin Makely stars as Matthias Breecher, a Civil War veteran and now Pinkerton detective carrying out the orders of Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd, CANDY MAN, 1992). Senator Burke has pledged to track down war criminals and hold them accountable by administering justice. Breecher is the Senator’s hired hand who travels from town to town, serving warrants and dealing with those who refuse to abide

Mr. Lee’s film is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, “The General”, finds Breecher face-to-face with tough-talking General Corbin Dandridge (Trace Adkins). It’s here where Breecher first flashes his impressive gun skills, and it’s soon after where he crosses paths with Harlow (recent honorary Oscar recipient Wes Studi), a competitor in the “bounty-hunter” game. Chapter 2, “The Cooke’s” has Breecher tracking down Reginald Cooke (played for all it’s worth by a finger-wagging Bruce Dern), a sickly old man dying slowly from pneumonia and living with his daughter Sarah (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). Local bad guy Fred Quaid (James Russo) is trying to seize the Cooke’s land (apparently this is the possessive apostrophe in the chapter title). During this segment we get a nasty fist fight, an ugly shootout, and Breecher falling for Sarah and actually shushing his horse. Chapter 3, “The Sheriff”, brings us to the terrifically named town of “Knife’s Edge” where equally terrifically named evil guy Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey) wears a badge and rules the town with a reign of terror, and with Old West waterboarding. There is even a double-tap grave side shootout. It’s an old mining town and the citizens live in fear – especially the good-hearted barkeep Alice (Amanda Wyss). The segment ends with a ‘high noon’ duel in the dusty street.

Chapter 4, “Breecher”, acts as a finale for our hero, a man we are told was “born to violence.” His dreams of owning land may have faded, and soul-searching has him reckoning with the man he’s become. Mr. Makely reminds of actor Anson Mount in his ability to hold a scene, and we can’t help but think that in his younger years, Mr. Fahey could have easily played the Breecher role. Despite the out-of-place linguistic stylings, director Lee proves the lessons of the old west never get old, and it leaves us with the message … ‘Be still, young man.”

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THE DIVIDE (2018)

November 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who were watching movies in the 1970’s recall Perry King as one of the fresh-faced, hunky twenty-somethings in THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974) … along with Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler. Now, more than 40 years later, not only does Mr. King star as crusty old rancher Sam Kincaid, but he also directs his first feature film. The script is written by Jana F Brown, in what is also her first screenplay. Due to its setting, the film could be labeled as a western, but it’s really a personal drama emphasizing the importance of family reconciliation.

Sam Kincaid (King) is an elderly rancher who lives on land that looks a great deal like the Lucas McCain ranch from the TV classic “The Rifleman”. We first see Sam as he shares his philosophy of mending fences with his hired help. If you are curious, it has to do with knowing “why the holes are there”. Luke (Bryan Kaplan) is the young ranch hand who must not only deal with the severe drought-plagued northern California climate of 1976, but also the past-their-prime tools and equipment. Presenting even more of a challenge is Sam himself.

Sam is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and his house is decorated with personal notes reminding him how the light switch works, or to perform some other menial task. A particularly pointed note on the phone states, “your daughter doesn’t want to talk to you”. Luke figures out the father and daughter had some kind of falling out, but he soon realizes Sam’s disease is progressing pretty quickly. He tracks down daughter Sarah (Sara Arrington) and pleads with her to come visit her father.

As much as I enjoyed the banter between Sam and Luke, the film picks up a bit when Sarah and her son (Sam’s unknown grandson) arrive. Family issues, secrets and skeletons in the closet make communication between these folks more than a tad uncomfortable at times. However, slowly we see the “fence” mending … and Sam’s early philosophy becomes crystal clear. Campfire-style music plays throughout much of the film, and Sam’s repeated questions allow Luke, Sarah, and grandson CJ to comprehend what’s happening and what needs to be done. Sam’s recurring nightmare can only be stopped with a reconciliation that’s painful for all involved. Perry King proves his effectiveness as an aged rancher, and also as a first time filmmaker. He and Ms. Brown deliver a nice message … and the black and white photography serves the faces and setting quite well.

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BIG KILL (2018)

October 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 6 years since Scott Martin directed his last feature film, and most of his credits are as a producer. This time out, the Texas filmmaker proves his love of the western genre, and he’s so committed to the cause that he dons many Stetsons for the project: writer, director, producer, editor, and one of the lead actors. We always admire those who overcome obstacles and see their vision become a reality. Every movie doesn’t need to be a classic … it’s a Herculean task just to get a film made, and hopefully it provides some entertainment value (which this one does).

Mr. Martin plays Jake, who along with his friend Travis (Clint Hummel) travels the old west countryside finding trouble and making waves at every turn. Jake is the sharpshooter, while Travis is the ladies’ man. Neither seem to have any marketable skills, other than the knack for staying alive – which is an accomplishment given that they seem to be shot at quite frequently and run out of every place they ride into … even Mexico!

The opening shootout sets the mood for us, as it comes across as tongue-in-cheek, with just enough realism to let us know danger exists. Danny Trejo has an entrance worthy of his cult status as Mexican General Morales … a man very displeased with Jake and Travis. An annoying electronic score accompanies a chase scene that crosses the border and ends at a Cavalry outpost run by a Colonel played by the great Michael Pare (EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS), whose two scenes are over far too quickly.

Jake and Travis accompany city slicker Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) on a road trip via horseback to Big Kill, Arizona … a town Jim’s brother has promised him is booming. A recurring punchline of “Never heard of it” adds some levity every time Big Kill is mentioned. Instead of a lucrative silver mining town, they find a once boom town gone bust, and now the town is run by the most unethical “Preacher” (steely-eyed and square-jawed Jason Patric) that one is likely to find. The preacher is aided by his muscle: quick-draw Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips in a gaudy red suit and evil grin) and Stephanie Beran as a knife toting Felicia Stiletto – just one of the character names pulled straight out of the comic book universe.

Jim’s brother (played by KC Clyde) is located, and though Jim begins the courting process with local girl Josie Strong (a standout Elizabeth McLaughlin), the troubles and violence and literal backstabbing in town soon draws the boys into the fracas. Much of the film has the look of kids playing dress up, but as a tongue-in-cheek western, there is enough entertainment value to hold our interest for 2 hours. Fortunately music director Kays Al-Atrakchi resorts to more traditional trumpet-based western music after that opening chase. Most of the shootouts provide some humor, whether intended or not, but we can be sure the cast had a grand time making this one … that shines through loud and clear – especially in a town where the undertaker is named Digger.

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THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was a good news – bad news kind of day for westerns. First, it’s announced that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic THE WILD BUNCH. Talk about an undesired and unnecessary project! Fortunately, the movie gods understood this gut-punch and as a peace offering, delivered this near-masterpiece that doesn’t so much re-invent the Western, but rather provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.

This is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), and DHEEPAN (2015). Based on the Patrick DeWitt novel, with a screenplay from Mr. Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, this latest is a very unusual film that teeters on satire at times, but is simply too bleak to be a comedy – although it’s too darn funny to be an outright drama.

A terrific opening sequence in 1851 Oregon features a nighttime shootout that sets the stage both visually and tonally for what we will experience for the next couple of hours. It’s beautifully shot and there is some misdirection on what exactly the Sisters brothers are made of. John C. Reilly is absolutely wonderful as Eli Sisters, the soulful forward-thinking one who also has a dash of goofiness to him. His younger brother Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the slightly unhinged one who frequently follows in his hated father’s footsteps by drinking heavily. Charlie is alternatingly quietly menacing and drunkenly menacing. The two brothers are hired assassins, and while Eli dreams of a peaceful retirement, Charlie can’t imagine not doing what they do.

The brothers have been contracted by ‘The Commodore’, a rarely seen power broker played in brief glimpses by the great Rutger Hauer. They are to meet up with advance scout John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a quasi-British accent) and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from The Commodore. Of course, there is more to the story. Warm has actually developed a chemical compound that allows for the easy gathering of gold from waterways – remember this is the height of the Gold Rush.

This is kind of a road trip film … only it’s on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it’s kind of a buddy film … only it’s two brothers. Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (trans actor Rebecca Root), and the brothers’ mother played by the always interesting Carol Kane. There is also a cringe-inducing run-in with a spider, an unfortunate end for a favorite horse, and the hilarious first use of a toothbrush. There is also a Dallas joke that drew quite the laughter from my Dallas audience.

It’s such an unusual film, and it’s presented with a non-traditional pace and rhythm. The moments of laughter surround a core with a dramatic story of destiny, the meaning of life, dreams and visions, and the greed of man. All of this is set to yet another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat and the visually striking photography of Benoit Debie. Director Audiard has delivered a bleak comedy or a comical drama, and he’s done so with more than a fair share of violence. Whether you consider yourself a fan of westerns or not, this one deserves a look.

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BLACK 47 (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film’s title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.

Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).

Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.

Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney … a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).

The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath … one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed”. Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.

Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country … while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.

Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty … only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than this production.

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THE RIDER (2018)

April 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the universe creates its own balance. Watching this little independent gem the day before watching the new Avengers movie reinforces what a diverse art form the cinema provides. Writer/director Chloe Zhao continues to make her presence felt as a filmmaker, and movie lovers are the beneficiaries.

While filming her feature film debut SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2015, Ms. Zhao met Brady Jandreau, a rising young star on the rodeo circuit. She knew a movie was in their future, but it wasn’t until the following year when the story wrote itself. Brady suffered a severe head injury after being bucked by a bronco. He was in a coma for 3 days, and a metal plate was screwed into his skull. Doctors warned Brady that riding a horse again could kill him.

This is not a documentary, but it’s pretty darn close. Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a rodeo bronco rider and horse trainer who is recovering from a severe head injury. Mr. Landreau’s real father Tim and sister Lilly also appear as themselves. In fact, most of the characters are locals rather than actors, and many (including the Jandreaus) are part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe on the reservation. Also playing himself is Lane Scott, Brady’s best friend who is now paralyzed and unable to speak – the tragic result of another rodeo ride gone wrong. These two are like brothers, and their interactions provide some of the most emotional moments in the movie.

The film is more cycle of life, than circle of life. It’s about having a lifelong dream snatched from your clutches. We follow Brady as he searches for his new place in life. Campfire confessions with his rodeo buddies portray the bond created by risking life and limb. His mother is dead, and Brady’s dad has spent a lifetime telling him to “cowboy up” – meaning, be a man and fight through every situation. Now dad is telling him to “let it go” and “move on”. This contradicts his friends who encourage him to not give up on his dream.

Brady’s moments with his sister Lilly are some of the sweetest and most poignant. Despite her autism, Lilly is precious as she sings songs and offers clear insight to her brother. This is less about acting and more about being. Guns, horses, and pot play significant roles throughout, as does the stunning South Dakota landscape as photographed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The intimacy of Brady’s internal struggle somehow dwarfs the breathtaking sunsets. His quietly simmering intensity is masked by a stone face that only seems to brighten when around friend Lane, sister Lilly, or training yet another “unbreakable” horse.

Rather than traditional story arc, this is simply a compelling way of life for people who put up no false fronts. Brady is trying to figure out how to be a man after life has stolen his dream. One’s purpose is essential to one’s being, and thanks to filmmaker Zhao we witness how one tough cowboy fights through.

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SWEET COUNTRY (2018)

April 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For whatever reason, Australia and Westerns seem to go together quite well. Perhaps it’s the naturally beautiful vistas that seem to stretch forever. Maybe it’s the slower pace and the accent that provide the perfect blend of comfort and danger. What matters is that director Warwick Thornton has delivered another gem from the Outback genre.

That previously mentioned blend of slow pace and danger is evident in the opening scene. Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is napping in a rocking chair on his front porch until being startled awake by the snorting of a stranger’s horse only a few feet away. The new neighbor is Harry March (played by Ewen Leslie), an ornery war vet who drinks too much and is racist to his core.

The film is set in the 1920’s, although it doesn’t really matter when. It’s more about the what, the why and the who. The racism on display would be just as believable in contemporary times, though this Outback seems especially far out. Neighbors are rarely seen, and the town is so small, they watch silent movies (The Kelly Gang) and hold court outside on the dusty main street.

Co-writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter have created a story that likely has played out in real life, although hopefully not to this extreme. A series of events occurs: indigenous Australian Sam Kelly (played exceptionally well by non-actor Hamilton Morris) is coerced into helping March put up a fence, March crosses the line with Sam’s wife, a young boy Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) is always stirring up trouble and pilfering things, and a drunk March accuses Sam of hiding the boy and violence erupts leaving the “white fella” dead and Sam and his wife on the run.

Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is the local law – he even proclaims “I am the law” – and he forms a posse to track down Sam so he can stand trial. The posse includes March’s friend Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), Sam’s employer Fred Smith (Mr. Neill), and Archie (Gibson John), an indigenous Aussie employed by Kennedy.  Director Thornton uses this chase sequence to paint some extraordinary visions on screen. The natural land is beautiful, and then we come across a stunning and deadly desert in the salt flats. Mr. Thornton acts as co-cinematographer with Dylan River, and the result is a movie that’s a thing of beauty to look at.

Director Thornton uses an array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, sometimes in quick cut form. This approach keeps us on our toes, sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes filling gaps. Against the wishes of the locals, this is a developing country, and many of the locals feel it’s no longer their country – they are kept as laborers, and rarely treated as equals by the new inhabitants. In this world, for this man (Sam), doing the right and necessary thing places he and his family in instant peril. It’s better to run than surrender. The story is very good, though the dialogue is a bit lacking at times. The photography is world class. Though we would have preferred screen vets Bryan Brown and Sam Neill to have more scenes together, the panoramic majesty of Australia is certainly enough … with an added and fitting bonus of Johnny Cash singing “Peace in the Valley” over the closing credits.

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