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Review of LIGHTYEAR (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Sometimes you can’t help but hear the buzz about certain films, and I heard two main complaints about Lightyear (2022): that the character wasn’ta toy at all or acting very Buzz-like, and that Disney made a lesbian movie (gasp). And that kind of response slowed down this film at the box office.

Come on, people.  In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear was an action figure programmed to speak a limited number of sentences, like the old Chatty Cathy dolls. That it came to life when people weren’t around was pure fantasy, and the toy Buzz, upon learning he’s not the real space ranger Buzz Lightyear, spent the rest of the moving dealing with a Pinocchio complex (“I wanna be a real boy”). Meanwhile, Lightyear states its basic premise on a pre-title sequence card that’s onscreen long enough for even slow readers to process:  “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”

In other words, this animated Buzz is the living human film character that inspired the action figure seen in the Toy Story movies. People complained, Why isn’t Tim Allen the voice? Uh, because Tim Allen voiced a toy; the real Buzz is a different character, voiced here by Chris Evans—who knows a thing or two about playing a superhero. Later critics who gave Disney credit for the cleverness of the idea complained that Disney settled for making a typical origin story, but that also kind of misses the point. To inspire action figures and all sorts of merch, it takes a by-the-numbers blockbuster, and that’s what we get in Lightyear.

As for the lesbianism, I’m guessing that the people who are now losing their minds over a black mermaid are the same ones who bashed this film because it “exposed” children to gay characters. If you haven’t seen the film, you should know that the sexual orientation of Buzz’s best friend and fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) is introduced in innocent, matter-of-fact fashion. When she tells Buzz she got engaged, Buzz responds with the delight of any best friend and tells her how wonderful it is, adding, “Who is she?” Meaning, he’s already known about her orientation and accepts it as another fact of life, like hair color or temperament. So should moviegoers. And it’s treated so subtly here that many children won’t even notice. There are brief touchstone visuals and references to the married couple later parenting a child, and yes, there’s a kiss—but it’s the same kiss of greeting children receive from relatives of all genders. Same-sex marriage is such a blip on the screen that it’s a shame so many people are talking about that instead of the film.

If people have to rip on something (and finding fault with Disney pictures seems to be a national pastime, like Wordle or Sudoku), I’m surprised they haven’t attacked the logic behind the film’s main situational premise.

Buzz, best friend Alisha, and a rookie (Bill Hader) carry out an exploration mission on the planet T’Kani Prime. Quickly they (and we) learn the planet is populated by tentacled life forms, and after their ship is destroyed Buzz declares that they’re marooned. But fast-forward a year later and there’s a full-blown space colony with all kinds of people and the capacity to engineer, build, and operate high-tech buildings and vehicles. And they’re still trying to figure out how to repair or replace the hyperspace fuel crystal that will allow them to return home? Meanwhile, the commander and the rest of the colony (where’d they come from?) decide they want to stay on the planet, so they construct a biodome to protect them from hostile indigenous life forms.

Even small children may wonder about the effectiveness of a dome when the tentacled creatures seem to come from underground, but logic and action movies don’t exactly go hand in hand. And Lightyear is an action movie—a slam-bang ride that abandons warp speed only a handful of times so everyone can catch their breaths and also process poignant Up-style montages that explain why Buzz’s new right-hand ranger has to be Alisha’s space-phobic granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer). Lightyear also alludes to and ramps up elements found in previous slower-paced space films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (instead of H.A.L. we get I.V.A.N.) and Interstellar (a fearful space glide especially stands out). Adults have all the allusions, and the kids will hone in on the action (when the bugs start getting zapped, older youths might have Starship Troopers flashbacks) and the characters—young Izzy, especially.

In Disney movies, animal friends aren’t just foils for characters or a source of comic relief. They’re minor characters who have the potential to steal scenes, and that certainly happens with Sox (Peter Sohn), a robotic cat assigned to be Buzz’s “personal companion robot” to ease his emotional transition after he had been on a long solo mission to retrieve a crystal. Also engaging are the ranger trainees that Buzz ends up with after his return:  Izzy, Mo (Taika Waititi), and the gravel-voiced Darby (Dale Soules), who all find themselves facing and fighting a robot invasion coordinated by . . . yep, Zurg (James Brolin), who is shot at times to make viewers think of that late, great space villain Darth Vader.

Viewers are either going to love all the Star Wars references and consider them clever allusions, or they’re going to hate them and think they’re lazy or unimaginative rip-offs. But they’re present in force, and you’ve been warned. I personally think they add a referential element that feeds into the whole idea of a space blockbuster and shows that director Angus MacLane and his cast and crew were trying to have some fun with this film. Ultimately, that’s what it is:  a fun animated film that’s nota prequel, not a sequel, and not an origin film. It’s a related film that helps to add depth and breadth to the Toy Story universe. Just don’t expect Woody or any of the other toys to show up.

Lightyear is streaming now on Disney+, but decent bonus features on the Blu-ray and repeat-play potential also make this worth adding to your Disney-Pixar home movie collection so you can play it even after it disappears from the online menus. And you know it will. Disney has that habit of returning titles rather quickly to the “vault.” The 7.1 DTS-HDMA soundtrack also has a commanding presence, and I’m not sure that’s the case with the streamed version.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  105 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Amazon link
Trailer
Rated PG for action and peril

Language:  1/10—Aside from a few euphemistic versions of swearwords that I can’t even recall, this is one squeaky clean galaxy

Sex:  0/10—Nothing at all, unless the mere mention of progeny somehow offends you

Violence:  4/10—Mostly it’s peril, because the violence itself is pretty tame, with the tentacled creatures losing a few here and there; when Zurg’s robot army appears, children who’ve been on the Buzz Lightyear theme park ride will get the same shooting gallery sensation watching this film, even down to the sounds

Adult situations:  2/10—A character has to deal with feelings of loss and displacement

Takeaway:  Disney-Pixar still has a friend in me, as long as they keep producing high-quality films like this one that continue to reflect the studio’s commitment to creativity and excellence

Review of WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Drama
Rated PG-13

Unlike many reviewers of Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), I don’t have an axe to grind or a subject to bludgeon. I never read the first novel by 70-year-old Delia Owens that this Olivia Newman film is based on, and only heard about the hype—a Reese Witherspoon book club selection that sold 12 million copies in four years—and the controversy after watching the film. For some people, Owens’ background makes a difference, so I’ll address it briefly, though even without the backstory there’s plenty enough to get riled up about.

The film, like the novel, tells the story of a girl who is forced to fend for herself in the marshes of North Carolina after her abusive father drives off her mother and older siblings, and later bows out of the picture as well. Shamefully, it doesn’t occur to any of her family to take her with them. They just take off, leaving her alone with him.

The townspeople aren’t much better. They dub her “the marsh girl” and obviously recognize her situation, but only one couple shows her any kindness. And they certainly could have done more for her. Kya attends school barefoot, but is treated so shabbily that she never returns. Later, as a teenager after living in the marsh for years, she draws the attention of two young men: one a rich boy with a penchant for partying and taking what he wants, and the other a college-bound youth who at one point decides to teach Kya how to read. Some think that sweet; others call it condescending and controlling or a perverse sort of  relationship imbalance fetish.

Maybe the razors were sharpened after it was brought to everyone’s attention that Owens, like Kya, was (and is still) a suspect in an unsolved murder. In the film, one of Kya’s suitors ends up dead and she stands trial, with David Straithairn playing the kind of down-home country lawyer with uncommon wisdom and empathy that we saw in Harper Lee’s attorney, Atticus Finch. In real life, Owens and husband Mark were working as biologists and environmentalists in Zambia and were being filmed when a poacher was shot and killed . . . on camera. The couple left the country and was advised not to return because they remain persons of interest, as shown on ABC’s 1996 special Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.

But back to the film. Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) wrote the screenplay, Witherspoon co-produced, Polly Morgan (The Woman King) was responsible for the gorgeous location cinematography, Taylor Swift co-wrote and sang the theme song (“Carolina”), and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven) headed a talented cast as Kya. Though men also are involved in the project, Where the Crawdads Sing feels very much like a female empowerment story and holds considerable appeal because of that.

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Review of TWICE TOLD TALES (1963) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Drama/Horror
Not Rated (would be PG)

Rewatching Twice Told Tales on the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, I found myself wondering about the ideal audience for this film adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne stories featuring screen legend Vincent Price.

Children old enough to have read the stories in school might be curious to see how the 1963 film treatment was handled, but I’m not sure that they will appreciate a tone that tends toward the melodramatic. Director Sidney Salkow took a break from directing popular TV series like Death Valley Days to churn out seven B-movie genre films: four westerns, a mystery, and two fantasies—one of them being this anthology of Hawthorne tales.

Whether by design or coincidence, the three stories are presented in descending order of appeal. The strongest tale, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” is a short story that plumbs the depths of human desire for a fountain of youth or immortality. Like the frequently anthologized Edgar Allan Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado,” it involves a friendship that’s solid on the surface but bubbling beneath with hidden emotions. Sebastian Cabot—whose voice children may recognize as the narrator of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films and the character Bagheera in Disney’s animated Jungle Book—plays Carl Heidegger, who celebrates his 79th birthday with best friend Alex (Price), his only companion since his beloved fiancée Sylvia (Mari Blanchard) died the night before they were to be married 38 years ago. But a “dark and stormy night” causes the door to a crypt in the backyard where her coffin is housed (yep, we’re talking Gothic romance) to open. Carl feels compelled to check on her, and both men are shocked to see that her body appears as it did when she was alive. The rest of the tale follows Dr. Heidegger’s drive to discover what preserved her and maybe even bring her back to life.

The type of horror included in these Price Told Tales is the same sort one would find in a Jaycee’s haunted house: skeletons, dead bodies, creatures dying instantly as if from witchcraft, blood oozing from strange places, etc.—minus the jump scares. It’s pretty tame but still somehow memorable . . . because of the images or concepts, or because of their pairing with old-time melodrama?

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Review of COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Americans have never been good at thinking about the future. A 2019 Northwestern Mutual poll found that 15 percent of Americans age 40 and older haven’t even put aside a single dollar toward their retirement years. And if the price of gas isn’t too crazy, no one gives a second thought as to whether the oil will run out some day, or whether the polluting side-effects of petroleum consumption will one day become intolerable. Same with the mountains of trash that Americans produce on a daily basis. Does anyone wonder if there will ever come a time when all the refuse becomes too much for the government to handle?

Costa Brava, Lebanon (2021)is an environmentalist fable in Arabic (English subtitles) from Mounia Akl and the Lebanese entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars. A cautionary tale set in the near future, it has an engaging cast and some powerful moments as it tries to sound the alarm to alert people to an impending crisis of waste management. Except that in some countries it’s not all that impending. It’s already happening. Visitors to Egypt’s pyramids, for example, must first drive past mounds of trash pushed to the sides of roads and freeways. And that could happen anywhere . . . and everywhere.

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki star as Walid and Soraya, a couple who eight years earlier decided to leave their Beirut home because of the poor air quality, pollution, and corrupt politics that made life there untenable. Now they live in the mountains with Walid’s aged mother and the couple’s two daughters: a teenager eager for more than the sheltered life her parents provide, and a precocious adolescent. Presumably because of the mother’s previous income from her pre-marriage career as a popular singer, they were able to build a house in the country’s last unspoiled place, an idyllic hillside home that even has the luxury of a small in-ground swimming pool. But it doesn’t take long for this paradise to be lost, and that’s the whole point of the film. Society’s problems are everyone’s problem. There’s no escaping them—even if you try to live off the grid.

You’d think that Walid and Soraya, former activists who met at a protest, would know that. But the impulse to survive and protect loved ones is even stronger than the drive to fight for the change that society needs. Alas, not long after we meet this family, men from the government show up. And like the earth-moving equipment operators from earlier films such as The Emerald Forest or Avatar who displaced forest-dwellers, the workers force the family to make the same hard decision that drove them to the mountains in the first place. On a micro level, Costa Brava, Lebanon could have been about any disaster, because it’s an intimate look—rendered so by Akl’s directorial style—of how one family deals with adversity.

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Review of SO PROUDLY WE HAIL (1943) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Studs Terkel won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, a title he said was suggested by an army correspondent. “The Good War” was a phrase “frequently voiced by men of his and my generation” because it was the last war fought that was not divisive or controversial, Terkel said. Americans rallied behind the flag after Pearl Harbor, and when everyone is in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, there’s a sense of shared purpose and commitment. That leads to a feeling of solidarity, of shared joys or sorrows that nonetheless bind people into a greater family or community stronger than the individuals themselves. There really is strength in numbers, and patriotism at its workable best is a group activity dependent upon full (or nearly full) participation, not an individual attitude—and certainly not competing attitudes.

All of which is to say, aside from the aesthetics of film, there’s value in watching an old black-and-white patriotic war movie because it can remind us of what patriotism really involves.

Colbert tends to Lake

So Proudly We Hail (1943) is an interesting case in point. Most of America’s World War Two movies were about the front-line heroism of fighting men, designed to keep the recruits coming and the people on the home front encouraged, still feeling the commitment and still willing to accept the sacrifices of wartime patriotism. When So Proudly We Hail was first released, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised the film’s  “shattering impression of the tragedy of Bataan” and producer-director Mark Sandrich’s reenacted battle-action scenes, but complained that “we behold the horror of Bataan through a transparency, through the studiously disheveled glamour of the Misses [Claudette] Colbert, [Paulette] Goddard and [Veronica] Lake.”

To a degree, that’s unfair, because the formula behind every patriotic war movie pulled against the film’s intended realism. I think Sandrich (who would direct Holiday Inn the following year) does a decent job of focusing not only on the professional aspects of military nurses serving in Bataan and Corregidor, but also on their love lives. So Proudly We Hail was billed as the “First great love story of our girls at the fighting front,” and Sandrich does a commendable job of adding romantic involvements to the standard war movie.

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Review of JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Sci-fi action-adventure
Rated PG-13

In 1990, Michael Crichton scored a hit with his sci-fi novel about dinosaurs brought back into existence through DNA preserved in amber. A film version was released in 1993 to critical and audience acclaim. The concept was inspired, the special effects were wondrous, the characters were introduced in such a way that we got to know them before the coprolite hit the fan, and the science was sufficiently explained. You believed it was possible, and that made it all the more terrifying.

Since then, the franchise has failed to clear the high bar set by the first film, which was a hit with 92 percent of the critics and 91 percent of viewers at Rotten Tomatoes. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) only got a 54 percent approval rating from critics and a 51 percent rating from viewers. Jurassic Park III (2001) dipped even lower, with a 49 percent critics’ rating and 36 percent fan approval. Part of the problem was that there was less story in the sequels, which began to take on the one-dimensional character of action films.

After a dormant period, the franchise rebooted with Jurassic World in 2015, and that pleased 71 percent of critics and 78 percent of fans, helped by Chris Pratt and his “raptor whisperer” antics and the bond he had with one special raptor. But the 2018 sequel in this second trilogy, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, only appealed to 47 percent of the critics and 48 percent of fans. That makes it the lowest rated film in the franchise . . . until now, if you believe the critics.

Only 30 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics liked Jurassic World Dominion (2022). Curiously, though, 77 percent of viewers liked it—making it the fans’ third favorite, behind the original and Jurassic World. So depending on your outlook, it’s either the absolute worst of the six films, or the third best.

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Review of FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS (2021) (DVD)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” St. Augustine wrote way back in the 4th century. Travel broadens your world. It increases your understanding, gives you perspective, and, if you’re able to see the world through the emotions of people whose lives are incredibly different from yours, travel also develops your sense of empathy.

If you can’t travel, film is the next best thing. Consider this: if all you and your family watch on your home theater are Hollywood-made formulaic action films and comedies, you’re “reading” just a few pages of the human experience. So I’m going to suggest, as I have in the past, that families with children old enough to manage subtitles should agree to watch a foreign film once a month, then hopefully talk about it afterwards. You could even make it a themed affair, with movie snacks or food from the culture.

Fire in the Mountains is a film in Hindi that offers plenty of possibilities for discussion, starting with the film’s background, which children can research on the Internet. This Indian film debuted in 2021 at Sundance, but for director Ajitpal Singh it was the culmination of many years of work to become a self-taught filmmaker. That’s right. No film school, no mentor—just the spark that came from seeing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Singh says really touched him, enough to where he kept at it and finally created his first full-length feature at age 43.

“I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood,” he told No Film School. “I realized, I don’t need to know any language. I can just learn this visual language, and I can make films. What I didn’t know at that time, it would take me another 10, 15 years to learn that language.” But he did. First he tried imitation, and it didn’t work. Finally he realized that he needed to film a subject close to his own experience. When he did that, “Suddenly the framing changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I’m trying to say.” That kind of passion and persistence is certainly worth talking about with children.

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Review of THE LOST CITY (2022) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
Adventure-comedy
Rated PG-13

Sandra Bullock is at her comic best when she plays a character that would seem more comfortable in a drama than a comedy—someone who gets swept up reluctantly in the narrative events, but learns something about herself and others in the process. Including how to lighten up a bit. She excels at being the equivalent of a vaudevillian “second banana,” who plays it tongue-in-cheek straight while the other person is more ostensibly funny. It happened that way when she played opposite Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal and opposite Melissa McCarthy in The Heat, and it works the same way in The Lost City as she reacts to Channing Tatum.

The 2022 adventure-comedy fared well at the box office and with most critics, with the Rotten Tomatoes bunch giving it a 79 percent “fresh” rating, while the audience score was 83 percent. That’s a pretty high ranking, considering that the screenplay itself is nothing really new—just a mash-up of Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones/Allan Quartermain adventures.

You’ll recognize similarities in a number of scenes, as when a ruined car forces them into a jungle gully and bad guys start shooting at them. But mostly the influence is made obvious when the film opens and former academic-turned-romance-novelist Loretta Sage (Bullock) is imagining a scene with her long-haired dashing hero who’s humorously named Dash McMahon (Tatum). Because Tatum’s character, Alan Caprison, is a model who was hired for a previous book cover and ended up being even more a fan favorite as Dash than the author herself, he’s part of a tour to promote her new book, The Lost City of D. But his flamboyance annoys Loretta and a first-event fiasco leads her to withdraw from the tour.

As good as Tatum and Bullock are together, they’re almost upstaged by Daniel Radcliffe and Brad Pitt in supporting roles. Radcliffe plays Abigail (more cheeky naming) Fairfax, a billionaire who realizes Loretta’s latest book was based on research she did with her late husband. When she refuses Abby’s offer to join his expedition to recover the Crown of Fire, he chloroforms her and kidnaps her. And like any self-respecting romantic hero, Alan decides he has to save her, with a little help from a man he once took self-awareness and flexibility lessons from:  Jack Trainer (Pitt), a former Navy SEAL and CIA operative who meets him on the island and proceeds to grab the spotlight in hilarious fashion. If you enjoyed Pitt’s dramedic talents in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’re going to love how he manages to be more over-the-top yet still understated and deadpan as can be.

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Review of DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Drama
Rated PG

It’s almost a cliché that in Hollywood (and presumably everywhere else films are made) there are two main plots:  something comes into the heroes’ world, or the heroes leave their world. Either way, they encounter the sort of challenges, adventures, or drama that come from a disruption of routine.

The first Downton Abbey movie (2019) was about something coming into the world of the Crawley family and their servants. It revolved around a visit to Downton from King George V and Queen Mary, and the only exit was one of the staff, who went to New York to visit parents and got arrested at an underground gay nightclub. Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) seems more richly plotted because there is a balance between the coming and going, with heftier plotlines that are equally intricate and dramatic. 

Robert and Mary

On the home front, a film company requests permission to shoot a silent film at Downton, and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is opposed . . . until oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) convinces him that the income would pay for the new roof they so desperately need. She assures her father that she will supervise the affair and keep a close watch. Naturally, the staff gets as excited about a movie being made at Downton as they did when the King and Queen visited—except, of course, for the ever-so-grumpy Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)—but their excitement is tempered by a less-than-congenial leading lady (Laura Haddock) and the disappointing announcement that funding for the movie is being pulled because only “talking pictures” are making money. Of course, shades of Singin’ in the Rain, they decide to improvise in order to make a film with sound, and even the staff gets into the act. Literally.

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Review of WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Drama
Rated G

Coming-of-age juvenile novels, especially ones documenting life below the poverty line, have spawned an awful lot of films. Where the Lilies Bloomis part of that informal tradition, adapted for the big screen in 1974 after the success of another poor sharecropper story, Sounder (1972).

Where the Lilies Bloom is based on a book by Vera and Bill Cleaver and tells the story of a dirt-poor family living pretty much off the grid in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The mother of the family, still known in the area as the best root and herb doctor there ever was, died four years before the action of this film begins, and the father has that telltale cough and the kind of “spells” that suggest poor Roy Luther (Vance Howard), isn’t far behind.

That puts the focus on the children—in particular, on the second oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), because the oldest is a bit of a dreamer like her father and not the take-charge doer that their mother had been. With the father more and more out of the picture, Mary Call takes on the responsibility of leading the family . . . at the age of 14. That includes following her father’s wish that she keep neighbor Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton) away from her older sister Devola, because Kiser is living in the family’s old house that he got “legal like” by paying the taxes that Roy had allowed to lapse—presumably because of grief following the death of his wife. Although Kiser is a persistent suitor, Mary Call is a bulldog that won’t let him near the place, even though he legally owns the sharecropper’s shack they now call home. Mary Call also has to raise younger brother Romey (Matthew Burril) and baby sister Ima Dean (Helen Harmon).

The story is narrated from Mary Call’s point of view, and like her more famous rural counterpart, John Boy Walton, she is good at writing and encouraged by a teacher to make something “more” of herself by leaving the hill country. But that’s the future. Mary Call is more concerned with the present. To earn a living, the children trudge up the mountain as generations of Luthers before them had done, pulling and pushing their wagon. Using their mother’s notebook as a guide, they pick all sorts of mountain herbs and roots to sell to the local pharmacist in a town far from their shack. And the focus of this film is as much on the family’s daily lifestyle as it is on plot.

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