The Highwaymen


Gault (left) and Hamer discuss their next move.

(2019) Crime Biography (Netflix) Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, Thomas Mann, Dean Denton, Kim Dickens, William Sadler, W. Earl Brown, David Furr, Jason Davis, Joshua Caras, David Born, Brian F. Durkin, Kaley Wheless, Alex Elder, Emily Brobst, Edward Bossert, Jake Ethan Dashnaw, Jane McNeill, Karson Kern, Savanna Renee. Directed by John Lee Hancock

]The mythology around Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, notorious Depression-era bank robbers, was without question aided by the 1967 Arthur Penn masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde. Portraying the outlaws as Robin Hood-types who led the bumbling cops on a merry chase through the Midwest, ending in a hail of bullets that turned the folk heroes into martyrs.

This Netflix production aimed to right the scales somewhat. The lawmen who chased Bonnie and Clyde and eventually caught them, Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), were called out of retirement by Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson (Bates) to combat the thieves who had become popular and eluded the police time and time again. It didn’t seem to matter that Barrow often killed people in cold blood, the good folks of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Midwest were uncooperative with the investigation and occasionally shielded the gang when they needed a place to hide.

The movie was described by Reel Films critic James Bernardinelli as “a companion piece” to the Penn film, and in many ways it is that, but it is also it’s opposite. Hagiographic to the lawmen where the Penn version was to the title characters, through much of the movie Costner as Hamer growls at those who express admiration for the lawless bank robbers, occasionally resulting in beatdowns by the ex-Texas Rangers. It bears noticing that there are parallels to the modern complaints about police brutality towards African-Americans to the way the cops behave in this film.

The overall mood of the film is dour, and the overall impression is watching cantankerous grandparents trying to show the young ‘uns the error of their ways. I wish Hancock, a very able filmmaker in his own right, would have cut down on the lecturing somewhat as the movie runs a bit long for what it is. But Costner and Harrison  both have excellent chemistry together, and watching a couple of old pros doing some of their best work is worth the time spent. Not to mention that the score, by Thomas Newman, is simply lovely.

REASONS TO SEE: Costner and Harrelson give strong, believable performances. The music score is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is occasionally graphic violence, brief profanity, and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamer and Gault are buried in the same section of the same cemetery.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ted K

Autumn Road


Stop hearse-ing around.

(2021) Horror (Gravitas) Lorelei Linklater, Riley Cusick, Justin Meeks, Lar Park-Lincoln, George Welder, Maddy-Lea Hendrix, Ranger Lerway, Jonas Lerway, Jordan Wright, Kerry McCormick, Buddy Love, Maya Alexander, Sydney Aucerman, Matt Williams, Kenneth Fisher, Christian Baker, Rick Jezak, Gideon Bing, Damien Bannister, Madison Pine. Directed by Riley Cusick

 

One of the things many of us look forward to about October is the haunted house attraction. Walking through a maze of corridors, looking at scenes of disturbing violence (or the results of same), having actors leap out from dark corners to scare the bejeezus out of us, and the horrific (or sexy) costumes, not only of the staff but also of those in line to go through. It’s a familiar rite of autumn.

Twins Vincent (J. Lerway) and Charlie (R. Lerway) are the teenage sons of a man (Meeks) who has for years run such an attraction in a small Texas town. They are friends with Winnie (Hendrix), who has a crush on the shy and retiring Charlie. In turn the creepy and impulsive control-challenged Vincent likes Winnie but when it’s time to go trick-or-treating, Charlie bows out, remaining in the prop hearse in the front of the haunted house while Winnie and Vincent walk the town. Afterwards, Winnie goes into the hearse to chat with Charlie, and is never seen again. Did Charlie murder the girl, or did Vincent do it in a fit of jealous rage? I’m not telling.

Years later, Winnie’s little sister Laura (Linklater) returns to town after an abortive attempt to become an actress in Los Angeles is capped off with an unexpected and ghoulish tragedy. She’s not particularly eager to visit her mom (Lincoln), who fell apart after Winnie’s disappearance. At the local diner, she runs into Charlie and like her sister before her, takes a liking to the shy young man (Cusick), while feeling a little nervous about the still-creepy Vincent (also Cusick) who from time to time assaults patrons of the haunted house he and Charlie inherited. Her appearance triggers Vincent and Charlie, who have a secret to protect. But is it the secret you might think it is?

One has to admire the gumption of Cusick who not only wrote and directed the movie, but also starred in two critical roles. That’s a lot to take on – maybe too much, for the movie lacks a whole lot of focus, which had Cusick been less torn with all of the different roles he had to play for the film, he might have been able to see the movie with a bit more objectivity and correct some very basic problems.

One of the most glaring is the pacing. The movie is an hour and a half long, but feels much longer. Things take a very long time to develop and by the time we get to the climax, it’s more of a relief that you might feel after arriving at a service station after walking several miles to get there when your car breaks down. That’s not the feeling any director wants his audience to come away from his film with.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit. One place that Cusick does excel in is creating an evocative tone. Also worth noting is that there are some effective shocks, one taking place about 22 minutes in that will absolutely take your breath away. There are a lot of plot points that you never see coming, and that can be a good thing.

But there are also some plot points that are nonsensical, and some inconsistencies (like an employee of the haunted house who quits very forcefully and yet is back the next day without any sort of comment) and some characters whose behavior doesn’t make sense. Cusick the writer and Cusick the director could both do with a more judicious editor.

REASONS TO SEE: There is some genuine creepiness and some fairly shocking violence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is waaaaaaaaay ssssslllloooowwwwww.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, profanity and scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Linklater is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell Fest
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Infinite

Yellow Rose


Roses come in all shades in Texas.

(2019) Drama (Stage 6) Eva Noblezada, Dale Watson, Princess Punzalan, Lea Salonga, Gustavo Gomez, Libby Villari, Kelsey Pribiliski, Kenneth Wayne Bradley, Heath Young, Liam Booth, Shannon McCormick, Arlene Cavazos, Mamie Meek, Felicia M. Reyes, Beau Smith, Susan MyBurgh, Conrad Ramirez, Zach Polivka, Leslie Lewis, Sandy Avila, Beth Puorro. Directed by Diane Paragas

 

Dreams of country music stardom fill the head of many a young Texan. For illegal immigrants in Texas, the dreams are decidedly different, although not always. For young Rose Garcia (Noblezada), her ambition was sealed the first time she heard Loretta Lynn. An illegal from the Philippines, she lives with her mother (Punzalan) in a dingy hotel in a nowhere Texas town where her mom works the front desk and cleans rooms. Her father, an American citizen, has been dead a short while. Their legal status is tenuous at best.

That doesn’t mean that Rose doesn’t have dreams that other American kids share. Definitely Elliot (Booth) would like to get to know her better; he’s a college-bound kid working in the guitar store where she gets her supplies for her acoustic guitar. It turns out that Rose is a talented singer and gifted songwriter, but s’e’s never seen a live show. Elliot takes her to the legendary Broken Spoke in Austin – see Honky Tonk Heaven from the 2017 Florida Film Festival – but he brings her home just in time to see her mom being led away in handcuffs by ICE agents.

Her mom knew this was a possibility, so she leaves some cash and instructions to go see Aunt Gail (Salonga), her estranged sister but as willing as Gail is to help, her Anglo husband wants Rose gone. Fortunately, the kindly owner of the Spoke Jolene (Villari) hooks her up with a place to stay and introduces her to Austin icon Dale Watson (himself) who also appears in the Broken Spoke doc. While her situation is precarious, she perseveres, wanting nothing more than to stay in America and make a life for herself using the talent she has. Would it be enough, though?

The cast is pretty strong, and Noblezada is a real revelation. A Tony nominee, she brings an authenticity to the role of Rose, who is given the somewhat racist nickname of the title by her classmates but doesn’t let that nascent prejudice stop her. She has a temper and perhaps for good reason, but she is also vulnerable which makes her approachable as a viewer. Paragas does a really good job of capturing the uncertainty that rules the lives of undocumented immigrants in this country, and Noblezada brings that uncertainty to life.

Watson, a veteran country music performer, is surprisingly strong in his role. This version of himself has sacrificed a lot for his career, perhaps more than he should have been willing to pay. There’s a little background pathos to the role that serves to humanize Watson and makes it more than a one-note role, if you’ll forgive the musical analogy.

Paragas for the most part keeps things real, but the last 20 minutes things get a little bit cliché, which is a bit of a bummer; up until that point, the movie had been far from predictable. The ending feels forced, and while I get they were going for a feel-good finale, it didn’t feel earned here. Still, this is a strong effort and one to keep an eye out for out in those theaters that are open for the moment.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice performances by Noblezada and Watson.
REASONS TO AVOID: Goes off the rails during the last 20 minutes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noblezada and Salonga have both played the lead role of Kim in major stage productions (Broadway and West End) of Miss Saigon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Rose
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nationtime

Dumplin’


Beauty isn’t always just skin-deep.

(2018) Dramedy (NetflixDanielle MacDonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Luke Benward, Georgie Flores, Dove Cameron, Harold Perrineau, Kathy Najimy, Ginger Minj, Hillary Begley, Sam Pancake, Dan Finnerty, Molly McNearney, Tian Richards, Ryan Dinning, Andrew Fletcher, Oscar Gale, Ariana Guerra, Julia Denton, Kaye Singleton. Directed by Anne Fletcher

 

I have to admit, I didn’t have high hope for this Netflix film. For one thing, it’s adapted from a Young Adult novel, a genre that doesn’t exactly scream sophistication. For another thing, the plot sounded pretty pedestrian – and spoiler alert, it is.

And yet, I wound up pleasantly surprised. Danielle MacDonald (Patti Cake$) stars as Willowdean Dickson, a plus-sized gal whose mom Rosie (Aniston) was once a Miss Teen Bluebonnet back in ’91 which is where she pretty much peaked. Rosie runs that same pageant now, the oldest one in Texas. Willowdean, who she called Dumplin’ as a child (a nickname that Willowdean hates with a passion) was essentially raised by her Aunt Lucy (Begley), a fellow plus-sized gal who worships at the altar of Dolly Parton (a religion that Willowdean now shares, along with her bestest friend Ellen (Rush). But Lucy has passed away, forcing Rosie and Willowdean to have to rely on each other, which simply isn’t something they’re used to.

Fed up with feeling alienated because of her size, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant herself, despite the obvious fact that she doesn’t conform to the body type that most pageant girls tend to have. Inspired by her example, Ellen also enlists along with fellow plus-sizer Millie (Baillio) and militant punk feminist Hannah (Taylor-Klaus). The four girls intend to make a statement by virtue of being on the inside, although what exactly they expect to accomplish is a mystery, including Willowdean herself.

The movie is actually pretty warm-hearted and sweet-natured. Willowdean is aided in her subversive act by a group of Dolly Parton female impersonators; she also is dealing with the affections of teen hottie Bo (Benward) with whom Willowdean works at a local diner. It is telling, however, that there is no real villain here; even Rosie basically loves her daughter and wants the best for her. It’s just that Rosie can’t get past Willowdean’s size, nor the notion that fat people can actually be happy.

The movie works well because it takes basic teenage girl issues and tackles them head-on, handling the subject with a rare sensitivity and without taking the temptation to make Willowdean an object of ridicule. She may be full of insecurities – what teenage girl isn’t? – but at the end of the day, Willowdean was taught well by her aunt to love herself for who she is and not because of who she could potentially be.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the real highlight here is MacDonald, who in two short years became a very respected actress who rather than using her size as comic fodder, instead embraces it and allows others to embrace it with her. I’m not kidding when I say that Danielle MacDonald has the talent to become an important actress over the next couple of decades or so, so long as she steers away from movies that use her size as a weapon to heap score on the plus-sized people of the world.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly effective and just offbeat enough to be interesting. MacDonald is absolutely delightful here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a few young adult movie tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, body shaming and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dolly Parton herself doesn’t appear in the film, she did write and record several new songs for it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Little Miss Sunshine
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bumblebee

Lone Star Deception


Smoke gets in my eyes.

(2019) Suspense (Tri-Coast WorldwideEric Roberts, Anthony Ray Parker, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Merlisa Determined, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Eliza Roberts, Johnny Ray Gibbs, John Maciag, Sunday Flint, Karina Pal-Montaño, Brian Thornton, Chris Mayo, Melissa Wilson, Archie Ashcroft, Jeff Brody, Enrique Davila, Binette Dialio, Charles Emmott, Joe Grisaffi, Taylor Nieland, Brandi Barbee. Directed by Robert Peters and Don Okolo

 

There’s the United States and then there’s Texas. Texas is on its own planet and they’re very proud of that down in the Lone Star state. It isn’t like anywhere else and that can be a double edged sword.

Tim Bayh (Parker) is an executive at a big Texas oil firm. His boss, Bill Sagle (Eric Roberts), is masterminding the Republican gubernatorial campaign of his nephew Stuart (Mahmoud). When that is derailed by the presence of a sex tape, Bill decides to run Tim as the first African-American candidate in state GOP history.

That turns out to be not such a good idea for Tim, as he is beset on every side, by racists, members of his own community who think he’s selling out, greedy oilmen who want to keep the status quo and then there are the criminals who took down Stuart who have an idea to get another payday out of Tim. He will have to have eyes in the back of his head (and on both sides) if he’s going to make it to the finish line.

The concept is an intriguing one. Texas politics are an entirely different animal and there is definitely room for a great movie here. Sadly, this isn’t it. The script is botched, coming off as a relatively tame movie-of-the-week quality with the tension – which should have been ratcheted up into the red zone – barely discernible, and a feeling that the directors were in a rush to get from one set piece to the next without giving much thought to character development or plot development, for that matter.

Eric Roberts is an Oscar-nominated actor who has had a long and satisfying career. He’s a consummate pro who gives at the very least an entertaining performance and despite some overacting, does so here. You get the feeling that he’s giving his best, but is hamstrung by script problems and frankly, some issues with direction. While both directors are fairly experienced, they seem to have a love for camera movement and there’s a ton of panning and dolly shots which gets to be noticeable at times. You should never notice what the camera is doing; when the camera is in constant motion it takes focus away from what is going on onscreen. Trust your actors and let them be the center of attention.

Chalk this up as a good idea poorly executed. Texas Republicans tend to be the rock-ribbed sort – after all, they are the state that gave us George W. Bush – and to see what having a black front-runner for governor would do to the party would be extremely interesting, but I don’t think the writers did much in the way of research and if they did, it sure doesn’t show in the final product. It’s a shame but I can’t recommend this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Eric Roberts is always entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: An interesting concept lacks execution. Stiff acting and a tired plot doom the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Not for the kids; there’s violence, drug use, sexuality, profanity…everything but the kitchen sink.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eliza Roberts, who plays Bill Sagle’s wife, is married in real life to Eric Roberts, the actor who plays him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Sloane
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Robin Hood (2018)

The Old Man & The Gun


A couple of screen veterans doing their thing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson, Gene Jones, John David Washington, Barlow Jacobs, Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Joplin, Lisa DeRoberts, Carter Bratton, Mike Dennis, Tomas “Dutch” Dekaj, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Patrick Newall, Daniel Britt, Leah Roberts, Elizabeth Moss.  Directed by David Lowery

 

The benefits to having a real, honest-to-goodness movie star in your film is that no matter what, there will be something positive about your film because in the case of stars like Redford and Spacek, they have enough screen presence and expertise on how to best utilize it to make any film they’re in just that much better.

 

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a man getting on in years, but like others his age still shows up at work. Of course, Tucker’s job is robbing banks and he gets a big kick out of getting away with it. Tucker is not the kind of bank robber who terrorizes folks in the bank and thinks nothing of shooting unarmed people; he’s a gentleman who gives an implicit threat, remarks on gee whiz what a shame it would be if he were forced to resort to violence and he really doesn’t want to shoot you because, for goodness sakes, he really likes you. What bank teller or bank manager would not be charmed?

Decidedly charmed is Jewel (Spacek), a widowed horse rancher whose pickup truck breaks down at the side of the road just as Forrest is trying to get away from the cops after a bank job. Spotting the opportunity for misdirection, he pulls over and assists her while the cops go whizzing by. However, the decoy turns into a romance and Forrest feels comfortable enough with her to tell her what he really does for a living over pie and coffee, although she doesn’t believe him at first.

Decided not charmed is Detective John Hunt (Affleck) who is in the bank while it’s being robbed with his two daughters. Burned out on his job to the point where he’s considering leaving the force, the robbery under his very nose gives him motivation to go after Tucker full throttle. Talk about lighting a fire under one’s butt.

The movie rests on the charm of its actors and Redford, Spacek and Affleck have plenty of charm to go around. They also have plenty of talent at their craft – all of them have Oscar nominations (and wins, in some cases) – to sustain the fairly light-tempered movie. Although the running time is only 93 minutes, it seems a bit longer because the story moves along so slowly and is filled with quite a bit of unnecessary material. Still, it is enjoyable to watch old pros (extending down into the supporting cast) do what they do best, even if what they’re doing essentially is a bit of fluff, despite the opportunity for social commentary – Lowery chooses to simply tell his story simply. I can’t really fault him for that.

REASONS TO SEE: Redford, Affleck and Spacek all deliver excellent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; could be argued that it’s too low-key as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening credits are written in the same font as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) which Redford also starred in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Senior Escort Service

Jim Allison: Breakthrough


They call him surf cowboy…

(2019) Documentary (DadaJim Allison, Woody Harrelson (narrator), Willie Nelson, Sharon Belvin, Malinda Allison, Dr. Jedd Wolchok, Andrew Pollack, Eric Benson, Murphy Allison, G. Barrie Kitto, Lewis Lanier, Tyler Jacks, Jeffrey Bluestone, Max Krummel, Alan Korman, Nils Lonberg, Dr. Elliott Sigal, Rachel Humphrey, Padmee Sharma. Directed by Bill Haney

 

Occasionally, you see a documentary that resonates with you because of the place and time that you’re in. It’s the cinematic version of all the planets aligning to smite the viewer with something so personal, so relevant to the viewer that one can’t help but be sucked in.

Jim Allison is a Texas iconoclast with a scruffy beard, a wild mane of hair and a collection of Hawaiian shirts that would shame Magnum, P.I. He plays blues harmonica with such luminaries as Willie Nelson but that’s more of a hobby. You see, when Jim Allison isn’t busy blowing his harp or fighting the powers that be in Texas education regarding the teaching of creationism in schools, he is developing a cure for cancer.

This particularly hits home for me since in May I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and just this past Wednesday I had surgery to have it removed. This type of cancer is the same that Jim’s brother Mike was stricken with and eventually succumbed to. Jim’s mom also passed from lymphoma when Jim was just 11 years old; it was then that the seeds of beating this dread disease were planted in him.

Jim went the route of immunotherapy, using the body’s own immune system to beat cancer. The T-cell is one of the components of white blood cells that seek out cells that are causing harm in the body. Cancer cells have managed to figure out a way to turn off the receptors in T-cells which effectively renders them invisible to the body’s immune system, allowing them to flourish and grow until it’s all over but the funeral arrangements.

Jim developed a drug with the odd name of Ipilimumab which faced a daunting task to make it from the lab to the pharmacy. A tremendous amount of research would be needed before the FDA would approve the drug, the kind of money only Big Pharma can provide and to be bloody honest Big Pharma has a reputation to be more about treating cancer than curing it. However, Bristol Myers Squibb, one of the biggest of Big Pharma, led by Dr. Rachel Humphrey, decided that the research Jim had conducted was promising. The rest, as they say, is history. Jim’s dogged persistence had a great deal to do with his success, but it also cost him his marriage as his wife Malinda like most human beings didn’t have an inexhaustible well of patience.

The movie is essentially a whole lot of talking head interviews interspersed with some nifty computer graphics depicting how T-cells work and other medical matters. One of the most compelling interviews is with Sharon Belvin, at the time a 22-year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with melanoma, essentially a death sentence. She was part of one of the first to participate in clinical trials for the drug and eventually became the first patient to use the drug that Allison met, one of the most emotional scenes in the film.

Much of the science went right over my head – there’s a reason I’m a film critic and not a research scientist – and some might find the scientific sequences thick. However, Jim’s “I gotta be me” personality and perseverance in the face of widespread disbelief on the part of his colleagues and often outright disrespect are some of the highlights of the film.

I’m hoping that I don’t need to use drugs like ipilimumab in the future; I’m hopeful that the cancer was caught early enough that the surgical removal of my prostate will leave me free of cancer for years to come. There are no guarantees when it comes to the Big C, however, and it’s comforting to know that there are drugs and methods out there that may extend my life many years beyond what prostate cancer patients in years past were able to survive so if I rate the documentary on the high side, I think I can be excused for that.

REASONS TO SEE: A really close look at how important research is done. Portrait of a Texas iconoclast.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the science is a bit dense.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Allison shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Tasuku Honjo of Japan in 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Blood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Omaha

Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Hispanics with guns: Donald Trump’s nightmare.

(2018) Action (Columbia) Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castañeda, Jacqueline Torres, Raoul Trujillo, Bruno Bichir, Jake Picking, Tenzin Marco-Taylor, Alfredo Quinoz, Nick Shakoour, Lourdes del Rio Garcia. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

Our Southern border has been a hot button item for those on the left and on the right. Blue staters tend to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis born largely of our own policies in Latin America while red staters see it as an invasion of criminals, layabouts and terrorists.

Following the destruction of a Kansas City big box store by suicide bombers, the U.S. Government has had more than enough. They bring in “consultant” Matt Graver (Brolin) and his nearly indestructible assassin Alejandro (del Toro) to ferment war among the Mexican cartels who were responsible for smuggling the bombers across the border. To do that, Alejandro kidnaps the daughter (Moner) of a particularly vicious cartel boss. This predictably stirs up a hornet’s nest and while it gets the desired results, the conscience of Alejandro – whose family was wiped out by drug lords like the girl’s father – doesn’t go unscathed.

The movie sorely misses Denis Villaneuve who directed the first one; his sure hand could have made this a better film. Italian television director Sollima, best known for the ultra-violent Gomorrah series, does pretty well with the action series and keeps the pacing of the film up to snuff. He has more trouble with character development as other than the three characters mentioned above, nearly all the characters get lost in the shuffle, including a young Mexican-American boy in McAllen, Texas played by Rodriguez who falls into working for the cartels and ends up in a violent confrontation with Alejandro. A little more depth of character there might have given the film some oomph.

Del Toro and Brolin are both outstanding and are the real reason to see the film. I understand that this is meant to be the middle chapter in a proposed trilogy and although the box office numbers don’t really seem to point the way for a third installment, I nonetheless wouldn’t mind seeing one.

Emily Blunt, who starred in the first film, is also sorely missed and while the filmmakers assert her story had gone full circle, it still leaves the film without much of a moral center and I suppose that is merely appropriate. When one considers that in many ways this movie is making the case for the right’s take on the border, it’s hard to justify it in the face of children who continue to be separated from their parents at the border. But then, that’s just my own personal bias rearing its head. I guess it is fairer to say that Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a solid action film that has political elements that makes it very relevant to what’s going on at our border. If you leave the theater chanting “Build that wall” though, it’s on you.

REASONS TO SEE: Brolin and del Toro make an excellent team.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little less focused and a little more cliché than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and profanity as well as some fairly bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Denis Villaneuve, who directed Sicario, was unable to commit to the sequel due to scheduling conflicts.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Bala
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow, Maybe?

ZZ Top: That Lil Ol’ Band from Texas


You can’t help but have a good time at a ZZ Top concert.

(2019) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Bob Thornton, Joshua Homme, Terry Manning, Steve Miller, Winston Marshall, Robin Hood Brians, Tim Newman, Ralph Fisher, Howard Bloom, Dan Auerbach. Directed by Sam Dunn

 

Texas, it is said, is a state of mind and there’s a lot of truth in that. Texans are kind of a breed unto themselves. They revere their frontier past and pride themselves on being outlaws and rulebreakers. A Texan will give you the shirt off his back or shoot you in the face with a shotgun. Texans are Cowboys, oilmen, roughnecks, barflies, ladies’ men and asskickers. In Texas, they still remember the Alamo – Texans first, Americans after.

It actually blew my mind a little bit that the band was founded in 1969 as an answer to the Texas psychedelic kingpins 13th Floor Elevators in Houston with Gibbons, drummer Dan Mitchell and bassist/organist (!) Lanier Grieg. When Mitchell and Grieg bailed, drummer Frank Beard auditioned and won the slot. Beard talked Gibbons into auditioning Dusty Hill, who’d played with Beard in a band called the Warlocks in Dallas in the mid-60s.

The three clicked and began playing a fusion of Texas boogie blues and rock and roll. It began to click on songs like “La Grange” and “Tush” in the 70s. After the mammoth World Texas Tour (complete with a Texas-shaped stage and livestock onstage), the band planned for a 90-day break which with Beard’s drug addiction turned into two years. During that time Hill and Gibbons never shaved and returned to work with chest-length beards.

In 1983, the band would hit their commercial zenith with Eliminator, which spawned hit singled “Gimme All Your Loving,” “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” Nascent video music channel MTV played the heck out of their videos, directed by Tim Newman (cousin of Randy). Newman really established the “cartoon versions,” as Gibbons wryly put it, of the band which became iconic in 80s pop culture. In an era of New Wave, synthesizers (which the band did employ) and skinny ties, these Texas working class boys with Civil War-era beards became video superstars. I don’t think you could make up a more unlikely scenario.

Dunn opts to show the “Gimme All Your Loving” video in its entirety for some reason – much of the other musical clips are the band playing in the venerable Gurene Music Hall (the oldest in Texas) before an empty house, perhaps reminding us of the occasion in Alvin, Texas, when the band played to an audience of exactly one paying customer. (“He still comes to shows to this day,” says Hill ruefully, “He says ‘Remember me?” and I say “Of course I do,””). For some reason, the documentary abruptly stops with coverage of Eliminator with the 35 years afterwards being reduced to a graphic “The band still records and tours to this day,” which essentially ignores great albums like Afterburner. Still, I imagine that if Dunn wanted to cover all 50 years of the band’s existence, he’d need a mini-series.

Much of the credit for the band’s success goes to their manager Bill Ham, who sadly passed away in 2016. The band members consider him as integral to ZZ Top as the musicians himself but he rarely gave interviews and wanted the band initially to maintain a mystique, so they rarely gave interviews or performed on television in the early years which is why there is a dearth of band footage.

Part of the documentary’s charm are the members of ZZ Top themselves; they don’t take themselves too seriously and are the kind of guys you’d spend a Saturday afternoon fishing with, or a Sunday afternoon watching football and drinking beer. There is absolutely no rock star attitude to be found. They’re just working men whose job happens to be playing rock and roll.

The band has kept the same line-up for 50 years, a feat that is absolutely amazing. No other rock and roll band can claim that. Beard best explained it at the end when he said, humbly, “I found the guys I was meant to play with. After that, I didn’t want to quit and I didn’t want to get fired.” Judging from their interviews, they are guys you’d want to hang out with and who would want to stop working with guys you like hanging out with?

ZZ Top has always been a band that didn’t really get their due in a lot of ways, despite being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Gibbons is one of the best American guitar players and their music has always evolved over the years although their roots as a boogie blues rock band have always been present. While this isn’t the documentary I would have liked to have seen of the band – maybe it should have been a mini-series – it at least makes a terrific introduction to those who aren’t already fans of the band.

The film will soon be playing nationwide for about the next two months. There are no dates currently scheduled in Orlando but if you ask Tim Anderson or Matthew Curtis nicely, maybe they’ll add it to the Music Monday series at some point.

REASONS TO SEE: The boys in the band are the kind you’d want to have a beer with.
REASONS TO AVOID: Basically stops after covering the Eliminator album in 1984.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the world-famous Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America

Trial by Fire


The despair of a father or the guilt of a murderer?

(2018) True Crime Drama (Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, Jade Pettyjohn, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gómez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pėre, Darren Pettie, Blair Bomar, Rhoda Griffis, Katie McClellan, Noah Lomax, Catherine Carlen, Michael H. Cole, Carlos Aviles, Elle Graham, McKinley Belcher III, Bryan Adrian, Mary Rachel Quinn. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

The death penalty remains a controversial subject, igniting passionate responses on both sides. Some consider it cruel and inhumane; others see it as righteous justice. Some say it is a deterrent to criminals, others point out that there’s no evidence that suggests that’s true. Some say that it at least keeps those who have committed heinous crime out of commission for good; others point to the possibilities that those who are innocent might be put to death wrongfully.

A young girl in the small Texas town of Corsicana was playing in her yard when she saw smoke billowing out of the house across the street. A shirtless man came out of the house, coughing and screaming that his kids were still in the house. The little girl’s mommy called 911 but it was all for naught – the three little girls inside the house were gone. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) would eventually be charged with their murder.

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Willingham was a notorious local troublemaker with a violent streak who had on several occasions physically abused his wife Stacy (Meade) who was away from the house when the fire occurred. Arson investigators for the county pronounced that it was absolutely a case of arson. Willingham was given a public defender who didn’t see much point in putting up any kind of defense. He never challenged the testimony of witnesses who changed their stories on the stand, nor checked on the veracity of a convicted criminal who testified that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in jail. Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite his protestations of innocence and his wife’s insistence that he would never hurt his own kids.

Willingham was put on Death Row where he was taunted as a baby killer and abused by guards and fellow inmates alike. His mandatory appeals are going nowhere and he can’t afford decent representation. Then, along comes playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a kindhearted do-gooder who reluctantly contacts him through a prison outreach program. Far from the thuggish brute she expected, he seems charming, gentlemanly and kind but absolutely unwavering in his cries that he’s an innocent man about to be executed for something he didn’t do.

Gilbert becomes drawn in to his story and starts to do research into his case and what she finds is shocking. The investigation was conducted in a shoddy and haphazard fashion with no other option other than Willingham ever considered for the crime. When she engages world famous arson investigator Dr. Hurst (Perry) who states unequivocally that that the initial investigation was botched and the culprit was likely a faulty space heater, Gilbert tries to find someone in authority to listen.

This case actually happened and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, more than twelve years after his daughters died in that terrible blaze. Zwick, an Oscar nominated director for Glory, puts together a searing indictment of our current justice system in which the law has become a commodity; only the very wealthy can afford good representation and that means often those who are poor are without any sort of recourse to get an adequate defense. It is the reason programs like The Innocence Project exist.

O’Connell, a fine actor who has been sort of just on the cusp of something brilliant, delivers it here with an absolutely stellar turn as Willingham. While I don’t think Zwick did O’Connell any favors by inserting imaginary one-sided conversations with his deceased oldest daughter, we get a sense of his despair, his outrage and yes his anger. The role likely won’t win him very many awards but might be the stepping stone to roles that will.

Zwick enlisted Alex Belcher to compose the music and he delivers with a haunting mood-inducing score that is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately, Zwick doesn’t give this film the kind of passion that he managed in Glory; I’ve read other critics describe his direction as workman-like and that is unfortunately right on the money. This is the kind of movie that should leave you with your blood boiling but oddly, it doesn’t and considering how tailor made it is to eliciting that kind of reaction, it’s almost criminal in and of itself.

Still, this is an important movie on the subject of our legal system, especially implying that then-Texas governor Rick Perry refused to even read Hurst’s report that should have exonerated Willingham, preferring that the execution go on as scheduled to preserve the reputation of the State as kick-ass against crime. This is one that got by them and quite frankly, some of those whose shameful behavior sent an innocent man to jail and execution should have had criminal charges filed against them.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Connell does a sterling job. The score is absolutely haunting. An important film on the issue of capital punishment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should leave you with your blood boiling but it doesn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann which opined that Texas had knowingly and willfully executed an innocent man.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Man Walking
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Violent Separation