Review: ‘Death in Texas,’ starring Ronnie Gene Blevins, Bruce Dern, Lara Flynn Boyle and Stephen Lang

July 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ronnie Gene Blevins in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas”

Directed by Scott Windhauser

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in El Paso, Texas, the dramatic film “Death in Texas” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A recently released ex-con finds himself returning to a life of crime so that he can get enough money to pay for his mother’s life-or-death liver transplant. 

Culture Audience: “Death in Texas” will appeal primarily to people who like watching violent crime movies with badly written, unrealistic scenes.

Bruce Dern in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas” has too many far-fetched scenarios to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this dreadful crime drama takes itself way too seriously. There’s a lot of corny acting from experienced actors who embarrass themselves by being in this movie. And anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of organ transplants and hospitals will be cringing at the preposterous plot development in the last third of the movie.

Written and directed by Scott Windhauser, “Death in Texas” is also exceedingly tedious with its nonsensical murders that are nothing but excuses to fill this movie with violent and often-unrealistic fight scenes. The first clue that “Death in Texas” is a constant failure at realism is in the opening scene when 37-year-old prisoner Billy Walker (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins) is in a parole hearing and gets paroled in a very phony “only in a movie” moment. (“Death in Texas” takes place primarily in El Paso, Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.)

During the parole hearing, which has a parole board of only two people—one named Charles (played by Clark Harris) and one named Antonio (played by Daniel Steven Gonzalez)—Billy is being questioned about his rehabiltation while in prison. Billy is asked, “Do you take responsibility for your crime?” Billy replies, “As much as I can.” It’s not exactly a sign of remorse, which is a requirement to get paroled.

Billy says that he wants to be paroled so that he can take care of his mother. Charles and Antonio are not convinced that Billy has been fully rehabilitated and is ready for release. Just as they’re about to deny parole to Billy, a woman who is later revealed as parole officer Sarah Jensen (played by Veronica Burgess) suddenly appears and shows Charles and Antonio something in a file of papers. And just like that, Charles and Antonio change their minds and sign off on Billy getting parole.

Through flashbacks, the movie shows that Billy was in prison for manslaughter, and he served seven years in prison for this crime before being paroled. When his mother Grace Edwards (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) was a waitress at a diner, Billy witnessed a customer (played by Morgan Redmond) physically harassing Grace. And so, an enraged Billy beat up this man so badly that he died. The deadly assault took place in full view of other people at the diner, so there was no mystery over who committed the crime.

It’s shown many times throughout “Death in Texas” that Billy is so devoted to his mother that he will do anything for her. And yet, after Billy gets paroled, he’s shown walking by himself on a deserted highway, like a pitiful ex-con with no one who cares about him, and then showing up at Grace’s house unannounced. She seems elated and surprised to see him.

This homecoming scene doesn’t ring true, because Billy is such a mama’s boy that he would be the type to tell his mother that he was paroled, so she would be ready for him when he got released. After all, Billy has nowhere else to go but to live with his mother after getting out of prison. Considering all the extreme trouble that Billy goes through for his mother in this story, you’d think he’d tell her that he was paroled and that he needed a place to stay instead of just showing up without telling her in advance.

It’s one of many inconsistent and sloppily written scenes in the movie, which awkwardly tries to be gritty when it comes to all the criminal activities, but then attempts to be mawkishly sentimental when it comes to anything to do with Grace. Her backstory is revealed in bits and pieces of conversations in the movie. Grace gave birth to Billy when she was 15 years old, and her marriage to Billy’s father’s ended in divorce. She also got divorced from her second husband.

Soon after Billy is released from prison, Grace (who is currently a receptionist for a law firm) is having a small house party attended by her current boyfriend Todd (played by Craig Nigh), who brags to Billy about the four days that he spent incarcerated. It should come as no surprise that Billy and Todd clash immediately, and they end up having a fist fight. Grace admits to Billy that Todd is a jerk and that she has horrible taste in men. Todd is never seen again for the rest of the movie.

Grace has a much bigger problem than a tendency to get involved with losers. She needs a liver transplant, but she has rare type AB blood and can’t find a donor match. Her liver is failing not because she abused alcohol or drugs but because it might be a congenital conditon. If Grace doesn’t get the transplant, she’ll die. And what Billy does to try to solve this problem is more eye-rolling nonsense.

First, Billy goes to see Grace’s physician Dr. Perkins (played by Sam Daly) to find out what he can do to help Grace find a donor. Dr. Perkins says that he can’t reveal certain information about Grace’s condition because of doctor-patient confidentiality. And then, Dr. Perkins proceeds to violate that confidentiality and all sorts of other medical ethics by telling Billy everything private about Grace’s medical situation that Billy wants to know.

Dr. Perkins tells Billy that Grace has six months to one year to live. The doctor keeps changing this life-expectancy number to a shorter period of time the more this idiotic movie goes on, until Grace supposedly only has a few days left to live. Dr. Perkins also mentions that because Grace is so far down on a waiting list to find a donor, it’s impossible for her to get a liver in time, unless she can get a liver on the black market.

Dr. Perkins says that he knows someone in Guadalajara, Mexico, who can sell a liver for $160,000. And as a warning to Billy not to report any medical violations, the doctor tells Billy, “I’ll obviously deny that we had this conversation.” The $160,000 price tag is way beyond what Billy can afford, so it makes him desperate. Even if Billy had ever heard of legal ways to raise money for a health crisis, such as starting a crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe, there would be no “Death in Texas” movie if he did things legally to solve this problem.

Billy makes several attempts to find a legitimate job, but he’s rejected by every place he goes to find work because he’s an ex-con on parole. A friend of his named Kevin (played by Rocko Reyes) is a manager at a car dealership that’s owned by Kevin’s father. In a job interview, Kevin tells Billy that he would hire Billy, but Kevin’s father is the one who doesn’t want any felons working for the company.

And so, with time running out to get the money for the liver, it becomes inevitable that Billy turns to a life of crime. He decides he’ll get the money he wants by robbing other criminals. First, he targets a drug dealer named Tyler Griggs (played by Mike Foy), a former acquaintance of Billy’s, who looks and acts like a bad parody of a rapper, complete with gold teeth and a laughably horrible attempt to sound like he’s a white guy who grew up in a black ghetto.

An even bigger robbery target is a drug rehab guru named Richard Reynolds (played by Bruce Dern), a rich entrepreneur with a shady past. He currently owns a well-known drug rehab center called Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch. Billy sees a TV news report that Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch has received a large of amount of funding from a recent deal with El Paso General Hospital.

Through an Internet search, Billy finds out that several years ago, Reynolds was acquitted on marijuana drug smuggling charges. Billy also discovers that Reynolds has ties to a major drug cartel. And in a silly movie like “Death in Texas,” Billy decides that Reynolds will be a perfect person to rob. Never mind that Reynolds has a small squad of violent thugs who are his bodyguards and enforcers.

Meanwhile, Grace has ended up at El Paso General Hospital because her liver condition has gotten worse. One day, while she’s in her hospital room, she’s feeling so sick that she vomits on the floor. A hospital orderly comes into her room to check on her and clean up the mess. And that’s how she meets hospital orderly John Scofield (played by Stephen Lang)—their “meet cute” moment happens when he has to clean up her vomit.

Grace jokes to John that it’s “love at first sight.” He continues the flirtation, and there are romantic sparks between them. You know where this is going, of course. Just when Grace is dying, she meets someone who could be the love of her life. It’s not stated if John is divorced or widowed, but he’s definitely an available bachelor. Billy eventually meets John, and it leads to a very tacky soap opera moment that’s part of a big, heavy-handed plot twist in the movie.

Amid all the bloody carnage in the story, Billy meets a possible love interest too. Her name is Jennifer (played by Cheryl “Cher” Cosenza), who’s a street-smart bartender with a heart of gold. Tyler is also interested in her, but Jennifer thinks Tyler is a disgusting creep. Billy doesn’t have enough money to buy a liver on the black market, but he has enough money to become a regular customer at the bar where Jennifer works.

One of the worst things about “Death in Texas” is the movie’s pathetic depiction of law enforcement. Billy’s parole officer is Sarah Jensen, the same person who barged in his parole hearing to show a mystery file to the parole board. The information in that file is eventually revealed in the movie, but it’s definitely not surprising, considering what happens later in the story. The information in the file wouldn’t be enough in real life for a parole board to suddenly switch its decision to not parole someone.

Sarah’s first meeting with Billy after his release happens when she shows up at Grace’s house announced to interview Billy. Billy is outside, hosing down his car, because it has blood on it from a murder that he committed the night before. But this dimwitted parole officer doesn’t even notice the blood on the car when she’s talking to Billy. And throughout the story, she keeps showing up unannounced at the house, as if parole officers never make office appointments.

Even more incompetent is a homicide detective named John Wayne Asher (played by John Ashton), who is the lead investigator in the murders that Billy commits during his crime spree. Billy makes no attempt to cover his tracks, because he easily leaves his DNA and fingerprints all over his crime scenes. As a convicted felon, Billy would have his fingerprints on record and his DNA would be in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is a nationwide DNA database for convicted offenders. And yet, the dumb cops in this movie have a hard time finding out that Billy committed these crimes.

In additon to its idiotic portrayal of how law enforcement works, “Death in Texas” also bungles depictions of how hospitals work and what certain hospital employees would be able to do while on duty. There’s a big plot development revolving around the liver transplant part of the story that will make people groan or laugh at the stupidity of how this plot twist is handled. There’s almost nothing realistic about “Death in Texas,” except for a few conversations in the blossoming romance between Grace and John.

All of the acting in this movie veers between hokey and robotic. It’s as if no one was giving the cast members any consistent direction. And if they were given any competent direction, they certainly weren’t paying attention. Not that better acting would’ve saved this terrible movie, because “Death in Texas” was dead on arrival with its horrendously awful screenplay.

Vertical Entertainment released “Death in Texas” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 4, 2021.

Review: ’12 Mighty Orphans,’ starring Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen

June 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

“12 Mighty Orphans” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Preston Porter, Woodrow Luttrell, Sampley Barinaga and Jacob Lofland. Pictured in middle row, from left to right: Levi Dylan, Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Manuel Tapia, Austin Shook and Michael Gohlke. Pictured in front tow, from left to right: Slade Monroe, Jake Austin Walker, Bailey Roberts and Tyler Silva. (Photo by Laura Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics)

“12 Mighty Orphans”

Directed by Ty Roberts

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1938, mainly in Fort Worth, Texas, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” (based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A high school football coach begins working at an orphanage, where he assembles a ragtag team of teenage football players, who must fight for respect and overcome several obstacles in football and in life.

Culture Audience: “12 Mighty Orphans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in traditionally made “against all odds” sports movies.

Luke Wilson and Jake Austin Walker in “12 Mighty Orphans” (Photo by David McFarland/Sony Pictures Classics)

Unapologetically sentimental and earnest, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie that embraces its hokey tropes and ends up being a charming story. Most of the movie is utterly predictable, because there are so many underdog sports movies that have covered the same territory in a similar way. Somehow, it all works well for “12 Mighty Orphans,” which tells the true story of the Mighty Mites, a Texas orphanage football team that defied low expectations to go all the way to the Texas state championships.

People who already know this story probably won’t learn anything new, but this dramatic depiction is still compelling, thanks to commendable performances from the cast members. Directed by Ty Roberts (who co-wrote the “12 Mighty Orphans” screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer), “12 Mighty Orphans” is based on Jim Dent’s 2008 non-fiction book “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.” The movie (which had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) hits a lot of the same beats as other inspirational sports movies about underdogs.

There’s the coach who ignores the naysayers, motivates his team, and turns them into winners. There’s the talented but hotheaded team member who lets his temper get in the way of his sportsmanship. There’s the sneering coach from another team who can’t believe these ragamuffins could possibly be better than his team.

The movie, which takes place in 1938 during the Great Depression, begins with the introduction of Harvey Nual “Rusty” Russell (played by Luke Wilson), who has left a comfortable teaching position at a high school to take a teaching/coaching job at the Masonic Home, an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas, that has about 150 children in residence. Rusty has moved with his loyal wife Juanita Russell (played by Vinessa Shaw) and their two children: Betty Russell (played by Josie Fink and Lillie Fink), who’s about 4 or 5 years old, and another unnamed daughter, who’s about 6 or 7 years old.

Juanita, who will be teaching English at the orphanage, isn’t happy about this move because Rusty took this job without even discussing it with her. Rusty will be teaching math at the orphanage, but his true passion is coaching football. The orphanage’s doctor A.P. “Doc” Hall (played by Martin Sheen) recommended Rusty for the job, but Doc and Rusty don’t meet in person until Rusty and his family arrive on the premises. Doc is also a football enthusiast, and he becomes Rusty’s biggest ally at the orphanage. Doc also serves as the movie’s voiceover narrator.

To his shock and dismay, Rusty finds out that not only does the orphanage not have a formal football team but the orphanage also don’t have football uniforms. Doc also says that when the orphans do play footbal, they play during two seasons: One season where they can wear shoes, and they other where they don’t wear shoes. The orphanage is so financially strapped that there aren’t enough athletic shoes to last an entire year. Despite these obstacles, Rusty is determined to put a football team together and have the team compete with high school football teams in the league.

Rusty gets resistence from the orphanage’s corrupt chief administrator Frank Wynn (played by Wayne Knight), who physically and verbally abuses the male orphans. (Frank has a large paddle named Bertha, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it.) Frank also forces the male teenagers to work in an orphanage sweatshop to make garments and shoes that he sells for his own personal profit. Needless to say, the sweatshop work violates all types of child labor laws.

Frank thinks that the male teens in the orphanage shouldn’t be playing competitive football because he thinks the time spent on practice and games should be used for his grueling sweatshop work. However, Frank is overruled by his boss, who tells Rusty that Rusty can put together a football team, under one condition: “It’s very important that it does not interfere with the day-to-day [activities] of the home.”

Through a process of elimination (some of the boys don’t qualify for the team because of low grades), 12 teens (whose average age is 16 to 17) join the football team. They call themselves the Mighty Mites. The 12 members of the team are:

  • Hardy Brown (played by Jake Austin Walker), an angry young man who becomes the team’s star linebacker
  • Wheatie “C.D.” Sealey (played by Slade Monroe), who comes out of his bashful shell to become the team quarterback
  • Douglass “Fairbank” Lord (played by Levi Dylan), the pretty boy of the team
  • Leonard “Snoggs” Roach (played by Jacob Lofland), a foul-mouthed jokester
  • Leon Pickett (played by Woodrow Luttrell), an introvert
  • Miller Moseley (played by Bailey Roberts), the smallest player on the team
  • Cecil “Crazy” Moseley (played by Michael Gohlke), Miller’s brother who happens to be mute
  • Amarante Pete “A.P.” Torres (played by Tler Silva), who doesn’t say much in the movie
  • Gonzolo “Carlos” Torres (played by Manuel Tapia), who is A.P.’s brother
  • DeWitt “Tex” Coulter (played by Preston Porter), the tallest person on the team
  • Ray Coulter (played by Austin Shook), Tex’s brother
  • Clyde “Chicken” Roberts (played by Sampley Barinaga), a redhead who overcomes his fears to become a solid team player

Abusive orphanage administrator Wayne is the story’s biggest villain, but the movie also has other antagonists. Luther (played by Lane Garrison) is a cigar-chewing, arrogant businessman who has invested in a rival football team. He’s dead-set against letting the Mighty Mites play in the high school football league because he thinks the orphanage isn’t a legitimate school. “Orphan football,” Luther sasy to himself disgust. “That’s as dumb as letting women vote.”

During a football league hearing to decide whether or not the Mighty Mites can compete against other high school football teams, Luther objects because of the rule that a competing school must have at least 500 students. However, Rusty has found a clause in the rulebook that can make an exception for a team if the coaches of the other high schools give a majority vote to allow the team. Rodney Kidd (played by Scott Haze), who happens to be Luther’s brother-in-law, is presiding over the hearing.

Luther thinks that his family connection will give him an easy advantage in this battle. But to Luther’s anger and disappointment, the coaches of the other high schools vote by a majority to let the Mighty Mites compete in the league. It can be presumed that these other coaches probably thought that these orphans would be easy to defeat in football games, so that’s why they readily allowed the Mighty Mites into the league.

But as what happens in underdog stories like this one, the Mighty Mites were severely underestimated. They start winning games and become folk heroes. The team attracts the attention of businessman Mason Hawk (played by Robert Duvall, in a small role), who invests in the Mighty Mites. (“Apocalypse Now” co-stars Sheen and Duvall have a scene together in “12 Mighty Orphans.”) Later in the story, President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Larry Pine) becomes a Mighty Mites fan. Treat Williams has a small role as Amon Carter, founder/publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

And every underdog story seems to have emotional baggage and trauma. Hardy is a very talented football player, but he has an explosive temper that can get him into trouble. Why is he so angry? Before he came to the orphanage, he was found lying next to his dead father (who was murdered), and Hardy’s mother didn’t want to take care of Hardy, so she sent him to live in the orphanage.

C.D. also has a mother who abandoned him at the orphanage, when he was 7 years old, after C.D.’s father left the family. C.D. hasn’t seen his mother in the 10 years since then. When C.D. mother’s Wanda (played by Lucy Faust) unexpectedly shows up at the orphanage with her current husband, it leads to an emotionally raw confrontation that’s very melodramatic, but it fits well in this often-melodramatic movie.

Doc, who is a widower, has his own personal demons: He’s an alcoholic. And he confides in Rusty that his wife died during childbirth. Based on his tone of voice, Doc is still haunted by his wife’s tragic death. As for Rusty, he tells his football team during an emotional moment that he can relate to them because he’s an orphan too.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie where Doc says in a voiceover about Rusty: “He knew that football would inevitably bring self-respect to the boys.” And there are plenty of “pep talk” scenes that are exactly what you would expect. As formulaic as this movie is, there’s still a level of suspense in the movie’s best game scene: the Texas state championship. Viewers who already know the game’s outcome can still be drawn in by the thrilling way that this game is filmed for the movie.

Rusty is portrayed by Wilson as an almost saintly mentor who never loses his temper, even when some of the boys on his team rudely insult him and each other. By contrast, Knight’s depiction of the loathsome Frank is almost a caricature of a villain. Out of all Mighty Mites, Walker (as Hardy), Monroe (as C.D.) and Lofland (as Snoggs) get the most screen time to showcase the characters’ personalities. All of the acting is believable, but sometimes hampered by corny dialogue.

“12 Mighty Orphans” was filmed on location in Texas, in the cities of Fort Worth, Weatherford and Cleburne. That authenticity goes a long way in this movie’s appeal, since so much of the film comes across as a made-for-TV movie. Is this movie going to be nominated for any awards? No, but it’s not a bad way to be entertained. And people don’t even have to be fans of American football to enjoy “12 Mighty Orphans.”

Sony Pictures Classics released “12 Mighty Orphans” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, with an expansion to more cinemas on June 18, 2021.

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.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Dreamland’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in "Dreamland"
Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in “Dreamland” (Photo by Ursula Coyote)

 

“Dreamland”

Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The first thing that you might notice about the dramatic film “Dreamland” is that Margot Robbie plays a character that’s similar to bank robber Bonnie Parker of Bonnie & Clyde fame. The movie takes place in Texas in the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl drought era and when the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. It’s also when the real-life Bonnie & Clyde became famous outlaws for their bank robberies and murders. But even though Robbie’s Allison Wells character in “Dreamland” is clearly inspired by the real-life Bonnie Parker, this movie isn’t really about Allison’s crime spree. It’s more about the effect that she has on a naïve young man in his late teens named Eugene Evans (played by Finn Cole), after she convinces him to let her hide out on his family farm.

“Dreamland,” which takes place in 1935, is narrated by Eugene’s younger sister Phoebe (played by Darby Camp), who tells the story in voiceover as an adult 20 years later. (Lola Kirke is the voice of the adult Phoebe.) The family has gone through some hard times, even before the Great Depression. Eugene’s biological father, Don Baker, mysteriously disappeared when Eugene was still a very young child, and Don is presumed dead. Eugene’s mother, Olivia (played by Kerry Condon), doesn’t really like to talk about Don. As a child, Eugene is haunted by the idea that his father isn’t really dead but is really still alive and living in Mexico. Eugene dreams of eventually finding Don and reuniting with him. But the sad look in Olivia’s eyes tells viewers that Eugene’s father has abandoned them, and if he’s still alive, he’s not coming back into their lives.

Olivia eventually remarries. Her second husband is a police officer named George “Buck” Evans (played by Travis Fimmel), who adopts Eugene. The couple’s daughter is Phoebe, who’s about 10 years younger than Eugene. She’s a curious and intelligent child who admires her older brother for his kindness but worries that people will take advantage of his gullible nature. Buck rises through the ranks of the police force, and he’s a deputy sheriff at the time that Allison commits the Guthrie Plains bank robbery that has resulted in the deaths of multiple people, including her lover/partner in crime Perry Montroy, a Clyde Barrow-like character. Perry (played by Garrett Hedlund) and the deadly bank robbery are seen in brief flashbacks.

When Eugene first encounters Allison, he’s found her hiding in a barn on the Evans family property. She’s wounded from a gunshot in her leg, and Eugene helps her remove the bullet. Her fugitive status is all over the news, and there’s a $10,000 reward to anyone who captures her. But Eugene is instantly smitten by Allison’s beauty and seductive charm.

Eugene doesn’t think Allison is as bad as the police say she is because Allison has told him that although she was involved in the bank robbery, she wasn’t involved in the death of the young girl who was an innocent bystander killed during the robbery. Allison tells Eugene that the police have inaccurately described the death as a murder, but Allison says the death happened accidentally when a stray bullet hit the girl.

Allison also offers Eugene $20,000 to hide her and to help her escape after she’s had some time to heal from her bullet wound. It’s a proposition that Eugene accepts with not much hesitation because he and his stepfather Buck don’t really get along—and more importantly to Eugene, he starts to think that he and Allison can run away together to Mexico, where he can reunite with his father, and they can all live happily ever after.

Eugene, who’s in charge of taking care of the family farm, knows it won’t be that hard to hide Allison since Buck is a workaholic who doesn’t spend much time at home anyway. And besides, no one would suspect that Allison would be hiding out at the home of one of the law-enforcement officers tasked with finding her. It isn’t long before Eugene takes another big risk for Allison—he breaks into the police station at night, steals evidence about the robbery, and burns it. When a police officer at the station sees Eugene in the office where the evidence is, Eugene hurriedly makes up a lie and says that he’s there to get police files for Buck.

There’s a close call when inquisitive Phoebe almost finds Allison in the barn, but Eugene is able to steer her away just in time. But that tactic can only work for so long. Phoebe finds out about Eugene’s secret, but he convinces her not to tell anyone. Buck’s suspicions about Eugene are also raised when Buck gets blamed for the missing evidence, and he finds out about Eugene’s late-night visit to the police station.

Amid all of this family tension, a terrible dust storm hits the area, causing destruction on what became known as Black Sunday. The cinematography of “Dreamland” (from cinematographer Lyle Vincent) is one of the best things about the movie, and the visuals during this storm are especially stunning.

“Dreamland” director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte skillfully uses techniques that show the subtle artistry of someone who can tell a story with what you don’t see on camera as much as what you do see. For example, a pivotal seduction scene with Allison and the virginal Eugene shows that Allison and Eugene are talking in an intimate moment where Eugene is doubting that he made the right decision to help Allison, and he’s almost afraid to touch her. She can be heard but not seen for much of the scene, as the camera lingers on Eugene to show the effect that she is having on him. Some directors would have made the obvious choice to focus the camera on Robbie’s beauty, but the scene demonstrates how dialogue can be more powerful in seduction than someone’s physical appearance.

Robbie, who is one of the producers of “Dreamland,” does a very good job of playing the morally ambiguous Allison, but she doesn’t have as much screen time in the movie as people might think she does. Allison and Eugene don’t spend a lot of time together on screen. It’s a testament to the power of Allison’s manipulation, because Eugene takes a lot of risks for Allison without the reward of being with her in a normal, happy romance that he wants them to have. Eugene is the heart and soul of the movie, and Cole convincingly plays him not as a fool but as someone who thinks doing anything for true love will justify whatever it takes to get it.

The pacing in “Dreamland” is a little slow in some areas, but the third act of the movie makes up for it, as the hunt for Allison takes an intense turn where hard choices are made and people’s true characters are put to the test. But just to be clear: Most of “Dreamland” isn’t about chase scenes between cops and robbers. It’s about what can happen when people steal things more valuable than money—hearts and trust.

UPDATE: Paramount Pictures will release “Dreamland” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 17, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 19, 2021.