Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

It’s Not a Burden


They care for us when we’re young; we care for them when they’re old.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Michelle Boyaner, Elaine Boyaner George, Brother Kenneth, Morris Boyaner, Esther Lapiduss, Maxine Lapiduss, Sally Lapiduss. Directed by Michelle Boyaner

 

We are seeing a shift in America’s age; we are getting older as a nation. The baby boomers are now retiring and often, being forced into retirement communities and assisted living centers. Their adult children often end up caring for them the same way their parents cared for them as children. It’s time, the film seems to be saying, to return the favor.

Documentary director Michelle Boyaner found herself in that position with her own parents. She has a bit of a unique situation; her parents divorced when she was younger after having had eight children together. Her mom Elaine decided (for reasons that she sort of addresses in the movie) that she couldn’t be a mom any longer, so all eight of the children were sent to live with their father while Elaine moved to Utah, converted to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and married a new husband. Michelle, the oldest, helped raise her siblings, but a chasm had been formed between her and her mother. The relationship between the two women was cordial, but very cold.

It was assumed that Michelle’s younger sister Danielle would be the one to look after Elaine when her mom started showing signs of dementia, but Danielle passed away unexpectedly. On her deathbed, she made Elaine promise to look after their mom. Michelle, still harboring resentment towards her mother, reluctantly agreed.

The film is subtitled The Humor and Heartache of Raising Elderly Parents and there is some humor here. Michelle (and most of the other caregiving subjects interviewed here) counsels patience, and that’s excellent advice. For example, Elaine has trouble remembering that she sold her house on Serenade Lane in Huntington Beach in 1983. She constantly refers to the house and Michelle often has to remind her that it’s no longer hers.

Michelle spends a good deal of time interviewing a whole lot of other people in similar situations – adult children acting as caregivers to elderly parents, most with some form of dementia or another. For example, we get the vivacious 96-year-old entertainer from Pittsburgh whose daughters don’t quite have the energy to keep up with her, or the aging monk who runs a care home for retired monks who have no family to care for them, or the former dancer on Broadway who is visited by members of the LGBTQ community who act as “chosen family” members. Some of their stories are touching, others humorous but many of them are actually kind of similar. This is a case where less is definitely more; I would have preferred fewer testimonials, but more in-depth ones. Then again, I’m definitely a quality over quantity kind of guy.

The central story revolves around a metaphor of an amusement park in which you try to survive the rides without throwing up afterwards, and the metaphor is kind of apt. One thing for certain is that you have to have a plan; most of us are going to face the aging of our loved ones at some point and should have a working idea of the options available to them. The movie does show a few of them – parents living with their children, parents living in residential care facilities, parents with visiting health care professionals that perform in-home treatment on a regular basis.

The movie has some truly heartbreaking moments and wise viewers will have some tissue paper handy to dab away moisture at the corner of their eyes that might unexpectedly erupt. One of the things that I took away from the film was that the estrangement between Michelle and her mother more or less evaporated during the time she was caring for her and the time the two spent together actually strengthened their bonds which I don’t think the younger woman expected. I wouldn’t say that this is indispensable – the film is a bit unfocused and repetitive in places, and could have done with more information on how to find support if you find yourself in a situation where you’re providing care for an elderly parent or parents with dementia. However, this certainly gives a perspective on the situation and might be a good starting point for those who see the road ahead leading in that very direction.

REASONS TO SEE: The journey is heartbreaking. The ending is extremely poignant.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used fewer interview subjects and more depth on the ones they chose to keep.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some frank conversations about the consequences of aging and dementia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Boyaner was previously nominated for an Emmy for her 2015 film Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It Is Not Over Yet
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Undercover Punch and Gun

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It


Rita Moreno is not above publicizing her own documentary.

(2021) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, Hector Elizondo, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Mitzi Gaynor, Norman Lear, Sonia Sotomayor, Frances Negron-Montaner, Gloria Estefan, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Jackie Speier, Tom Fontana, Terence McNally, Chita Rivera. Directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

When most people think of Rita Moreno, the first thing that comes to mind is her Oscar-winning part as the sizzling, seductive Anita in West Side Story. That isn’t so surprising, but she has had a nearly 70 year career in entertainment, and is the first (and so far only) Latina actress to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards in their career. That’s an accomplishment that is exceedingly rare few actors can make the same claim.

Moreno grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, but remembers her childhood as idyllic. That came to an end when her parents divorced and her mother moved her to New York City. She developed an affinity for dancing and dropped out of school at 16 to become the family’s sole breadwinner. She did get noticed, though and was eventually signed to a contract at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.

The documentary, at a snug 89 minutes, covers most of the highlights of her career; the any reinventions, such as her time on the seminal children’s PBS program The Electric Company and her dramatic role as a nun-prison psychologist in Oz and more recently her starring role in the reboot of One Day at a Time (sadly canceled) and up to her forthcoming appearance in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story which she executive produced.

There are also some of the struggles she underwent; the typecasting as an ethnic actress, often requiring her to wear skin-darkening makeup to play Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic roles. There is also the misogyny, as when Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn told her point blank at a cocktail party that he wanted to have sex with her (in much cruder terms) which as a fairly sheltered teen from Puerto Rico was quite a shock.

Through much of the film, Moreno is seen watching the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Neil Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. These seem to resonate with her in particular; she then talks about her own sexual assault at the hands of an agent. She then says that she still kept him on as her agent, as he was the only one willing to believe in her “so-called career” as few agents would represent anyone of Latin origin as they tended to be typecast in a narrow variety of roles.

Although much of this can be found in Moreno’s 2013 memoir, it might come as new information for those who haven’t read it – including myself. For instance, I’d forgotten that early in her career she’d appeared in both The King and I and Singing in the Rain (in one of her rare non-ethnic appearances). What is more telling is the effect her career has had on those of the Latin performers who followed her and speak about her with reverence, including her One Day at a Time co-star Machado and Broadway emperor Lin-Manuel Miranda. America Ferraro is also seen giving a heartfelt speech at an awards ceremony honoring Moreno. It is a touch hagiographic, but I can’t help but think that if anyone deserves that kind of hero-worship, it’s Moreno.

REASONS TO SEE: A squidge better than the average Hollywood biodoc. Moreno is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and a description of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moreno was the first actor of Puerto Rican descent to win an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympia
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
It’s Not a Burden

Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer


Even police officers must tread lightly when walking while black.

(2017) Documentary (Magnetbox/Buffalo 8) Fred Williamson, Gavin Newsom, Melvin Russell, Catherine E. Pugh, Pastor Michael Freeman, Jameel “Zookie” McGee, Andrew Collins, A.J. Ali, Chance M. Glenn Sr., Tim McMillan, Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., Tsega Hapte, Jose Carvajal, Cheryl Dorsey. Directed by A.J. Ali

 

It is no secret that one of the most inflammatory topics in American culture currently is the relationship between the justice system and the African-American community. There is no doubt that our brothers and sisters of color have every right to be angry and frustrated – if you do doubt it, watch the first half of the film, of the footage of Eric Garner being choked to death, of the cases of Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott, of Philando Castile dying in the hands of the Baltimore police department.

You won’t see George Floyd or any more contemporary cases here – this movie was made more than four years ago and is only now appearing on VOD platforms (see below for details). However, it is just as timely now as it was then. The film isn’t just a laundry list of grievances against the cops, however – although that could fill a documentary in and of itself – but also gives the perspective of the police force, of cops encountering systemic racism in their own departments, community leaders of color who experienced racial profiling and those working in the legal system showing how even judges and prosecutors are pressured to convict black suspects.

The second half of the film focuses on changing mindsets, of forgiving past injustices and moving forward to a better future. Love is used as an acronym here – L stands for Learning About People and Communities, O for Opening Our Hearts and Being Empathic, V for Volunteering to be Part of the Solution, and E for Empowering Others. Some examples of how those concepts are being carried out are discussed.

One of the more inspiring examples is that of Jameel “Zookie” McGee, a black father who was unjustly arrested and ended up serving four years he didn’t owe. Andrew Collins, the arresting officer, had his eyes opened by the experience and wanted to make amends. He and McGee ended up meeting and McGee ended up forgiving him for his transgression. The two have since forged an impressive friendship.

Also worthy of notice is Colonel Melvin Russell of the Baltimore P.D. As a detective, he was told by officers above him in the chain of command that he was only suited for undercover work buying narcotics rather than the work he wanted to do – being an actual detective – because he wasn’t smart enough due to the color of his skin. He would go on not only to prove those men wrong, but to become one of the most decorated officers in the city and leading an effort to changing the relationship between his department and the predominantly black communities they serve.

The movie relies an awful lot on talking head interviews and that can become a bit stupefying after awhile, but the message is one worth hearing, particularly on the day that this is being published by Cinema365 – Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery which was recently made a federal holiday. Racial relations in the United States remain a source of conflict in this country, particularly as there is a segment of our society that insists that there IS no conflict at this time, flying in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Some African-Americans wonder, not unjustly, why it is the African-American community that is always being tasked with being the ones to forgive. Well, the answer is simple – they are the ones being wronged. Forgiveness must come from their side; it cannot come from the side that did the wrongdoing. That doesn’t mean that the bulk of the work here has to be done by communities of color. On the contrary; the white community must learn to put aside their preconceptions and change their outlook. They must learn to trust people of color as they trust people who aren’t. Finally, and most importantly, they must learn to apply justice equally to everyone, regardless of race, or religion, or sexual identity, or gender, or anything else that might make them different. We are all, after all, in this same life together and share the same hopes and dreams. Once we begin to understand that, perhaps there won’t be a need for documentaries like this one in the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Spends the second half of the film on viable solutions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Ali’s first feature as a director and writer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whose Streets?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie is hotter than ever.

(2021) Action (New Line) Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Boots Southerland, Tory Kittles, James Jordan, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, Howard Ferguson Jr., Ryan Jason Cook, Laura Niemi, Dylan Kenin, Faith Lynch, Alexander Wagerman, Mason Howell, Calvin Olson, Sofia Embid. Directed by Taylor Sheridan

 
I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of kids in peril movies. Too often Hollywood films that put children in the path of evil adults portray the kids unrealistically, either as much smarter than the adults that are after them, much braver than the adults around them, or much cooler than anyone in a similar situation would be. While kids do come in all shapes and sizes – and personality types, including heroic – Hollywood tends to idealize them in one way or another which can make an entire film ring false.

Forensic investigator Owen (Weber) discovers that the district attorney he works for has been killed in a freak gas explosion. He doesn’t believe it for a moment – after all, Owen discovered some disturbing information about some very powerful people. Realizing that the death was no accident, he gathers up his son Connor (Little) and makes a run for Montana, where his brother-in-law, Deputy Sheriff Ethan (Bernthal) might be able to help.

But there are a pair of vicious hired hitmen on their trail, Jack (Gillen) and Patrick (Hoult) and when they ambush and kill Owen, Connor gets away into the Montana woods. There he meets up with Hannah (Jolie), a smokejumper who is currently working in a fire tower after a mistake on her part led to the deaths of her crew, including several children they were in the process of rescuing. She has been covering up her pain with a surfeit of drinking and one-of-the-boys behaviors that have led to her being sent somewhere where she can get her head together. A fire tower is certainly a place where there isn’t much to distract you.

Unless it’s the sudden appearance of a young, terrified boy on the run from ruthless assassins who have set a raging out-of-control forest fire to literally smoke the boy out and keep the local law enforcement busy while they complete their nefarious task. Can Hannah’s survival skills help her protect Connor from the men who wish him dead?

In all honesty, I have to admit that while these types of pictures tend to not thrill me much, Little actually does a pretty fair job of playing the kid realistically; numb and terrified. However, he is overshadowed by the main stars – Jolie, in a return to the front of the camera (she has spent the last few years concentrating on her directorial efforts) reminds us that her star quality has never left. She continues to be absolute money in the bank when it comes to these sorts of physically demanding action roles. Few other actresses handle physically demanding roles as ably as she does.

And lest we forget Bernthal, the one-time Walking Dead baddie who has been on the cusp of being a big star for awhile. This role won’t push him over the edge in either direction, but he continues to be impressive. I’m hopeful that Marvel makes a new Punisher movie at some point with this guy; he deserves the kind of career push that kind of movie would give him.

The action sequences here tend to be pretty big and well-choreographed. That’s not the problem. The problem here is that the plot is just oh-so-predictable and while the characters are given some backstory, they feel kind of shoehorned into cookie cutter cliches of psychologically wounded leads 101. The roles never really feel authentic and the story never takes an unexpected turn. I’m not saying that moviemakers have to reinvent the wheel with every film – that’s simply not a realistic expectation – but this one is a bit too by-the-numbers for me to give it anything but a mild thumbs up.

The movie was one of those released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max; it is still out in some theaters but is no longer available on the streaming service at the present. It will be made available on most VOD services starting July 2nd and will be on HBO (and by extension, HBO Max) sometime later this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Jolie retains her star power and Bernthal continues to get better with every role.
REASONS TO AVOID: An utterly pedestrian plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sometimes brutal violence and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage was at one time considered for a role as one of the hitmen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now (effective July 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Professional
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer

New Releases for the Week of June 18, 2021


THE HITMAN’S WIFE’S BODYGUARD

(Lionsgate) Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Grillo, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Richard E. Grant, Antonio Banderas. Directed by Patrick Hughes

Still unlicensed and under scrutiny, Michael Bryce has a new client – not the hitman, but his even more volatile wife, the con artist Sonia Kincaid. However, the three quickly find out they are well over their heads in a global plot that could plunge Europe under the iron grip of a despot.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: R (for some sexual content, pervasive language and strong bloody violence)

12 Mighty Orphans

(Sony Classics) Luke Wilson, Robert Duvall, Vinessa Shaw, Martin Sheen. A devoted high school football coach leads a team of twelve scrawny orphans to the state championship, inspiring a nation reeling from the Great Depression.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Lake Square, Cinemark Orlando, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Pavilion, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (some suggestive references, brief teen drinking, smoking, language and violence)

Gaia

(NEON) Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, Anthony Oseyemi. An injured forest ranger is rescued by two off-the-grid survivalists. But what is at first a welcome intervention grows more sinister as their beliefs in the deity of the woods leads to a shocking confrontation.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, CMX Merritt Square
Rating: R (for nudity, language, bloody images, sexual content and some violence)

Limbo

(Focus) Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kenneth Collard, Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhaj. A promising young musician from Syria who is forced to flee the civil war there finds himself separated from his family, stuck on a remote Scottish island while he awaits the outcome of his asylum hearing.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Cinematique Daytona Beach
Rating: R (for language)

Los Hermanos/The Brothers

(Patchwork) Aldo Lopez-Gavilán, Ilmar Lopez-Gavilán. Brothers Aldo, a pianist living in Havana, and Ilmar, a violinist living in New York City, are separated by more than miles. A geopolitical divide has separated the brothers for more than half a century. This poignant film tracks their parallel lives in music, their emotional reunion and their incredible first performances together.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian On-Demand
Rating: NR

Our Ladies

(Sony International) Tallulah Grieve, Eve Austin, Kate Dickie, Chris Fulton. A rural Catholic girl’[s school choir gets a chance to enter a national competition in Edinburgh in the 1990s but the girls are far more interested in having a good time than in winning the competition.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs
Rating: R (for teen drinking, brief graphic nudity, sexual content and language throughout)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

(Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman. The acclaimed actress went from a life of poverty in Puerto Rico to becoming one of the few actors to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater, Regal The Loop
Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive material, some strong language and mature thematic content)

The Sparks Brothers

(Focus) Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Jane Wiedlin, Mike Myers. The Mael brothers have spent decades at the head of Sparks, a pop band with eccentric instincts. This Edgar Wright-directed documentary traces the group from their formative years in the Seventies through their most recent releases.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Avenue, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village, Studio Grill Sunset Walk
Rating: R (for language)

Sweet Thing

(Film Movement) Will Patton, Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell, Jabari Watkins. Two siblings try to cope with an alcoholic father and an uncaring mother and ultimately run away from home, creating a temporary life for themselves.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian On-Demand
Rating: NR

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

Batman: The Long Halloween Part One (Tuesday)
The Birthday Cake
Clairevoyant
(Tuesday)
Demon Slayer: Mugen Train
(Tuesday)
Les Nótres
Life in a Year
(Tuesday)
Love Spreads
Luca
Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer
Siberia
Stalker
Take Back
Truman and Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Birthday Cake
Gaia
The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard
Luca
Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
The Sparks Brothers


Censor


Some doors shouldn’t be opened.

(2021) Horror (Magnet) Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, Felicity Montagu, Danny Lee Wynter, Clare Perkins, Guillaume Delaunay, Richard Glover, Erin Shanagher, Beau Gadsdon, Amelie Child-Villiers, Matthew Earley, Richard Renton, Bo Bragason, Amelia Craighill, Madeleine Hutchins. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

 
We all have different tolerances for horror movies. Some of us delight in them, loving the thrill ride feeling of being scared. Others may find the feeling uncomfortable and shy away from horror films. Still others, who carry past traumas like demons that are summoned at the flicker of a screen, can find a horror movie to be something of a time bomb.

Enid Baines (Algar) is a tightly-wound British film censor back in the 1980s during an age of horror films that are looked back upon fondly by aficionados of the genre. Called “video nasties” by the tabloid press and right-wing politicians, the moral outcry was because the new technology of VCRs would allow movies like The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave into the home where children could be exposed to them without supervision. It is her task to determine what sort of cuts needed to be made in order to bring a film up to code, or whether to ban a film outright. She takes her job seriously.

Perhaps that’s because her job is essentially all she has. Her relationship with her mum (Holman) and Dad (Havill) is strained at the moment – that’s because they have elected to declare her sister Nina, who disappeared twenty years earlier, dead. Enid sees this as a betrayal, largely because of the guilt feelings that she has because she was present when Nina disappeared and can’t remember any details.

Then, when reviewing a film called Don’t Go In the Church by cult film director Frederick North (Schiller) whose sleazy producer Doug Smart (Smiley) puts the moves on the increasingly agitated Enid, she notices that the actress Alice Lee (La Porta) looks very much the way Nina might as an adult. Also, she notices that the events of the film – in which two little girls enter a deserted cabin in the middle of the woods – mirror the fractured memories of her sister’s disappearance to an uncomfortable degree.

This sends Enid, convinced that the red-headed actress IS her sister, down a spiral as she looks into the films of Frederick North, including the one he’s currently filming, in an effort to rescue her long-lost sister and bring her home. Is Enid right, and is she about to solve a mystery that has haunted her for 20 years? Or has the years of watching massive amounts of violence and mayhem ultimately unhinged her?

First-time feature director Bailey-Bond has a self-assured hand on the tiller, and together with cinematographer Annika Summerson has nicely recreated the look of horror movies from the 80s with neon-glow lighting, earthtoned costumes and dull, drab office spaces. She does a good job building up the tension, aided by the sound designer Tim Harrison whose use of electronic pulses, barely audible screams and loud thumps keeps the viewer off-balance. Although the movie goes a bit off the rails near the end when the director gets, in my opinion, a bit self-indulgent, she immediately makes up for it with an ending that is absolutely amazing, one that left me grinning ear to ear, not something that happens often at the conclusion of a film.

Algar, an up and coming Irish actress, does a mesmerizing job, evolving Enid from a buttoned-down schoolmarm-ish sort and unraveling into someone whose entire world has been shattered and doesn’t know which end is up or down any longer. It’s the kind of performance that bodes well for us seeing more of her in the future in higher profile films.

This is more or less a psychological horror film with a nod to British horror films of the 60s made in the style of the video nasties of the 80s. While there is a good deal of gore on the screen, it largely comes from the clips that Enid is reviewing, mostly from actual films of the era (the Frederick North films are the exception). This is a solid debut that horror fans should be keeping an eye out for when it hits streaming platforms this Friday – until then, check your local listings for the nearest theater in which it’s playing.

REASONS TO SEE: An exceptionally clever ending. The use of sound to create an unsettling atmosphere is masterful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does go off the rails a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and profanity – a true video nasty!
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Algar is probably best-known to American audiences as Sue in the Apple TV Ridley Scott sci-fi series Raised By Wolves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Peeping Tom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Those Who Wish Me Dead

Tigre Gente


On the hunt for the hunters.

(2021) Documentary (XTR) Marcos Uzquiano, Laurel Chor, Gloria Chor, Zhang Go Yang. Directed by Elizabeth Unger

 

It is no secret that the natural world is under siege, and that largely due to humans. Our expanding population requires that more and more land that was once the sole habitat of animals are becoming developed for human habitation. The toxins we pour into the water and the soil are poisoning animals and the plant life that they feed on at an alarming rate. The carbons and hydrocarbons we release into the atmosphere are warming the planet, rendering some habitats unlivable for some species of animals and insects. We are diverting wter for agriculture and other less pressing needs, turning once lush places into virtual deserts. And particularly in countries like china and Myanmar, folk medicine remedies that depend on various organs, skin and bone of a variety of animals has led to a lucrative poaching trade.

Bolivia’s Madidi National Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is also one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and is one of the last places which is densely populated by jaguars. However, poachers are reducing the population of jaguars in this protected place at an alarming rate. Park director Marcos Uzquiano is trying to get to the bottom of the problem. He is committed to protecting these beautiful animals, long a symbol of strength and wisdom to the natives of the region.

Meanwhile on the border between Myanmar and China, journalist and environmental activist Laurel Chor is discovering a thriving trade on jaguar teeth and pelts. She is wondering who is buing these items, and what are they being used for. Without knowing it, she is following the same trail that Uzquiano is from different ends.

The sequences set in Madidi are breathtaking and justify the park’s reputation for being one of the places on Earth that is unmatched in terms of natural wonder. Unger, a National Geographic Explorer who has been to all seven continents and is making her documentary feature debut here, builds up the Uzquiano sequence almost like a thriller, with a boat chase of poachers who were likely armed, and a sting operation in which a suspect is found to be trafficking in illegal jaguar teeth and quickly confesses and begs for clemency. We also see Uzquiano interacting with fishermen and villagers in the region, trying to find out who is hunting the big cats and more importantly, who they are selling to.

The Chor sequence is a bit more dry but no less important. She wears a hidden camera as she interviews selelrs at markets who display jaguar skulls and teeth alongside cell phones, others with piles of shark fins to be sold to chefs for shark fin soup. Chor is a bit more articulate than Uzquiano, discussing the situation with her mother who at first disbelieves the claims of environmentalists as “exagerrations” but as her daughter steadfastly informs her that the rhinos whose horns were taken as aphrodisiacs are extinct, she gets defensive. “It’s not just a Chinese problem. There is also a lot of ivory in America.”

Chor realizes that it is a cultural issue, and that changing the hearts and minds of literally billions of people is going to require education rather than indoctrination. She gives talks with school children, trying to open some eyes which Unger hopes to do in the West with her film. Uzquiano comes off perhaps less polished than Chor, but no less committed.

It has been said before and by far more articulate writers that we are custodians of the planet for the next generation; sadly, the generations preceding ours largely failed in their job and while we are getting at least aware of the problem, we are not much more successful. It isn’t just the hearts and minds of the Chinese that have to be changed; all of us are in this together. We owe it to our descendents to give them a world no less beautiful than the one we were given.

REASONS TO SEE: Breathtaking beauty. Heartbreaking and horrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID: The journalist’s sequences are less compelling than those of the park director.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of animal remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are fewer than 100,000 jaguars left in the wild and fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the wild (there are more tigers in captivity). Some species of rhino have gone extinct, all attributable to Chinese and east Asian demand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Tribeca @ Home (through June 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tigerland
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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Censor

Reflection: a walk with water


A world without water is dry and dusty.

(2021) Documentary (Reflection Film LLC) Emmett Brennan, Kathy Bancroft, Connor Jones, Rhamis Kent, Gigi Coyle, Ariel Greenwood, Andy Lipkis, Raymond Hunter, Kate Bunney, Alan Babcock, Brock Dolman, Geoff Dalglish, Ben Holgate, Paul Kaiser, Penny Livingston. Directed by Emmett Brennan

 

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without it, all life would be impossible. Without it, humans would auickly – within a matter of days – become extinct. Water helps provide oxygen for the planet through evaporation but also by watering plants which provide it. Water grows our food which we need to live. Water keeps us hydrated, which our bodies must have to survive. In short, water is life.

In 1913, the city of Los Angeles built an aqueduct leading from the Owens Valley, nearly 250 miles away. The ambitious plan provided nearly four times the amount of water the city of Los Angeles needed at the time, but it proved to be a far-sighted plan as within seven years, the population of Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in California. Until recently, the Los Angeles aqueduct provided nearly 75% of the city’s water.

But there is a price to pay for everything. The Owens Lake shrunk dramatically, becoming a dry lakebed. Once a fertile agricultural region, the Owens Valley became little more than a desert (which, ironically, was what the San Fernando Valley had been before the aqueduct). The dust particulates in the lakebed proved to be a bigger problem, causing respiratory problems for the residents and carrying carcinogenic materials.

Environmentalist, activist and filmmaker Emmett Brannon wanted to call attention to the plight of the Owens Valley, but also to the effects of water mismanagement, which was leading to the epidemic of wildfires that have been plaguing Southern California over the last few years. He and a group of like-minded environmentalists decided to hike alongside the aqueduct to show the effects that the water theft had on the regions left behind.

The science is compelling. The presence of water creates a self-regenerating ecosystem in which water evaporates and creates rain, fog and mist which nourish the soil from which the water can then create rain, fog and mist and start the cycle once again. Without water, soil becomes denser, and actually becomes water-resistant. Of course, once the water is gone, so is the rain for the most part. Brennan and the scientists that he utilizes for the film then go on to suggest solutions.

A lot of time is spent bashing the city of Los Angeles, which is a bit childish and unnecessary. What’s done is done, and the city can’t very well cut off water on which millions of people depend on. Brennan and his team don’t seem to be very thrilled with the idea of irrigation either; the general feeling I got is that water should be left to do what nature intended it to do. I suspect the farmers in the region might not appreciate their solutions, nor the hundreds of millions who are fed from the crops that come out of California alone. I get the sense that there is an awful lot of New Age thought that went into the film; that has a tendency to sabotage the science that also went into it. Mantras and formulas don’t mix.

In that sense, this is a very Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of documentary. There is some useful information in it as well as some solutions that merit further study for a problem that is real and needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the filmmaker looked as globally at the problem as he might have because I don’t get the sense he took into account the consequences of the changes he proposed to the lives of the people that would be affected by them. Just because a documentary addresses a problem that needs to be addressed doesn’t mean the solutions it proposes are viable.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes some salient points about the misuse of water.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science is diluted with a disturbing amount of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cabin seen at the beginning of the film is Brennan’s residence and he built it himself.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Tribeca @ Home (June 16-23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flow
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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Tigre Gente