Sundance Review: “A Love Song” (2022)

I’ve always had a deep admiration for Wes Studi and what he brings to his movies. Whether it was his role as the brutal yet complex Magua in Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans”, his often underappreciated portrayal of Geronimo in Walter Hill’s “Geronimo: An American Legend”, or playing a police detective alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Heat”. There’s an unmistakable sincerity and gravitas Studi brings to every film he’s a part of.

So what better way to start my 2022 Sundance Film Festival than by screening a new drama that sees the 74-year-old Studi given a nice meaty role. The film is “A Love Song”, written and directed by Max Walker-Silverman. As the title suggests, this isn’t the kind of movie Studi is most known for. But for fans of his work, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that he, much like the film itself, is a joy to watch.

But the real star of “A Love Song” is Dale Dickey, an outstanding character actress who may be best remembered for her scene-stealing work in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone”. This is a rare leading role for Dickey whose name you may not remember, but whose face is impossible to forget. It’s a remarkable face chiseled out of real life and with bone-deep honesty found in every look and every expression. She’s a perfect choice for Walker-Silverman’s film which sees him working on the same lyrical meditative wavelength as Kelly Reichardt and pre-“Eternals” Chloé Zhao. But Walker-Silverman brings enough of himself to “A Long Song” to give the film its own special identity.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

In “A Love Song”, Dickey brings her signature quiet intensity but this time to a much different character. Here she plays a widow named Faye who hitches her small camper trailer to her Chevy S-10 and drives it to a remote Colorado campsite. She sets up next to a small lake with the Rocky Mountains sitting in the distance like a watercolor painting still wet on the canvas. This is where she’ll stay for the rest of the film’s lean 80-minute running time.

At first, it may be tempting to get caught up in Faye’s similarities to Frances McDormand’s Fern from last year’s Best Picture winner “Nomadland” or to Robin Wright’s Edee from Sundance 2021’s “Land”. But while all three woman unquestionably have things in common, Faye has several distinctions that separates her from the other two. Those distinctions also set this movie on a different course which I was delighted to see.

We don’t learn a lot about Faye or where she came from, but that actually serves the minimalist storytelling perfectly. We do find out she once flew planes for the forestry service. She’s also one heck of a mechanic. And she loves listening to music on her Longines Symphonette World Traveler AM/FM radio. “It always plays the perfect song,” she says in a tender scene later in the film, “even if in the moment you ain’t sure why.” Faye birdwatches (poorly) during the day. Then it’s Busch beer and crawfish for dinner as she watches the sun set over the mountains. After dark, she searches the starry sky for constellations. And that’s her routine.

As you watch Faye, it’s hard to miss her melancholy gaze; the sense of loneliness; the shallowly buried heartache. The source of her sadness is the death of her husband Tommy. He’s been gone for seven years, yet you can tell she’s still carrying the weight of grief. But unlike Fern, who finds contentment in unplugging and living on the road or Edee, who disconnects from society altogether, Faye is at the lake for a specific reason. She’s waiting for someone she hopes will come.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

That someone is Lito, an old classmate and crush who Faye hasn’t seen in decades. Much like Faye, Lito has recently lost his spouse, Shirley. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Lito does come and the two wounded souls reconnect. Walker-Silverman’s script allows for all of the awkwardness, uncertainty, and even guilt to bleed through. And the restraint of two performances feels as natural as the painterly surroundings that adorn nearly every frame. Their conversations are simple but true, and it’s often what goes unsaid that resonates the most. And while nothing about their reunion is assured, Faye and Lito long so deeply for companionship that it’s worth a shot.

While the theme of loneliness reverberates throughout the movie, Walker-Silverman also makes it a point to show us the essential nature of human connection. Faye has reoccurring encounters with an assortment of quirky side characters. My favorite is a well-mannered young cowgirl and her four significantly older brothers (the little sister clearly runs the show). They would feel right at home in a Coen brothers comedy. There’s also the camp’s courteous postman and a couple camped out on the other side of the lake. Their appearances may seem inconvenient, but they always pop up when Faye seems at her lowest. And their presence takes her mind off of her sadness.

With “A Love Song” Max Walker-Silverman has given us a delicate, honest, and soulful study of loss, loneliness, and navigating grief. It’s a beautiful and touching exploration, handled with keen instincts, remarkable control, and a clear affection for the story being told. Not only does the film showcase an exciting emerging voice, it also gives starring roles to two exceptional veteran actors. And that’s something all too rare in movies these days.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “A Journal for Jordan” (2021)

Denzel Washington directing? Michael B. Jordan starring? You bet I’m in on the new romantic drama “A Journal for Jordan”. The film is based on the 2008 memoir written by Dana Canedy about her fiancé, United States Army First Sergeant Charles Monroe King. It tells the true story of how the couple met and eventually fell in love. It also tells of Charles’ deployment during the Iraq War, while a pregnant Dana Was back home waiting to deliver their baby boy, Jordan.

Adapted by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Virgil Williams, “A Journal for Jordan” tells a story that you can’t help but admire. Its romantic angle is sweet and sincere while the inescapable sense of tragedy looms over the entire film. On screen, the movie is energized by the chemistry between stars Jordan and Chanté Adams. Behind the camera, Washington’s patient approach is both a blessing and a curse. It gives the movie’s central relationship room to breathe and take root. But it also drags things out longer than they need to go.

In a way “A Journal for Jordan” feels like a movie from another time. Most of today’s franchise-formed preferences have all the patience in the world for the latest big tent-pole blockbuster. But an old-fashioned straight-shooting melodrama (the kind audiences 30 years ago would gobble up no questions asked) is a hard sell these days. That’s one reason I wouldn’t be surprised if the film gets a mixed reception.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Another reason is the overall conventional feel of the story, specifically during the first half. Though sweet and genuine, watching the sprouting relationship between Dana and Charles, complete with its highs and lows, rarely gets out of first gear. Jordan and Adams add a romantic spark and Washington’s unrushed direction allows us time to get to know these characters. But outside of the lingering hand of fate waiting to be dealt, the story never generates much buzz. Washington seems to know this so he shakes things up a bit by moving back-and-forth across the timeline.

Adams gives an eye-opening performance playing Dana who we first meet as an ambitious and hard-working reporter for the New York Times. While visiting her parents for the weekend, she meets Charles for the first time. He’s a noble and gentlemanly soldier who has been in the army for 11 years. The two opposites attract and begin a long distance relationship that (eventually) blooms into a full-blown love story.

But as the world changes post 9/11, Charles is sent to Iraq adding an extra obstacle to their relationship. But Dana is convinced she’s ready to start a family so the two decide to have a baby. She gives Charles a journal to write to his on-the-way son Jordan while overseas. The journal becomes a key piece of the story once Charles is killed by an IED during a mission.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

That may sound like a spoiler, but it’s a plot point the movie doesn’t try to hide. In fact, Washington uses it as the film’s emotional center as he traverses his timeline. It adds a tragic layer to the romance we see in the flashback sequences, and it’s the catalyst for how the later-set scenes play out.

When you put it all together it’s hard to knock what “A Journal for Jordan” is going for. The characters feel authentic and true. The true story of their relationship is both inspiring and heartbreaking. And Washington’s deliberate and unvarnished direction is the kind we rarely get these days.

Yet there’s something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a little too long and the story doesn’t feel particularly balanced. But there’s something else – something that doesn’t quite give the movie the gut-punch it needs. It tries to compensate with a really effective final scene. But it seems like there was so much more the movie could have done with this deeply moving story. “A Journal for Jordan” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “American Underdog” (2021)

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

NFL quarterback Kurt Warner’s journey from stocking shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa to being inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is nothing short of remarkable. The personable, faith-driven graduate of the University of Northern Iowa spent four years after college fearing his dream of playing pro football was over. But when a near providential opportunity came his way, Warner went from the supermarket to the Super Bowl.

“American Underdog” sets out to tell the story of Kurt Warner’s rise to football stardom, chronicling the numerous highs and lows that made his journey such an inspiration. The film is directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin whose faith-based catalog includes movies like 2018’s “I Can Only Imagine” and last year’s “The Jesus Music”. Here the brothers deliver a sports biopic that really is about the person more than their accomplishments. That doesn’t mean it avoids all of the usual sports movie trappings. There’s plenty of melodrama and of course we get the overly dramatic ‘big game’, complete with swelling music and obligatory slow-motion. But at its heart, the movie sticks to the personal side of Kurt Warner’s story which proves to be the right move.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

This is one of those movies that’s hard for me to dislike even with its noticeable flaws. I’m a sucker for true underdog stories and Warner’s is undoubtedly one of the most amazing in sports history. Here he’s played by the effortlessly likable Zachary Levi (“Shazam”) who may be a tad too old for the film’s early scenes, but who quickly sinks into his role. He gives an earnest and committed performance that highlights Warner’s character yet doesn’t shy away from his shortcomings.

By focusing more on Warner’s personal journey, screenwriters Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn hand Levi a surprisingly meaty role. While football certainly has its part in the story, the movie is really about overcoming impossible odds to succeed. More than that, it’s about grasping what’s truly important in life. We learn that for much of Kurt Warner’s life, football was most important. But it takes losing his dream and meeting his future wife Brenda Meoni (played with a striking mix of strength and vulnerability by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin) to finally open his eyes to what matters most.

The film’s early scenes touch on Warner’s time as a fifth year senior quarterback for Northern Iowa. After sitting on the bench for four years, Kurt is finally named the team’s starter. Soon he’s cutting his own “highlight” reels to send out to pro scouts. But an unknown quarterback with only one year of college experience at a small Division I school automatically sets him up as an underdog.

It’s during this time that he first meets Brenda, a divorced single mother raising two kids, one being her legally blind son Zack (Hayden Zaller), an underdog in his own right. Despite there being a clear spark between them, Brenda fears a repeat of her painful first marriage, and is quick to push Kurt away. But the movie’s inescapable predictability kicks in (the first of several times) and the two eventually become a couple.

While none of the film’s major plot points will surprise you, it’s what happens in between them that gives the movie its heartbeat. Football takes a backseat to Kurt and Brenda’s struggles. We see them buying groceries with food stamps and scrapping together loose change just to put gas in the tank. They’re hit with both tragedy and hardship leading Kurt to finally swallow his pride and accept a job playing quarterback for the Iowa Barnstormers, a new team in the fledgling Arena Football League. Not only does it help pay the bills, it finally opens the door to his dream of playing in the NFL.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Interestingly, the last 20 minutes is all we get of Warner’s NFL career. We see him get the call to St. Louis where he faces the ire of offensive coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly). “You’re too old to be a rookie. You’re too green to be a pro,” Martz barks. But Kurt has one powerful ally – a gravelly voiced Dennis Quaid playing Rams head football coach Dick Vermeil, yet another fellow underdog who believes Kurt is ready for his shot.

Strangely, “American Underdog” downplays the spiritual side of Kurt Warner’s journey, something he himself has been very vocal about. It’s definitely woven throughout the movie, but there seems to be a concerted effort to be as subtle with it as possible. Perhaps it’s to avoid the schism that often comes with “faith-based” movies. At least it’s there and it helps give a well-rounded and honest portrayal of the man beyond the touchdowns and accolades. A man with a truly inspiring story worth being told. “American Underdog” opens in theaters on Christmas Day.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Agnes” (2021)

“Looks can be deceiving.” That wise old adage has been around forever and used to describe all sorts of things. It’s also a fitting way to describe Mickey Reece’s new film “Agnes”. This wobbly and disjointed movie teases itself as horror only to make a jarring turn midway through that sees it transform into something completely different. At first you think you’re seeing some audacious creative choice that will lead to a satisfying payoff. Instead it ends up feeling like something done just to taunt viewers with expectations. More on that later.

The story (written by Reece and John Selvidge) begins with a disaffected priest named Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) being called before his suspiciously cold superiors. He’s told about some strange occurrences happening at a convent named Santa Theresa in the far corner of their diocese. Reports say a young nun named Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is showing all the movie signs of your standard demon possession: levitating, violent convulsions, superhuman strength, and a sudden potty-mouth.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A reluctant Father Donaghue is sent to the convent to investigate and promptly reminded that he is in no position to refuse. Why you ask? Well, apparently there are some accusations against him which he has denied but that have stained his reputation nonetheless. But don’t get too caught up in that stuff. The movie certainly doesn’t. It’s one of several things Reece teases only to drop without ever addressing it again.

The stuffy Bishop and his heads of the parish force Father Donaghue to take along priest-to-be Brother Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), Donaghue’s good-looking and by-the-books former pupil in the faith. The two don’t exactly see eye to eye especially after the unorthodox and occasionally crude Father Donovan expresses his skepticism of demonic possession and the holy rite of exorcism. He sees it as all psychological rather than supernatural. “I’ve seen this more than a few times,” he tells his young associate.

At the convent the two men of the cloth are greeted by the icy Mother Superior (Mary Buss) who doesn’t like the idea of two men hanging around her sisters. We’re also introduced to the troubled Sister Mary (Molly Quinn), a relatively new addition to the flock who’s trying to escape her own tragic past. She’s close friends with the bedeviled Sister Agnes. Things get even weirder with the introduction of the excommunicated Father Black (Chris Browning), with his pseudo-hip wardrobe and bronze spray tan. He and his creepy assistant (who looks plucked right out of a Terry Gilliam movie) come to the convent at the behest of Father Donaghue to confront the spirit. Or is there more going on than meets the eye?

Visually, the film’s first half resembles a low-budget knockoff of better supernatural possession flicks. But storywise Reece tosses in a few unexpected curveballs and turns what looks standard issue into something trickier and delightfully bizarre. But just as you’re getting into the weirdness and mystery of the story, the movie shifts in a wild and unexpected way. It lurches forward in time, leaving behind all of the wacky intrigue and never returning to it.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The movie suddenly turns into a character drama focusing on Mary. She has left the convent and struggles to get by, working double shifts and two jobs just to afford her $600 a month rent. We do get a couple of scenes that reference her past with the Carmelite sisterhood, but mostly its about her hard life and the few people she encounters along the way – her slimeball boss Curly (Chris Sullivan), and stand-up comic (Sean Gunn), etc.

There nothing inherently wrong with Mary’s story and Quinn gives a terrific performance. But Mary’s journey is remarkably undercooked. And while the movie tries to be clever with its dramatic shift in tone and completely new direction, it ends up feeling like two different films connected by the barest of threads. Even worse, neither story gets any kind of satisfying ending. Some may love the ambiguity. I was left thinking of all the ways this could have been a better movie. “Agnes” releases December 10th in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Army of Thieves” (2021)

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

Just weeks after releasing his much talked about “Justice League” cut, filmmaker and self-promoter extraordinaire Zack Snyder announced he was doing a movie for Netflix that would lay the foundation for a brand-new cinematic universe. The movie was “Army of the Dead”, a surprisingly fun action-horror romp that played a lot like a “Kelly’s Heroes”, “The Italian Job”, “Dawn of the Dead” mash-up. Snyder wasted no time announcing the next installment – a prequel centered around one first film’s more memorable characters. It would be called “Army of Thieves” and the burgeoning franchise faithfuls wouldn’t have long to wait.

“Army of Thieves” is set roughly six years before the events of “Army of the Dead” which places it near the start of the zombie outbreak. But don’t expect the undead to play a role here. Instead, this is a heist movie centered around the comically skittish safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). The movie fills in his backstory, revealing what led him into criminal safecracking and how he ended up chosen for the Las Vegas job in the first film. I’m not sure anyone was clamoring for a Dieter origin story, but we got one nonetheless.

“Army of Thieves” introduces us to the jittery German before he became Ludwig Dieter. Here he’s introduced as a lowly bank teller, failed YouTuber, and safecracking enthusiast named Sebastian. After posting a video on his channel about renowned yet tortured safe designer Hans Wagner, Sebastian is surprised by a comment containing a mysterious invitation to what turns out to be a high-stakes underground safecracking competition (are those a thing?).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Sebastian goes and predictably wins, but it turns out to be more than a competition. He’s unwittingly auditioning for a professional thief named Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) who’s planning a ambitious heist that requires a skilled safecracker. Tired of his boring everyday routine and ready to break free from the monotonous and the mundane, Sebastian agrees to join her and her crew of thieves.

The rest of Gwendoline’s band of criminals are Korina (Ruby O. Fee), a master hacker because you need to get past those pesky security systems; Rolph (Guz Khan), a skilled driver to ensure a clean and swift getaway; and the preening Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), who Gwendoline describes as “our very own real-life action hero.” All three bring personality and flavor to the story, but they’re more cogs than meaningful characters.

The job is a tricky one – break into the late Hans Wagner’s three master safes affectionately named Rheingold, Valkyrie and Siegfried. They’re located in “secure” banks in Paris, Prague and St. Moritz which provides the catalyst for some good old-fashioned movie globetrotting. But hot on their heels is Interpol Agent Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), a wildly overcooked character whose dogged pursuit of Gwendoline and her crew is driven by motivations that are never all that convincing.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

In addition to being the film’s star, Schweighöfer also directs with a sleek Eurocentric style that makes for a nice contrast to Snyder. Not only does “Army of Thieves” have a different look, but Schweighöfer brings along a much lighter touch. Snyder’s movie had plenty of funny moments (most from Schweighöfer himself), but this film goes heavier with the humor and even throws in a romantic angle that’s sweet but too thinly sketched for us to buy into.

There aren’t many surprises in “Army of Thieves” meaning there’s not much suspense. You see it most in the individual heist sequences. For banks that go to all the trouble to have one of the most impenetrable and complex safes ever made, you would at least expect a mildly competent security apparatus. Yet the heists (though framed as daring) are laughably easy to pull off. A hack or two here, a glaringly obvious diversion there. Done. In fairness, each safe gets a little more challenging, but it’s still hard to find much tension.

Interestingly, outside of three unbilled cameos, there’s very little in “Army of Thieves” linking it to its franchise predecessor. We do get a few passing nods to the zombie uprising happening overseas and Sebastian occasionally has these random dreams of being attacked by the undead. But in a sense part of this movie’s charm is that it feels like its own thing. Sure, it’s pretty lightweight and utterly preposterous. But it has its moments and the performances from both Schweighöfer and Emmanuel elevate things enough to hold our attention. “Army of Thieves” premieres today (October 29th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Auschwitz Report” (2021)

It goes without saying that Holocaust movies make for difficult viewings. It also goes without saying that the number of films dealing with the Holocaust are too many to count. Ever since the breadth of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews were revealed, filmmakers from all over the globe have tackled the Holocaust from numerous points of view and have mined countless inspirational and sobering true stories from both inside and outside of the concentration camps.

For a variety of different reasons, some are quick to dismiss Holocaust movies or simply avoid them altogether. Personally, I’m glad filmmakers are still reminding us of horrors we should never forget while also heralding the true stories of heroism and sacrifice from so many who suffered, endured or resisted such abominable evil. As long as there are stories to tell, I hope filmmakers will continue to tell them.

The new Slovak drama “The Auschwitz Report” shares those same beliefs even beginning with philosopher George Santayana’s timeless words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The film comes from director Peter Bebjak and sets its focus on a daring escape of two prisoners Alfred Wetzler (Noel Czuczor) and Rudolph Vrba (Peter Ondrejička). During the war, news of the concentration camps was slow getting to the allies and the Nazi’s went to great links to hide their savagery. Wetzler and Vrba were determined to get news of the atrocities to the outside world – to share the truth hidden behind the veil of Nazi deception and propaganda.

The film’s three-act structure begins on April 7, 1944. The opening scene shows hundreds of Jews – cold, pale, their heads shaved and in dirty striped prison rags – being herded around two prisoners seated and tied to their chairs. “This is what happens to those who try to escape from my camp,” the Nazi officer yells. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. This is Auschwitz. A place of inexplicable barbarity; where the sound of a train whistle sends chills and death is as common as air.

Throughout the first act, Wetzler and Vrba spend most of the time hiding in a small hole underneath a stack of lumber. Bebjak instead focuses on the men from his barracks who stood their ground and refused to reveal the pair’s whereabouts despite tremendous physical and psychological torture at the hands of a depraved Nazi commander (played by Florian Panzner). Bebjak doesn’t sugarcoat the horror, highlighting some of the camp’s brutal rituals while throwing in a handful of effectively uncomfortable flashbacks which show the camp’s processing of new prisoners. It’s harrowing stuff.

The second act moves to the actual escape – more specifically Wetzler and Vrba’s struggles to survive in the cold and rugged woods as they make their way to the border. Along their arduous journey the duo finds help from sympathetic strangers – a young woman in the forest, a kindly couple in a small village, a soldier with connections to the Red Cross. The third act centers on their efforts to convince allied representatives of what was really happening in Auschwitz. In reality, the VRBA-Wetzler Report was one of the first in-person accounts to shed light on the death camps. And their report is directly credited with saving around 120,000 Hungarian Jews set to be sent to Auschwitz.

“The Auschwitz Report” does feel very much like a Holocaust movie (for obvious reasons), but it sets itself apart with some shrewd and thoughtful filmmaking choices. Its three-pronged story leaves a lot of details on the side, but it does a good job centralizing the story around particular acts of bravery. There is a strange collage of audio clips playing over the end credits that makes some questionable equivalents, but for the most part Bebjak message is one of courage and determination. It’s also a searing historical piece that stresses the enormous effort it took to get the world to see what was happening at the hands of the Nazis.

Bebjak also uses an array of clever and powerful visual flourishes to convey his points. There’s a striking mixture of handheld camera an wide-angle shots that are particularly potent during the scenes within Auschwitz. We also see Bebjak playing with perspective, using intense closeups, and shooting from unconventional and often disorienting angles. He and DP Martin Žiaran put a lot of effort into the film’s visual language and often rely on the camera as much as the cast to convey the intensity of emotions.

Co-written by Bebjak, Jozef Pastéka and Tomás Bombík, “The Auschwitz Report” pulls yet another remarkable story from the inhumanity that was the Holocaust. You can’t help but wonder about some of the details that are left behind as the story progresses. But at the same time, the film keeps you glued to its story – one that highlights the very best of human nature and the absolute worst. It makes for a sobering call to remembrance and a stern warning against repeating the sins of our often ugly past. “The Auschwitz Report” is available now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS