A Newspaperman Reflects On ‘Storm Lake’

Guest Article by Bill Presecky

John and Art Cullen are what some of us old-timers call newspaper men.  

“Storm Lake,” a recently-released documentary directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison chronicles the story of the trials and triumphs, the ins and outs and the ups and downs of the Storm Lake Times, a  locally-owned and locally-operated community newspaper published twice weekly by the brothers Cullen.

Both the Cullens and their family-run operation – about half of the Iowa newspaper’s 10-person staff are Cullens – exemplify a vanishing breed. Despite being buffeted by the same technological and societal headwinds that have decimated hometown newspapers by the score in rural and suburban communities both smaller and larger than Storm Lake, the Cullen family perseveres – for now, at least.

“Storm Lake” graphically illustrates the how and why of the Cullens’ and the town’s perseverance.

Day-in and day-out the Times delivers local news and biting editorials on a break-even (if all goes well) budget for their 3,000 readers. And this is not some rum-dum gossip rag.

Art unearthed a conspiracy between Big Agriculture and local county officials that won him a Pulitzer. Now, his liberal voice reverberates in this conservative district in a critical swing state. While he has the power to change minds and rally votes, his pugnacious voice makes waves; disgruntled residents don’t always agree with his point of view and have been known to write him and his paper off. 

As good a yarn as “Storm Lake” is, telling us about the goings-on at a struggling biweekly newspaper, this well-done documentary also serves as a valuable primer and object lesson for why local journalism of the purest kind is so important and why, when it is lost to time, as it has been in nearly 2,000 newsrooms nationwide over the last 20 years, we all lose.

“Storm Lake” opens Friday at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Cathartic ‘Together’ Makes The Pandemic Personal

I was nervous about watching “Together.” 

I didn’t think I was ready to relive the early stages of the pandemic on film, or to go through that panic and pain again.

As if it isn’t still happening, as if it hasn’t been a daily reality for more than 18 months. 

I was afraid this story of a UK couple enduring lock down would treat the pandemic as a lot of network television programs have: something to work around, an inconvenience in which characters come home wearing masks and awkwardly keep their distance, but otherwise treat the threat of COVID-19 as background drama for a more personal fiction.

I was wrong. As wrong as the main characters at the heart of Stephen Daldry’s new film are, but maybe a little less reluctant to admit it.

Written by Dennis Kelly, “Together” is about an unnamed couple in a fraught relationship. We meet them as they endure the idea of indefinite lockdown in March 2020, and travel with them through the devastating pandemic, all the way up to the present-day vaccine era.

James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan’s characters proceed to experience the plethora of emotions we’ve all felt the past 18 months. They go through the same moments of confusion, weary humor, deep loss and uncertainty so many of us have felt in this historic, horrendous period of history – all while managing their rocky relationship.

Kelly showcases brilliant writing at its finest, with the characters giving lengthy monologues about everything from harvesting asparagus to caring for elderly loved ones. McAvoy and Horgan are remarkable actors, addressing only the camera and each other for 91 minutes and yet never wavering. 

But it’s the universal emotions at the heart of “Together” that make it essential viewing. While mental health has been a buzzed-about topic this year, Daldry’s film is the first time since early 2020 where I felt like someone really understood and captured the frustration most families are still facing – and remembered how much art can help us deal with painful realities.

Of course, we’re all tired. Of course, we’re all still unsure. But somewhere along the way, the crisis stopped being about we and started to be about me. The way this fictional couple’s relationship mirrors that progression – and gives us hope that maybe there’s a way out of it – is absolute perfection, and about as necessary and timely as a film can get.

The disbelief and confusion still plagues us as the virus surges around the world. But the characters in “Together” made me feel less alone in that than anyone in real life has. It is timely, and necessary, in addition to being beautifully-made. More than any news story or social media post ever could, it took watching a work of art to finally feel just a little bit better about a huge tragedy.

The film did not make me feel anxious or sad, the way I expected. It did not make me relive the trauma of the past year and a half. It did what the best kind of art does: reminded me what matters, and that I’m not alone, and neither are you.

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Highly original ‘Free Guy,’ is not just good, but great

After a long-awaited release, “Free Guy” hits theaters Aug. 13 from actor-producer Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy. The action-comedy is as unexpectedly meaningful as it is pure fun at the theatre, following Reynolds as a non-playing character in a video game who suddenly realizes there’s more to life than being in the background.

“Free City” is a smash hit interactive “Grand Theft Auto”-style video game supposedly created by Antwon Soon (Taika Waititi, his trademark hilarity on full display as a corporate boss). But there’s more to the story of the game, just as there’s more to Guy. 

The initial idea and code for a more human approach to “Free City” was created by Millie (Emmy winner Jodie Comer) and “Keys” (should-also-be-an-Emmy-winner Joe Keery), and “Free Guy” is just as much about their fight to get it back as it is about Guy’s journey from being a background character to something more.

Levy and screenwriters Matt Liberman and Zak Penn thankfully don’t feel the need to build a lengthy backstory about what happened with the coders, just as we don’t know exactly how Guy came to be – at first. They let the details unfold seamlessly over 115 minutes that are pure fun, even for non-gaming viewers. 

Maybe especially for them. In a year when many of us have been non-playing characters in a global tragedy and it feels like there’s an unstoppable bug in our game, Guy brought a sense of comfort: that we’ll get out of this loop one day, but we already have what we need in our programming. 

In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to laugh. A lot, which “Free Guy” ensures.

Comer, Reynolds and especially Keery are superb, with funny back-up in the form of Utkarsh Ambudkar and Lil Rel Howery. This is a Shawn Levy movie after all, and when he writes the code, there’s always a signature sense of humor and heart written into the fast-paced zeroes and ones. Think the adventure of “Night at the Museum” and the camaraderie of “Stranger Things,” with the combined action and humor of “Date Night,” and maybe most unexpectedly, the emotion of “This Is Where I Leave You.” Or at least the top-notch acting.

In this case, Levy and a talented group of writers and creators made a colorful, highly original “Free Guy,” which was not just good, but great. And worth the wait.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios

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‘Jungle Cruise’ is refreshingly silly summer fun

I did not want to see Jungle Cruise. There, I said it. And I typically never include first person in my reviews, but it’s warranted here. I groaned at the prospect of seeing a big screen adaptation of a Disney attraction, one I was certain was going to be green screen scene after green screen scene. But in all honesty, I loved it. And I laughed a lot. As the credits faded in and out and the text read “Screenplay by Michael Green” it all made sense to me – of course it was. Everwood is, was and always will be my favorite television show of all time and Green being one of it’s key writers, I must have sensed his storytelling touch and regretted my preconceived notions of the film being less than a good time. Also worth crediting co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, encapsulates the spirit of the Disneyland ride that set sail in 1955, Walt Disney in tow. It’s full of color, puns, the roaring hippopotamus and the eight wonder of the world – the backside of water. Add Paul Giamatti and Jesse Plemons to the mix and it’s an “I can’t stop myself from laughing” kind of laugh. There’s something for everyone here – action, adventure, thrills and humor that Johnson and Blunt can deliver easily and naturally. With children, especially, deserving of a solid live action tentpole with silly summer fun, Jungle Cruise fits the bill.

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Wahlberg gives subtle, career-best performance as complicated ‘Joe Bell’

Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg gives a subtle, career-best performance as a complicated man on a mission in Joe Bell. Based on a true story, the film (from Brokeback Mountain writers Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry) follows a working class Oregonian father on his long, strenuous walk across the country in support of his gay son. His journey of speaking out against bullying becomes one of self-reflection and, as a result, Joe Bell becomes a character study of a very flawed, very human father. 

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men; upcoming King Richard) introduces us to teenage Jadin, an energetic cheerleader at his rural high school where he is the only openly gay student in 2013. If this had been a fictional film and in no way based on true events, I would have critiqued it for being unrealistic. It would be nearly impossible to believe there was only one openly gay student and equally as far fetched to believe he would be relentlessly bullied for being gay. Yet, despite the progress that the LGBTQ community has made (even in the 15 years since the release of Ossana and McMurtry’s Brokeback Mountain, this happened. The brilliance of Wahlberg helming a project like this as lead actor and producer lies in his ability to draw in audiences who might need to see a story like this. Joe Bell wanted to change the mind of at least one person, and perhaps Walhberg can, too. 

Reid Miller in JOE BELL | Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert | Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Reid Miller portrays an emotionally conflicted Jadin Bell with heartbreakingly raw honesty. He doesn’t fit in at school and despite his mother’s best efforts (Connie Britton in an unsurprisingly poignant performance as Lola Bell), he doesn’t quite fit at home either. His father doesn’t reject him for coming out as gay, but he never fully accepts him either, making for a more dimensional relationship rarely depicted on screen. 

While we never quite feel the impact of Bell’s anti-bullying visits to high schools across the country, it’s his run-in encounter with a local sheriff (Gary Sinise) that grounds the film as a whole. Along with Britton, Sinise was Wahlberg’s choice for the Joe Bell supporting cast and both play as close to “real” as you can get. It’s worth watching for the cast. With nuanced, vulnerable performances, they make you care. And when you care, you listen. And when you listen, you learn. That’s the point of Joe Bell, movie and man. 

Joe Bell opens in theaters July 23.

Mark Wahlberg and Gary Sinise in JOE BELL | Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert | Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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‘The Boss Baby: Family Business’ A Silly, Sweet Reprieve for Kids

A sequel to DreamWorks Animation’s 2017 Oscar-nominated blockbuster, The Boss Baby: Family Business is a welcome, comedic reprieve for children and their parents alike. From returning director Tom McGrath, the story of brothers Tim (James Marsden) and Ted (Alec Baldwin) Templeton continues, amplified by a new cast of zany, brainy characters fit for the big screen. 

Set decades after the original film, Family Business finds the fully-grown brothers living completely opposite lives – Ted is a hedge fund CEO, Tim a suburban stay-at-home dad to two daughters, seven-year-old Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and newborn Tina (Amy Sedaris). Worrying that Tabitha is growing up too quickly at her prestigious school for advanced children, Tim yearns for his daughter to have a youthful, fun-filled imagination. Instead, she wants to be just like her Uncle Tim. 

(From left) Ted Templeton (Alec Baldwin), Tina Templeton (Amy Sedaris, back to camera) and Tim Templeton (James Marsden) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business, directed by Tom McGrath.

Enter: baby Tina, a top secret agent for Baby Corp. on a mission to uncover secrets about her sister’s school and its devious founder (Jeff Goldblum). On a mission to stop an evil genius, Tim and Ted set out on a journey together that ultimately reveals the true meaning of family. 

Based on the books by Marla Frazee, this sequel screenplay from Michael McCullers and McGrath is as enjoyable as its predecessor. With enthusiastic voice work from Baldwin, Goldblum, Marsden (additionally, Eva Longoria, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), there is enough on screen to satisfy the youngest and oldest of viewers. Perhaps the most giggle-inducing, unsurprisingly, is Amy Sedaris in the role of baby agent Tina (lines like, “Men, am I right?” might go unappreciated by a young generation, but are sure to entertain a tired parent). “Each one of them is a wonderful ad-libber, and they brought so much to their roles,” producer Jeff Hermann says. “They shine every time they are on the screen.” While the plot and screenplay are joyous and silly, the obvious ad-libbing is a highlight.

After a long, difficult year for children, “silly” is something they deserve. Whether they see it on the big screen this Fourth of July weekend or stream it on Peacock, The Boss Baby: Family Business fits the bill.

Tina Templeton (Amy Sedaris) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby: Family Business, directed by Tom McGrath.
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In ‘Here Today,’ Crystal Makes Real Life More Interesting

In an era of moviemaking when films are pigeonholed by genre, scale and scope, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s beauty in the middle. Short scenes can get big laughs, small stories can have big heart. In Here Today, director Billy Crystal and co-writer Alan Zweibel bring back a bygone era of storytelling, when comedy and tragedy are best at their subtlest.

Set in New York, comedy legend Charlie Burnz (Crystal) goes to work at his late-night cable sketch show, acting as the honorary “mentor” to young and mostly smarmy writers. When he encourages them to aim higher than profanity or gross-out schtick, they think his institutional memory is more or less useless and as outdated as his typewriter. Herein lies the heart of the story – the wisdom that comes with age, the precious gift that is memory. In Charlie’s world, he’s losing both. 

Based on Zweibel’s short story “The Prize,” Here Today sets up Charlie’s journey with dementia a few stages in – he knows what’s going on, he knows he’s slipping and he’s writing a book dedicated to his late wife and emotionally estranged children because of it. That’s when he meets his saving grace in free-spirited singer, Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish). Despite the age gap, their unexpected and unlikely friendship becomes the driving force of the film; both funny and not, complicated and not. Haddish uses her tried-and-true brand of humor, but delves deeper into making the character of Emma a realistic one. She’s a good, young soul who happens to connect with a good, older one; an atypical dynamic rarely shown on screen. While the group of millennial comedy writers didn’t fully understand Charlie, it’s nice to see someone who does – better yet, a female almost half his age. 

In addition to an endearing Haddish, familiar actors round out the cast, with Anna Deveare Smith as Charlie’s doctor and Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley as his grown children. But it’s Crystal, himself, who is more engaging with an emotional monologue than any flashback could accurately evoke. It’s the comedy and tragedy he wears on his face, subtly delivering a funny one-liner and, in the next second, breaking your heart. From a directing standpoint, too, Crystal makes it work. New York is the third most-important character, here, with breathtaking wide shots of a cityscape that fills the frameline. It’s a love letter to New York or at least feels like one.

Perhaps it’s familiarity or intuition, but the ways in which the writers seem to draw from the well of personal experience breathes genuine life into fictional characters. Whether it was Zweibel’s experience writing for Saturday Night Live or Crystal’s similar history of meeting his wife at the beach or getting the dreaded knock at the door after fighting with a loved one, moments in Here Today feel supremely human. Maybe it’s years of my family reading Crystal’s memoirs or crying at 700 Sundays or crying laughing at the Chicago Theatre. Or perhaps it’s just good writing. 

As we slowly return to the movies, my hope is that there are more films like the one Crystal and Zweibel put together. I hope they’re full of dimensional characters that make us laugh, cry and think more deeply about caring for someone and caring about them. I hope they make us appreciate the beauty of the people and places around us – while they’re here, today.

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Kunis and Close Spend ‘Four Good Days’ Fighting for Sobriety

Glenn Close and Mila Kunis play characters inspired by a real-life mother and daughter in “Four Good Days.” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eli Saslow co-wrote the screenplay with director Rodrigo Garcia, who reunites for the fourth time with lead actress Close in this tense, tightly-structured drama about a longtime heroin addict and a determined but exhausted mother’s fight to keep her clean.

Based on Saslow’s 2016 Washington Post article, “Four Good Days” begins its sharp narrative with a sharp knock. Molly (Kunis) has returned to her mother’s house after what we later learn is an 18-month bender. She is ready to get sober, she swears, but it’s nothing Deb (Close) hasn’t heard before. The audience grows familiar with their decade-long plight on the drive to the detox center, where they repeat a familiar cycle of lies, frustration and pain. Until a doctor offers the desperate pair a new lifeline – a treatment that could finally help Molly’s addiction after years of self-destruction. 

All she has to do is stay clean for four days. If drugs are in her system when she receives the shot, she could die.

Saslow and Garcia don’t tell us about Molly and Deb’s shared history – they show us, with real conversations that slowly and organically reveal what they’ve been through. They give us only part of the picture, not unlike the unfinished jigsaw puzzle in Deb’s garage that Molly left 18 months ago, before disappearing again. 

Rodrigo and Saslow give the film structure, but the actors give it substance. Close and Kunis feel not only like a real mother and daughter, but like they’ve truly been through this saga before – and they do justice to real-life article subjects Libby Alexander and Amanda Wendler. This is clearly not a new struggle, but it could be a new chance at something better if they get through it together. 

That doesn’t mean “Four Good Days” is saccharine or falsely hopeful – their struggles are clear without being gory and gruesome. We see the effect on not just Molly’s health in her body and appearance, but in her life decisions as we learn more about her past and what her life could have been if drugs hadn’t interfered. But it’s the emotional trauma played out with her mother that shows viewers what this kind of situation does to families. Not in an overarching intrapersonal sense, but with each painful day. It is exhausting, and perfectly executed. It will make you think about this affliction in a new way.

It also offers an empathetic take on the addict’s perspective – the psychology of someone who doesn’t want to be this way, rather than just the other side of it – statistics, science, therapies. Kunis is perfect at portraying a woman whose true personality is slowly coming through the haze of substance abuse, withdrawal and the desperate desire to stay sober.

Close said she took the role because she wanted to put a face to a statistic. While recent offerings like “Beautiful Boy” and “Ben Is Back” have tackled true stories of drug abuse and the emotionally raw aspects of the opioid epidemic, “Four Good Days” feels the most real of any of them. While the energy runs low and grating, the stakes feel incredibly high because of the four-day time frame. We wonder if Molly is going to get through it, and how Deb will cope if she can’t. It is the perfect boiling-down of an overwhelming, nationwide problem into two people, sitting in a dingy garage, waiting. 

Waiting to see how the rest of their lives will be, if they can make it through four good days. 

“Four Good Days” opens in theaters April 30.

Photos courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
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Familiar Faces Anchor Offbeat ‘Eat Wheaties!’

Tony Hale anchors the cast of Eat Wheaties!, an offbeat new comedy from Scott Abramovitch. Based on Michael Kun’s 2003 novel The Locklear Letters, Hale plays an overeager marketing manager who attempts to prove he knew the actress Elizabeth Banks in college.

While this premise drives the plot, it’s the singular bits and oddball cast of characters who bring this funny farce to life. The cast is stacked with familiar faces from your favorite television comedies: character actors from Schitt’s Creek, New Girl, Mom, Barry, Orange is the New Black and Scrubs are just a few who populate the earnest world of Sid Straw, a nice if overly enthusiastic guy who simply tries too hard to fit in.

Hale’s endearingly strange lead character gives embarrassing unprompted speeches at family events and writes accidentally-public letters to Banks on Facebook for the world to see. His cringe-inducing jokes and attempts to bond with co-workers and first dates are hilariously awkward, but when he tries to get in touch with Banks ahead of their college reunion, a few misunderstandings spiral into a viral narrative he can’t work his way out of. 

Photos courtesy of Screen Media Films

The silliness of the story is surprisingly grounded in human emotion, which makes us root for Sid despite his quirks. The supporting cast is especially funny in their reactions to him – often annoyed, mostly baffled, actors like Lamorne Morris, Paul Walter Hauser, Sarah Goldberg and David Walton are great at playing it straight to Sid’s eccentricities. Though his humor is that signature subtlety Hale brought to Veep and Arrested Development, this character is entirely new – and the stigma surrounding him somehow manages to be equally funny and heartbreaking.

Eat Wheaties! often feels like a string of recurring character sketches strung together – and that’s a good thing. Sid feels like someone we’ve known for a very long time, stuck in several situations that put him out of his element. One bit where his name is misspelled to “Sad Striw” (“who would name their kid ‘Sad?’) just shows how there is still humor to be found in characters who feel stuck or unseen. In a time when it feels like well-intentioned humor is hard to come by, especially on social media where this story begins, Abramovitch doesn’t overanalyze his protagonist – he makes us laugh instead.

Peppered with funny references (“Jesse James robbed Sandra Bullock of five years of her life”), Eat Wheaties! is a sweet and lighthearted film as offbeat and sincere as its main character. With the resurgence of well-meaning doofs in modern comedy thanks to the success of Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso (though maybe it dates back as far as The Office), a character like Sid Straw is worth rooting for. And he just might cause us to look a little closer at the people in our own lives who might have more to offer than it seems on the surface – that’s a worthy 90 minutes.

Photos courtesy of Screen Media Films
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In Era of Isolation, ‘Together Together’ Says We’re Not Alone

Ed Helms and Patti Harrison play a single expectant father and his pregnant surrogate in “Together Together,” a Bleecker Street film that hits theaters April 23. Writer-director Nicole Beckwith’s refreshingly real feature tackles the stigma of singlehood – and the unlikely places we find family.

App developer Matt (Helms) meets Anna (Harrison) while interviewing potential candidates to carry his child. It is immediately clear that Matt is unique, telling the rarely-depicted story of a single dad who chooses parenthood, rather than having it thrust upon him by tragic or comic circumstances.

Their awkward and unconventional exchanges begin from the opening scene, and never really waiver throughout nine months and 90 minutes.

Beckwith covers the ground of exposition effortlessly, allowing the audience to simply watch an unlikely friendship unfold organically – if somewhat awkwardly, considering the circumstances. As we travel with these two people throughout the pregnancy, their reliance on each other evolves into a solid and surprising friendship. But as Anna’s very funny coffee shop co-worker Jules (Julio Torres) expresses, their relationship has an end date, which leads both of them to question what this moment in time means – and whether it’s even ethical.

Both actors have experience in the art of dry comedy: Helms on “The Office” and Harrison in two seasons of Hulu’s “Shrill.” Their onscreen friendship never feels artificial or saccharine, thanks to quippy, smart dialogue that feels authentic.

But it’s more than their chemistry and delivery that make “Together Together” special – it’s the simple fact that they sound like real people having real conversations, about life, career, dating and the choices that have defined who they are. The real love that grows between them is refreshingly free of melodrama, and their genuine characters are never sacrificed for plot.

In addition to its uniquely platonic protagonists, “Together Together” is better than most expectant-parent films because it focuses more on the people than the process of pregnancy. It portrays two people of different generations and genders, who refuse to be bogged down by the stigma of singlehood at the various stages of their lives. While Anna’s family shut her out in her teen years and she seeks the chance to start fresh, Matt’s friends and family question his decision to pursue single fatherhood. What others see as “being alone,” they see as the path that makes sense to them. And God, is it good to see that portrayed onscreen in a new way.

Matt’s expression of confidence feels like a beacon to Anna, and the audience: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment, when I’m actually incredibly hopeful.” 

Beckwith’s second theatrical feature film brings Matt’s hope and Anna’s humor to people who might have to take an unconventional route to finding family – biological or otherwise.

“Together Together” will be available to watch on VOD and digital platforms May 11.

Tiffany Roohani/Bleecker Street
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