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: Hell or High Water (2016)

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When I first saw the trailer of Hell or High Water a couple of months ago, I thought for sure it’s going to be one of those late summer action films that would be shown at theaters one weekend and disappeared the next. Well as it turns out, it is one of the best reviewed films of the year, maybe the best so far. According to Rottentomatoes.com, out 134 critics who reviewed it, only 2 gave it a negative review. As of this writing, it’s currently sitting at an unbelievable 99% fresh rating on the site.

Set in West Texas, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are bank robbers and as the film opens, we see their acts right away. They’re amateurs but desperate for money, especially Toby who wants to keep his family land from being foreclosed on by the evil banks. Texas Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on the hunt to stop these two brothers from committing any more robberies. These four characters are the center of the picture and it’s the chess match between the brothers and Rangers that’s fun to watch. This film can be described as buddy/western/road/action/thriller, it’s quite a lot to describe a film but that’s best way to explain it to anyone.

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For a film that doesn’t have a complex plot, the actors need to carry the picture and the performances by the main leads were pretty great. Jeff Bridges gets my vote for best performance of the year so far; no doubt he’ll get nominated again comes awards season for his performance here. He pretty much reprised his role from True Grit and it’s quite fun to watch. His character is on the verge of retirement and he wants to catch these thieves so he can ride out into the sunset as a hero. His constant insults on his partner Parker is hilarious and we audience know he didn’t mean what he said.

Birmingham also stood out as the partner who has to endured Hamilton’s insults but he give as much insults back to Hamilton as well. Watching these two rangers bickers gave the picture more comedic tone than you’d expect in a film like this. Pine, who probably realized he can’t rely on the Star Trek pictures to keep him relevant in Hollywood, wisely accepts this role in a smaller film. He’s very good here as a desperate man who wants his kids to have a better life than his. He also worries about his reckless brother who only decided to rob the banks just for fun. I was never a fan of Foster but he’s effective here as the reckless brother who enjoys violence and knows that his life is over once they’re done with the robberies.

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The script by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is pretty great. Even though it’s a simple story, he was able inject some dark humor, great dialogs and some surprises here and there. I do wish he’d toned down some of the hate directed at the evil banks; yeah we get it, many people suffered because of these greedy bankers. Some of the dialogs tend to get a bit too preachy for my liking, especially when Toby and Hamilton had their confrontation.

Director David Mackenzie also did a good job of setting moving the film along as a brisk pace. It’s obvious that he took inspirations from films of Sam Peckinpah and The Coen Brothers. Some even compare this film to No Country For Old Men. While I agree there are similarities, I still think the Coen Brothers’ picture is superior to this.

Even though it sounds like I love this film, I only liked it. I thought Mackenzie did a good job of bringing a great script to the big screen, I think had it been directed by a more polished directors like David Fincher or Alfonso Cuaron, this would’ve been a near perfect film. I didn’t see any originality from Mackenzie so I can’t call a great film, just a very good one. But it does have a great script and fine performances.

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So have you seen Hell or High Water? Well, what did you think?