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.

WATCH THE TRAILER


CATCH THE FAIR ONE (2022)

February 10, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. One tragic event can certainly derail a person’s life. It’s happened in plenty of other movies, often resulting in an engaging story of redemption. There is also nothing new about a friend or family member out to save a loved one who is in peril. Director Josef Kubata Wladyka co-wrote this script with the film’s star, Kali Reis, and though it covers some familiar territory from those two premises, it’s done so in a way that feels fresh and different and important.

Ms. Reis is an accomplished boxer, having held the title in two weight classes. Her heritage is part Native and part Cape Verdean, and she brings a personal perspective into the story of her character. Kaylee Uppeshau (Ms. Reis) slogs through days waiting tables at a greasy spoon, and sleeps at night in a women’s shelter, with a razor blade tucked in her cheek for protection. She was previously known in the ring as “KO”, but for the past two years her goal in life is to track down her younger sister Weeta (Mainaku Borrerro), who was abducted while walking home from Kaylee’s gym. The girls’ mother (played by Kimberly Guerrero, whom “Seinfeld” fans will remember as Winona) has moved on by running group therapy sessions for others who are grieving. She also makes it clear that Weeta was the favored daughter.

Kaylee gets a lead on her sister, and soon finds herself drawn into the world of sex-trafficking. It’s a dangerous situation as she goes up against local scumbags Bobby (Daniel Henshell) and his father Willie (Kevin Dunn), the white men who have a market for native girls. But Kaylee is not the typical victim. She has an intensity to match her body tattoos and multiple piercings (cheeks, nose, tongue, ears, naval), and the physical training to hold her own.

It’s her acting debut, and Ms. Reis excels as Kaylee in this thriller. She creates an engrossing character who is tough, yet relatable. Ms. Reis is intense, naturalistic, and believable. It’s quite a first-time performance, and she keeps us engaged all the way through. We are never really sure if Kaylee is after justice or closure, or whether she truly holds out hope that Weeta is still alive. The subject of Indigenous women and girls being abducted is also the focus of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, based on the superb book by David Grann. Whereas that film will look at history, filmmaker Wladyka and Reis make it personal and deliver a literal and figurative gut-punch.

In theaters and VOD beginning February 11, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE GLORIAS (2020)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who hasn’t dreamt of having a conversation with their younger self in hopes of instilling some wisdom to improve the forthcoming life decisions? Writer-director Julie Taymor (FRIDA, 2002) and co-writer Sarah Ruhl have adapted Gloria Steinem’s autobiography, “My Life on the Road”, and use cross-country bus trips as a vehicle allowing Ms. Steinem to chat with herself at four different stages of life.

The feminist icon and activist is played by four actors: Oscar winner Julianne Moore, Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson (“The Haunting of Hill House”), and Ryan Kiera Armstrong as the youngest Gloria. Childhood is called the formative years for a reason, and we do get a taste of how Gloria’s nomadic hustler of a father Leo (Timothy Hutton), and her mother Ruth (Enid Graham) influence the woman she became. Her father (referring to himself as Steinomite) explained that travel is the best education, while her mother struggled with mental instability after being forced to give up her writing career.

Bucking the male-dominated world began in the era portrayed by Ms. Vikander, and it takes up most of the first half of the film. Discrimination and harassment were commonplace as she fought to be taken seriously as a journalist and writer. This portion includes her trip to India, where she was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, we see Gloria’s time as a (undercover) Playboy bunny, and the reactions that her corresponding article caused.

Ms. Moore is on screen much of the second half, including the founding of “Ms.” magazine, and her affiliation with other activists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero, “Seinfeld”), and of course, Bella Abzug (Bette Midler). There’s a moment on the bus when Ms. Moore’s Gloria tells her younger self, Ms. Vikander’s Gloria, “Speaking your mind will get you into trouble.” It sounds like a warning, but in fact, it’s motivation for what’s to come.

Ms. Taymor’s film cuts between periods of Steinem’s life with the multiple Glorias in action. The bus rides are an interesting choice as looking out the windows we (and Gloria) sees the streets of New York, the palette of India, miles of nature, and even her own father on the road in his car. Outside is filled with the colors of life, while inside the bus, the colors are muted, often black and white. We see actual clips of the 1963 March on Washington DC, including Mahalia Jackson, and the 1977 National Women’s Conference. It just feels like something’s missing here – like the movie doesn’t have the heft Ms. Steinem deserves.

Sometimes Ms. Taymor’s approach is a bit too artsy for the story, and there is only a brief mention of Ms. Steinem’s nemesis, Phyllis Schlafly … despite much attention to abortion and women’s rights. Gloria’s passion for issues is clear, and we note her motivation to transform an environment that stifled her mother. The film’s music comes from Oscar winner Eric Goldenthal, and the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto, frequent collaborator of Martin Scorsese and other elite directors. The timing is spot on for the film given contemporary issues, including the opening on the Supreme Court created by the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite this, the film might just be a bit too nice, or too lightweight given the history, accomplishments and impact of Gloria Steinem (who has a cameo appearance on the bus).

watch the trailer