Movie Review ~ Let Him Go

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the loss of their son, a retired sheriff and his wife leave their Montana ranch to rescue their young grandson from the clutches of a dangerous family living off the grid in the Dakotas.

Stars: Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Lesley Manville, Will Brittain, Jeffrey Donovan, Kayli Carter, Booboo Stewart

Director: Thomas Bezucha

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Let’s be straight up real about the last few months in the world of cinema.  While we’ve seen an impressive run of surprising films from the next generation of filmmakers, the old guard of Hollywood has been noticeably absent.  Now, that’s not quite all their fault because this pandemic has sidelined nearly all of the major studio films set for release, waylaying their A-listers with them but also serendipitously making way for a roster of exciting new talent to be seen.  Still, I must admit I’ve secretly been craving a few of those headliners that bring with them a particular caché you just can’t put a price on.  It may mean you know what to expect from a certain performance, yet you’ll know it will get the job done.

Had it not been released in the middle of this strange time, a film like Let Him Go very likely would have made that much of a ripple in anyone’s film-going tide pool.  It’s a pretty quiet and introspective film, one that prefers to keep its audience at arm’s length a lot of the time, much like several of its central characters.  The plot doesn’t vary too far from a standard Western formula that’s been resuscitated numerous times in television and film, though the 2013 novel by Larry Watson which it is based on does manage to incorporate a few interesting curveballs that keep viewers from getting too comfortable.  What makes Let Him Go such a welcome gift right now, and a gift it truly is, are its two central performances and the kind of confident direction that earns trust early on.

It’s a quiet life for Margaret and George Blackledge on their Montana ranch as the film opens.  It’s the 1950’s and they have their only son living with them, along with his wife (Kayli Carter, Rings) and their young grandson.  George (Kevin Costner, Draft Day) is a retired sheriff now content to help his wife (Diane Lane, Trumbo) with the horses on their property and working alongside his son. This peaceful existence is broken by a tragic accident which leaves their grandson without a father and a few years later sees their daughter-in-law get remarried to Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain, Everybody Wants Some!) who gives Margaret an uneasy feeling.  When she witnesses Donnie hitting his new wife and stepchild in public and gets the sense it isn’t the first time, she makes up her mind to bring them back to the ranch…only to find they’ve vanished from their apartment a few miles away.

In a nice reversal of roles, it’s Margaret who is the impetus for action throughout and it’s she who convinces George to go with her to find out where Donnie Weboy has taken their grandchild.  Their journey takes them across state lines, hundreds of miles from home but brings them closer together, bridging a small unspoken divide that has formed since the death of their son.  As they get closer to Weboy and eventually the town that houses the viper’s nest of his family, headed by menacing matriarch Blanche (Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread), they find a deeper understanding of their own grief of loss they haven’t resolved.  Arriving into a situation they aren’t prepared for, they’re instantly thrown off guard by the hold the family seems to have on the town and sense of entitlement they have to any outsider.  They also haven’t encountered anyone quite like Blanche Weboy, nor so they have a clue as to the deadly lengths this mother will go to keep her family together.

It might surprise some people to know Let Him Go was adapted and directed by the same person that gave us the cult favorite holiday film The Family Stone back in 20025.  The lighter tones of that film gave way to a more somber underbelly so we know Thomas Bezucha can navigate the changing of temperatures when necessary.  So really it’s no real surprise he can easily move through Let Him Go’s swiftly shifting moods which often turn on a dime.  In a less assured filmmaker, this could spell trouble and be rattling but Bezucha makes these transitions with ease and inline with the laid-back, casual feel of his film.  It also adds the necessary punch when the film ratchets up some well-earned tension in its final act, leading to a finale that was unpredictable at the time but a foregone conclusion in hindsight.

The best reason to see this one is to watch the kind of career-high work Costner and Lane are doing.  At a time when actors of their stature are being relegated to less showy roles or definitely not sharing the same type of meaty two-hander spotlight Let Him Go provides, both actors are impressive and note-perfect in their emotional journey they undertake.  Aside from both looking like they haven’t aged but a year or so since the mid ‘80s, I easily believed the two had shared a lengthy marriage and, more than that, an understanding of what it takes to be a couple during that time period.  Maybe it’s because of their previous time together as Clark Kent’s parents in 2013’s Man of Steel but, no, it’s more than that.  Costner is not usually this engaged and I feel like Lane has brought out the absolute best in him, something she’s known to do in so many of her co-stars.  If I had to pick, I’d say it’s Lane’s movie by a nose…only because of the added complexity of her character having such a strange parallel with Manville’s scheming villainess.  You know from the moment you lay eyes on Manville she’s going to be trouble, but you won’t be prepared just how bad she’ll get.

Arriving in theaters prior to a release at home, this is one that I was able to screen from my living room and for that I’m grateful.  I’m still not ready to head to the theater yet, even though I’m longing for more A-List star-vehicles like Let Him Go.  I hate for it to feel like I’m short shifting the movie by quantifying its appeal based on all the release date shifts in Hollywood.  This would be a strong movie with excellent performances whenever it was released, it’s just particularly impactful now because we’ve so been needing these kinds of Hollywood star turns.  I wish the awards field were wide enough to embrace performances like Lane’s because she’s so very good in this and Manville’s cackling witch of a woman is the kind of broad baddie that earned Jackie Weaver a nomination for Animal Kingdom back in 2010.  Whether they are play the good character or a bad one, let’s keep rewarding strong female turns in films.

31 Days to Scare ~ Haunt

The Facts:

Synopsis: On Halloween, a group of friends encounter an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.

Stars: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford

Director: Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Let me tell you, every October I go on high alert looking for a newer horror film I can get behind.  With so many ways for filmmakers to deliver scares to us now (theatrically, streaming, etc.) it can be tough to keep track of everything that comes out so it’s best to go where the buzz is.  Horror fans are a picky bunch and while we often will feast happily on even meager scraps if available, when there’s the opportunity to eat like royalty we’ll let everyone else know what’s for dinner.  So when I heard Haunt was gathering some strong word of mouth momentum in its on-demand release I made it a priority to get it to it before the month was over.

I’ve come to not put too much credence in advertising for horror movies that say “from the writers of” or “from the studio that brought you” just because it rarely equates to little more than evoking your positive thoughts of that previous release.  In the case of Haunt, the presence of producer Eli Roth (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) didn’t intrigue me as much as the bit about the film coming from the writers of the clever surprise hit A Quiet Place, Scott Beck & Bryan Woods.  Beck and Woods direct Haunt as well and it’s interesting to note it finished filming in November 2017, the same time as A Quiet Place, though it’s only coming out now.  Whatever the delays were, they were worth it because Haunt is a real diamond in the rough – a focused horror movie that, while not always original in thought, is genuinely scary.

As a way to clear her mind after breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, Harper (Katie Stevens) spends Halloween night with her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) and their two friends Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford).  A noisy club doesn’t prove to be any fun and definitely doesn’t get them in the Halloween spirit so after meeting Nathan (Will Brittain, Everybody Wants Some!!) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell) the group decides to look for another venue that’s a bit more in line with the spooky holiday.  A flyer boasting an Extreme Haunted House catches their eye and before you know it the six are headed out into the middle of nowhere searching for the location where the big scares are.  We’ve already seen a little of the inside during the credit sequence, watching an unseen figure making preparations but it isn’t clear until they arrive just how isolated it is.

Now, if Haunt were made ten years ago audiences may have balked at the willingness of the guys and gals to enter the sketchy looking industrial rundown warehouse but we’re in the era when an old-school haunted house just doesn’t cut it.  Many scare-hounds are now looking for that extra bit of realism and lived-in experience that puts them in the center of an attraction that feels dangerous.  So when Harper and her friends have to sign waivers and relinquish their cell phones it doesn’t seem that odd of a request.  At first, the space seems fairly standard but the deeper they travel (and the more clown-mask wearing staff they meet) the more they realize this really isn’t like anything they’ve seen before, it’s far deadlier.  As they are separated by various detours and trap doors they are hunted by a malevolent gang sporting nightmare-inducing masks and maybe something even freakier underneath.

Blessedly, while Haunt is gore-heavy it’s not of the Saw variety where it veers toward torturous rather than creative.  As someone that has worked in a similar haunted house that was built from the ground up inside an old factory, the production design is spot on and is elaborate enough to suggest significant work went into the mazes and puzzle rooms but not so over designed that it would come off as unbelievable.  Also, a few of the rooms are super creepy and unsettling, with an eerie menace that’s helped along by solid performances from the cast.  The make-up effects are well done and more than a few sights for sure gave me goosebumps.

It’s also nice to report that Haunt actually has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  There’s no prolonged finale that drags on or multiple fake-outs capped off with a last blast to goose you up and out of your seat.  Though it may strain just a tiny bit to get past that 90 minute marker, it does so by taking its time with the stalking scenes.  This gives the terrorized guests an actual shot at fighting back instead of just rolling over and awaiting their fate.  Attempts at character development are noble, though it’s really only Harper that gets any kind of major movement in that area.  The motives for the staff of the haunted house aren’t quite clear but their actions speak (scream) louder than words.

Easily a top recommendation in 2019 for those looking for something brand new to tune into this Halloween, Haunt is handled with care and intelligence.  It provides the requisite scares but also supplies another layer of creepy that is much appreciated.  I can see this being one people are excited to discover down the line and it’s absolutely one I’d enjoy introducing friends to.

Movie Review ~ Everybody Wants Some!!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of college baseball players navigate their way through the freedoms and responsibilities of unsupervised adulthood.

Stars: Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Ryan Guzman, Juston Street, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Zoey Deutch

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Everybody Wants Some!! is being promoted as a “spiritual sequel” to director Richard Linklater’s cult favorite from 1993, Dazed and Confused.  While Dazed takes place on the last day of high school in 1976, EWS!! follows a team of college baseball players over the course of a long weekend in 1980 before school starts up again.  Even though there are no overlapping characters between the films, it’s not hard to imagine Blake Jenner’s leading player in EWS!! as a college-ready version of the character Wiley Wiggins played in the earlier film.

For EWS!! to play well as an almost sequel to a much loved near-classic that’s now become almost as much of a cinematic rite of passage as the various hazing sequences it showcases, it has to have something that sets it apart.  Once again, Linklater (Bernie, Boyhood, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) shows his knack for perfect casting by bringing together a host of handsome stars on the rise to populate his otherwise plotless observances of the last days of summer for a college baseball team.

Incoming freshman Jake Bradford (a winning, mellow Blake Jenner), arrives at his off campus housing on a Friday and spends the next three days getting to know his teammates, his surroundings, and himself.  Clearly influenced by Linklater’s own life, the character isn’t your typical meek newbie nor is he a loutish oaf that scores high on the d-bag meter.  Actually, even with its brief divergences into misogyny (there’s but one female role in the film that isn’t there to bed or bitch about), the film largely avoids the stereotypical frat boy trappings by providing actual personalities for its competitively horny young males.

Originally brought into the fold by team captain McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, reminding me of a young Matt Dillon), Jake starts to learn the ropes from teammates like Glenn Powell’s (The Expendables 3) Finn, who can talk about anything from girls to gentrification and Wyatt Russell’s (22 Jump Street) Willoughby, a stoner that encourages everyone to “just be weird”.  There’s also the requisite dimbulb (Temple Baker), the sensible voice of reason (J. Quinton Johnson), a county-fried roommate (Will Brittain), and an easily provoked pitcher (Juston Street, the only faulty bit of character machinery in Linklater’s otherwise smooth engine of a movie) that pop up throughout the film to join in the weekend hijinks.   As the lone prominent female, Zoey Deutch (Vampire Academy) more than holds her own as a matched equal to Jake that isn’t your typical co-ed. It’s not hard to picture Deutch’s mother Lea Thompson playing the same role had the film been made thirty years ago.

Since the casting is top notch, that means the acting is skilled too and the three weeks the actors spent rehearsing all day at Linklater’s Texas compound pays off well because you walk away totally buying the characters you just watched, flaws and all.  It has the same sharp wisdom and warm hope Linklater is so good at injecting into his films and pleasantly goes against the structural norm of these college set film by following these guys only up until the first bell rings on Monday morning.

It’s not often I leave a theater already figuring out when I can swing by and catch it again but I left EWS!! plotting a return visit.  I appreciate that Linklater has a way of making his films so accessible that it’s easy to watch them over and over again and, even if you don’t get anything new out of each watch, still be entertained.