RAYMOND & RAY (2022)

October 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Hey, you know that Dad we hated … the one that ruined our lives? Well, he died and I need you to come with me to the funeral. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) starts his film in this manner by having Raymond knock on the door of his half-brother Ray’s cabin door in the middle of the night. They haven’t seen each other in five years, but their shared bond is an ill will towards the father who stirred such misery during their childhood that neither have made much of their time since.

Raymond (Ewan McGregor) is a persnickety type; a pent-up bundle of anxiety who has gone through a couple of divorces and is currently separated from his third wife. Ray (4-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke) is his opposite – the former addict (7 years sober) puts off the ultra-cool guy vibe with rumpled clothes, tousled hair, and non-stop flirtations. His talent with music was never encouraged by the father and has since been a source of frustration. In other words, these two grown men are messes due to the resentment they’ve carried for their father and his inexcusably poor parenting.

At first, we assume the two men are going to sit around reminiscing about their horrible memories of dear old dad. Instead, they hop in the car and head out of town to the funeral. It’s here where they begin to piece together the last years of their father’s life. Bedridden at the end, he had a room in a former (and younger) lover’s house. Lucia (an excellent Maribel Verdu, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, 2001) welcomes the men with the surprise disclosure that her young son is their half-brother. At the viewing, they meet dad’s nurse Kiera (the always terrific Sophie Okonedo). No, she doesn’t have another half-brother for them, but she zeroes in on Ray and his approach to the proceedings.

More surprises await Ray and Raymond, not the least of which is that dad’s final wish was for them to dig his grave by hand. At the grave site, they are joined by dad’s flamboyant pastor (Vondie Curtis Hall), as well as others with a bond to the man in the pine box. Most of these people are unknown to Ray and Raymond, and they begin to realize the man they’ve held in contempt went on to live a full life. Veteran actor Tom Bower has limited screen time as the dad, and overall the cast is strong and deserving of a script that could take the topic and these characters much deeper. Hawke is especially good as the brother holding in so many emotions, while McGregor plays off of him quite well. While there is nothing here we haven’t seen before, we do wish the cast had more to work with.

The film will have a limited theatrical release on October 14, 2022 prior to screening on AppleTV+ beginning October 21, 2022

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TWO WAYS HOME (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a bit of a rough start. The armed robbery of a convenience store doesn’t come across as menacing or threatening, but rather almost comical as the burly dude retreats, leaving the ski-capped (not masked) woman behind to face the cops. The scene does however set the stage and background for that woman’s story. Kathy (Tanna Frederick) is sent to jail where she is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Transferred to a treatment center, Kathy is given medications for control, and released early.

Kathy seeks redemption and normalcy as she heads back to her family. The reception is lukewarm at best, and her now 12 year old daughter Cori (Riley Behr) outright rejects her. Cori has been raised by her father Junior (Joel West) and Kathy’s parents, and is now the ultimate overachieving adolescent who wants nothing to do with her ex-con mother. In the midst of Kathy’s homecoming, her beloved grandfather Walter (Tom Bower) has had a heart attack on his pig farm, and now the family is trying to have him certified as “not competent” so they can take over his land (a generational farm). Kathy is disgusted by this, and wants nothing more than to give her grandfather what he wants most … a chance to live out his final days on the same land where his father died.

With no shortage of awkward conversations or situations, Kathy struggles to acclimate back into her family and small Iowa hometown. The best and most poignant scenes are with Kathy and her grandfather, and with Kathy and Cori. Kathy relates to her grandfather, as he’s being labeled just as she has been. In his case, he carries the weight of old age, while she carries the stigma of mental illness. The conversations between Kathy and Cori are more intimate, as a mother and daughter try to reconnect.

Director Ron Vignone and writer Richard Schinnow do a nice job creating small town authenticity, and proving that family dysfunction is certainly not limited to big city life. Cinematographer Christopher C Pearson captures some nice shots of beautiful Iowa farm land, and mixes it with the often uncomfortable family moments. Veteran actor Tom Bower is a real standout here, and we ultimately wish he had more screen time. Ms. Frederick captures the essence of her character, and faces the challenges of those burdened with the mental illness stigma. We should appreciate the inclusion of Kathy encouraging her grandfather to write down his memories and experiences for future generations. It’s a valuable step that too few folks take.

Available on VOD beginning December 29, 2020

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LIGHT OF MY LIFE (2019)

August 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening scene features an adolescent child spellbound by the bedtime story being told by a father. The story is an enhanced and personalized version of Noah’s Ark, and the scene goes on for at least 10 minutes … the camera never leaving their faces. What appears to be a simple campout turns curious, if not a bit ominous, as the father is next shown taking down a rigged security system and hiding certain personal items. This is the narrative feature directorial debut for Casey Affleck, who also wrote the story, produced the film, and is the lead actor (the father noted above).

As the daily rituals of these two characters unfold, the pieces of the puzzle come together and we learn there has been what is described as QTB – a female plague – that has killed off most of the females on the planet. As if a world of only men isn’t frightening enough, the father’s traveling companion is soon revealed to be a young girl disguised as a boy. This creates the ominous tone and explains the ever-present danger for these two, as rumor has it that the few remaining women are being held captive in camps to prevent the entire species from being eliminated. This is the story of one man’s efforts to protect his precious daughter from a society gone awry.

Anna Pniowsky establishes herself as a young actress to keep an eye on, as she is terrific as Rag, the daughter in disguise. Wise beyond her years, and though she has a general understanding of the constant threat, she is also quite curious about herself, her mother, and this bizarre world she is traversing with the only person in the world she can trust. Elisabeth Moss appears as the mother during flashbacks for Affleck’s character. This previous home life was a peaceful and loving environment, but the mother was stricken by the plague not long after giving birth to the daughter.

In contrast to the motherly environment, this father-daughter bond and existence requires constant preparation for escape. They must always be ready to “go” at a moment’s notice. Their red alerts and back-up plans are discussed and repeated. Their life in hiding means they never know who they can trust, and their solution is to distrust everyone – even though the father explains not all men are the enemy. His low key sense of calmness masks the constant stress they face.

Mr. Affleck is an Oscar winning actor (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), and he shows some promise as a filmmaker (after his previous experiment with Joaquin Phoenix in I’M STILL HERE). Expert cinematography is provided by Emmy winner Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective” season one). At its core, the film is a story of the bond between father and daughter; however, it’s wrapped in a survival story. They strive to survive the next hour, the next day, and the next night. The film is a blend of CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), THE ROAD (2009) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018), yet it brings a different tone and an emphasis to just how far a parent will go to protect their child. It’s a dystopian tale with a splash of gender identity questions, and a bond between father and daughter best surmised with their own words, “I love you to the sun and back.”

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