Review: ‘News of the World,’ starring Tom Hanks

December 23, 2020

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in “News of the World” (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“News of the World”

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1870 in Texas, the dramatic film “News of the World” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans and African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widower Civil War veteran who makes a living as a news reader is unexpectedly tasked with the responsibility of transporting an orphaned girl to her closest living relatives.

Culture Audience: “News of the World” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic stories about American life in the South during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era.

Tom Hanks in “News of the World” (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“News of the World” solidly offers the tried-and-true concept of an adult who’s inexperienced with taking care of children but who’s suddenly forced to be responsible for the well-being and safety of a child for a considerable period of time. It’s usually the stuff of comedies, but “News of the World” is a serious-minded drama that once again has Tom Hanks playing a heroic figure. In “News of the World,” he’s a traveling Civil War veteran in Texas who’s never been a father, but he’s been given the responsibility of bringing an orphaned girl who doesn’t speak English to her closest living relatives whom she’s never met. You know exactly how this movie is supposed to end.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, “News of the World” is a well-made but not a particularly innovative film because so much of this story has been done before in other movies that are essentially “road trip” films. “News of the World” will satisfy people who like shoot ’em up Westerns (since there are several shootout scenes), and the film will also please people who like somewhat melancholy dramas about human perseverance under harsh conditions. The movie is nearly two hours long but sometimes feels like it’s longer because there are considerable stretches when it meanders at a slow pace.

“News of the World” is based on Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel of the same name. Greengrass wrote the adapted screenplay with Luke Davies. It’s a good screenplay (but not outstanding) that all the actors handle with skill, even if at times the supporting characters come across as a little too generic because of the transient nature of the plot. The cinematic version of this story mostly does justice to the book because of the top-notch cinematography, costume design and production design. Greengrass and Hanks previously worked together in 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” which is based on a true story and is an overall better film than “News of the World.”

If you think Hanks is playing a stoic good guy who finds out that he’s a lot better at taking care of a child than he originally thought, then you would be absolutely correct. Hanks portrays Capt. Jefferson “Jeffrey” Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars and a widower with no children. He’s based in Texas and goes from town to town, making a living as a news reader: someone who reads news reports in newspapers for a gathering of townspeople and reads the reports with an engaging, storytelling style.

It’s 1870, five years after the U.S. Civil War has ended. It’s revealed later in the story that Jefferson’s wife died in 1865, at the age of 33. The Reconstruction Era is under way, but there’s a still a lot of resentment from Southerners toward the federal government and against the Union soldiers who defeated the Confederate soldiers during the war. The slaves have been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, but white supremacy is still the law, and therefore people of color don’t have the same rights as white people.

Racism is addressed in this movie in a predictable way that might or might not be satisfactory enough, depending on your perspective. The movie begins in Wichita Falls in North Texas, where Jefferson has just had a very well-received reading session with the local white people. He seems to think it’s a friendly town, but then he gets a chilling reminder about the brutality of racism.

While riding his horse in a forest area, Jefferson sees some bloody drag marks on the ground. The marks look like a human body was being dragged. And sure enough, Jefferson finds out that the bloody drag marks lead to the body of a lynched African American man. (The man’s face is not shown in the movie, because it might have been too explicit.) Attached to the man’s body is a sign that reads: “Texas Says No! This is a white man’s country.”

Jefferson is very disturbed by this crime scene, but as someone who’s just passing through town, there’s nothing he can do about it. Suddenly, he sees a blonde girl (played by Helena Zengel), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. She’s wearing a deerskin dress, and she runs away in the woods when she sees Jefferson. He chases after her because she looks like an unaccompanied child who could be in danger. She’s a feisty child because she bites Jefferson’s hand when he catches up to her.

Jefferson sees that the girl has run back to the wreckage of a carriage accident that has resulted in the the death of the male driver. Jefferson finds some paperwork in the car wreck that reveals the girl’s birth name is Johannna Leonberger. She is an orphan whose parents were killed by an invasion of Kiowa Indians six years before.

And apparently, she was raised by the Kiowa Indians because she only speaks Kiowa. The girl’s Kiowan name is Cicada. Johanna’s Kiowa Indian family was massacred, so she is now an orphan again.

The paperwork found at the carriage accident indicates that Johanna was being driven to her closest living relatives: an aunt named Anna Leonberger and Anna’s husband Wilhelm Leonberger, who are German immigrants living in Castroville, Texas. Jefferson thinks he can just drop the child off at the Reconstruction Era version of Child Protective Services. But he finds out that the agent who’s supposed to handle this type of child welfare case is out of town and won’t be back for three months. Jefferson tells the office that he will handle the responsibility of taking Johanna to her aunt and uncle in Castroville.

Jefferson has enough compassion not to abandon Johanna, but he doesn’t want to change his plans to travel to the next town to do a news-reading session that was already scheduled. And so, he reluctantly brings Johanna with him, with the intention of devoting the rest of the journey to bringing Johanna to her aunt and uncle. Jefferson knows that he will be losing a lot of income by taking this unexpected trip, because he won’t be able to stop and do as many news readings as he’d like to do.

Jefferson asks a married couple he knows—Simon Boudlin (played by Ray McKinnon) and Doris Boudlin (played by Mare Winningham)—to look after Johanna while Jefferson is busy with the news reading session that he has scheduled for that evening. But in a story like this, you know that something will go wrong. And it does.

Jefferson comes back from the news reading session to find out that Johanna has run away, just as a rainstorm hits the area. It leads to Jefferson, Simon and Doris frantically looking for Johanna in the dark and rainy night. Across an embankment, Johanna sees a tribe of Indians traveling by horse and tries to get their attention because she thinks she belongs with them. But the tribe is too far away, and Jefferson soon catches up to her.

Johanna realizes that she needs Jefferson in order to survive because no one else is looking out for her. Before Jefferson leaves town with Johanna in an apothecary wagon given to them by the Boudlins, Simon gives Jefferson a loaded revolver. And you just know that gun is going to come in handy later on, because a trip like this won’t go smoothly.

The rest of the story is what you might expect from a tale about an adult and a child—both complete strangers and out of their comfort zones—who have been forced to travel together and slowly learn to trust each other. And because there’s the language barrier, it prevents these two travelers in “News of the World” from having the snap’n’crackle dialogue that makes the “True Grit” movies (another 1870s Western saga about a man and a girl on a road trip) so much fun to watch. “News of the World” is a mostly solemn and sometimes suspenseful story about what Jefferson and Johanna encounter in their travels.

Although they have plenty of dangerous experiences on this journey, Jefferson and Johanna also have some friendly encounters, demonstrating how generous people are capable of being to strangers. At a boarding house in Dallas, they meet the woman in charge who plays a key role in breaking through the language barrier between Jefferson and Johanna. This kind stranger is named Mrs. Gannett (played by Elizabeth Marvel), and she knows how to speak Kiowa, so she acts as a translator.

One of the most memorable parts of the story is an extended shootout sequence that happens between Jefferson and a creepy criminal named J.G. Almay (played by Michael Angelo Covino), who brings two cronies along for the shootout. The trouble with Almay begins one evening when Jefferson and Johanna are getting ready to leave Dallas at night.

Almay notices Johanna and offers to buy her from Jefferson, who immediately refuses. It’s implied that Almay has lecherous intentions, and Jefferson is well-aware that this scumbag probably wants to abuse Johanna. Almay doesn’t want to take no for an answer, so Jefferson and Almay get into a brief scuffle over it.

Two federal officers happen to notice the fight and break it up. Jefferson explains what happened and shows the paperwork to prove that he has the authority to bring Johanna to her relatives. Almay is then arrested, but before he’s carted off to jail, he yells at Jefferson: “I’ll be seeing you, captain! You hear me? I’m coming for you!”

Almay gets out on bail and soon has two other cowboy thugs (played by Clay James and Cash Lilley) accompanying him (each on a separate horse) to follow Jefferson and Johanna’s carriage. It’s now daylight, and somehow these three stalkers have found out where Jefferson and Johanna are and have already caught up to them. The chase scene leads to a clifftop shootout that’s the most action-packed part of the movie. It’s also a pivotal scene in the movie because it’s during this ordeal that Johanna shows that she’s willing and able to be of great help to Jefferson.

Another nemesis in the story is a town leader named Mr. Farley (played by Thomas Francis Murphy), who owns a lot of property and rules the town almost like a dictator. He has some sons whom he uses as his personal group of enforcers. And when Jefferson comes to town, Mr. Farley wants to tell Jefferson what kind of news he should read to the citizens: only news that will make Mr. Farley look good.

Jefferson doesn’t like being told what to do, so he lets the townspeople decide what stories they want Jefferson to read. It’s a power move that results in more conflict and another shootout. And someone with wavering loyalties ends up taking Jefferson’s side.

Not all of the adversaries on this trip are human. The weather plays a role in causing some frightening moments. A scene that’s a particular standout is when Joanna and Jefferson are caught in a dust storm and get separated from each other. The work of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is put to excellent use in this tension-filled scene.

Because “News of the World” is centered on the evolving relationship between Jefferson and Johanna, viewers should not expect a lot of character development from any other people in the movie. And the only supporting characters who speak on camera are white people, perhaps as a way for the filmmakers to portray the deep-seated racial segregation in 1870 Texas. People of color in the movie (Native Americans and a few African Americans) are not given any significant dialogue, even in a scene where Johanna approaches some Kiowa Indians and talks to them. (What she says to them is not shown on camera.) Texas has always been a state with a significant Latino population, but inexplicably, there are no Latinos with speaking lines in this movie.

Hanks delivers a quality performance, as one might expect. But his co-star Zengel is especially impressive because she has to express a lot different emotions with very little dialogue. “News of the World” hits a lot of familiar tropes and has the type of sweeping musical score from James Newton Howard that is very much in the vein of traditional Westerns from Hollywood movie studios. The movie is the equivalent of American comfort food: People know what to expect, and there’s no real departure from the filmmaking recipe of a Western drama about an American hero.

Universal Pictures will release “News of the World” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘The Climb’ (2020), starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin

November 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in “The Climb” (Photo by Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Climb” (2020)

Directed by Michael Angelo Covino 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and France, the comedy/drama film “The Climb” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men, who are longtime best friends, have ups and downs in their relationship, which is often affected by jealousy and personal rivalries.

Culture Audience: “The Climb” will appeal primarily to people who like seeing low-budget films that take a bittersweet and comical look at a close male friendship.

Kyle Marvin, Michael Angelo Covino and Gayle Rankin in “The Climb” (Photo by Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Climb” is the type of dramedy movie that doesn’t really get made much anymore: It’s about two regular guys and their longtime friendship, with the movie taking place over the course of about 10 years. That’s it. There’s no real gimmick or hook, although there’s the predictable love triangle that threatens to permanently ruin their relationship. “The Climb” isn’t a barrier-breaking movie, but it has moments that are mostly relatable, even if they might teeter at times on the brink of absurd.

The two American friends at the center of “The Climb” are portrayed by the real-life pals who wrote the movie: “The Climb” director/co-writer Michael Angelo Covino plays Mike, while “The Climb” co-writer Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. “The Climb” is based on Covino and Marvin’s short film of the same name. Their real-life friendship helps with their acting in the movie, which at times is a tad amateurish, but it still has that underlying authenticity that shines through the acting. The ages of the Mike and Kyle characters aren’t stated in the movie, but it appears that the story is about the lives of these two characters from their late 20s to late 30s.

“The Climb” is not biographical, although in the production notes for “The Climb,” Covino and Marvin say that elements of their personalities are reflected in the characters that they portray in the movie. As Covino states in the production notes: “In the movie, there are heightened, extreme versions of traits we both have that aren’t necessarily our best traits—I’m not that big of an asshole, and Kyle is not that big of a pushover.”

It’s apparent from the first scene in “The Climb” that the character of Mike is the dominant “alpha male” in the friendship, while Kyle is the passive “beta male.” Mike and Kyle are riding bicycles up a rigorous incline in the French Alps. They’re supposed to be bike riding for “fun,” but it’s clear from all the strenuous effort put into their bike riding that there’s a silent competition between them to see who’s the better and stronger cyclist during this ride.

The friendly rivalry mood is broken when Mike tells Kyle that he has slept with Kyle’s fiancée, who is a French woman named Ava (played by Judith Godrèche). Mike downplays this affair by saying that it happened three years before Kyle and Ava began dating, but Kyle is still understandably shocked and upset that this secret is just now being revealed. And then Mike eventually admits that he slept with Ava after she and Kyle became a couple.

Mike has a tendency to be bossy and arrogant, because he always likes to be in control of a situation. He tells Kyle to keep pedaling, even after Kyle has heard this upsetting news about Mike and Ava’s affair. Mike also has a quick temper, because during this bike ride, he gets into a road-rage incident that lands him in the hospital. Shortly after Mike confesses to Kyle about the affair, a car drives up behind them on the road, and the car’s driver beeps the horn impatiently because Kyle and Mike are blocking the car’s way.

Mike’s response is to yell at the driver to drive around him and Kyle. The driver complies by driving past the two friends, but Mike won’t let things go, and he chases after the car on his bike. To Mike and Kyle’s surprise, the driver reacts by getting out of the car and beating up Mike, who is no match for the fighting skills of the driver. You’d think that Mike would be humbled by this experience. But no.

At the hospital, Ava shows up to visit. Although she seems to feel guilty that Kyle knows that she cheated on him with his best friend, Mike tries to shrug off everything and acts like Kyle will eventually get over it. Viewers will get the impression that a big part of Mike’s attraction to Ava is because she’s with Kyle, and Mike gets some kind of selfish and competitive pleasure out of being able to sleep with his best friend’s lover.

At any rate, Mike and Ava admit that don’t want to stay away from each other and they start to passionately kiss in Mike’s hospital room. And guess who walks by and sees them right at that moment? Kyle, of course.

The movie then fast-forwards to a funeral in the United States. The funeral has taken place an untold number of years later, perhaps three or four years after that scene in the hospital. It’s revealed that the funeral is for Ava, whose cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. In the years since Kyle found out that Ava and Mike had an affair behind his back, Mike and Kyle’s friendship soured. Ava and Mike got married, and then she died.

At the funeral, Mike and Kyle have obviously not seen each other for quite some time. Their “reunion” is awkward, to say the least. And then at the funeral, a hot-tempered Mike gets into a physical fight with a local gravedigger over the burial of Ava. Kyle, who has a “peacemaker” type of personality, intervenes in the fight and is able to stop it before things get really ugly. Mike then tells Kyle that he’s sorry about the affair with Ava. And it looks like Kyle and Mike sort of reconcile.

Since breaking up with Ava, Kyle moved on to another love: a no-nonsense, opinionated woman named Marissa (played by Gayle Rankin), who is the dominant one in the relationship. It’s never stated exactly how long Marissa and Kyle have been dating each other after his relationship with Ava ended, but Kyle and Marissa have known each other since high school and one thing is clear: Kyle’s mother Suzi (played by Talia Balsam), who is also strong-willed and domineering, doesn’t like Marissa. Kyle’s father Jim (played by George Wendt) is as easygoing as Suzi is uptight.

Kyle seems afraid to stand up to his mother, because when viewers first see Marissa and Kyle together, they are in the basement at Jim and Suzi’s house, and Marissa is giving Kyle a pep talk where they both practice saying “no” to Suzi. The family has gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. And it’s where Kyle and Marissa make a big announcement: They’re engaged to be married.

Suzi isn’t thrilled, but there’s nothing she can do about it. And then she tells Kyle something that makes him uncomfortable: She’s invited Mike over for the family’s upcoming Christmas dinner because Mike “has no family.” It’s never explained in the movie why Mike has no family members.

Mike is now a bitter and lonely widower who drinks heavily. He once had an athletic body, but his toned physique is gone, and now he has a flabby “beer gut” and an unkempt beard. And when he shows up at the Christmas dinner, he gets drunk and embarrasses himself. You know what that means in movies like this: A Christmas tree, a Christmas gift or fill-in-the-blank will be unlucky enough to be in the path of destruction of the drunk person.

The rest of the movie follows Mike and Kyle as they mend their friendship and adjust to new dynamics in their relationship after Kyle and Marissa become parents to a son named Otis, and then Kyle and Marissa get married. Mike is the type of guy who isn’t used to being a lonely bachelor, so he has some jealousy over Kyle falling in love and making Marissa a top priority in his personal life. Will Mike try to sabotage Kyle and Marissa’s relationship?

Things aren’t completely rosy in Kyle and Marissa’s relationship. After Mike comes back into Kyle’s life, Marissa often feels like a “third wheel” when Mike and Kyle hang out together. And there are hints that Marissa might not be in love with Kyle as much as he’s in love with her.

Although “The Climb” has some slightly amusing moments, one of the biggest issues that people might have with this movie is that it doesn’t give much background information on Kyle and Mike. Backstories for these two friends would go a long way in explaining why Kyle puts up with so much of Mike’s obnoxiousness. The movie never really answers this question: Why does Kyle show so much loyalty to Mike, who doesn’t show much loyalty in return?

Some people stay friends with someone longer than they should because they’ve known each other since childhood or because family or money matters would make it awkward or inconvenient to end the friendship. But there’s really no reason for Kyle to keep Mike in his life. They don’t work together, they don’t seem to have much in common except for a shared interest in sporting activities, and they both have very different outlooks and priorities in life.

Someone as selfish and toxic as Mike is an example of that old cliché: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” But Mike isn’t a complete villain. He has a charming side to him and is the type of person who knows how to exploit people’s weaknesses, which is why Kyle is easily manipulated by Mike.

Still, the movie skimps on a lot of details. During the course of the several years of the friendship that’s shown on screen, it’s not really made clear what Kyle and Mike do for a living. (They’re obviously middle-class.) Mike’s home life as a widower is also a big mystery. Whenever Mike and Kyle are hanging out together, they’re usually at Kyle’s place or they’re out doing some activity together, such as bike riding or skiing.

Covino’s direction of the movie can best be described as “good but not great,” because the tone sometime veers into sitcom-ish territory. A more naturalistic comedic tone works better for the movie and should have been the overall consistent approach to the film. For example, there are a few things that happen during Kyle and Marissa’s wedding ceremony that are just a little too over-the-top, like a TV comedy that’s desperate for a “laugh track” moment.

The movie is divided into seven chapters with titles such as “I’m Sorry,” “Let Go,” “Thanks,” “It’s Broken,” “Fight On,” “Grow Up” and “Fine.” It’s an interesting creative choice, but because there are huge blocks of time missing from the story, structuring the movie like a book with chapters just calls more attention to these omissions and how many questions are left unanswered. (For example, viewers never get to see what kind of marriage that Ava and Mike had.)

The cinematography by Zach Kuperstein makes much of the story engaging. During the Christmas dinner scene, there’s a memorably long tracking shot that works really well, with the camera placed outside but viewers still being able to hear what’s inside. And the scenes with outdoor activities give viewers an immersive sense of being right there with the actors. (It helps to see this movie on the biggest screen possible.)

Above all, the banter between Kyle and Mike is the main reason to watch “The Climb,” because they have the type of friendship that will make people wonder how long it’s going to last and if there’s anything that Mike will do that Kyle wouldn’t be able to forgive. There are issues of masculinity and maturity that are just underneath the surface in almost everything they say or do. Kyle might be the “wimp” and the more easily manipulated one of this duo, but Mike has a lot of growing up to do. Viewers might have different answers on whether Mike or Kyle is the more co-dependent one in the relationship.

As for the women in the movie (namely, Marissa and Suzi, since Ava is barely in the film), they mainly exist to show that Kyle has outspoken women in his life whom he loves but they can also hurt him deeply. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t give Mike any context for how and why he acts the way that he does. It’s not necessarily about making him more likable, but it would give viewers more insight into his personality flaws.

There are vague inferences that Mike’s romantic relationships are often based in chaos. But because the movie shows almost nothing of Mike’s life except when it relates to Kyle, there’s a missed opportunity to show Mike as a more well-rounded human being instead of someone who exists to hang out with Kyle and to sometimes push Kyle’s emotional buttons. It would’ve been interesting for the movie to further explore how Mike’s mother or other women might have influenced his outlook on male/female relationships.

Despite some of the problems in story’s structure and character development, “The Climb” has an unpretentious, almost goofy tone that will endear it to people who want to see a good movie about male friendship without making it about over-aggerated machismo or slapstick buffoonery. There’s a familiarity to a lot of the movie’s material, but Covino and Marvin make a notable impression as “everyday guys” without being generic. “The Climb” is a movie about a friendship that’s more like “chosen family,” even when that choice sometimes get in the way of happiness.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Climb” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020.

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