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 ~ Operation Finale


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Years after World War II, a team of secret agents are brought together to track down Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Haley Lu Richardson, Nick Kroll, Joe Alwyn

Director: Chris Weitz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the prevalence of movie previews giving away major plot points I tend to stay away from them all together so I can go in as blind as possible. In the case of Operation Finale, I wound up going in double blind because not only did I manage to bypass seeing any trailers for the film but also my last flirtation with a WWII history class was more than decade ago. Now, truth be told, I could have done without the history lesson from a scholar before the screening who spoiled the entire plot and its, ahem, finale, but it was my bad for not remembering such an important moment in history.

This historical drama centers on Israeli intelligence officers plotting to capture former SS Officer Adolf Eichmann who has been found in Buenos Aires in 1960. Among the Mossand agents are Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation), a man haunted by the loss of his sister and her children during the Holocaust. After a failed mission in Austria in 1954, Malkin has been on the outs with his commanding officer who sees him as a shoot first and ask questions later kinda army man. Selected alongside other agents with their own personal stake in the game to travel to Argentina and extract Eichmann, Malkin will have to place his own feelings of vengeance aside and protect the man that was responsible for orchestrating The Final Solution.

Director Chris Weitz (A Better Life) has amassed an interesting career as a writer/director. For me, he’ll always be associated with the raunchy teen comedy American Pie so every time I see his name that’s all I think of. His previous films have run the gamut from entertaining to enervating so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from his efforts here. Working with a script from Matthew Orton, Weitz largely stays out of the way of his esteemed cast and let’s them do the heavy lifting. While it’s a well-made picture to be sure, it sometimes wearily creaks along like the Hollywood machine film it is. That’s not a (total) knock on anyone or anything involved with Operation Finale, just an observation that the film knows its place in the box office food chain.

Also serving as a producer, Isaac gets under the skin of Malkin and effectively creates a layered performance that goes far beyond the backstory the screenplay briefly fleshes out. Kept awake at night by painful musings on how his sister may have met her fate, he’s joined this mission not only to capture the man who was tangentially responsible for her death but to exorcise his own personal demons that won’t go away. Isaac and Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) go toe-to-toe in several gripping scenes that feel immediate…like we’re in the room with them. If you told me Operation Finale started as a play I wouldn’t have second guessed you – the scenes between the two men are easily the highlight of the film.

Speaking of Kingsley, it’s interesting to see him play a very different side to the WWII coin after his work in Schindler’s List. While you may need to squint you eyes a bit to buy the 74 year-old actor is supposed to be playing 56 year-old Eichmann, you’ll want to cover them during flashbacks when the filmmakers use iffy CGI to make him appear 20 years younger. Kingsley is a master of the blank faced reaction and it’s used to frustratingly perfect results as Malkin and his crew attempt to get Eichmann to sign a document saying he’s willing to be transported to Israel and stand trial for his crimes.

Weitz populates the film with a strong cast of supporting characters, from Mélanie Laurent (Now You See Me) as Malkin’s former flame employed as a physician to keep Eichmann alive to Nick Kroll (Sausage Party) bringing some appropriate humor to the film as a fellow Mossad agent. The international cast blend seamlessly with their American colleagues and there’s little trouble tracking who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Special points go to two-time Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat’s (The Shape of Water) nicely pitched score that aids in the intrigue of the spy shenanigans.

Everything about this movie feels unexpected in a good way. The performances are engaging, the direction taut, the writing solid, and the production overall is handsome. It suffers from being ever so slightly too slick (blame Hollywood) and for its rushed ending that seems to skip over some more interesting beats. Still, for a late summer movie this is a nice surprise of a quality film, a attention-grabbing precursor to a busy fall season.

Movie Review ~ Split

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.

Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I hate to say it, but M. Night Shyamalan brought it all on himself.  With a succession of movies, the writer/director (producer, cameo, etc.) introduced sophisticated ideas wrapped in a mystery to less and less fanfare.  Known more for his twist endings than the sum total of his accomplishments, the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs began to lose himself in the inner-workings of his storytelling. Sacrificing plot, good dialogue, and characterization for that one moment, “the twist”, that would entice an audience into sticking with the film despite the absurdity of it all, it wasn’t long before Shyamalan’s name stopped being the selling point and instead became an Achilles Heel.

Laying low for a few years and producing the occasional movie or TV show, Shyamalan emerged from the shadows with 2015’s The Visit, a tight little scare fest made for a small fee which wound up doing surprisingly good business.  Showing he wasn’t entirely beholden to his twist endings (though that film did have one), good will led Shyamalan back into the conversation and it felt as if his second act in Hollywood had begun.

The first thing I’ll tell you about Shyamalan’s Split, and to keep spoilers squashed I won’t tell you much, is to do your best to go in without thinking of this as the horror film its being falsely marketed as.  True, the film boasts a few nerve jangling moments and an overall sense of dread usually reserved for films with a high body count, but I made the mistake of expecting a thrill ride when in reality Split is more like an uncomfortable Sunday drive.

A trio of girls celebrating a birthday at a local mall are abducted in the parking lot and held captive in an underground compound by a man (James McAvoy, Trance) with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  While two of the girls (Jessica Sula & Haley Lu Richardson, both largely forgettable) plot a way of escape, the third (Anya Taylor Joy, Morgan & The Witch) takes a different approach, recognizing their captor could be manipulated depending on which of his 23 personalities they are talking to.  Time is running out, though, for several of the identities talk of a 24th personality, The Beast, that’s “on the move.”  Meanwhile, the man’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley, Carrie), disturbed by a concerning change in demeanor for her patient, attempts to lure out the new personality that’s been causing trouble.

To me there are two short films going on here with overlapping ideas that Shyamalan couldn’t quite stretch to feature length.  The first is the kidnapping plot with its increasingly desperate attempts at escape from the teenagers and the second is a film centered on the psychiatrist exploring the inner workings of DID.  Both have some value and are staged nicely by Shyamalan with tight close-ups that give the film a claustrophobic feeling but to really take on discussions of mental illness Split needed to choose which story to tell and it never can decide.

Taylor Joy’s saucer-eyes look great in a Shyamalan close-up and the actress keeps a sense of mystery along the way that’s as interesting as it is slightly creepy.  Through flashbacks we see her as a child spending time with her father and uncle; there’s something off about these memories and as the film progresses, we begin to see why.  Shyamalan throws a lot of unspoken feelings at Taylor Joy and asks her to fill in the blanks which she winds up conveying quite convincingly.

Surprisingly, it’s Buckley that nearly steals the show…though considering her storied history on stage and screen it’s not that surprising at all.  Her therapy sessions with McAvoy’s character(s) give the film it’s most crackling edge and I kept wondering if these intimately crafted scenes hadn’t originally been written for the stage.  Buckley doesn’t appear on screen as often as she should but her performance here makes you wish she would.

At the end of the day, though, this is McAvoy’s picture and he walks away with the whole kit and caboodle.  There’s such a very fine line between honest and camp when it comes to playing a character with multiple personalities but McAvoy approaches each with a level of dignity and respect.  True, there are some moments McAvoy got too actor-y for my taste but overall it’s a dynamic, full-bodied performance that goes far beyond simply changing his voice or how he holds himself.  With each new personality introduced, McAvoy seems to change appearance entirely which makes the impending arrival of the feared 24th identity even  more ominous.

Audiences familiar with Shyamalan have been well trained to prepare for a twist but my advice would be not to look too hard.  There are a few late-breaking turns that won’t come as a total surprise and one big shocker at the end you’re either going to love or hate (the audience at mine was an audible mixture of both) but Split is less concerned with fooling its audience and more interested in bringing them into the mind of trauma victims coping with their past in the present.  It’s not an entirely successful film (and at nearly two hours, a too long one at that) but it’s stuck with me just like Shyamalan’s earlier work did.

The Silver Bullet ~ Split

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Synopsis: Kevin, a man with at least 23 different personalities, is compelled to abduct three teenage girls. As they are held captive, a final personality – “The Beast” – begins to materialize.

Release Date: January 20, 2017

Thoughts: There was a time when the presence of director M. Night Shyamalan’s name on a poster or movie trailer would elicit a little shiver down your spine. Then came a string of overstuffed, self-serving duds that found his name removed from all marketing materials in order to not tip off audiences he was involved. Then along came the surprisingly strong (and scary!) The Visit in 2015 and Shyamalan got some of that clout back…and I’m hoping that Split continues the Shyamalan-aissance. The latest thriller with a twist finds James McAvoy (Trance) with multiple personalities holding three girls hostage and there’s some nice potential here for some spooky scenery chewing. With January no longer that foreboding dumping ground for useless films that it once was, could Split ring in the New Year with a yelp?