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 ~ Wonder Woman (2017)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock

Director: Patty Jenkins

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: As a child, every few weeks my parents and I would travel 115 miles south to visit my mom’s family.  Getting up early and missing Saturday morning cartoons wasn’t that big of a deal to me…it was the Sunday return trip that caused great anxiety in our car.  You see, Sunday afternoon at 4pm is when reruns of Wonder Woman were on.  Capping off a block of programming that included The Six Million Dollar Man followed by The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman was Must See TV for this fella and my parents came to the understanding that come hell or high water, we had to be home by four.  Now, several times this didn’t happen and let’s say…things got messy.

That context is helpful to you, dear reader, in understanding why this long planned big screen adaptation of Wonder Woman was more than just another anticipated summer blockbuster for me.  This was the arrival of a character I truly grew up with, maybe more so than Batman or my ultimate favorite, Superman.  I came to Wonder Woman via the Lynda Carter television show and not like many did by way of DC Comics.  Created by William Moulton Marston, the Amazonian Princess first appeared in 1941 and quickly became a popular symbol not only of strength but of a woman with the ideals to be a natural leader of all.

A reboot of the TV show was attempted but failed at the pilot stage several years back and while Wonder Woman was hinted at being a part of the planned Warner Brothers DC Universe at some point, it wasn’t until the character was a surprise addition to 2016’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice that fans finally saw the light at the end of a long dark tunnel.  While many (including me) had their own issues with BvS, most agreed that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was a memorable highlight of that film and looked forward to the stand-alone movie that would be released before Justice League later in 2017.  Then the deplorable Suicide Squad was released late summer 2016 and people began to worry that Wonder Woman’s bright beacon of hope would be unfashionably oppressed by DC Universe’s strangely dark style.

Fear not, though, because not only does Wonder Woman make a most excellent showing in her first solo big-screen adventure, but it’s by far the best comic book adaptation in almost a decade.  Besting the best of the boys club that came before her, this heroine has brains and brawn in addition to her beauty.  It’s more entertaining than you can possibly imagine and would make even the hardest non-fan of comic book movies buckle in their resolve.

While longtime fans may be bug-eyed that the screenplay by Allen Heinberg from a story by Zac Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs moves the action from WWII to WWI, it plays into the overall success of the picture by showing Wonder Woman’s superhero emerge at the same moment that war-time weapons took a strikingly modern leap forward.  Why wouldn’t a solider be just as amazed at a woman deflecting bullets as they would be by the automatic machine gun that’s firing them at her?

Wonder Woman is a classic origin story that manages to breeze quickly through the lore while satisfyingly hitting all the right notes at the same time.  Living among the Amazon women on Themyscira (Paradise Island), young Princess Diana is a force of nature ready to learn to fight but kept at bay by her overprotective mother (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator).  Secretly trained by her aunt (Robin Wright, Everest, buff as hell) over the ensuing years, her skills are put to good use when a plane carrying U.S. spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) crash lands in the sky blue waters off the coast.  Soon, Diana is accompanying Steve back to jolly old England (“This place is hideous”, exclaims Diana upon seeing the gloomy London harbor) and embarking on a quest to stop a crazed General (Danny Huston, Big Eyes) and his evil scientist comrade (Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In, frightening in a Phantom of the Opera-esque ceramic mask) from releasing a chemical weapon onto their enemies.

Proving that maybe more females should be in charge of high caliber action films, director Patty Jenkins should be lauded for crafting one of the best entries in recent memory.  Not only does she stage her battle scenes with grand flare but she manages to never over sexualize her star as I fear her male colleagues would have.  There’s no gratuitous shots looking up at Wonder Woman (and up her skirt in the process), no scenes framed with her cleavage taking center stage, no temptation to give fanboys an opportunity to linger too long on the exposed skin.  Instead, she presents Wonder Woman and all of the characters (male and female) as equals in the eyes of the camera.  In fact, the most skin on display here is from Pine as he emerges from a healing spring on Themyscira, providing for some fun dialogue between Diana and Steve.

Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) was a star on the rise going into this film but she firmly cements her justified ascent with a fully layered flesh and blood performance.  Her delightful naiveté when entering the modern world reminded me of Daryl Hannah’s fish out of water exuberance as a mermaid on dry land in 1984’s Splash.  We’ve seen this stranger in a strange land done before but never with such charm.  As she grows to see that humans are deeply flawed, Gadot admirably portrays the disappointment of someone learning the truth after realizing they had believed too long in fiction.

Though he already has a strong foothold in the Star Trek franchise, Pine turns in one of his best performances as the American solider striving to do what’s best for his country.  Pine and Gadot have excellent chemistry and when the inevitable sparks begin to fly, it turns into a courtship during combat that feels well earned.  As for the bad guys and gals, Huston is his typical smarmy villain while Anaya memorably makes for a more interesting foe to our heroes.

The film has a lot packed into its 141 minute run-time but never feels long or taxing.  Yes, the last half hour delves into the kind of special effects heavy finale that tends to assist my eyes in glazing over at double speed but so much was excellent up until then that Wonder Woman’s battle royale (with an enemy revealed in a nice twist)  managed to hold me at the edge of my seat.  While there’s no post-credit scene, the film doesn’t need one because the correct edges have been rounded off and just the right amount of loose ends remain for future installments to easily pick up and run with.

Some say that summer blockbusters begin in May but for me the summer has truly begun in June with Wonder Woman’s much appreciated arrival.  There’s no regret to be had for seeing this one in the biggest theater possible with a packed audience.  Enjoy!