“Let There Be Light” Review

Let There Be Light is the ultimate and most cartoonish of Christianity wish fulfillment. It’s a wet dream of Midwest Christians that would like to believe every atheist is one near-death experience away from being a believer and that Fox News is the savior of spreading the gospel. You know you’re watching the goofiest of Christsploitation when Sean Hannity swoops in to save the day.
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“Murder on the Orient Express” Review

Kenneth Branagh loves both literature and actors, making him a safe choice to direct the latest theatrical adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Almost too perfect. Branagh brings much of what we love and have come to expect from the director/actor. He stages Murder on the Orient Express with plenty beautiful cinematography, A-list actors, brilliant staging and subtle performances. He seems so in love with this mystery that he forgets to give it a boost of character, something that all good mysteries need if they don’t want to get lost in the shuffle of countless entries of the genre. Murder on the Orient Express is less like a modern remake of the classic tale and more of a snoozy stage play on its last week.
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“Buster’s Mal Heart” Review

Buster’s Mal Heart is three films that struggle to connect towards each other in their nonlinear progression. The first is that of a man trying to escape the daily grind and live off the grid with his family. The second is that of the same man living off the grid, but still mooching off the vacations homes of the woods he roams. The third is the same man once again so off the grid on the ocean his mind has left the human world. The central character is as much searching for meaning in his dark adventures as I was, hoping that all this madness and darkness would build to something more than just an esoteric afterthought.
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“The Promise” (2017) Review

Movies such as The Promise can make history come alive in a way that no other medium can. I can still recall being bored out of my mind by junior high school history class until we were allowed to watch Glory and the American Civil War was now exciting and interesting. In a similar tone, The Promise will shake awake dreary students to how horrific and inhumane the Armenian Genocide of the Ottoman Empire truly was. As a historical piece about the horrors of a massacre, it’s solid film making. The soapy love triangle attached in the foreground, however, prevents the movie from being truly great.

At least the actors are not playing it like a soap opera. Oscar Isaac puts everything he has into the role of Mikael, an Armenian med student who has come to study in Constantinople. He could only afford to go to this school with the dowry of marrying a woman he’s not sure he truly loves. Those suspicions are confirmed when he meets the lovely Ana, an Armenian artist rose in Paris and played by Charlotte Le Bon. They hit it off right away and desperately long for each other, despite Mikael already being betrothed and Ana already married to her overly-emotional husband of a reporter Chris (Christian Bale). Considering that Mikael’s uncle offers to pay off the dowry and Chris is more occupied in the political tensions of the country than Ana, all the cards seem to be falling in place for the happy couple.

But then that pesky Armenian Genocide gets in their way. This is the aspect of the movie where it truly shines and not just because it takes us away from the dreary romance. There are some unforgettable shots where Mikael attempts to unlock a train full of Armenian prisoners and Chris watches helplessly as Turkish soldiers lead Armenians into the desert to be killed. I could feel the heartbreak when Mikael starts losing loved ones to executions and Chris is given the difficult choice of denying the genocide or being slaughtered by the Turkish government. Just when it seems as though the story has hit its stride, however, it continuously cuts away from the more powerful moments. There is a violent assault of Armenians defending themselves as they move up a mountain from pursuing Turkish forces, but the movie will quickly cut away to another scene just as the violence starts to become more brutal. Must the Armenian Genocide by PG-13?

It’s not that a romantic plot couldn’t be weaved into such a catastrophic event in history, but it’s not as strong with how the romance between Mikael and Ana is presented as a clashing element. There’s a very intense scene where the two of them are trying to fend for their lives in the streets of Constantinople, fighting off Turkish soldiers with their fists and cabbages. After finally finding a safe building in town, while people are still being beaten and businesses are still being destroyed, the two laugh about throwing cabbages at Turkish soldiers that wanted to beat them to death. With the levity established, they have passionate and loving sex…while Armenians are still being beaten in the streets just outside their window.

It’s so hard to recommend a movie like The Promise which favors more of its lame romantic triangle than the more interesting historical aspects. If you can overlook the overly dramatic, and sometimes out of place romantic tone for such material, this film can be a raw and sobering experience of how 1.5 million people were wiped off the face of the Earth. But, again, there’s an awful lot of dreary longing, gazing and smooching to look past. Of all the characters, I found myself most interested in Christian Bale’s character as he seems to be the only one more concerned about this atrocity than who is currently sleeping with his wife. His story on its own is far more intriguing than finding out if Mikael will ever confess his true feelings to Ana.

“Unforgettable” (2017) Review

I wanted to enjoy Unforgettable for the trashy thriller it aimed to be. I really did. I knew this entire plot was going to lead into some ludicrous climax of Rosario Dawson duking it out with Katherine Heigl, wielding knives and fireplace pokers at they smash each other into glass. But my heart was broken to discover that director Denise Di Novi attempted to make a thriller that genuinely took itself seriously in its first act before launching off the rails in the second. And when the train finally crashes, it’s more disappointing than amusing to watch the ensuing cat fight. I never thought I’d find myself being saddened by actors being so good.

To my great surprise, both Dawson and Heigl are far too great for such a bad a movie. Dawson is always a likable presence and does a magnificent job at trying to embody the chipper and anxious Julia, a woman who wants to marry her boyfriend David and become closer to his daughter. Heigl is absolutely brilliant as the wicked ex-wife that goes quietly crazy for the woman stealing away her family. They’re not exactly deep characters that slowly reveal their intentions over time, especially how the movie begins with Dawson already bloody and accused of murder, but they do their best to make lemonade from coal.

For the first half of the picture, I was starting to genuinely enjoy the mind games of Heigl’s character messing with Dawson. She sets up fake Facebook accounts to speak with Dawson’s stalker, steals jewelry from her house and attempts to stir up controversy. The problem is that I watched with dread for the inevitable trashy conclusion. The point of no return happens around the second act where Dawson has wild sex with her boyfriend in the bathroom while Heigl masturbates to sex chatting with Dawson’s stalker. Whatever modicum of feasibility there may have been for this scenario is gone by this point and we’re just watching the movie attempt to go into trashy mode.

Now, I don’t mind if Unforgettable wants to be a trashy thriller where Dawson and Heigl sprint towards the inevitable bloody cat fight, but I do when the talent involved is too good for such a script. Dawson delivers a stellar performance for how little he is given and this may be the best role for Heigl I’ve seen in a decade. It’s a movie that has the ingredients for making something provocatively sexy and vicious, but seems to up with the usual Fatal Attraction style affair. This made the ride towards the inevitable showdown more depressing than exciting as the silliness and violence mounts. And what of the husband and the daughter? Mere props for the savage antics of Dawson and Heigl. The husband does little more than excuse any strange or sociopathic behavior, while the daughter can do little more than smile for montages, look sad for uncomfortable moments and shout “mommy” whenever in danger.

Is it wrong to wish that a bad movie such as this could be worse, if only to be so crazy enough to recommend as wine party entertainment? The movie seems to balance between a tough situation of toxic love and an over-the-top thriller of off the rails writing. Despite the film’s best efforts to go full trashy by the end, including a shocking stinger of a possible sequel, it never reaches such heights. I’m thankful that the movie at least has such a generic title that it will quickly be forgotten in the sea of third-rate thrillers.

“A Dog’s Purpose” Review

I would like to preference this review by stating that I’ve seen dozens of these cute dog movies wherein a dog is cast as the hero that saves Christmas, foils a crime or brings a family together. I’ve seen dogs do everything: karate, become ghosts, go into space, play basketball, play soccer and too many stunts to count. I write this to let you know that I’m coming from years of experience before you decry my slightly negative review of the cute doggie movie.

I will give the movie credit in that it does aim for a higher goal than most dog-centric movie, seeking a more philosophical angle. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the dog Toby and, surprisingly, his thoughts are not all about food and fetch. One of his very first thoughts, voiced by Josh Gad, seems to be about contemplating his purpose in life. That’s quite the question for a puppy to pose. I thought all dogs pondered about was where the food was and which smell is where. Could this dog really be more of a philosopher than another brainless pup? Don’t worry, kids; Toby’s not above knocking over dinner tables, eating hot dogs off the ground and farting loudly in the car.

Despite a stumbling start to life, Toby falls for his child owner Ethan instantly, forming the basis for the classic tale of a boy and his dog. Based in a 1950s rural community, it’s that familiar flavor of midwest mundanity where racial concerns and space race are mere background elements to the more immediate issues of Ethan making the football team and Toby causing a mess of a dinner with the boss. I will give the dinner scene some credit for its unfunny aftermath. The scene itself is portrayed with the expected amount of slapstick and silly music, but follows with the father becoming a bitter alcoholic about not being able to work closer to home. It isn’t long before dad goes bad and starts beating his wife, leaving Ethan to defend himself while Toby barks at the wife beater. But was it Toby who drove him to this point? Something to ponder for the obligatory noble segment where the dog pulls Ethan out of a burning building.

Just when I think the film has settled into its Homeward Bound style of soft drama, the plot reaches the moment early where Toby must pass on from this world. Surrounded by his family, including a college-bound Ethan, he passes away into the next life, which happens to be the life of another dog. Now reincarnated into a different dog, and a different movie, Toby becomes a German Shepherd police dog that works with a bitter cop. Shot on the job, Toby then becomes a Corgi and then helps a woman go from a binge-eating college student to wife/mother. One death later, Toby is a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd mix and abandoned by abusive owners.

And by now I’ve lost all interest in whether or not Toby will ever find his master Ethan. Sure, Ethan’s time on Earth is limited where as Toby receives apparently unlimited tries to reincarnate, but what will happen if Ethan dies before Toby serves his purpose? Will he continue to reincarnate and find someone else to bring joy towards? Or will he go to hell or purgatory or something? What is at stake here?

Why am I asking such questions? I shouldn’t be. This is mostly a soapy dog movie for the easily-weepy to push out some tears at dogs dying and giggle when they topple over tables. I could buy that just fine as meaningless fluff, but this whole element of a dog trying to find his purpose in life is too meaty of a plot for this picture to handle.

In the rather low expectations of the dog movie subgenre, A Dog’s Purpose tries to add in a Terrance Malik angle to its rather simple story of a dog that warms hearts. There’s no philosophical treat at the end of this furry journey, as Toby’s hypothesis for life is nothing all that special. I couldn’t help but think of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life’s ultimate answer to the big question: Be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. That answer was intended to be humorous for being so obvious and underwhelming, but Toby delivers this statement as if it is an emotionally-moving revelation. And I’m sure it would be, if I were a dog. Too bad I’m not as amazed by the simplicity of catching a ball, the easy sadness of spending a night in the shed or the fun of knocking over dinner tables. Maybe then I wouldn’t question why a dog needs to question existence itself, in between farting loudly and wrecking dad’s dinner party.

“God’s Not Dead 2” Review

God’s Not Dead 2 is Christploitation at its most laughable levels of trashy hysteria. Similar in premise and themes to its predecessor, this spiritual successor takes aim at the persecution of Christians being allowed to express their faith. No, not the Christians being attacked and slaughtered in the Middle East or the Christians that faced violence from angry terrorists for believing something different. The poor Christian on parade here is an Arkansas schoolteacher on trial for talking briefly about the Bible in a classroom. It is the very definition of first-world problems for Christians and a prime example of propaganda and paranoid nonsense that I’m sure many Christians will cite as their case for mentioning Jesus in public schools. If they can’t talk about the Bible in school, what’s next? Government buildings? The mall? Churches? Somebody save these persecuted Christians before they’re forced to renounce their faith!

To make such a scenario more dramatic and riveting than it really is, the movie does its best to present good-natured Christian protagonists and misguided atheist villains. Grace (Melissa Joan Hart) is a high school history teacher that is portrayed as a sweet and innocent woman who cares for her ill father as any good Christian would. She finds herself quoting scripture in the classroom when a student asks of the correlation between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus Christ. Such talk stirs up the “free thinker” parents that are appalled by Christianity in a public school. The administration wants Grace to apologize, but she refuses and the trial is on for the right to talk about Jesus in school, gaining enough traction to become national news.

Representing the prosecution is an ACLU attorney played by Ray Wise, a fitting bit of casting considering he once played the devil on TV’s Reaper. Playing such a sinister character, Wise has the honor of reading the line “We will prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that God is dead” with that wicked smile he does so well. The movie does improve slightly over the previous movie where the central antagonist of a college professor that challenges Christianity is actually a closeted Christian himself. The ACLU attorney is fully committed to being the evil atheist that will destroy God, one courtroom case at a time.

Representing the defense is the good looking Jesse Metcalfe, but, wait, he’s an agnostic! Think of him more or less as the straight man in this rather strange tale of the crisis of Middle Americans. He doesn’t so much want to make a case for Christ in the classroom as much as he wants to prove that Grace wasn’t malicious or preachy in her citing of scripture. There’s a twinge of hope for this court case when he states that he will not be putting Christianity on trial, but this is of course a lie. This is made abundantly clear when J. Warner Wallace, writer of the forensically based religious book Cold Case Christ, is called to the stand. To be fair, Wallace does have some interesting things to say about Christ in his findings, but it feels out of place for this movie. It is a little hilarious to believe that Christians could call upon Wallace for any case where someone cites Christ in the class or quotes scripture in a government building.

Also similar to the previous film is the subplots of Christian-themed stories that surround the case. A Chinese student quarrels with his dad about being a Christian, fulfilling some sort of diversity quota for these films as if to say “see, [insert non-white race] can be Christians, too.” I’m assuming the movie inserted this subplot in order to excuse a rather cringe-worthy scene where a white guy has to teach the black school principal about Martin Luther King. Other subplots include a reporter recovering from cancer and unsure of her devotion to Jesus. A little Christian rock music from a promoted Christian band does the trick. The most recognizable of returning characters is David A.R. White as Pastor Dave, a man that seems likable and silly for his many slapstick antics, but still views the central case as a war on faith. He views this event as a time to finally get serious and stop spilling his damn coffee with amusing results.

Director Harold Cronk has staged his clunky and choir-playing drama to be both a fear-mongering tale for Middle American Christians and a proclamation of faith fit for mom’s Facebook feed, urging others to Like if you believe God is not dead. It is a film built for rural Christians of quaint communities to feel as though there is urgency, a danger and a war that threatens everything about their faith. And I really don’t want to look down on movies about religion, but it’s hard not to with a franchise that props up Duck Dynasty as God’s must-watch TV.

“Steve Jobs” Review

What more can be said about the life of Steve Jobs? There are numerous documentaries and books divulging all his technological achievements and human failures. There are dramatizations that range from respectful (The Pirates of Silicon Valley) to bland (Jobs). So what is there left to explore in a new docudrama with an all-star cast? Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin find just the right angle to portray the creative genius of Apple: as a flawed human being reeling behind the curtain before facing the public.

For this picture, we focus on Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) during three crucial events of his career: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh computer, the 1988 launch of his NeXT computer and the 1996 unveiling of the iMac. The movie doesn’t focus so much on the event itself as it does on Jobs’ behind the scenes. At the launch of the Macintosh, his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and her daughter Lisa visit Jobs. As Steve and Chrissan argue over money and public perceptions, Lisa sits in front of the Macintosh computer. She plays around it with for a few minutes and Steve is floored when he witnesses her create a drawing in MacPaint. For a brief moment, he is taken out of his element as the calculated and arrogant creator. Her presence brings down the tension and breaks Steve down to more of a human with purpose than a shrill innovator.

For most of the picture, Lisa is present as a part of Steve’s life that reminds him of what he’s pushed away. She’s the only one whom Steve seems to have the most casual and interesting of conversations with. It becomes a tragic relationship in how Steve puts more effort into his career than spending time with his daughter. He is absent for much of her life growing up, but she continues to remind him of what he’s missing out on. It’s not until Lisa is old enough for college does Steve finally realized how important a daughter can be in your life.

When not conversing with his daughter, Steve is doing battle with the various co-workers that grow to detest the man over time. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) quickly becomes bitter with Steve refusing to acknowledge the Apple II team on the grounds that such development is in the past. CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) booms with frustration about Jobs’ refusal to work with the Apple board of directors, which led to Jobs being forced out of the company. The only one who seems to both know the man on a deeper level and still despise him is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) who attempts to steer him in the right direction amid all the chaos. All of these people become byproducts of Jobs’ ego and it’s up to him to right the crucial mistakes of his career.

The all-star cast is in top form. Fassbender’s portrayal of Jobs doesn’t quite hit the visual level of a dead ringer, but his performance is powerful enough to match the core personality of the technological icon. There’s grace, arrogance and fear all mixed into a character that would probably be feeling all these before a big event. Kate Winslet almost deserves more credit for her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman, matching her both her dated style and insistent buzzing around Steve. The rest of the cast all feel perfectly utilized as well considering most get to share personal scenes between them in Fassbender with exceptional dialogue.

Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is perhaps the most focused picture on the man and his legacy. It skips through most of the history we already know and delivers on the juicier moments of Jobs’ life. Seeing what literally happens behind the scenes is far more exciting than witnessing the actual press conferences built around the premise. Most technological history buffs are aware of the failures of the NeXT and the Newton as well as the popularity of the iMac. The script briskly glazes over these touchstones for Apple to keep a strict eye more on character than innovation. Even the origin moments of Steve’s past with Wozniak and the bitter internal feuds of Apple are kept to minimum flashbacks. We get to follow along with Steve in his fast-paced race towards the stage, realizing that there’s much more on his mind than the conception of the iPhone.

“White God” Review

White God is the dog movie I’ve been waiting for – namely one that doesn’t feature a pup saving Christmas or solving a crime. The direct-to-video market has seen a glut of these dog-sploitation movies that anything divergent is more than welcome. Finally, there is a film where the dog isn’t just a furry ornament or an easy target for sympathy. It’s probably the first film I’ve seen in a long time where the dog is actually a character with a real arc. And, thankfully, it’s a solid bit of grit worth the massive effort it must have taken to coordinate these scenes of dogs building character.

This little town in Hungary seems entirely against the forces of preteen Lili and her dog Hagen. Sent to live with her bitter estranged father and working with a harsh orchestra conductor, Lili’s only true friend is her dog. The two have such kinship that only Lili’s skill with the trumpet can satiate Hagen’s whining and barking. But when their relationship starts annoying her elders, Hagen is dumped on the street by the enraged father, leaving the dog to fend for himself and find his way back.

From that description, you might expect this to be your run-of-the-mill story about a dog on an adventure for his young master. But Hagen’s journey is one that is incredibly dark in a world where the people of Hungary seem to despise any and all dogs. This tone is established early as the first dog Hagen spots while on his own is a canine corpse – rotting in a heap of garbage. These are cruel streets filled with sneering dog catchers eager to exterminate and seedy men devoted to training dogs for bloody sport. Of course, Hagen will find an escape from these fatal traps, but not after being bruised and beaten. The trainer that buys him off the street beats Hagen until he is a snarling beast ready to tear out the throats of his enemies. You don’t exactly come out of a fight to the death as the same old playful pup.

By the second act, White God turns into a dog revenge film. Hagen slowly grows irritable and fed up with humanity that would rather carve him up than give him a pet. He leads a horde of dogs into the streets to savagely attack and murder all who wronged him. Such shots may sound silly the way it resembles a dog-version of Planet of the Apes, but it’s treated sincerely with believable drama and tension. There is a sense of control and character to this madness as when Hagen pulls back his forces when a blockade of police begin opening fire.

But the movie isn’t all dog as we get to follow Lili on a similar adventure of understanding humanity’s cruelty. Without her dog, Lili struggles to find something to latch on to in life. She checks the dog shelters, but they’re absolutely no help. She reluctantly throws herself back into music, but finds herself hating its soulless heart. She tries to make friends at a party, but her drinking and drug holding only land her in hot water. While she doesn’t delve as deep into the abyss as Hagen, she still makes a tough transition that we hope she’ll make it out of. And, of course, we want to see the girl reunited with her dog, but they may not be the same personalities they once knew before.

White God is white-hot with grit and style for a tale of a girl and her dog. Writer/director Kornél Mundruczó shot this Hungarian town with a keen eye for great shots as when all the dogs stop a few feet from Lili as Hagen approaches her alone. I rarely ever write this in a review, but the dogs really deserve some credit for adding real emotion in roles that are usually reduced to blank faces of cute. In fact, there was an award they won in the form of the Palm Dog Award. Yes, this is a real award and no film is more worthy of such an honor than this one right here. It’s about time dogs were given some real roles as opposed to just phoning it in as another cuddly face for the screen. I’m semi-joking, but I really am tired of these Christmas and cop dog movies that something like White God deserves more credit for creating a real story and not a cheap one. It works as a coming-of-age picture and a dog revenge picture. A strange combo, I know, but it makes it all the more entertaining that such a mixture warrants a great film.

“Ida” Review

It may seem a little expected and a little cliche that one of my favorite films of 2014 is a black-and-white foreign film of a quiet manner echoing Ingmar Bergman. But Ida is a film I can’t help but love for how it stuck in my brain with its unforgettable imagery and characters. Despite being a rather dreary drama about a bleak era in Poland, everything about this production kept me glued to the screen from its unique character studies to some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen all year.

The film follows the orphaned girl Anna of a Polish convent, readying herself to take her final vows as a nun. Having spent so much time devoting her life to Christ and knowing little of her lineage, Mother Superior recommends she takes time to visit her only living relative, aunt Wanda. This woman is everything Anna is not; she is a judge who spends her off hours drinking and sleeping with all sorts of men, damaged by the world she grew up with. But Wanda does have one big bombshell to deliver; Anna’s real name is Ida and her parents were Jewish. Her parents, murdered by Nazis during the war, were never accounted for. So Ida decides to take a trip around the snowy and gloomy countryside to find some closure in her parents’ secret resting place.

It’s a scenario that puts any awkward family road trip to shame for both the grand revelation, the dreadful end goal and the differing morals of the two women. Wanda constantly tests Ida by mocking her values in her various states of stupor. In all that downer babble, however, she does bring up one point that gets to her. How can you knock sin if you’ve never experienced the world outside a convent? Living a sheltered life in the convent, Ida has a very limited view of the world. She’s quiet, shy and very protective of her holy items.

But the more Ida explores the cold and cruel landscape of Poland, she starts to see the beauty and allure of it all. Wanda speaks of a barn they intend to visit in which her relatives would craft stained glass windows for. When Ida finally witnesses this bit of craftsmanship, she is quietly stunned by the sight. The presumably colorful light seeping through the elegant design says more than words ever could. But, just in case, Wanda perfectly describes it as beauty amid horse manure.

That is indeed what Ida finds in this world. Poland is not a good looking country from this perspective. It’s freezing, most of the locals are bitter individuals and the quest unearths nothing but heartbreaking closure. And, yet, there is some room to live a joyous life. While on their way to a hotel, the two women befriend a musician who will be playing at the same building. He’s an attractive boy and Ida finds herself somewhat consumed by his allure. She listens to his band and finds herself ever engrossed in such an individual. The constant taunting of Wanda drowning in booze makes her fearful of these new feelings, but all the more excited to take a leap into the unknown.

The cinematography of Ida sticks out in my mind most prominently in every way. Everything is shot to be deliberately boxy and large the way the characters occupy their world. The film was shot in the boxed 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the widescreen formats of current movies. I’m not sure where the director found these locations or what tricks he used with the camera, but every single exterior appears to tower over the characters.

Ida enters the offices of mother superior with the entrance featuring a flight of stairs that seems better suited for the upper entrance to a house. She later climbs what appears to be a giant set of stairs for an apartment complex. And the hotel she visits with Wanda is so barren to the point where a simple dining room appears like a spacious ballroom. What helps accomplish this as well is that the character never appear perfectly centered in shots. Every closeup forces the character so far down into a corner that they are just barely on the screen with the environment consuming them. The color choice of sticking to black and white provides a great contrast for the snowy setting. Life in this area appears cold and desolate as a country struggles to repair itself internally.

Ida, for all somber tones and sterile color, is amazing to witness for its masterful cinematography on a deeply emotional subject. For being a rather slow-burn of a road trip movie that only leads to heartache, there’s a strange sense of love and life amid all the depression of cold country trying to heal wounds. The more I talk about it, the more I just want to race back to my television and fiddle with the pause button to take it all in once more.