Review: ‘A Love Song,’ starring Dale Dickey and Wes Studi

August 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Wes Studi and Dale Dickey in “A Love Song” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“A Love Song”

Directed by Max Walker-Silverman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colorado, the dramatic film “A Love Song” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with one Native American and a two African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow, who’s in her 60s, hopes to reconnect with a man she had romantic feelings for when they both went to the same high school, even though they haven’t seen each other since high school. 

Culture Audience: “A Love Song” will appeal primarily to people interested in quiet and unassuming movies about taking risks and not giving up hope when it comes to finding love.

Dale Dickey, Marty Grace Dennis, Scout Engbring, Gregory Hope, Jesse Hope and Sam Engbring in “A Love Song” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“A Love Song” is a very low-key treasure of a movie that has as much to say in its long silences as it does in authentic-sounding dialogue between two would-be lovers who reunite after not seeing each other for decades. It’s not a movie that will appeal to people who expect a lot of fast-paced excitement or surprising drama. “A Love Song” is best appreciated by viewers who enjoy watching “slice of life movies” focusing on everyday people. It’s also a movie that skillfully blends the hopeful dreams and harsh realities that people can experience when looking for love. Before its official release, “A Love Song” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the 2022 Sundance Film Fesitval, where “A Love Song” had its world premiere.

Written and directed by Max Walker-Silverman, “A Love Song” has a very uncomplicated plot: A recently widowed woman in her 60s named Faye (played by Dale Dickey) camps out at a remote location in southwestern Colorado, where she hopes to reunite with a man whom she had a crush on when they were students at the same high school. (“A Love Sing” was filmed on location in Colorado.) Faye is at this isolated, desert-like location because years ago, Faye and her would-be beau Lito (played by Wes Studi) agreed they would meet each other there if they ever decided they want to see each other again.

The movie trailer for “A Love Song” already reveals that this reunion does take place. Lito shows up after Faye patiently waits for an untold number of days because he got a letter from Faye asking him to meet her there. Lito is also recently widowed. He’s also brought his dog with him named Huck. Faye and Lito’s attraction to each other still has some sparks after all these years of not seeing each other. It’s eventually revealed in the movie if Faye and Lito end up having a romantic relationship with each other.

During Faye’s waiting vigil for Lito in her camping spot, she encounters some memorable and quirky characters. First, some ranchers (four men and their teenage sister) arrive and ask Faye to move her camper vehicle because their father’s body is buried underneath the camper vehicle. A construction site is obscuring the view of this makeshift grave, so the siblings want to move the body to a location with an unobscured view of the gravesite.

The teenage sister is named Dice (played by Marty Grace Dennis), and she speaks on behalf of her unnamed brothers, who do not say anything in the movie. The four brothers are portrayed by Sam Engbring, Scout Engbring, Gregory Hope and Jesse Hope. Dice has a formal Old West way of talking that might remind people of the Mattie character (played by Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld) in the 2010 remake of “True Grit.” Let’s be clear though: No one is getting an Oscar nomination for “A Love Song,” because it’s the type of low-budget, independent film that isn’t trying to be a showboating, “Oscar-bait” movie.

The other people whom Faye meet during her campout are a lesbian couple named Marie (played by Benja K. Thomas) and Jan (played by Michelle Wilson), who are camping not too far away from Faye. Marie tells Faye that Jan was supposed to propose marriage on this camping trip. Faye finds out about some of the problems in Marie and Jan’s relationship. These revelations somewhat affect how Faye thinks about having a long-term committed romance again. Faye also has brief encounters with a mail deliverer named Postman Sam (played by John Way), who delivers a letter to her in a very ironic moment.

“A Love Song” has long stretches showing Faye in solitude and doing mundane things, such as eating around a campfire or reading. Dickey is such a wonderfully expressive actress that she can tell an entire story from her facial expressions and body language without saying a word. Although “A Love Song” gives significant screen time to Lito (and Studi is quite good in this role), this is really a movie about Faye and her personal journey in deciding what she thinks will make her happy in this new chapter in her life.

Bleecker Street and Stage 6 Films released “A Love Song” in select U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 27, 2022.

Review: ‘No Exit,’ starring Havana Rose Liu, Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl and Mila Harris

February 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” (2022)

Directed by Damien Power

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “No Exit” features a racially diverse group of characters (white, Asian, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a blizzard that has caused road blockages and closures, a young woman finds herself trapped in a visitor center shelter with four strangers, when she finds out that a van owned by one of the strangers has a kidnapped girl inside.

Culture Audience: “No Exit” will appeal mainly to people who like any suspense thriller, no matter how idiotic the plot gets.

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” is an apt description for how this mystery thriller gets trapped in its own stupidity. It starts off suspenseful and then it takes a steep nosedive into illogical nonsense. There’s a long stretch of the film, which takes place during a snow blizzard, where the criminal element in the movie frantically struggles to get access to a car to make an escape. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are expecting viewers to forget that the entire point of the movie is that all the movie’s characters who are trapped in the blizzard know that the blizzard has caused the roads to blocked, with police guarding the roadblocks, and an escape isn’t really possible.

It’s not spoiler information to reveal that “No Exit” is about a serious crime that’s been committed, and whoever has committed this crime is in a small group of people at a visitor center shelter during this blizzard. The movie’s protagonist decides she’s going to be a one-woman police force to solve the mystery and get justice for this crime. Directed by Damien Power, “No Exit” was written by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. The movie’s screenplay is based on Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel of the same name. Even though some of the cast members give good performances, the entire movie has a flawed premise that’s poorly executed in the last half of the film.

“No Exit” begins with protagonist Darby (played by Havana Rose Liu) looking bored and emotionally disconnected in a drug rehab center somewhere in California. (“No Exit” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Darby is in her early 20s, and she’s in court-ordered rehab for a crime that is not mentioned in the movie. Through conversations in the movie, it’s revealed that Darby has been in rehab or tried to get clean and sober seven times already in her life.

During a rehab group meeting, Darby is told that she has an emergency phone call. When she takes the call, she finds out from her uncle Joe (voiced by David Chen) that her widowed mother has had a brain aneurysm and is in a hospital in Utah. Darby’s mother is scheduled to get a brain operation, but it’s a risky procedure. The medical diagnosis is that Darby’s mother might not have much longer to live.

Darby is estranged from the two family members who know her the best: her mother and Darby’s older sister Devon. And despite Darby’s pleas to make a phone call for this emergency, she’s denied this request by her rehab group leader Dr. Bill Fletcher (played by James Gaylyn) because it’s the rehab center’s rule that patients can’t make outgoing phone calls. Any incoming phone call for a patient has to be an emergency, and the call is monitored by the rehab center staff.

But this obstacle isn’t enough to stop Darby. She borrows a cell phone that was snuck in by another rehab patient, whose name is Jade (played by Nomi Cohen). Jade and Darby don’t like each other, but Jade reluctantly agrees to let Darby use her phone because Darby threatens to tell the rehab officials that Jade broke the rules by sneaking in a cell phone.

Darby uses the phone to call Devon (played by Lisa Zhang), who tells Darby in no uncertain terms that she’s doesn’t want Darby to contact her or visit their mother. Darby says she’s going to find a way to visit. Devon abruptly and angrily tells Darby, “I don’t have time for your bullshit. Don’t call me back!”

This rejection still doesn’t stop Darby. In broad daylight, she sneaks out of the rehab center to steal the car of an orderly named Mike (played by Nick Davies), nicknamed Mikey, who seemed to take pleasure in denying Darby any phone privileges. Darby has also stolen Jade’s phone. Darby’s plan is to take the stolen car and drive to Utah to see her mother. But this trip comes at a very bad time because she isn’t on the road for long when a blizzard hits while she’s in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

One of the first things that Darby found in Mike’s car was a small packet of cocaine hidden in the driver’s window shade. The movie plays guessing games with viewers over whether or not Darby will relapse by using this cocaine. Darby describes her drug addiction as being willing to do any drug that comes her way.

During this blizzard, Darby gets text messages from Devon that say, “Mom doesn’t want you here.” “You’ll only make it worse.” “Don’t come.” Darby is still undeterred. She pulls over on a road to get some sleep, and she has a nightmare that people outside the car are trying to get her. She wakes up to a state trooper named Ron Hill (played by Benedict Wall), who finds out why she’s traveling during a blizzard.

He tells Darby that the only road leading to Utah is closed, and she has one of two choices: She can either reverse and go back to where she came from, or she can stay at a visitor’s center a few hundred yards away. The center is being used as a temporary shelter during the storm. The trooper also mentions that some other travelers are already at the shelter.

Darby decides to go to the shelter. Inside, there are four other strangers. Ed (played by Dennis Haysbert) is a former U.S. Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm. Ed’s wife is Sandi (played by Dale Dickey), a former nurse who met Ed when she was working at a Veterans Administration hospital. This middle-aged couple is traveling to Reno, Nevada, to do some gambling. Rose and Ed are immediately friendly and welcoming to Darby.

The other two people in the shelter are men in their 20s: Lars (played by David Rysdahl) is introverted and eccentric. He’s the type of person who talks to himself out loud when other people are around. Ash (played by Danny Ramirez) is talkative and a little flirtatious with Darby. He can also be crude and insensitive. Darby and the other four people in the shelter make small talk as they get to know each other.

No one in the shelter can get any cell phone service or WiFi service because of the blizzard and because of where they are in this remote mountain area. Still, Darby occasionally goes outside the shelter near the parking lot to see if her phone can pick up a signal. It’s during one of her trips outdoors when Darby is alarmed to see a hand and noises coming from a van parked outside.

She goes inside the van and finds a kidnapped girl, who’s about 9 or 10 years old. The girl is bound and gagged and desperate to escape. However, Darby knows that she can’t use her phone to get help, so she tells the girl that she will help her, but she has to be patient. Darby later finds out that the girl’s name is Jay (played by Mila Harris), as well as more things about who Jay is and why she was kidnapped.

Feeling trapped and helpless, Darby goes back into the shelter and acts like nothing is wrong, in order to figure out who’s the driver of the van. Before she went back into the shelter, Darby noticed that the van has Nevada license plates. The rest of the movie is a ridiculous cat-and-mouse game where Darby tries to solve the mystery and get help for the kidnapped girl without getting caught by whoever is responsible for the abduction. It’s this second half of the movie that unveils some twists and turns, with each becoming more ludicrous as times goes on.

“No Exit” has so many bad decisions, not just with the characters, but also with how the filmmakers staged everything to look so phony in the latter half of the movie. As the flawed hero Darby, Liu does her best to try to make everything in this moronic film believable, but the movie completely buries any credibility with some of the stupid plot twists, just like the blizzard in this movie buries things in the snow. The rest of the cast members are fairly solid in their roles, except for Ramirez, whose performance becomes campier as the story devolves into an irredeemable mess. You know a movie is bad when it’s called “No Exit,” but everything that happens in the last half of the movie is as if the reason for this movie’s title doesn’t exist.

Hulu premiered “No Exit” on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Flag Day,’ starring Dylan Penn and Sean Penn

August 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sean Penn and Dylan Penn in “Flag Day” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Flag Day”

Directed by Sean Penn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Minnesota, the dramatic film “Flag Day” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman reflects on the troubled relationship that she’s had with her con-man father, who has been in and out of her life. 

Culture Audience: “Flag Day” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director/star Sean Penn, but this movie is an erratic mix of monotony and melodrama, adding up to disappointing filmmaking.

Dylan Penn in “Flag Day” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Flag Day” should’ve been titled “Daddy Issues in a Self-Indulgent Movie.” That should save people the trouble of wasting their time if they don’t want to see this rambling, uneven mess. Everything about this movie—from the acting to the screenwriting to the directing—could have been so much better, given the level of talent involved. Sadly, “Flag Day” is an example of what can happen when people capable of award-winning work just seem to be coasting off of those past glories instead of delivering a truly outstanding project.

Directed by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, “Flag Day” is the sixth feature film that he’s directed but the first in which he’s both the director and a star. “The Flag Day” screenplay, written by brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is based on journalist Jennifer Vogel’s memoir “Flim-Flam Man.” In real life, Jennifer’s father John Vogel was a notorious con man who was responsible for counterfeiting millions of dollars.

In “Flag Day,” Jennifer (played by Dylan Penn, the real-life daughter of Sean Penn and his second ex-wife Robin Wright) is the narrator and is supposed to be the story’s main character. However, she’s overshadowed by her father John (played by Sean Penn), even when he isn’t on screen, because the filmmakers make the Jennifer character someone who’s constantly thinking about and reacting to whatever her father does. It is very off-putting because it’s yet another movie where toxic masculinity is given more importance and more forgiveness than the woman at the center of the story while she’s supposed to be finding her own identity.

There’s a half-hearted attempt at a “female empowerment” message during the last five minutes of the film. But it smacks of insincerity because she only arrives at this breakthrough not through her own choice but because she’s been forced to do so under some very disturbing circumstances where she has no other option. And the way she finds out that she has no choice is one of the worst scenes in the movie.

“Flag Day” gets its title because John was born on Flag Day. It’s another sign that this movie wants to be more about John than about Jennifer. As Jennifer says in her voiceover narration, because John was born on Flag Day, he likes to believe that any Flag Day parades and celebrations are really for him. Get ready for more narcissism and delusions of grandeur, because John is the epitome of these obnoxious personality traits.

The movie shows Jennifer at various stages in her life, from childhood to adulthood, in chronological order. The exception is the opening scene, which takes place in a police station when Jennifer is an adult in her 20s. She’s meeting with someone named U.S. Marshal Blake (played by Regina King), who shows Jennifer some of the evidence that law enforcement has against John for his counterfeiting activities. According to U.S. Marshal Blake, John passed more than $50,000 in counterfeit U.S. bills and had printed about $2 million worth of more counterfeit bills. For his forgeries, John was facing a maximum of 75 years in prison.

U.S. Marshal Blake seems sympathetic to Jennifer and confides in her that her own father “poked so many holes in his arm” (in order words, he was a needle-using drug addict) “that it was like a rehearsal for the ultimate rejection.” U.S. Marshal Blake adds, “We get used to it, don’t we?” The movie circles back to this scene with U.S. Marshal Blake toward the end of the film, as viewers find out what happened to John after he was caught for his forgery.

But in between, the rest of the story is about how John held Jennifer as an emotional hostage for much of her life—even when she didn’t know it. Because the movie is supposed to be told from Jennifer’s perspective, her childhood memories of John tend to be rosier than what he deserved. There are obvious clues that things were not as wonderful as Jennifer remembers.

The movie’s flashback timeline begins in the early 1970s, when 6-year-old Jennifer (played by Addison Tymec), who grew up in Minnesota, has memories of her parents being free spirits who liked to party and go on road trips. Jennifer remembers her father as the more fun-loving parent. John and his wife Patty Vogel (played by Katheryn Winnick) moved around a lot with Jennifer and her introverted brother Nick (played by Cole Flynn), who is two years younger than Jennifer. As Jennifer tells it, she began to think that if her life were a fairytale, her father would definitely be a prince.

In reality, John had trouble making an honest living. He jumped around from one “get rich quick” scheme to the next, always with the promise that the latest one would be the one to make their dreams come true. And he also got involved with shady people, with John often owing large sums of money. If John showed up at home looking like he was in a fight, chances are it was because of his debts.

The movie shows that as a child, Jennifer also witnessed John verbally and physically abuse Patty. But as many children in abusive homes tend to do, they block out the worst memories. Jennifer still thought of her father as her hero. There’s a scene of reckless John teaching Jennifer at around 11 or 12 years old (played by Jadyn Rylee) how to drive, by having her sit on his lap to operate the car, even though she could barely reach the gas pedal and brake pedal. Tymec and Rylee are quite good in their roles as childhood Jennifer.

John’s con games and irresponsible lifestyle eventually took a toll on his marriage to Patty, who became an alcoholic. Patty left John around the time that Jennifer was 13 years old and Nick (played by Beckam Crawford) was about 11 years old. The couple eventually divorced. Because of Patty’s alcoholism, there’s a brief period of time when Jennifer and Nick live with John and his girlfriend Debbie (played by Bailey Noble), who treats the kids well. The children get a first-hand look at John’s outlaw lifestyle.

Because Jennifer idolizes her father, she blames Patty for the couple’s divorce. When Patty tries to warn Jennifer about how much John can be hurtful, Jennifer always dismisses these warnings. More than once, Patty tells Jennifer that she “knows things” about John that she can’t tell Jennifer. Those secrets are never revealed in the movie, but they don’t really have to be disclosed because enough is shown about John to prove what a lousy person he is.

The only other Vogel family members who are shown in the movie are John’s brother Beck (played by Josh Brolin) and their mother Margaret (played by Dale Dickey). Beck is sympathetic to Patty and helps her and the kids get settled into a new place when she decides to leave John. Beck is an intermittent presence in their lives, and he candidly tells Patty how sorry he is that John couldn’t be a better husband and father.

Margaret is a crabby racist who has one scene in the movie, where she complains that John (who is clearly her favorite child) had a great business years ago until it was burned down. Margaret says that she and John think jealous black people were the ones who caused the fire, even though there’s no proof of who committed the arson. Considering John’s history as a con man and his constant money problems, it’s easy to speculate that John was the one who committed the arson for the insurance money.

The movie than fast-forwards to 1981. Jennifer is now a rebellious, drug-abusing teenager in high school. Her natural blonde hair is dyed black and styled to look like she’s a Joan Jett wannabe. (It’s an obvious wig though. This movie needed a better hairstyling team.) Jennifer and Nick live with Patty and her boyfriend Doc (played by Norbert Leo Butz), who tries to come across as a respectable, upstanding person. In reality, Doc is a drunk and a sleazeball, who tries to sexually assault Jennifer one night in her bedroom while Patty is asleep.

Jennifer screams and manages to fight him off. The commotion is loud enough to wake up Patty, who goes in the room to find out what all the noise is about. Patty sees how distraught Jennifer is and sees that Doc is on the floor in his underwear. It’s easy to figure out what happened, even though Jennifer is too shocked and/or ashamed to say it out loud. Patty takes Doc’s side and makes the excuse that he was drunk and probably thought he was in the wrong bedroom.

Jennifer’s relationship with her mother is never really the same after that. They have some very angry arguments, where Jennifer expresses outrage that her mother failed to protect her from Doc. It isn’t long before Jennifer runs away from home. Jennifer barely says goodbye to Nick (played by Hopper Jack Penn, Dylan Penn’s real-life brother), who just kind of fades into the background for the rest of the movie.

After Jennifer experiences the harshness of living on the streets (the movie doesn’t say for how long), Jennifer decides to show up unannounced at her father John’s place, where he lives alone. Jennifer asks John if she can stay with him. John is reluctant at first, but he eventually agrees. Jennifer also tries to get him to turn his life around.

John actually gets a straight-laced sales job in an office. But viewers can easily predict that John, who’s spent most of his adult life as a con man, is eventually going back to his criminal ways. The movie telegraphs it in the opening scene, where Jennifer has the meeting with U.S Marshal Blake about John’s counterfeiting.

After a while, it becomes tiresome to see the same patterns over and over again: Jennifer loves her father, but she can’t really trust him because he’s a pathological liar. They are in and out of each other’s lives. She struggles with deciding whether to give him yet another chance or to completely cut herself off from him.

But here’s the biggest problem with how Jennifer’s story is told in this movie: Even when Jennifer reaches adulthood, John is still portrayed as her unhealthy focus in life. Not once do viewers see if Jennifer had any significant friendships or fell in love—in other words, the movie makes it look like she never established any deep emotional connections or meaningful relationships with anyone besides her father. Jennifer and her brother Nick were close as children, but after she ran away from home, it seems like they were never that close again.

There are montages of Jennifer being a drifter and partying with various people whose names and personalities are never shown in the movie. Eventually, Jennifer decides to get her life together, and she enrolls in the University of Minnesota in 1985. But even that scene looks rushed and phony. She has a meeting with an admissions officer named Dr. Halstead (played by Nigel Fisher), who scolds her for lying on her application by trying to hide that she’s a high school dropout. At first Jennifer denies it, but then she admits she deliberately lied and admits that she never graduated from high school.

Dr. Halstead takes pity on her and says that if she lied about something like that, then it must mean that she really wants a college education. And just like that, he says that Jennifer can enroll in the university. In reality, university admissions are much more complicated and have more people involved in making the decisions than what’s portrayed in this movie. And telling a big lie on a college application would be automatic grounds for disqualification, unless someone can squeak by because of exceptional intelligence or because the applicant’s family is rich. Jennifer doesn’t fit either description.

“Flag Day” doesn’t know if it wants to be a gritty drama or a hokey soap opera. Jennifer says corny lines in her narration, such as when she makes this comment about her rogue father: “He left a trail of broken glass and broken hearts.” What is this? A Hallmark Channel movie? No, because there’s cursing, drug use and violence.

Sean Penn’s direction tends to be overwrought with close-ups of Dylan Penn’s face, as if Jennifer is a tragic ingenue heroine who has to bear the burdens of her father’s sins. She does an adequate job in her role overall, except in the melodramatic scenes which just look like over-acting. Sean Penn tries to depict John as a lovably messed-up outlaw. But it’s all so unconvincing and too contrived, in order to gloss over the reality of John being an abuser and a racist. Sean Penn does a lot of annoying mugging for the camera in this movie.

While the filmmakers clearly want viewers to feel sympathy for Jennifer, nowhere is it adequately addressed how she did some emotional damage of her own too, when she abandoned her younger brother Nick. The movie doesn’t care to explore how Nick was affected by all of his family trauma. And because “Flag Day” never shows Jennifer having any real friends or lovers, the movie leaves a big question mark about how her dysfunctional childhood affected her personal relationships as an adult.

There’s something very wrong with a movie that’s supposed to be about a young woman’s journey to form her own identity, and yet viewers learn more about who her father hangs out with and dates than they learn about her personal life. It’s a sloppily told story where the filmmakers use a woman’s pain as a “bait and switch” gimmick, when the movie is really a showcase about a man behaving badly.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Flag Day” in select U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.

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