Once Upon a River


A little walk in the woods.

(2020) Drama (Film MovementKenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuwak Kapashesit, Kenn E. Head, Lindsay Pulsipher, Dominic Bogart, Evan Linder, Sam Staley, Coburn Goss, Arie Thompson, Josephine Decker, H.B. Ward, Claudia Church, Bradley Grant Smith, Angela Rak, Jules Reid, Shane Simmons, William Sidney Parker, Kayla Frischkorn. Directed by Haroula Rose

 

It goes without saying that the world can be a cruel, difficult place even under the best of circumstances. Thus has it always been, and chances are, always will be despite our best intentions.

Nobody needs to ell that to Maggie Crane (DelaCerna). At 15, she lives with her Native American father Bernard (Means) on the Stark River in Michigan. It’s 1977 and the battle between conservationists and industrialists is in full swing. Maggie’s mom Luanne (Pulsipher) has abandoned the family, wanting a much different lifestyle than her husband was willing or able to give her.

Now the sole parent, Bernard teaches her how to shoot a gun, how to fish, how to be self-sufficient – lessons taught to him by his own father. Those lessons are going to come in handy when a tragedy leaves one person dead and another injured, forcing Maggie to leave her home in search of her mother. Travelling down the river, she meets Will (Kapashesit), a full-blooded Cherokee, who encourages her to explored her own native heritage. She also meets and is briefly caretaker for Smoke (Ashton), an emphysema-ridden old curmudgeon who is resisting being put in an assisted living facility by his family, while continuing to live life pretty much on his own terms – which includes continuing to smoke heavily, not a good idea for someone with a lung disease.

Maggie’s journey is one that could have made for a fascinating film, but the director makes some odd choices here. We get little idea what’s going on inside Maggie; she seems to be merely reacting to what goes on around her and often relies on older men for guidance and help. She makes an extraordinary number of poor decisions – not unusual for a 15-year-old girl – but doesn’t seem to learn anything or really take much ownership for them. It becomes frustrating for the viewer as we see her making these bad calls and we never really get a sense of what is driving her to them. After awhile, we tend to lose interest.

That’s a shame, because DelaCerna shows signs of being a gifted actress. Her performance here is very natural and at times spectacular; perhaps with a different director she might have turned in one of those monster performances that put her on everbody’s radar, but as it is I’m sure many of those who see her in this film will be keeping an eye out for her next one.

So, too, with cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, who is given some beautiful scenery to work with and turns in a master class of near-perfect framing and perspective. It is not often you notice a cinematographer for things beyond having an eye for a pretty picture, but the invention Hornsby shows here shows her to be someone who needs to be working on important projects.

Based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, the movie turns a blind eye to Maggie’s Native America heritage for the most part, and seems to see her journey as simply a means of taking her from one bad situation to another. This might have been originally meant to be a coming of age film; if so, it would need to show some kind of growth in the main character, and I left the film feeling that Maggie was doomed to continue making the same kind of mistakes over and over again. I suppose that’s true of a lot of people, but it certainly isn’t something I want to watch an entire movie about.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching teens make bad decisions isn’t my idea of fun.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexuality and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatanka Means is the son of Russell Means, the Native American activist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Peanut Butter Falcon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Out of the Fight

Killshot


Killshot

Diane Lane wonders why she doesn't get more roles in romantic comedies, while Thomas Jane ponders why their names both rhyme.

(Weinstein) Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Hal Holbrook, Don McManus, Aldred Wesley Montoya. Directed by John Madden

One of the most notable writers of “hard-boiled” fiction in the history of the genre is Elmore Leonard. He’s right up there with guys like Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. Among the novels written by Leonard that have been adapted for the screen are Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He’s also written a number of westerns, as well as screenplays of his own. He’s considered one of the better writers of the latter half of the 20th century to come out of the United States, and even today, well into his 80s, continues to write at a respectable clip.

For awhile, it was fashionable to option his material by the various studios and one of those snatched up by them was this novel, which at one time had names like John Travolta, Sandra Bullock and Viggo Mortensen attached to the property. However, as Leonard’s work which is full of colorful characters, vicious violence and complex plots, many studios found it was very difficult and sometimes impossible to translate his work to the screen.

After nearly a decade in development hell and more than four years after filming wrapped on the project, the movie has finally seen the light of day. Usually that’s a pretty sure sign that the movie is nigh on unwatchable. So is that the case here?

Blackbird (Rourke) is a Native American hitman for the Toronto mob who apparently couldn’t find any Native Canadians. He has survived due to his coolness in chaotic situations, and because he never ever leaves a witness who can identify him. During a routine hit on a rival Mafiosi, he is forced to cap the girlfriend of the victim because she has seen his face. This doesn’t sit well with his employers and Blackbird is forced on the lam, returning to his native Michigan to perhaps get out of the game for good (since his erstwhile employers know nothing about who Blackbird really is).

There, he falls in with a small-time crook named Johnny Nix (Gordon-Levitt), a brash and arrogant sort with a real anger management problem, coupled with an impulse control issue which makes life around him rather interesting. Johnny also has a sexually frustrated girlfriend named Donna (Dawson) who, while suspicious of Blackbird, also takes a bit of a liking to him. Nix plans to blackmail a wealthy real estate agent Nelson Davies (McManus) and takes Blackbird along as intimidation.

Working for Davies is Carmen Colson (Lane), whose marriage to her husband Wayne (Jane) is disintegrating. Wayne is actually dropping some paperwork off for Carmen at her office when Nix and Blackbird come to pay Davies a visit; Davies, aware of what’s happening, has arranged to be far away and neglected to tell Carmen to do the same. The somewhat dim Nix mistakes Wayne for a wealthy real-estate agent, but Wayne doesn’t take kindly to being threatened and tosses Nix out of a plate glass window. Carmen manages to alert the authorities, but not before catching a full glimpse of Blackbird’s face through the window, which Blackbird is fully aware of.

Now things are really in a mess. Nix wants nothing more than to make Wayne pay for all his humiliation and suffering, but Blackbird has bigger fish to fry. Not only can Carmen identify him, she can also bring the Toronto mob right to his doorstep. They will need to eliminate the couple, but on their first attempt they botch the job, which captures the FBI’s attention. The two are promptly put in a witness relocation program and flee to Missouri and, with only each other to rely on, actually begin to make progress in repairing their marriage. However, Blackbird cleverly fakes his own death, bringing the two of them back home where he and Nix plan to finish what they started.

As I mentioned earlier on, the movie has had a checkered past of shelf time, pushed-back release dates and much re-cutting and re-shooting. Director Madden, who previously helmed Shakespeare in Love and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin hasn’t had a lot of experience with this kind of pulp novel background (although he’s done some TV mysteries in his native England) and it shows here. The violence needed to be notched up a level or two; it would have suited the material better.

As you would expect with a movie that has been reshot and re-edited several times, the flow of the film doesn’t always work. At times the pacing is stodgy and slow, at other times it moves at breakneck speed. It’s like a sportscar whose transmission needs work; you expect something a little faster out of a sleek little number like this.

The casting is pretty marvelous, with Rourke doing a nice turn as the regretful and world-weary Blackbird, who is simultaneously cold and pragmatic. Rourke is ideally cast here; he excels with roles that are multi-faceted and thoughtful but with a hard edge on the outside. His work alone is worth the price of a rental here.

Surprisingly, Lane and Jane elevate the movie further. Jane, who has taken a lot of critical heat for his post-Punisher performances, plays Wayne as a man who has made a mess of his marriage and knows it, but still has deep feelings for his wife. He plays a man who is lost without his wife, but not paralyzed; when push comes to shove he is willing to fight not only for his life and that of his wife, but also for his marriage as well. Lane, who has settled into a series of roles of dissatisfied middle-aged wives, is always an interesting actress, even if her part here is somewhat cliché.  

Unfortunately, this property has been mismanaged and it shows in the final product. The studio never seemed to have much faith in it, which is surprising considering the level of talent both before and behind the camera. This is one of Leonard’s more simple plotlines which would have made it easier to adapt but for whatever reason it didn’t turn out the way it should have. Chalk it up as one more failed adaptation, but at least there is enough about it that’s compelling to make it worth a look if you want to watch something different.

WHY RENT THIS: Rourke does a terrific job as he has been lately. The chemistry between Jane and Lane is genuine and their difficulties with their marriage elevate this from the run-of-the-mill thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s been edited and re-edited several times and you can tell; the movie is a bit of a pastiche that at times doesn’t flow real well.

FAMILY VALUES: If “adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel” isn’t enough for you, try lots of violence, a great deal of foul language and a bit of nudity, all hallmarks of Elmore Leonard novels.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took nearly four years from the completion of shooting until a meager five-screen release by the studio, which originally inherited the property as one of those that they received when the Weinsteins sold their interest in Miramax to Disney (1408 and Lucky Number Slevin were other movies that Weinstein also received). In the meantime, the role of a corrupt cop played by Johnny Knoxville was completely cut from the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.9M on an unreported production budget that I’d estimate to be about $10M; either way the movie is a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Brothers at War