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Schultz reviews: 'News of the World' and 'The Marksman'

Schultz reviews: 'News of the World' and 'The Marksman'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“News of the World”  Distributed by Universal Pictures, 118 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 25, 2020:

After seeing “News of the World,” the movie released on Christmas Day by Universal Pictures, you might find it difficult to believe that neither the picture’s star, Tom Hanks, nor its director, Paul Greenglass, has ever made a western before.  The picture makes it seem almost as if the two have been toiling at home on the range all their lives.

But “News of the World” manages to revitalize the genuine American film genre in a way that possibly could only be achieved by filmmakers who’ve never made a western before.  The picture’s basic plot has been used dozens of times since it was originated in Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic “The Kid” a full century ago.  But while some of the setups might seem familiar, the directions they take and the emotions behind them are unique.

Set in north Texas in 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, in “News of the World” the northern Union Army occupies the state in a loose form of martial law.  Confederate Army Infantry veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd earns a living traveling from town to small town reading newspapers to audiences gathered in church halls and civic auditoriums for ten cents per admission.  A former San Antonio newspaper publisher, Kidd lost his business during the war and never returned home.

While riding after a reading to his next engagement, Kidd finds an overturned wagon along the trail, and discovers its owner hanging dead from a tree branch--a black man murdered in a fever of intolerance by white marauders.  Nearby, a young girl hides in the woods, a frightened blonde child dressed in Native American clothing.  While investigating, Kidd learns the little girl was kidnapped from her pioneer family as an infant by Kiowa Indians, and raised as a member of the tribe.  The black man was killed while delivering the rescued child to safety.

Kidd is instructed by a passing Union Army patrol to transport the child to the next town and turn her over to an agent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for reconciliation with her surviving family in the south of Texas.  But when they learn the Indian Affairs agent is on assignment and not expected to return for several months, the reluctant Captain Kidd and the wary and mistrustful girl embark on an odyssey hundreds of miles through the open wilderness in search of the child’s living relatives.

Adapted by from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel of the same name and directed by Paul Greenglass (“United 93”), the script by Australian writer Luke Davies and the director himself tweaks and fine-tunes Jiles’ original narrative to make the story more relevant in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and near-constant allegations of “fake news.”  But such framing devices were always present in the American Western--a means of enabling the viewer to look into the past for insight into the present, and even guidance into the future.  

The art direction, production design, and set direction by David Crank, Natasha Gerasimova, Billy W. Ray, Lauren Slatten, and Elizabeth Keenan successfully make the audience almost believe its been transported to 1870 Texas, while cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking photography and the orchestral score by James Newton Howard, rich in strings, help Greenglass to transform Texas landscapes into magnificent vistas.  But it’s the vivid performances that raise “News of the World” to a higher artistic level

Probably no actor except Tom Hanks could’ve played the role of Jefferson Kyle Kidd...or at least have played the role as effectively.  Hanks is an actor who’s always been distinguished by the sense of decency and kindness he conveys, a characteristic put to good use in this picture.  Without Tom Hanks, there’s no “News of the World”--he’s the movie’s moral anchor and spiritual compass as well as its leading actor.  And the quality of the actor’s performance does not disappoint his audience--expect another Academy Award nomination in 2021 for the actor.  

But while it’s Hanks’ presence that draws the audience in and makes the familiar situations both believable and original, it’s the performance of twelve-year-old German actress Helena Zengel as Hanks’ orphaned young charge that astonishes the viewer with its raw honesty.  Knowing that “News of the World” is the European Zengel’s very first American film and that an actual communication problem existed on the film’s set does not diminish the impact of this young actress’ remarkable performance.  

During one scene toward the end of the film, young Zengel successfully employs only the movement of her nose to convey a world of emotion.  It’s true--during that scene, the flaring of the little girl’s nostrils in her carefully controlled and rigidly impassive face is the viewer’s solitary clue to her character’s heartbreak and longing.  And not only is the scene richly effective--the moment might well reduce you to tears. 

By the beginning of the third act of “News of the World,” you’ll pretty much figure out how the movie will end--or rather how you hope with all his heart it might.  And while the movie does reach more or less the expected conclusion, it turns out to be even better than you might’ve hoped.  The difference is in the child’s smile--warm, happy, genuine...childlike.  It’s that smile that’ll linger in your memory long after “News of the World” has ended.

“News of the World” is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and some language concerns.

“The Marksman”   Distributed by Open Road Films, 108 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released January 15, 2021: 

Actor Liam Neeson as a retired US Marine transports an orphaned and imperiled young Mexican child to safety in the new action thriller “The Marksman”...and simultaneously makes one too many visits to a well that might’ve dried up for the actor from overuse.

Former Marine Jim Hanson is an aging alcoholic widower living on a failing Arizona cattle ranch on the Mexican border.  Cash-strapped and earning extra money by reporting illegal crossings to the US Border Patrol, Hanson helps a Mexican woman and her son escape from a murderous drug cartel.  When the woman is gravely wounded in the resulting firefight, Hanson promises to transport her young child to relatives in Chicago...but is hounded every step of the way by both the bloodthirsty Mexican cartel and the US Department of Homeland Security.

Directed by Robert Lorenz, “The Marksman” turns out to be mean, messy, and dumb little action drama without a solitary redeeming virtue.  Director Lorenz does a fairly competent job of introducing the movie’s characters and establishing its well-worn premise, but after about twenty minutes the picture begins to wander aimlessly through suspense scenes with no suspense and action sequences so tame that most of the shooting is done offscreen.  Even the picture’s title is misleading--Neeson’s character isn’t a particularly good shot.

With a script seemingly concocted by Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz, and the director from dozens of better films (and a premise that’s almost identical to “News of the World,” also reviewed this week), “The Marksman” lacks nuance, subtlety, and character development.  The inevitable result of the movie’s shortcomings is that the audience has nobody to root for--some characters are just worse than others.  The picture’s only real point of interest is wondering why 68-year-old Neeson’s not indulging in a late career renaissance of challenging roles instead of churning out garbage like this.

Director Lorenz is best-known as the producer of many of filmmaker Clint Eastwood’s more recent pictures, from “Blood Work” in 2002 and “Mystic River” in 2003 to “American Sniper” in 2014.  Lorenz’ only previous film as director was 2012’s “Trouble with the Curve,” a poorly conceived sports drama which managed to lose money at the box office despite its modest budget and Eastwood himself starring in a rare return to acting.

Filmed in and around Chardon, Ohio (!) with location scenes shot in New Mexico, “The Marksman” is rated PG-13 for violence, some strong language, and bloody images.

 

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