MONTANA STORY (2022)

May 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Watching two of our most talented young actors do their thing within the framework of old-fashioned storytelling and a breathtaking geographic setting is just about as good as it gets in independent filmmaking. The pacing may be a bit slow for some viewers, but the joy here is in watching two actors own their characters and battle through the emotions that tore apart a family.

Co-writers and co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel previously collaborated on WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012) and BEE SEASON (2005), and are joined this time by co-writer Mike Spreter. We certainly can debate the script’s handling of specific moments, but Haley Lu Richardson (OPERATION FINALE, 2018, the underrated COLUMBUS, 2017, SPLIT, 2016, and THE BRONZE, 2015) and Owen Teague (best known for the two recent IT movies, and he’s also delivered in two recent films, TO LESLIE and THE COW) are the reason we buy in quickly and stay engaged to the breakthrough.

Cal (Mr. Teague) returns to the ranch where he grew up when he’s notified his father has had a stroke and is in a coma on life support. Cal readies the ranch for a bankruptcy sale and tends to the other business issues while Kenyan nurse Ace (Gilbert Ouwor) takes care of the father. Longtime housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero, Winona from “Seinfeld”) helps when she can, but the ranch itself, including some chickens and an arthritic 25-year-old horse, Mr. T, aren’t much better off than Cal’s comatose dad. Cal is shocked when he sees that his estranged sister Erin (Ms. Richardson) has returned in order to say goodbye to their dad.

The film is at its best as Cal and Erin (I’m sure it’s a coincidence that the EAST OF EDEN siblings were named Cal and Aron) strain to avoid the discussion of what caused the split. It takes a while for us to get the details, but the scene is devastating for both characters, and the actors pull it off beautifully. A single night, seven years ago, blew up a family and led to broken trust and pent-up anger and animosity in Erin, and near debilitating guilt and sadness in Cal. Doing the right thing plays a recurring role here in regards to Erin’s high school article, Cal’s decision on Mr. T, and their dad’s job and actions.

Family relationships can be tainted and forever altered by a traumatic event, and rebuilding that trust requires raw pain and emotion … and even then, there are no guarantees. Additional supporting work is provided by Eugene Brave Rock and Asivak Koostachin, each of whom bring a touch of humor to their character (“sentimental horsey girl”) – or perhaps it just seems that way due to the intensity of Erin and Cal. There is a terrific scene where Cal and Erin ‘negotiate’ her spontaneous purchase of a pickup and trailer, and the meaning is hard to miss as Erin educates Cal on Dante’s circles of Hell in “Inferno”. Kudos to rising stars Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague for capturing a strained sibling dynamic and showing how trauma can have varying effects. Thanks also to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) for the sprawling Montana landscape and mountain vistas. This is a “western” only in the sense that it takes place out west and in near isolation, with most folks only speaking when necessary. It is a kind of showdown between brother and sister, but the weapons are words and memories, not pistols.

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THE WEDDING GUEST (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film’s title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don’t usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he’s on a different mission altogether. We don’t have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam – working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.

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HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

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