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


THE COW (SXSW 2022)

March 23, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There is a fine line between movies that cheat and those that cleverly keep us guessing. The first feature from writer-director Eli Horowitz and Matthew Derby seems to fully embrace cheating as a storytelling structure, relegating us to merely observing rather than guiding us as engaged participants. The film opens with a severely mismatched couple driving deep into the woods for a weekend getaway. We’ve all heard that “opposites attract”, but Kath (an excellent Winona Ryder) and Max (John Gallagher Jr) have been together for a year, and not only do they have opposite life goals, the two can barely hold a conversation. It’s not just awkward, it makes no sense that these two could have co-existed for so long.

Their drive leads to a ‘cabin in the woods’ set-up, as another couple is already settled in. The double-booking leads to another awkward exchange with Max pleading to let them stay the night … two unfamiliar couples sharing the cabin. Taciturn and creepy Al (Owen Teague) and overly exuberant Greta (Brianne Tiu) agree and soon the four are drinking together and playing an adult board game that exposes more personality divides. Despite dating the younger Max, or perhaps because of it, Kath is transitioning into a quieter middle-age life stage. Max is a childish man constantly pressuring Kath to be ‘more adventurous. Al and Greta have an “open” relationship, and she’s unapologetically flirty with Max, while Al mostly scowls. Kath heads off to bed before the others, and when she wakes up the next morning, an upset Al informs her that Max and Greta took off together.

So, Kath does what no real person would do. She heads back to her life as a horticulturalist and enjoys the solitude … right up until she finally reacts the way every other human would have initially. She wonders why long-time boyfriend Max didn’t bother to call or text or mail a postcard. This kicks off her (too late) mission of solving the mystery, and it leads her to connect with the mysterious Barlow (Dermot Mulroney), the owner of the cabin. Kath and Barlow go on a stakeout and end up telling personal secrets to each other – including details of the genetic illness that affected his father and may impact Barlow as well. They seem to connect despite the oddity that brought them together.

Director Horowtiz abuses the flashback crutch by filling in the many otherwise unexplainable gaps that exist in the actual timeline. It’s during these segments when we learn about the characters and circumstances that brought them together, although, to the film’s credit, it does allow us to experience the final reveal as it happens. There are some nice touches throughout, including shots of a shipping container behind the cabin that is visible from multiple spots and at various times. Kath’s work with plants provides a certain symmetry, and Barlow’s backstory is interesting. Perhaps the most unique element here is with only five main characters, the story involves four distinct generations: boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z (maybe not exact birthdates, but close enough). The cabin in the woods put us on high alert early on, but the reliance on flashbacks taints the twists to such an extreme that the ultimate reveal of ‘the cow’ is a bit of a letdown, and still feels like cheating.


TO LESLIE (2022)

March 22, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We have all heard the stories of lottery winners who blow the entire pot and end up back where they started, or sometimes even worse off. There is also no shortage of stories where alcoholism ruins lives and relationships. Director Michael Morris’ first feature film combines the two elements in a script by Ryan Binaco, who based the lead character on his own mother. The two men have done their work well and, in a way, win their own lottery by having cast Andrea Riseborough in the lead. Ms. Riseborough has long been labeled underrated, but I believe the more accurate label is underappreciated.

Small town Texan Leslie (Riseborough) is seen celebrating her $190,000 lottery win by lifting the giant check for TV cameras. She admits to picking her son’s birthday as the winning number and says her plan is to buy a house and open a diner … right after she buys the first round at the local bar. We then flash forward six years to find Leslie homeless, having just been evicted from a fleabag motel. Toting her pink suitcase, she is forced to trace her steps back to the bridges still smoldering from her past actions. She tracks down her son James (Owen Teague, IT), whom she abandoned years ago.

Of course it doesn’t take long for Leslie to break James’ one house rule of ‘no drinking’, and soon he is shipping her back to their hometown to stay with the friends who raised James. Nancy (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) are a biker couple still upset with Leslie’s actions from years ago, but willing to give her a roof over her head. Leslie is a master of saying the right thing, but never doing the right thing. She can sweet talk anyone who might buy her next drink, but her history is one of burning bridges and leaving a wake of shattered emotions.

Leslie is an uncontrollable alcoholic and she’s self-destructive, but not in a LEAVING LAS VEGAS way. We sense that in her lucid moments … when she’s not screaming at someone or flirting for a drink … that she does want to be a better person and live a better life. It takes local motel manager Sweeney (Marc Maron) to give her a real shot at cleaning up. Literally cleaning up, as she’s hired to clean the motel rooms. Sweeney’s patience with Leslie stems from his past, and it’s as painful to watch his efforts as it is to watch Leslie’s swings. Andrea Riseborough delivers a raw and riveting performance – one worthy of awards consideration. She captivates us with an emotional and physical performance. Director Michael Morris has directed some terrific TV episodes for shows like “Better Call Saul”, “Bloodline”, “Animal Kingdom”, and “House of Cards”, and this film leaves us with hope that the support of one person can make a difference for someone in desperate need of help.


DIFF 2015 – Days 6 and 7

April 17, 2015

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Days 6 and 7, Wednesday and Thursday April 15 and 16

Below is a recap of the four movies I saw over these two days. I am counting the six Documentary Shorts as one movie since it was one block on the festival programming:

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS – DIFF 2015

The Dallas International Film Festival is a great place to catch up with those hard to find short films. It’s not unusual for short films to be later developed into feature films, but regardless, the short film format requires a unique skill set for writers, directors and actors. A connection must be made immediately with the viewer because there is no time for gradual acceptance or interest.

Short films come in three flavors: live action, animated, and documentary. Below is a recap of the six documentary short films at this year’s DIFF.

Crooked Candy (USA)

Directed by Andrew Rodgers. Kinder eggs are illegal in the United States as they are considered a choking hazard for kids. However, this collector has hundreds of the miniature figures/toys thanks to decades of pursuing the eggs through his global travels.

(The And) Marcella & Rock (USA)

Directed by Topaz Adizes. A couple face off against each other with some extremely personal questions. In a matter of minutes, the audience is as uncomfortable listening as the participants are in revealing very private thoughts.

Spearhunter (USA)

Directed by Adam Ruffman, Luke Poling. The story of Gene Morris who successfully fought to get spearhunting approved as an acceptable form of hunting in Alabama. Guns and bows lacked the challenge that Morris desired.  We even visit his legacy – a Spearhunting museum that houses some of the trophies from his 592 kills. His ex-wife labels the late Mr. Morris a serial animal killer.

Master Hoa’s Requiem (USA)

Directed by Scott Edwards. Master Hoa was one of the hundreds of thousands who fled South Vietnam by boat in 1975. In the process, he lost his family. We see how he re-established a new life, and we go with him on a heart-breaking search for the graves of his family.

Cast in India (India/USA)

Directed by Natasha Reheja. Have you ever noticed that the manhole covers in NYC are stamped “Made in India”? Ms. Reheja noticed and thus began her journey to foundry where the bronze plates are crafted. It turns out these are highly skilled workers who take great pride in their work, face labor union issues, and sacrifice their hands, feet and backs for the manually intensive manufacturing process.

The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul (Australia)

Directed by Kitty Green. We see a stream of auditions from girls of various ages wanting the highly coveted role of the Ukrainian legendary figure skater Oksana Baiul – former World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist.

That’s it for the documentary shorts. Below are the three features I watched in addition to the previous doc shorts.

ECHOES OF WAR

echoes of war Greetings again from the darkness. The fallout from war goes beyond the violence and massive loss of life. Returning soldiers often struggle to regain a sense of normalcy, and are often labeled as PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  And what of the families … those left behind with a gaping hole in their heart from the loss of a loved one, and those having to adjust to the “affected” surviving soldiers? This is the heart-breaking story of two families at the convergence of all of the above.

With the Civil War ending, Wade (James Badge Dale, “The Pacific”) returns home in search of “peace”. He shows up at the house of his brother-in-law Seamus (Ethan Embrey) and is greeted with open arms by his niece Abigail (Maika Monroe, It Follows) and nephew Samuel (Owen Teague), who clearly worship him as their favorite Uncle.

Though it’s not a Hatfield and McCoys extreme, it doesn’t take long for Wade to figure out the awkward and mostly silent unbalanced relationship between Seamus’ family and the McCluskey neighbors. Randolph McCluskey (William Forsythe) is a bitter man who lost a son in the war, has an unresponsive wife (Beth Broderick) due to that loss, and two sons: Dillard (Ryan O’Nan) who is a bit slow-witted, and Marcus (Rhys Wakefield) who is far too sensitive to be accepted by his crusty old father.

Wade’s best intentions of protecting his family turn a barely tolerable arrangement into an all-out war. On top of that, we get a bit of Romeo and Juliet to go along with Wade’s slow-drip meltdown as he is simply unable to handle what the war has made him. The connection between Abigail and Marcus is exciting to watch, though we all recognize a romance facing a heavily stacked deck. Wakefield was previously seen in The Purge, and Ms. Monroe was stunning in It Follows. Both are young actors to keep an eye on.

It’s almost unbelievable to accept that this is the first feature film from director Kane Senes and his co-writer John Chriss. There is so much going on here with multiple layers of conflict and personalities … plus the movie is beautifully shot with an air of artistic flair that lightens a mood when necessary, or makes an analogy of nature and man either through plants, critters or the sky. Religious overtures play a role, and it’s fascinating to watch the various interactions … each more complex than the previous, culminating with Wade and Seamus who seemingly couldn’t be more different.

The film explores the comparison of bravery versus cowardice and it challenges our beliefs. There is also a theme of survival – just what makes a life worth living? The acting here is something to behold. All eight are exceptional and contribute to the film’s ultra-serious approach, broken by brief moments of pure joy. With a terrific and complex story, stellar acting, and a talented director, this is one that serious film goers should seek out and embrace.

NOWITZKI: THE PERFECT SHOT (documentary)

nowitzki Greetings again from the darkness. Dallas loves Dirk. The reasons why become obvious during this biopic that takes us from Dirk’s youth basketball league in Germany through his NBA Finals, while including significantly more information on his family and personal life than we have previously seen. Interviews come courtesy of such well known faces as Kobe Bryant, Don Nelson, Michael Finley, Mark Cuban, Yao Ming, Jason Kidd and former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Contrary to many sports documentaries, this is no shrine to its subject. Of course, we can’t help but be charmed by the “great guy” superstar, but it’s through his life challenges that we come to truly respect Dirk as a man. Director Sebastian Denhardt is one of the most prolific documentarians and filmmakers in Germany, but this look at Germany’s most popular and successful athlete is his best and most accessible work to date.

The most interesting segments involve Dirk’s long time personal coach Holger Geschwindner, plus insight from Dirk’s father, mother, sister, and childhood friend. It’s during these times that we realize Dirk’s “posse” is made of the people who he has always trusted – family and friends. The only two newcomers to his group of “insiders” are Lisa Tyner and Dirk’s wife Jessica. Ms. Tyner is the Mavericks staffer who took Dirk under her wing when he was a youngster transitioning to life in the United States.

While the film drills home the importance of Dirk’s work ethic and commitment to excellence, the most entertaining moments include: Dirk’s first meeting with Steve Nash, Dirk as a stick figure on Holger’s software, Dirk in a tennis skirt (for Halloween), Dirk dominating on the court as a teenager, Dirk’s mother discussing his move to the U.S., and best of all, Dirk stretching the truth a bit while meeting with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt … and then admitting it!

These days, disappointment seems to be the most common reaction when the curtain gets pulled back on celebrities and heroes. It’s refreshing to look into the life and see that the biggest scandals were when Dirk was the one cheated by a former girlfriend, and he stood by in full support of a friend going through an investigation for tax evasion. Dirk shows he is as impressive as a human being as he is a basketball player. What he definitely isn’t? A singer … we re-live his “We are the Champions” rendition from the parade. Dirk rocks!

DARE TO DRUM (documentary)

dare to drum Greetings again from the darkness. D’Drum. Stewart Copeland. Gamelan. Most viewers might be familiar with one of these – Stewart Copeland is the world famous Rock drummer and co-founder (with Sting) of The Police. D’Drum is a Dallas area based ensemble of percussionists who have been playing together for two decades. Gamelan is the traditional percussion based music so important to Java and Bali in Indonesia.

If you are curious how these three pieces might fit together, let’s make it more challenging and unlikely by blending in world class conductor Maestro Jaap Van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Yes, this really happened and the result was a show-stopping 2011 performance of “Gamelan D’Drum”, a symphony composed by Copeland, conducted by the Maestro, and performed by the D’Drum fellows and the musicians of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

John Bryant is one of the drumming members of D’Drum, and in very impressive fashion, he also directed, edited and produced the film. He perfectly captures the process of these passionate musicians (insert drummer joke here) and their never-ending quest for new percussion instruments, no matter the part of the world. Their multi-cultural approach led to a stage filled with dozens of instruments, including those custom-made for the performance.

Inspirational seems to fall short in describing what unfolds on screen. Mr. Copeland’s enthusiasm towards the project was obvious in the post-screening Q&A as he energetically answered any question even remotely directed his way. See, he is what one would call a courageous musician – one not intimidated by the traditions of the world of symphonies and orchestras. He understands that the foundation of art is creating something new, and he brilliantly manages this without losing the audience.

While Copeland’s creativity and D’Drums eagerness are commendable and a joy to watch, none of this happens without the (risky) support of Maestro Jaap Van Zweden. So many conductors are tied to the traditions, and hesitant at best, to take risks with music that has been played the same basic way for sometimes hundreds of years. Instead, his positive attitude and willingness to push boundaries delivered one of the most exciting evenings ever for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra … not to mention Stewart Copeland and the members of D’Drum.  Should you have the opportunity to see this one, take it. And afterwards … “Do it again, man”!