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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HAMPSTEAD (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were this not inspired by the true story of Harry Hallowes, finding something positive to say about the film might prove difficult. Hallowes was (sometimes) affectionately known as the “Hampstead Hermit”. The crux of his story is that he was awarded legal “squatter’s rights” for his many years living in a small shack on the vast land where the Athlone House (now foreign owned) sits. Director Joel Hopkins (THE LOVE PUNCH, 2014) works from a script by Robert Festinger (Oscar nominated for IN THE BEDROOM, 2001) to turn the story into a cutesy romantic comedy.

Diane Keaton stars as Emily Walters, widowed for more than a year by a man who left her in debt and with the added bonus of discovering he had been having an affair with a younger woman. Brendan Gleeson stars as Donald Horner, the gruff, well-read man from the shack. It’s an idyllic British community with quaint shops and leisure bicycle riders – the kind of place where locals mostly wave and smile while the generic background music plays. Emily, who lives in the luxury apartment she shared with her late husband, is trying to figure out how to dig out of the financial hole she’s in. The first idea should have been getting a job other than volunteering at a charity dress shop, but this is the type of movie where real world problems magically dissipate and we know things are going to be just fine.

The film is mostly tolerable when Brendan Gleeson is on screen, even when Ms. Keaton is annoying him with her usual quirks. Of course the two end up liking each other (it is a rom-com after all), and she helps him with his legal battle to keep his “home”, while he helps her find meaning in her days again. Ms. Keaton mostly wears her familiar turtlenecks and scarfs, and we even get an early beret visual punchline (later ruined).

The always fun Lesley Manville owns her role as Fiona, neighbor and quasi-rival to Emily. More of Ms. Manville would have helped. Other supporting roles are covered by James Norton, Adeel Akhtar, Simon Callow, Jason Watkins, and Hugh Skinner. Many familiar faces, each given little to do. Thanks to the real life Harry Hallowes, there is a message here about the difficulty in living life on one’s own terms – a near impossibility without somehow affecting on infringing on others. Otherwise, this is one that will only appeal to fans of Ms. Keaton and of movies that require little effort or thought from viewers.

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A FIVE STAR LIFE (Viaggio solo, Italy, 2014)

September 16, 2014

5 star life Greetings again from the darkness. Italian movie star Margherita Buy plays Irene, a luxury hotel inspector who travels the world testing picture frames for dust, bed covers for wrinkles, and hotel staff for smiles. Directed and co-written by Maria Sole Tognazzi, the film left me baffled as to why such a talented filmmaker presented such a dead-end trip for the viewer.

Within the first five minutes, we fully “get” Irene and we understand exactly where the movie is headed, provided it follows all overused story clichés (it does). See, Irene has things backwards. She lives in 5 star hotels and takes her brief respites with her nieces, her ex, and her sister. Most of us live with our families and vacation at resorts.

The world class hotels are breathtaking to see, but mostly the movie drags while we wait for Irene’s comeuppance. One segment of the story provides a spark of hope. Lesley Manville (recognizable from numerous Mike Leigh films) appears as a feminist author who lives life to the fullest and preaches realities that strike a chord with Irene. Unfortunately, this plot line is short-lived and the most interesting character disappears as quickly as she arrived.

Irene is single, but maintains a very close relationship with her ex (a very good Stefano Accorsi). Irene has no kids, but periodically spends time with her young nieces. Irene has no close friends, but spends time with her family-centric sister (a very interesting Fabrizia Sacchi). She does all of this without actually committing to living a real life, as she quickly escapes on her next mystery guest mission.

The film begs for comparison to the superior Up in the Air, which allowed for secondary character development … an element only teased in this film. Ms. Buy is very talented, but the script just makes this seem like a luke warm room service meal. We already know that there is no comparison in a dream job versus a dream life.

**NOTE: The Italian title is “Viaggio solo”, which translates to I Travel Alone. There is no good reason for changing the title for its United States release … probably decided by a marketing committee.

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ANOTHER YEAR

January 30, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. How DARE he? Mike Leigh is such a non-compliant filmmaker. He just refuses to follow the rules … and film goers are the benefactors of his daring. Mind you, his daring is not in the regards of special effects, stunt work or trick photography. No sir. His daring is with the subject, theme, tone and characters. He is … GASP … unafraid of real people! If you have seen Mr. Leigh’s work in Happy-Go-Lucky or Vera Drake, you understand that his films can be simplistic on the surface, while carrying multiple layers of commentary and observations. He also has the classic British sense of humor in that very few “punchlines” exist. Instead the humor comes in allowing the viewer to recognize the characters as someone they know, or God forbid, even their own self!

Mr. Leigh has a history of making films without a script … only broad based outlines for the characters. The actors then work to fill in the details of the individuals, which in turn, forms a story. This explains why the story does not follow the traditional arc. In fact, the story has no real beginning or ending. What we see are the interactions of people who are friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances and strangers.

The foundation of the film, as well as the foundation for most of the other characters in the film, is the happily married couple of Tom and Gerri, played by the terrific Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. This is a couple who not only love and respect each other, but also enjoy being together. Their friends and family come in and out of their lives, but their bond is strong.

 Key amongst this group is their friend, and Gerri’s co-worker, Mary (Lesley Manville). Mary is someone we all recognize. She is single, not getting any younger, desperately trying to avoid loneliness (too often with a bottle), masking her fear through fake excitement, and latched onto the security blanket offered by Tom and Gerri’s friendship. Many felt Ms. Manville deserved an Oscar nom for this role, and I will say she is outstanding.

When family friend Ken (Peter Wight) makes a move on Mary, she shuns him because of his lack of perfection. She always thinks she can do better. When she begins fixating on Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Oliver Maltman), we really feel her pain but just want to slap some sense into her. The relationships all take a hit when Mary shows up for dinner and is introduced to Joe’s new girlfriend … a wonderfully charming and talented Katie (Karina Fernandez). Mary acts the selfish fool and it drives a wedge between she and Gerri. There is even a line of dialogue earlier on … “never come between a mother and her son“! Another character we are witness to includes the great Imelda Staunton as a depressed middle-aged woman who comes to Gerri for professional guidance. We also meet David Bradley as Tom’s older brother, Ronnie, whose wife has recently passed. Mr. Bradley will be recognized as Argus Filch from the Harry Potter movies.

All of these situations and personalities are balanced by Tom and Gerri as they provide a stable environment … it’s as if they are a fountain of sanity from which everyone wishes to drink. As an added touch, none of the characters are Hollywood beauties. Broadbent and Ms. Sheen would never be mistaken for Brad and Angelina. Rather they are more likely to look like someone you know … and better yet, their characters live like people you WANT to know. So again I ask … How dare he?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a quick glance at characters who probably mirror you and your friends OR you can appreciate the British way of squeezing some humor out of someone’s pain

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer fantastical stories and “big” Hollywood films to the intimacy of characters who could actually exist.