Movie Review ~ Montana Story

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two estranged siblings return home to the sprawling ranch they once knew and loved, confronting a deep and bitter family legacy against a mythic American backdrop.
Stars: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, Asivak Koostachin, Eugene Brave Rock, Rob Story, John Ludin, Kate Britton
Director: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  Pre-pandemic, theaters would have been able to dedicate room for a small movie like Montana Story.  It might not have played in the theater with the most seats or drawn as many viewers on opening weekend as the big studio film that occupied the other screens down the hall, but the target audience would eventually have found their way.  In today’s climate, the movie-goer that is right for this quiet picture will have trouble locating a showing in their area…if it’s even playing at all.  That’s a shame, too, because as promising as the box office returns have been for old-fashioned fare like Top Gun: Maverick and Downton Abbey: A New Era, the age of the tiny indie has all but vanished.

In that same breath, I’ll also admit that perhaps Montana Story is a bit too quiet for its own good.  The story of siblings reuniting at their family ranch as their divisive father lay dying in the next room is not easy to warm to.  It’s a chilly film for early summer that’s beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Enola Holmes) but only sporadically possesses the kind of forward momentum to keep the bitter winds from blistering your skin. 

On the outskirts of Montana, Cal (Owen Teague, Mary) arrives at his father’s sparse ranch after the patriarch suffers a debilitating stroke that has left him all but brain dead.  As his father is tended to by a nurse (Gilbert Owuor, No Man of God) and a long-time family friend/worker (Kimberly Guerrero, The Glorias), Cal has several significant decisions to make about the future of the farm and finances.  Erin (Haley Lu Richardson, Split) comes into the mix, Cal’s older half-sister, who hasn’t been heard from in nearly a decade, ever since she argued with her father and then disappeared overnight.

Wounded by her past, Erin finds a means of repressed salvation she can control after learning of Cal’s plans to put down a horse he can no longer care for.  Deciding she’ll take ownership and bring the horse back with her out East, Erin uses this new distraction to distance herself from the conflict she’ll never fully resolve with her father.  As the siblings reconnect and discover where life has taken them both, they’ll find new understanding in the power of letting go of the past so they can be free to carve out a future of their own design.

Writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have gathered a solid cast together for their tale that gets off to a good start but spins its wheels after about an hour.  I enjoyed the early scenes between Teague and Owuor, easy-going conversations that revealed small details of each that didn’t feel like the clear exposition they were.  Richardson comes in red hot, wound up with angst and trepidation at the situation she will find, which creates an exciting amount of energy.  Sadly, Richardson can’t easily maintain that level of performance, and pretty soon, every performance has flattened out like the prairie that stretches out before them.  It’s never quite a secret where the film is headed, but I thought it would get there in a less mundane way.

Marketing for Montana Story encourages audiences to “See it on the largest screen you can find,” and with the movie arriving right at the start of the summer movie season, you can still catch this one in theaters if you’re quick about it.  It’s worth a look on that scale if you can make it happen, but it’s not one I’d move mountains to get to either.  There’s a splendid simplicity to the vistas captured on camera, but the actual film slips into a gray dullness that could send you snoozing if you aren’t careful.

Movie Review ~ All My Puny Sorrows

The Facts:

Synopsis: A heart-wrenching story of two loving sisters: one a gifted pianist obsessed with ending her life, the other a struggling writer who, in wrestling with this decision, makes profound discoveries about herself.
Stars: Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Amybeth McNulty, Donal Logue, Mare Winningham
Director: Michael McGowan
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  For all you readers of a certain age out there, do you remember when classic movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music were only shown once a year, making them special occasions? You’d look forward to watching them when they were broadcast on TV because you didn’t own them on VHS (what was a VHS?), and they weren’t available at the push of a button. They were often timed to a specific holiday or season, which went a long way in getting you ready for the upcoming months, both anticipating the showing and then for the time after. 

I mention this in my review of All My Puny Sorrows because this is a movie I feel should only be watched during bright summer months when the birds are chirping, the sun is out, and the grass is green. This one can get pretty bleak. Fans of Miriam Toews’s 2014 book that All My Puny Sorrows is based on will know what they are getting themselves into when approaching this adaptation from writer/director Michael McGowan. Everyone else won’t be as prepared for this overly depressing tale of two sisters battling mental illness in Canada while coming to terms with the impact their strictly religious upbringing had on their lives.

There’s space for movies like this, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about All My Puny Sorrows that makes it play like the book adaptation it is. Maybe it’s the characters’ names, Yoli (Alison Pill, Miss Sloane) and Elf (Sarah Gadon, Dracula Untold), who feel like they could only exist in an author’s mind writing a hefty tome. Or maybe it’s the countless sudsy developments that happen over 100 minutes that feel jam-packed even for a condensed version of a novel. Anything that can happen to a large ensemble of characters winds up happening to the small array of featured family here.

I have liked Gadon for a while, and she always seems to be just on the edge of breaking through into significant accolades. She’s terrific here as the sister constantly battling back demons while attempting to be a strong sister and devoted daughter. Pill’s a bit of a wild card, and while the performance is solid, the character is so all over the map that I often longed for Gadon’s less adventurous, sadder sibling. Of course, best of all is Mare Winningham (News of the World), queen of the underrated, understated performance, as their mother who never can get an honest read on her daughters until it is too late.

I found it challenging to get into this movie and make it through. There’s so much weight to it, and the heaviness it carries can’t help but rub off on the viewer by the end. In that regard, it’s hard to outright recommend All My Puny Sorrows, despite the strong performances. If the emotional rollercoaster and slight pretention of the literary structure is one you can endure, consider yourself fairly warned.

Movie Review ~ The Duke

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goode
Director: Roger Michell
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  I know you’ve been wondering, so I’m going to break the suspense. I’m often asked what’s the worst thing about reviewing movies. Simple question, easy answer: reviewing good actors in a not-so-great film. You’d think it would be painless to review bad movies, but it’s honestly not fun because, as a true-blue movie fan, you want to like everything you see. They can’t all be winners, though, and sometimes they are downright stinkers. That’s the case of The Duke, a doubly sad affair because it is the final film from director Roger Michell, who passed away in September 2021. 

I had an inkling the film was in trouble because it had been moved around in the release schedule so many times, and for a small movie with two Oscar-winning stars in the middle of awards season, that’s an odd occurrence. While it picked up a few nominations in the UK, groups shut the movie out of any awards discussion stateside, and you can see why. It’s a total turkey, a dramedy without much moving drama or witty comedy to prove a worthwhile watch to fans of anyone involved. Also, there’s something to be said that the trailer for the film gives away absolutely everything that happens in the movie.

Dry to the point of breaking into a million pieces, the story of a London taxi driver (Jim Broadbent, Dolittle) who stole a priceless portrait from the National Gallery and became a hometown legend after he confesses feels like a slam dunk. Yet as played by Broadbent, the character is so unlikable, dotty, and disagreeable from the start that you aren’t ever convinced to be on his side, at least not long enough to stand with him against the government which was determined to prosecute him. It’s also hard to warm to his wife, played with typical stiff upper lip gusto by Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold). While Mirren’s resolve works typically to her favor, it offers her nowhere emotionally to grow, certainly not in her relationship with her husband and definitely not with their son, Fionn Whitehead (Voyagers).

Michell directed many films that had charm coming at you from all angles (hello, Notting Hill!), but The Duke is curiously absent of anything resembling persuasive charisma, and I was eternally grateful it clocked in at a decently short 96 minutes. Anything longer would have been a true prison sentence for audiences.