Let Him Go

Posted on November 2, 2020 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very tense peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, guns, ax, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2020
Date Released to DVD: February 1, 2021

Copyright 2020 Focus Features
We think George (Kevin Costner) and Margaret (Diane Lane) Blackledge are dressing for a funeral. In the first moments of “Let Him Go” their adult son was killed in an accident on their farm, and their expressions and clothes are somber. But it is three years after their son’s death and they are dressing for a wedding, not a funeral. Lorna (Kayli Carter), the widow of their son James and the mother of his now-three-year-old son Jimmy, is getting married to a man named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and leaving their farm to live with him. They reassure themselves that they will still see Jimmy. But then Margaret sees them when they don’t know she is there, and Donnie hits Lorna. And then, without any notice, Donnie, Lorna, and Jimmy disappear. He has gone home to his family, leaving no way to contact them. It is the 1960s, and it was easier to hide in those days, whether from grandparents or from law enforcement.

Margaret decides to go after them, to bring Jimmy home to live with them. George agrees to go along, but he does not think they can get Jimmy away from his mother and his new family. He wants to give Margaret a chance to say goodbye.

“Let Him Go” is based on a book by Larry Watson, adapted by writer/director Thomas Bezucha. He makes great use of the majestic scenery of the northwest, especially when George and Margaret encounter a lone young Native American named Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart). Just as in the classic westerns, the landscape emphasizes the opportunity — and the dangers — of a world where there is so much land and people are so isolated.

Lane and Costner, who played a couple in two Superman movies, have an easy chemistry that makes us believe there is a long history between them. Neither George nor Margaret say much, in part because they know each other so well there is little more to say, and that includes understanding that there is no point in trying to persuade each other on issues that they know too well will never be resolved. “Sometimes that’s all life is, a list of what we’ve lost,” George says. But Margaret is not going to give up.

Bezucha knows how to create tension, even with seemingly simple comments or undramatic settings, which only adds to the sense of dread. You don’t find a Weboy, a relative tells them. “You let it be known you’re looking for a Weboy. They find you.”

And they do, at a place so far off the map they could never find it without being led by Donnie’s uncle. They are invited to dinner by Donnie’s mother Blanche, played by the unsurpassable Lesley Manville, in one of the year’s best performances. She can make the offer of pork chops sound ominous. And she does. She rips into the role and is absolutely electrifying. And terrifying.

Two solid citizens up against a family of feral outlaws, an updated western with good guys and bad guys leading to an intense and violent battle. The set-up is conventional, but the direction and performances make it memorable.

Parents should know that this film is an exceptionally tense thriller with peril, abuse, and violence that includes guns, an ax, and fire. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why did George and Margaret have different ideas about what they wanted to get from finding Jimmy? What do we learn from Peter’s story?

If you like this, try: “The Lookout” and “The Highwaymen”

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The Highwaymen

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:12 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some strong violence and bloody images
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Extended bloody violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019

Copyright Netflix 2019
The titles say it all. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, robbed banks, stores, and gas stations, masterminded a prison escape, killed police officers and civilians, all while they were still in their 20’s, until they were gunned down by law enforcement. They were populist celebrities of their time and have been glamorized in movies, most notably the Arthur Penn film “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. They get their names in the title, but for the story of the men in law enforcement who tracked them down, a generic term will do.

“The Highwaymen” is the un-glamorous story of former Texas Rangers called back into service who persevere despite unreliable politicians, incompetent federal agents, and a population, including criminals and Depression-era fan who were on the side of anyone who was not on the side of the banks. The story of the lovers who defied the rules created by the rich and powerful and shared cheeky photos of themselves holding guns was much more appealing than the idea of bringing them to justice.

Director John Lee Hancock “The Blind Side” and writer John Fusco (“Young Guns,” “The Shack”), are, like the story’s lead characters, disgusted with those who think that Bonnie and Clyde are more appealing than the men who caught and killed them, though that does not prevent them from altering some of the facts themselves.

The focus here is on the two old pros, Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson). In the Penn film, the Hamer character was portrayed as hapless in comparison to the people he was tracking, initially captured by them (which never really happened). In this version, we only catch brief glimpses of the notorious duo. It is clear who we are supposed to respect and root for.

Texas governor Ma Ferguson (a deliciously bellicose Kathy Bates) has shut down the Texas Rangers in favor of a more modern form of law enforcement. But when it comes to the crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde, she recognizes that she doesn’t need modern and she doesn’t want law enforcement. She wants them dead. And so she has someone contact Hamer, now a successful private investigator living comfortably with his wife (Kim Dickens). And Hamer contacts Gault, living in near-poverty with his daughter trying to stay off the booze.

The pace of the film is slow and deliberate because what these men are doing is slow and deliberate. The filmmaking is straightforward but thoughtful. A scene where Hamer and Gault search what turns out to be an empty house is especially skillful, with the lawmen framed in a dresser-top mirror. The images of Depression-era life, the campout of what in those days were called hoboes, the saucy red shoe that is all we see of Bonnie in her first appearance, the stop to buy guns and the boys who help Hamer with some secret target practice, the face of Hamer’s wife (an excellent Kim Dickens) as she says goodbye — all reward the patient viewer.

Costner and Harrelson have the kind of easy chemistry that suits their characters, men who have seen too much and done too much. They know they have done wrong in the cause of right, but they also know that their wrongs kept people safe. They know that they will not be appreciated by the politicians who will claim credit for their successes and blame them for mistakes made by others, or by the people who thought of Bonnie and Clyde as a romantic fantasy of living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse, if you don’t count the bullet holes. But that knowledge will not, as anything else can not, turn them away from what they see is their duty. This movie does what they were too proud to do themselves, tell their story and let us learn from it.

Parents should know that this is a crime and law enforcement story with extended peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there are some graphic and disturbing images. The film also has some sexual references, some potty humor, alcohol and alcoholism, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Hamer and Gault take the job? Why did Clyde’s father want to talk to Hammer? Why did so many people root for Bonnie and Clyde?

If you like this, try: “The Untouchables” and “Bonnie and Clyde”

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Hidden Figures

Posted on December 23, 2016 at 9:15 am

Copyright 20th Century Fox

The sign on the office door said, “Colored Computers.” That was not a reference to IBM’s Big Blue or to a machine of any kind. In the early days of the space race at NASA, computers were people doing all of the complex, unprecedented math calculations by hand, and the “colored” computers were the African-American women who had more talent, more dedication, more integrity, despite less pay, less credit, and less resources than their colleagues. Twice marginalized, as women and as African-Americans, they were heroically dedicated, capable, and resilient. Their story, unknown until the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is beautifully told in this heartwarming, inspiring film.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe, “Moonlight”) are stopped by a highway patrolman on their way to their office at NASA. They get out of the car, expecting the worst. In his own way, the white patrolman expects the worst, too. This is Virginia, just a few years after the state shut down the entire school system to avoid complying with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This is the same era depicted in “Loving,” the true story of the couple who challenged Virginia’s laws prohibiting marriage for people who were not of the same race.

This was also the era of the space race. President John F. Kennedy famously said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” But there was another reason to go to the moon. The Soviet Union was ahead of us in space exploration, and beating them had huge symbolic, morale, and political value.

And that meant that something was more important than the deeply institutionalized racism and sexism of the era — ability. These women and their colleagues were simply too good to be overlooked. And to contribute all that they were able, that meant removing some obstacles and indignities. It was not until Johnson’s boss (Kevin Costner) exploded because she was not at her desk when he needed her that he learned she had to go a quarter of a mile to the “colored” bathroom in another building. And it was her vital importance to the project, not any commitment to inclusion or justice, that led him to insist on change. John Glenn (a likable performance by “Everybody Wants Some!!‘s Glen Powell) refused to get on the rocket ship that would make him the first person to orbit the earth until Johnson personally verified the calculations.

Henson, Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are clearly thrilled to have roles of such significance and depth and honor their characters with performances of wit and subtle charm. When Jackson has to go to court for the opportunity to take the evening classes at a segregated local high school that will qualify her for an engineering degree, when Vaughan decides to teach herself computer programming to make sure that the first-ever mainframe being installed at NASA does not make her work obsolete, when Johnson explains that it may be unprecedented to have a woman in the top-level meeting but it is also unprecedented to send a man to the moon, we see the power of their intellect and the steel in their souls. A light-hearted girl’s night shows us the support they gave each other and how much it meant to each of them.

Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan plotted a course for NASA to put men into space. They also plotted a course for all of us to do things because they are hard, because they are important, because we can do better.

Parents should know that this movie includes extensive portrayal of the racial and gender prejudice of its time, along with smoking and social drinking and some language.

Family discussion: Why did the women in this film continue to be so loyal to a system that constantly disrespected them? Why did Dorothy Vaughan want to learn how to use the IBM machine? What do you think of her reply to Vivian Michael?

If you like this, try: “The Right Stuff” and “The Dish”

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Interview: Kevin Costner on “Hidden Figures”

Posted on December 20, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Copyright 2016 Nell Minow
Copyright 2016 Nell Minow
Kevin Costner almost turned down his role in “Hidden Figures.” Based on the remarkable true story of African-American women mathematicians at NASA in the 1960’s, it is an inspiring, uplifting story of the triumph of intelligence, hard work, dedication, and integrity, despite the powerful obstacles they faced as women of color. But the supervisor character played by Costner was the weakest part of the original script. “My character was one they didn’t have the rights to. So he really was an amalgamation of three people and it read like that. I almost didn’t do the movie because the character didn’t make a lot of sense to me, his contributions weren’t enough to prop up the girls. It was just kind of moving from room to room and saying things that were very contradictory. So when I approached the director about that I said, ‘Look, I like the movie, I think the girls are written beautifully. It’s not an MO of mine to want to increase my part or do whatever but there’s something very schizophrenic about this, and Theodore Melfi said, ‘Well you got me.’ and I said, ‘Okay, explain,’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t get the rights to that character, I spend the least amount of time with him and he is not one person. I know, it reads like three.’ And so I said, “That character doesn’t survive in this screenplay that well and he is also not propping other people up because he is saying some inconsistent things. He is giving some mixed signals. So we don’t have to make him better, we don’t have to make him bigger. We have to make them real.'”

He researched the era to understand how limited the technology was. The film shows the first mainframe computer being installed at NASA at a time when “computer” was the term assigned to the women who performed complex calculations by hand. “That was a first click, it was interesting to see that. It was a very crude time. We tend to think of it as very sophisticated, but my children have some toys at home that are more sophisticated than all the technology they had in that room.”

Even though the technology was very limited, Costner related to the role of a man supervising engineers and mathematicians. “I have technologies that I have supported and own and funded, so I deal with scientists and engineers. So I know what it is like to prop them up so that they can do their best work. I know their mindset and I know that they are not always possessed of managerial skills. They’re very individual and they are very creative. I think of them as artists but they have to be managed. But I can’t talk their language because once I quit doing percentages I was done with math.”

The haircut and the clothing helped him imagine the past, but some elements of the story are timeless. “There some things that are constant when it comes to behavior, when it comes to people who are insecure, who are selfish, who can’t give credit. That kind of person has emerged throughout time, the one that’s insecure, so the men are somehow not allowing the cream of the crop to have a chance. The best are not getting through the eye of the needle because of insecurity, not necessarily racism. There’s a big difference but the reality is, that’s a very human quality. So that existed in the 60’s and racism exists now, too. We can be very pleased with looking back and being happy that the story is told and how absurd it seems that woman had to be off-campus so to speak, how absurd to see that they had to be divided. Then the separate bathroom, the separate coffee pot and things like that. I hope people are feeling how absurd it was. I hope they are feeling a sense of shame because every time they do that means we have a chance to go forward. When they walk out of the theater they just have to hold up a mirror to where we are at today and we can still be found wanting in a very severe way. Ask yourself and then answer honestly. We have come a long way but there are other areas where we’ve just not. We have not evolved enough. There are more evolved people now than ever. There are more people that don’t want to accept racism, don’t want it to be here. There are more people that want to protect the planet now than ever. But the noise of the people that are not thinking that way is just louder. There are more of us than ever but they are louder than ever and it’s disappointing that people can’t have a level of empathy.”

Even with all of his experience and honors, Costner finds something new in every project. “I am still learning. I think I’m a better actor than I was three years ago because I tried.”

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