SUNDANCE REVIEW: “A Little Prayer” (2023)

The always terrific David Strathairn stars in the equally terrific “A Little Prayer”, a low-key Southern melodrama that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. This delightful and warm-hearted ensemble film is a beautifully sketched family portrait that doesn’t gloss over the imperfections that make us human. In fact, writer-director Angus MacLachlan (who penned 2005’s “Junebug”) embraces those imperfections and the results are honest and deeply affecting.

Set and shot in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “A Little Prayer” is clearly a personal endeavor for MacLachlin. His affections, sensibilities, and experiences can be seen and felt in every frame, character, and story turn. His story revolves around a seemingly average Southern family who live in a cozy and quiet neighborhood accented by tweeting songbirds and tall oak trees. But once you get past the idyllic charms, MacLachlin reveals a troubled family and a patriarch’s well-meaning attempts to hold it together.

Strathairn plays Bill Brass, the owner of a local sheet metal company which he runs with his son David (Will Pullen). Both are war vets (Bill served in Vietnam; David in Afghanistan), a detail that subtly plays into the story later on. Bill finds himself more and more preoccupied with the problems of his two adult children. David is an alcoholic and all signs point to him having an affair with their company’s bookkeeper Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco). Bill’s crude deadbeat daughter Patti (Anna Camp) shows up unannounced with her daughter Hadley (Billie Roy) needing a place to stay after leaving her opioid-addicted boyfriend for the umpteenth time.

You can tell Bill’s concern for his kids is weighing on him. But a ray of light comes in his relationship with his daughter-in-law Tammy (a sublime Jane Levy). The two are kindred spirits from different generations, and there’s such warmth and trust in the connection they share. Like a father, Bill sees Tammy as one of his own and he relishes their closeness – something he doesn’t have with his own kids. For Tammy, Bill is a tender father figure – something she lacked in her abusive childhood household in Kentucky.

One of my favorite touches involves a mysterious reoccurring voice that pierces the otherwise peaceful morning air. It’s the voice of a woman singing old gospel hymns in the distance. Bill and Tammy find it soothing and are enchanted by it. They even go out one morning to see which neighborhood house it’s coming from. Certain others in the family mock the heartfelt spirituals and find it obnoxious. The different reactions tell us a lot, as does the voice’s sudden absence at very specific points in the film.

While Strathairn and Levy have an exquisite father-in-law and daughter-in-law chemistry, other characters add a richness to MacLachlin’s story. None are better than the endearing Celia Weston as Bill’s wife, Venida. Weston steals scene after scene playing a straight-shooting but tender-hearted Southern woman who will have you laughing out loud in one scene and breaking your heart in another. Polanco shines in a crucial scene that breaks her character out of the typical side-dish mold. And Camp nails Patti, a veritable whirlwind of irreverent and self-destructive chaos.

As individual secrets are brought into the light, Bill comes to the painful realization that he can’t mend every fence or control every outcome. And no matter how much it hurts, there’s a point where he may have to let go. Meanwhile, we learn that there’s a quiet strength underneath Tammy’s meek and modest exterior. She knows more than she shares, and she’s willing to make difficult choices – some that could weigh on her for the rest of her life.

While pulling back the many layers of family drama, MacLachlan keeps things fittingly understated throughout. Some of the reveals could have easily sent the film spiraling. But MacLachlan maintains a remarkable and steady control, never allowing his story to cross over into soapy sentiment. It’s obvious he trusts his script, and it doesn’t hurt to have such a top-to-bottom terrific ensemble led by David Strathairn. He could make combing his hair in front of a mirror compelling. And he brings that signature authenticity to a character and a movie that I was in tune with from its open frame to the closing credits.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Blood” (2023)

The new horror thriller “Blood” from director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Will Honley puts a wicked new spin on the “a mother will do anything to save her child“ idea. It’s a patient movie that puts a lot of effort into exploring the fractured family dynamic at the center of its story. But it also delivers the frights, mostly in the final act when “Blood” really begins to burrow under our skin.

A very good Michelle Monaghan plays Jess, a recently divorced mother of two who’s in the middle of a nasty child custody battle with her ex-husband Patrick (Skeet Ulrich) who had an affair (and a baby) with their nanny. But we learn Jess had her own problems, namely a serious drug addiction that put a strain on her relationship with Patrick, their daughter Tyler (Skylar Morgan Jones), and their younger son Owen (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong).

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

But Jess has been clean for 15 months and is looking to rebuild her relationship with Tyler and Owen. She and the kids move into an old farmhouse that belonged to her family much to the chagrin of a frustrated Patrick. The movie spends a lot of time building up the family tension. It shows both Jess and Patrick as flawed, imperfect people, but they’re not monsters. Both love their children very much and want what’s best for them. But divorce can bring out a nasty side in people, especially when emotions are RAW and children are at the center.

One afternoon Tyler, Owen, and the family dog Pippen set out to go fishing. They follow an old trail through the woods only to discover the lake has dried up. In the blackened muddy bed stands a withered cragged old tree that weirdly grabs Pippen’s attention. Later that evening Pippen runs out of the house and back down the trail. When he finally returns days later he has clearly changed (the glowing eyes are a dead giveaway). Pippen viciously attacks Owen, biting him on the neck and forcing Jess to kill the dog.

At the hospital, Owen’s condition deteriorates. But then Jess walks in on her son slurping from a blood pack as his vitals almost immediately improve. Clearly something unusual is going on. When his blood pressure plummets again, Jess (who’s a nurse at the hospital) swipes a bag of plasma from storage and slips it to Owen. He instantly gets better. Jess knows she can’t keep Owen in the hospital so she takes him home to the farm. But when her blood supply runs low, she gets desperate and starts crossing moral lines in an effort to keep her son alive.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Things get more complicated as Jess tries to hide it all from Patrick, and a bit more twisted as Owen’s craving for blood intensifies. It eventually sends the story down some darkly interesting paths. And there’s a hard to miss yet thoughtful metaphorical punch that can really be felt the further the story goes. Not all the character choices make sense, and certain mysteries are just left mysteries. These issues leave you wondering about what could have been if the filmmakers had dug a little deeper in certain places.

Still, the story holds together just fine, with a good chunk of its focus going towards its characters rather than any genre obligations. It’s much more thriller than horror (you won’t find a single jump scare) so adjust your expectations accordingly. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t provide some scares. It just goes about them a little differently. Its pieces may not always fit snugly together, but its human drama and eerie chills proves to be an enjoyable mix. “Blood” is now showing in select theaters and hits VOD on January 31st.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Pathaan” (2023)

Bursting at the seams with high-caliber action and loads of panache, “Pathaan” is an off-the-charts, full-throttle Bollywood blockbuster in every sense. Furiously directed by Siddharth Anand, this fourth installment in the YRF Spy Universe flaunts the star power of Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, and John Abraham. It’s somewhat of a comeback role for the screen veteran Khan, who after a four-year hiatus shows he still has the grit and charisma to fuel this fun and fast-paced Hindi-language action thriller.

Written by Shridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala from a story conceived by Anand, “Pathaan” follows a RAW field agent on a mission to stop a rogue agent with a serious ax to grind with his home country. That probably sounds strikingly similar to the previous film in the universe, 2019’s stellar “War”. But “Pathaan” has its own twists, turns, and angles while still capturing the spirit of its predecessor. And the potential it teases for the future is pretty exciting.

Much like “War”, Anand once again spans the globe, making stops at eye-catching vistas in India, France, Russia, Afghanistan, and Spain among other places. Along with DP Satchith Paulose, Anand uses his locations to soak us in the size and scope of the story. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also set the stage for some incredible set pieces which are ultimately the movie’s bread and butter.

The story itself has all the marks of a classic spy picture, from the fist-pumping thrills to the undeniable silliness. In 2019, the Indian government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of its constitution enrages a cancer-stricken Pakistani general named Qadir (Manish Wadhwa). Not trusting his own government to handle things to his liking, the embittered Qadir reaches out to the leader of a privately funded terrorist outfit called “Outfit X” who goes by the name of Jim (Abraham).

As it turns out, Jim is an ex-RAW agent believed to be dead by the Indian government. He too wants India to pay but for reasons entirely his own. He takes Qadir’s offer and begins hatching a plan to bring his former country to its knees. When RAW gets wind that Jim is very much alive and up to something big, senior officer Nandini (a terrific Dimple Kapadia) summons field agent Pathaan (Khan) to head the new “Joint Operation and Covert Research” unit (aka JOCR). Their first order of business – head to Dubai to stop the assassination of India’s president by Outfit X.

Along the way Pathaan learns that a former ISI agent named Rubina Mohsin (Padukone) is involved, although figuring out whose side she’s on proves difficult. Like a classic Bond girl, Padukone adds some spice and brings an air of mystery to the story, all while sharing some good chemistry with Khan. Unfortunately she sometimes gets lost in the plot’s breakneck maneuvering which is too bad considering the energy she brings to several of her scenes.

But it all comes down to Khan and Abraham, and the cat and mouse game between the film’s hero and villain. Anand knows what he has in them, and he really leans into what they bring to the screen. Khan shows he has the chops to be a full-blown action star while Abraham brings plenty of swagger, making him a diverting antagonist. And regardless of the story’s tendency to veer off into the preposterous, the two stars, along with the eye-popping visual spectacle, the kinetic pacing, a cracking score, and one very exciting cameo, keep things fun. It’s popcorn pleasure at its finest.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Women Talking” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Forming the very marrow of Sarah Polley’s quietly lacerating new drama “Women Talking” are the bold and timely themes of female survival and solidarity. That alone is enough for an engrossing story. But part of what makes Polley’s film adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel so potent are the many other thematic threads that run throughout the movie. Threads that speak to the female experience in a variety of other ways. Altogether it’s an intense, insightful and sobering experience packed with more than a few surprises.

Among the key reasons “Women Talking” works so well is Polley’s ability to take this dialogue-heavy, mostly single-setting story and make it feel bigger. The vast majority of the movie is indeed a group of women talking in a hayloft. But it never feels restricted to just that. It’s partially because Polley gives us several moments to step outside the loft and catch our breath. Some of these scenes have a sumptuous Malickian delicacy, as if showing us the wishful side of colony life. Other scenes are understandably harsher. They’re often in the form of brief stabbing flashes, like a painful haunting memory that suddenly come to a character’s mind. Collectively, they make this feel like more than a simple chamber piece.

Another reason is Polley’s crafty screenplay which digs deep into the subject matter and does a great job defining the different voices we hear. But she also broadsides us with subtle slivers of dark humor. You rarely see them coming, and they offer a few welcomed respites from the heavier material. There are a few small kinks. Some exchanges can come across as stiff, and the dialogue is occasionally too writerly. But Polley’s sharp pacing, balance of tone, and great character treatment makes those quibbles easy to get past.

Image Courtesy of Orion Pictures

The story is introduced through a traumatic and revealing overhead shot. A young woman named Ona (a sublime Rooney Mara) sluggishly wakes up in her bed with bruises and dried blood on her thighs. We recognize the marks and know what they mean. But just to be certain Polley makes it crystal clear a few seconds later. Dazed by something other than pure shock, Ona calls out to her mother. We quickly learn this isn’t the first case of sexual assault in their Mennonite colony. “It went on for years. To all of us,” says our affecting young narrator, Autje (newcomer Kate Hallett).

As it turns out, women of all ages, even young girls, have repeatedly been drugged and raped by men in the colony. At first the women are told that it’s evil spirits visiting them in the night – a punishment for their own transgressions. But that lie is exposed when a young girl witnesses her attacker fleeing through a field. After another girl is assaulted, her enraged mother takes a sickle to the culprit – an act that finally prompts the elders to call the police. They take the rapists into custody, but not in an effort of enact some long overdue justice. In fact, we never get the sense that these men are going to be held accountable for their sins.

Before the colony’s religious leaders leave to bring the men back home, they give the women two days to either forgive their attackers or leave the colony. If they chose to leave, they would forfeit their chance to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s one of several instances where the film takes a scalpel to the distortion of religion. Here the men twist scripture and wield their warped view of faith as a means to reinforce their oppressive rule. The colony’s women aren’t taught to read or write, a move designed to further their dependency on the men. And with their patriarchal control, the men feed the women all sorts of lies, especially regarding their religion.

Image Courtesy of Orion Pictures

But these aren’t weak women, and upon learning the truth, they decide to act. With the men gone, they gather in a barn and hold a vote to determine their course of action. The women give themselves three options: Do Nothing, Stay and Fight, or Leave. But reaching a unified decision proves difficult. It eventually comes down to ‘Stay and Fight’ or ‘Leave’ the colony. This frustrates the stern and cynical Janz (Frances McDormand who also produces), the loudest voice among the ‘Do Nothing’ contingent who promptly recuses herself (a bummer because we hardly see McDormand again).

In order to hash out a final decision, a chosen group of women convene in a hayloft led by two wise and knowledgeable matriarchs, Greta (Sheila McCarthy), and Agata (Judith Ivey). They’re joined by younger women including Mara’s Ona, Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Mejal (Michelle McLeod). They summon a colony outcast but university educated August (a heartbreaking Ben Whishaw) to record the minutes of their meetings. The discussions that follow are strikingly candid and the different viewpoints are compelling. For example, one considers pacifism while another is enraged; one is a defeatist while another is optimistic to a fault. It leads to some passionate clashes that are fascinating to watch.

Toews’ book was inspired by a true account, and knowing that makes Polley’s film register on an even more visceral level. Yet it’s also self-described as “an act of female imagination” which lets her blend more of her own perspective into the story. The results are gut-wrenching. And it’s even more profound once Polley kicks in the period-piece facade to reveal something far more prescient and of our time. It won’t be for everyone. But it’s hard to deny the timeliness of its themes and the boldness with which Polley takes them on. “Woman Talking” is now available in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

First Glance: “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”

Full disclosure: Despite really liking Zachary Levi and Mark Strong, I wasn’t as smitten with 2019’s “Shazam!” as many seemed to be. It had its moments. But it was a little too silly, and I wasn’t sure how the more comedic superhero movie was going to fit in with the rest of the DCEU. As it turns out that’s no longer a concern. The DCEU has (unfortunately) been trashed, yet we still have Levi’s Shazam and a brand new sequel. I’m still not sure about the silliness, and now I have an entirely new batch of questions about where the character fits within James Gunn and Peter Safran’s new universe.

The new trailer for “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” dropped today, and it didn’t do much to excite me. David F. Sandberg returns to direct this sequel that follow’s Billy Batson and his super-powered foster siblings as they face-off against a new threat – the Daughters of Atlas. They’re played by Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu. You probably guessed it, the world is in peril and it’s up to our heroes to save it. The trailer puts a heavy emphasis on the action and includes some pretty wild and crazy scenes. But some of the CGI looks shaky, and I’m still not sure what to make of the story.

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” hits theaters March 17th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “Four Samosas” (2022)

Part heist movie and part romantic comedy, “Four Samosas” is a low-budget screwball romp in the spirit of early Wes Anderson but with a sneakily infectious personality all its own. It all flows from writer-director Ravi Kapoor who infuses this whimsically toned indie with all sorts of narrative and visual quirks. Better yet, the often hysterically precise writing serves up some really big laughs. And its hard not to love the playful energy that flows out of every pore of this meager yet oh so clever little gem.

While the Anderson influence can be seen everywhere (the storytelling, the endearing collection of goofball characters, the distinct camera choices, the saturated color palette, even some red tracksuits ala “The Royal Tenenbaums”), “Four Samosas” still manages to feel like its own movie. Kapoor gives us an unashamedly farcical culture comedy with a unique, hard to resist energy that makes it easy to look past its limitations. Sure, it’s undeniably frothy and the budget constraints are impossible to miss. But Kapoor shows himself to be a crafty filmmaker, playing around with genre while diving into and having fun with his Indian heritage and traditions.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Set in Artesia, California in a part of town known as “Little India”, the film opens with the camera locked onto Juneja’s Supermarket. Suddenly four robbers sporting disguises too absurd to describe burst out that front doors and tear off across the parking lot. It’s a heist, but had they pulled it off or had it gone bad? Well, the title screen gives us our answer. The words “Four Samosas” is literally followed by “and the ill advised grocery store heist”. ‘Nuff said.

From there we bounce back a few days where we’re introduced to Vinny (Venk Potula), an underachieving yet infinitely likable aspiring rapper who sells garments at a saree shop. Vinny is still having a hard time getting over being dumped by his ex-girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil) some three years ago. “Pains got its own clock,” he waxes not-so-philosophically. Now he gets wind that Rina’s engaged to marry Sanjay (Karan Soni), an air-headed entrepreneur set to make his fortune in the field of goat poop (yep, you read that right).

In an effort to ruin the wedding, a heartbroken and revenge-fueled Vinny hatches a plan – an utterly ridiculous and doomed-to-fail plan, but a plan nonetheless. He’s going to break into the grocery store owned by Rina’s father (Tony Mirrcandani) and steal a pickle jar full of “dirty” diamonds. To pull it off he recruits three equally oblivious cohorts: his best friend and Bollywood dreamer Zak (Nirvan Patnaik), the chatterbox Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya) who publishes her own neighborhood newspaper, and Paru (Sonal Shah), a neurotic malcontent who may or may not have safe-cracking skills.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

From there the story steadily gains momentum, only slowing down for brief chapter breaks. And the humor just gets funnier and funnier with Kapoor pulling as many laughs from his camera as from his script. It’s shot on location and full of local Indian flavor which makes the setting bubble with life. And it’s full of cultural references and inside jokes that’s sure to resonate and amuse some more than others. Me, as someone who loves these neighborhoods slice of life movies, I ate it all up.

While the film’s tight 80-minute runtime ensures it doesn’t overstay its welcome, it also leaves a few things undercooked. For example, the supporting characters aren’t given much in terms of depth, and there’s the barely scratched relationship between Vinny and his (kinda) estranged father (played by Kapoor). But if you’re okay with the film’s openly mindless free-wheeling spirit (I was), you’ll find a lot to like in this charming and consistently funny jaunt. “Four Samosas” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS