FlixChatter Review: NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020)

First, a confession: I’m not a big fan of Westerns. Yes, there have been some Western movies I liked, most notably The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven, 3:10 To Yuma, The Dark Valley (this last one is an Austrian Western!). But when I received a screener of this one, I was intrigued because of Tom Hanks in the lead role, and later I learned it’s his first Western.

Well, his first foray into the genre proved to be more of a drama than a shoot-em-up action, which I actually prefer. The film is set five years after the end of the Civil War in the late 1800s, a turbulent, dark period in America. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) is a Civil War veteran who now works as a news reader, traveling from town to town and charging a dime per person to read aloud from newspapers. Honestly I didn’t even know such a profession exist before I watched this movie. But what perfect casting, who doesn’t want Mr. Hanks to read news to you in the only way he can.

Capt. Kidd is about to move to another town after he read the news when he came across an overturned wagon, a lynched black man and a young white girl dressed in Native American clothing. He soon realized she’s a German native who had been taken by the Kiowa tribe and able to speak the language. It’s upon meeting the 10-year-old Johanna (German actress Helena Zengel) that the adventure began, as Kidd reluctantly agreed to deliver the girl to the only family she has left. But the hundreds-mile journey to San Antonio proved to be a rough and dangerous one, but provided ample time for the two of them to slowly bond.

I quite love a road movie when it’s done well and News of The World is a road-Western that makes the most of the two strong characters. Even though it’s mostly the two of them on screen for long periods of time, it’s never boring to me. There are a few shoot-em-ups up on a treacherous mountain region when the two were pursued by ex-Confederate soldiers-turned-hoodlums who wanted to purchase Johanna. The wilderness shootout was perhaps one of the few tense scenes in the film that’s also a key bonding moment for Kidd and Johanna. They also face more danger in their next stop when they encounter a radical gang who turns out to be in control of a small mining town. The gang leader obviously wants to keep outsiders out and feels threatened when Kidd disobeyed his orders to only read the news from his own ‘approved’ paper.

The quieter moments prove to be the most emotionally moving, such as when the two were trapped in a ferocious dust storm. The storm itself was remarkably filmed as it felt quite real, but it’s the moment when Kidd thought he’d lose Johanna forever that’s truly memorable. It’s a genuinely surprising moment that got me teared up, and the two actors’ performance truly brought the beautiful moment to life. Which brings me to the major strength of the film, which is the synergy between these two unlikely pairing. Hanks has always been a reliable actor, but it’s the now 12-year-old Zengel that’s the biggest surprise. She’s not only captivating to watch but she’s also able to match Hanks’ intensity and her taciturn role require her to act with her eyes and mannerism, which she pulled off beautifully.

It’s quite a departure for Paul Greengrass (who worked with Hanks in Captain Phillips) who’s known for his hand-held camera style in his action films. I’d say it’s a pretty restrained direction that works well for the story. There are slow moments in the movie, but it never felt tedious, which is a testament to the solid script Greengrass co-wrote with Luke Davies. Working with DP Dariusz Wolski, it’s a stunning film visually that made me wish I had seen this on the big screen. I also like James Newton Howard‘s reflective music that complements the vast open spaces of the American west.

This movie boasts one of the most memorable finale that closes the chapter of the two characters wonderfully. The themes of identity and sense of belonging, especially in regards to Johanna, are explored well here. It doesn’t pass judgment in regards to her dark past and how she ended up being a lost girl, but I feel like it presents the reality of that time period in an authentic way. I also love that in the end, that sense of belonging isn’t just confined to Johanna, but also to Capt. Kidd, and that’s what makes the ending so special.

Have you seen NEWS OF THE WORLD? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: The Martian (2015)

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It’s a testament of a truly good film when two weeks after I saw it I’m still thinking about it fondly and can’t wait to see it again. I mentioned in this post that I had been anticipating this film for a couple of reasons, but deep down I still wished it’d be good as I like Ridley Scott. Well, glad to report that the 77-year-old British thespian certainly still got it.

If the plot makes you think of Saving Private Ryan because it involves saving Matt Damon, well you wouldn’t be wrong, but the similarities pretty much end there. The film doesn’t waste much time to get to the part when Mark Watney is left alone in Mars following an accident that made his teammates presumed he’s killed. It turns out he survives the accident but that’s only the beginning of his journey being stranded in a desolate planet. The first act pretty much contains scenes of Watney dealing with the concept of surviving on whatever resources is left on the space station, as the next Mars mission would take at least four years.

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There are similarities to Gravity and Interstellar, but I think The Martian is a heck of a lot more entertaining than both. It’s an intelligent crowd pleaser that doesn’t dumb down the audience, but it also doesn’t bog us down with scientific mumbo jumbo or bludgeon us with over-sentimentality. Even the scenes in NASA with a terrific ensemble cast doesn’t feel at all boring or obligatory and has its share of amusing and fun moments. The emotional moments throughout the film feels natural and not at all manipulative, a testament to the shrewd script by Drew Goddard and Scott’s direction.

The whole concept of an astronaut growing potatoes inside a space station certainly make for some amusing and highly entertaining scenes. Whether it’s actually possible or not doesn’t really matter, and that’s what I find about this film. I find that I don’t pick apart the science as much as I did with say Interstellar, as I was completely invested in Watney’s journey from start to finish. It helps too that the script is really focused about the ‘bring him home’ storyline and keep it frill-free from unneccessary subplots.

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As for that ensemble cast, I’ll mention those who impressed me most, starting with Jeff Daniels as NASA chief Teddy Sanders. He made him memorable even though he’s not the most interesting characters. The same could be said with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as two lead scientists tasked to help bring Watney home. Sean Bean is always great to watch but there is one particularly memorable scene involving a very famous fantasy trilogy that made his casting even more perfect. They actually have more to do in the film than Watney’s fellow team mates including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie, though they are all pretty good in their roles. Donald Glover also has a brief but memorable role as a young genius astronomer who provides a key theory for the recovery mission. But the real star here is obviously Damon, who has the most screen time and most of his scenes are basically a one-man-show of him talking to the camera.

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The Martian looks phenomenal and has some breathtaking *aerial shots* by Dariusz Wolski of the red planet, shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, which has a red-colored desert. That said, it’s not a style-over-substance film, in fact, it’s a story and character-driven piece, which is what every film should be. It must have been hellish for Watney to be stuck up there on his own, but thankfully, watching him being stuck there isn’t. The survival story is more akin to Tom Hanks’ Castaway, given the humorous tone and amazing survival skills of the protagonist. This is perhaps one of my favorite roles of Matt Damon, and he’s as likable and funny as he ever as astronaut Mark Watney.

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As with any survival story, there is an element of inspiration that make you appreciate what you have on earth, from profound things like spending time with your family to seemingly-trivial things like duct tape. But the film does it in such a droll and fun way, which seems to be faithful in terms to tone to Andy Weir‘s sci-fi novel, described by one book critic as “…sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery” (per Wiki). I also love that The Martian is not dark and brooding despite the rather grim subject matter of a man being trapped alone in space. It’s also not nearly as violent as Scott’s other sci-fi film, apart from an earlier scene that definitely made me avert my eyes. This could very well be the most enjoyable theatrical experience from Ridley Scott since Gladiator, so yeah sir, we’re definitely entertained. And thanks for making another epic film that I can watch and appreciate for years to come.

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Have you seen The Martian? What did you think?