Super Frenchie


Self-expression or selfish pursuit?

(2020) Documentary (Greenwich) Matthias Giraud, Joann Giraud, Jesse Hall, Erik Roner, Julian Carr, J.T. Holmes, Josephina Giraud, Robert Giraud, Todd Davis, Denny Dragan, Chad Labass, Stefan Laude, Soren Giraud, Suzanne Montgomery. Directed by Chase Ogden

 

There are some among us who are driven to do things that, on the surface, seem foolhardy if not downright crazy. They jump out of airplanes with only a piece of cloth to keep them from being smashed into human jelly on the unforgiving ground below. They pit themselves against mountains, waves, and whatever else nature might throw at them. And among these, there are some who are driven to push the boundaries even further.

Matthias Giraud is one such. Born in France but currently residing in Oregon, he caught the skiing bug early on family vacations in the French Alps. But it wasn’t until he caught videos of Shane McConkey flying off the mountainsides with a parachute that he found something that truly spoke to him. McConkey became a friend and a mentor and Giraud became one of the best in the world at ski BASEing.

The garrulous Giraud describes the times when he is flying off the edge of a mountain, free of gravity, as the only times he’s truly happy. Driven by a childhood in which he grappled with depression and considered suicide (he talks about his mother Josephine being manipulative and overbearing), he pursued his passions with a vengeance that borders on addiction. But after meeting Joanne, an American woman who seems to understand him better than anyone, he married her and she eventually got pregnant.

Realizing that the presence of a child in his life would change things, Matthias wanted to check off a few of his bucket list items while he could, which included a skiBASE off of one of the peaks he grew up skiing on in France. It was there, three weeks before Joanne was due, that he launched hiself off the cliff and was promptly blown into the side of the mountain, and tumbled down in horrifying fashion.

He was lucky. He survived the fall, albeit with severe injuries. He had to relearn how to walk again, but he was at least home when his wife gave birth to their son Soren. But giving up his passion wasn’t even a question. He would get back to doing what he loved.

And therein lies the issue at the heart of Super Frenchie. It is discussed, but essentially we hear how Joanne understands that this need to skiBASE is part of who Matthias is, and as Matthias goes back to the mountain where he nearly lost his life, he writes a heartfelt letter to his son in case the mountain beats him again and he doesn’t come home. His mother puts the issue succinctly; “I support what he does, but it is a bit selfish.” And there’s the rub. Does the fulfillment of his need for the high that comes with risking his life outweigh his responsibilities to his wife and young son? It bears mentioning that his mentor, McConkey, died skiBASEing in Italy, leaving behind a wife and three-year-old daughter.

This is the central discussion that the film raises but Ogden mainly brushes it aside. I think that the movie would have benefitted from a discussion of how incredibly dangerous what Giraud does, and the human toll it has taken in terms of lives lost. The inventor of the wingsuit that Giraud wears died. The man who invented skiBASEing died. The man who invented BASE jumping also died. Giraud appears to define his manhood by the will to go after his dreams, but is the price worth it? I wonder if McConkey’s daughter thinks so.

The footage that we see of Giraud flying off of mountains is nothing short of spectacular, I’ll grant you that. But it makes me wonder about the generations of starry-eyed kids inspired to take up this dangerous sport to achieve the high that Matthias does, and what price they will ultimately pay.

REASONS TO SEE: Spectacular skiBASEing footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: One has to wonder about whether this is an expression of a massive ego.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Giraud has made a name for himself as being the first to skiBASE off a number of mountains, including the Matterhorn and Mount Hood in Oregon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now,Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Row8, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Sweat

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It


Ed and Lorraine Warren hold each other against the darkness.

(2021) Horror (New Line) Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, John Noble, Eugenie Bondurant, Shannon Kook, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Keith Arthur Bolden, Steve Coulter, Vince Pisani, Ingrid Bisu, Andrea Andrade, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Sterling Jerins, Paul Wilson, Charlene Amoia, Nick Massouh, Stella Doyle. Directed by Michael Chaves

 
The third Conjuring film (and the eighth in the franchise overall) is a bit of a seismic shift from the previous films. James Wan, who directed the first two Conjuring films, knows how to develop a good creepy atmosphere as well as a decent scare. He is sorely missed here.

The movie opens with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) presiding over the exorcism of 11-year-old David Glatzel (Hilliard), attended by David’s parents (Paul Wilson, Amoia), his sister Debbie (Hook) and her boyfriend Arne Cheyenne Johnson (O’Connor). Things get dicey and during the ritual, Ed suffers a massive heart attack. While he’s on the edge of consciousness, he witnesses Arne imploring the demonic presence to leave the boy’s body and come inside him, which the spirit does.

Shortly thereafter, Arne gets into a dispute with his landlord (Blevins) and stabs him together. As Ed recovers and tells Lorraine what happened, the police arrest a stunned Arne who suspects he’s done something terrible. The Warrens convince Arne’s lawyer that Arne wasn’t responsible for his actions; literally, the devil made him do it. It’s one thing to claim that, and another to prove it. They consult a leading expert, Father Kastner (Noble) who leads them down an unexpected path where a malevolent occultist (Bondurant) awaits.

The first half of the movie is largely focused on Arne, Debbie and David, turning to the Warrens once the grisly crime is committed. The film’s strength is in the performances of Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who effectively capture the deep affection, mutual respect and abiding love – not to mention Catholic spiritualism – of the couple. There are those who believe the Warrens were con artists; I won’t make a judgment one way or the other, but the two actors portray the Warrens as we would like them to have been (they’ve both since passed on).

Like the other films in the series, the story is only loosely based on what actually happened. In real life, the presiding judge immediately rejected the plea of not guilty by reason of demonic possession, stating (quite correctly) that it wasn’t provable. Johnson and his lawyer instead offered a self-defense plea and eventually ended up convicted of manslaughter and served five years of a ten to twenty year sentence before being paroled. Both Arne and his wife Debbie, who are still married today, confirm the Warrens’ version, although other members of the family have disputed this, most notably Carl Jr., David’s brother, who doesn’t appear in the film, who sued the author of the book The Devil in Connecticut for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. The author, Gerald Brittle, who received much input from the Warrens and whose book is listed as the basis for the film. Regardless of who you believe, you do know that things get embellished in these movies to make them more cinematic, right?

Chaves continues to develop the relationship between Ed and Lorraine but he isn’t as adept as Wan at creating tension and delivering on genuine scares. He relies a great deal on jump scares and at the end of the day, those are the cheapest of all, the horror equivalent of tripping on a banana peel. Plus, the movie just feels unfocused, as if the director’s mind was on his grocery shopping list more than on the film. Also, the big bad – the Occultist – isn’t fleshed out very much. She’s just EE-VILLE and the somewhat monotonous delivery of Bondurant doesn’t help matters. This is the weakest film of the trilogy by far to date; hopefully they can convince Wan to return and direct the next one – if indeed there is a next one.

REASONS TO SEE: Farmiga and Wilson continue to make an effective pair.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as focused as previous entries in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, scenes of terror and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chaves previously directed The Curse of La Llorona which is peripherally related to the Conjuring universe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until July 4)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: God Told Me To
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Super Frenchie

Werewolves Within


Ranger Finn doesn’t axe for much.

(2021) Horror Comedy (IFC) Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil, Sarah Burns, Michael Chernus, Catherine Curtin, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillén, Rebecca Henderson, Cheyenne Jackson, Michaela Watkins, Glenn Fleshler, Patrick M. Walsh Jr., Anni Krueger. Directed by Josh Ruben

 

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that can make for an enjoyable movie. A group of people, trapped by a snowstorm, with a remorseless killer among them. Who’s going to survive? And which one is the killer? And is that killer a werewolf?

The town of Beaverfield, Vermont is known for maple syrup, and little else. Forest ranger Finn Wheeler (Richardson) has been sent there to take over the job for the local national forest, and believe me, it’s no promotion. He is naïve to an almost epic degree, not realizing that his girlfriend Charlotte (Krueger) has dumped him He is, however, fortunate enough to meet the town postal worker, Cecily (Vayntrub) early on. She knows all the secrets of the quirky townspeople; the genial innkeeper Jeanine (Curtin) whose husband has apparently run off with a waitress, which has left her mumbling to herself; the power tech couple Devon (Jackson) and Joaquim (Guillén) who have opened up a yoga studio in a town that is disinterested in it; the conservatives Pete (Chernus) and Trisha (Watkins); gas station-owning rednecks Marcus (Basil) and Sarah (Burns); reclusive ecologist Dr. Ellis (Henderson) who is opposing the building of a natural gas pipe line by Sam Parker (Duvall) which has divided the town into opposing camps, and then there’s the trapper Emerson (Fleshler) who has a sign “Trespass and Die” on his property which is sincerely meant. He basically hates anything walking on two legs and a lot of things on four legs. Don’t get me started on things on more legs than that.

When a vicious snowstorm hits effectively sealing off the town from any outside help, all of the generators are sabotaged with what appear to be massive claw marks left behind, although a diesel-stained knife may have been used in the destruction. When townspeople start turning up murdered (including Jeanine’s missing husband), Dr. Ellis comes up with a startling declaration – the culprit is a werewolf.

The movie’s cast is probably not well-known but they do sterling work. Best of them is Richardson, a Veep alumnus who reminded me strongly of Saturday Night Live standout Kenan Thompson. Vayntrub, best-known for her long running AT&T commercials as well as a stint on This Is Us, also scores points as the perky postal worker with a touch of Manic Pixie Dream Girl to her DNA.

While you’d never know this was a video game adaptation unless you are conversant with some of the Virtual Reality games available for Oculus Rift, the movie gets points for atmosphere as well. The humor is for the most part pretty on target, although a few bits fall flat. There is some social commentary with the town’s divide along party lines mirroring that of the rest of the country. Cecily’s love for kombucha will likely date the movie a bit though.

The movie has some blood, but isn’t gory enough to make sensitive sorts recoil. All in all, this is one of those horror movies that just about anyone can watch and have a great time, even those who aren’t fond of horror.

While the movie is now playing on a limited release basis, it will be expanding to VOD starting next Friday July 2nd. Check your favorite streaming platform or on-demand provider for prices and availability.

REASONS TO SEE: Richardson reminds me a bit of SNL’s Kenan Thompson. The humor mostly works.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overdoes the quirkiness in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence (most of it bloody) and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wayne Duvall, who plays the pipeline developer Sam Parker, is a cousin to actor Robert Duvall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews; Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Freaks of Nature
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

My Name is Bulger


Whitey Bulger, tough guy.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Bulger, Michael Dukakis, Mary Bulger, Bill Weld, Jimmy Bulger, Matt Connelly, William Bulger, Dan Bulger, Sarah Bulger Piscatelli, Brian Wallace, Peter Gelzinis, Pat Nee, Jean Bulger, Pastor Robert Gray, Kevin Weeks, Katherine Greig, Jason Bowns, Jenn Bulger Holland, Bob Ward, Shelley Murphy. Directed by Brendan J. Byrne

 

I never had a brother, but I’ve known many. Brothers can be different as night and day. One can turn out to be a civic leader, the other a mob boss, and both from the same household. The old nature versus nurture debate? Well, nature certainly has a lot to do with it.

That dynamic really happened in the Bulger family. A large Irish-American Catholic family in South Boston (or Southie, as natives prefer calling it) the boys William and James grew up in poverty in one of the housing projects. But whereas William, known more colloquially as Bill, grew up to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, his brother James, who was better known as Whitey, led the Winter Hill Gang and was known to be one of the ost ruthless criminals of his time.

None of the other Bulgers turned to crime, and there are a lot of Bulgers – Bill and Whitey had seven other siblings and they all had large families as well (Bill himself would raise nine kids). So how does one deal with living a life on the straight and narrow but being known for the one person in the family that didn’t?

Byrne, a documentary filmmaker from Northern Ireland, doesn’t really get into it, but he is granted remarkable access to a family that has been over the years notoriously press-shy. He even managed to get an interview with Catherine Grieg, Whitey’s girlfriend who was with him while he was on the lam for fifteen years.

The Bulger family seems interested in rehabilitating their legacy, and anyone can certainly understand that. There’s no evidence that the younger Bulger knew of his brother’s criminal exploits, nor did he use his office to aid his brother in any way. One of Whitey’s criminal associates, Kevin Weeks, remarks that when the two got together they generally talked about family and mundane things – certainly not about what Whitey was up to. I suppose there was a willful blindness going on – considering the reporting the Boston Globe did on the exploits of Whitey Bulger you’d think that the rest of his family had at least an inkling that he was into something unsavory. But I would guess that nobody wanted to rock the boat, so the subject would be genteelly ignored.

Again, that’s conjecture. aI suspect that the Bulger family would be reluctant to talk about how much they knew of Whitey’s deeds. They seem to be more interested in downplaying his criminal side and pushing the fact that he was a nice guy, generous and loyal to his family. That’s kind of a curious tack to take, but it rings a little false to the casual viewer, and perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended.

But I think it’s also curious that the only aspect of Bill’s legislative career that is discussed with any depth was his opposition to forced bussing in the Seventies, a hot-button issue that turned national attention on South Boston and not in a positive way. To Byrne’s credit, he presents both sides of the issue dispassionately, but it leaves a complicated legacy. But Bill’s support for expanding school nutrition programs and environmental protection, as well as writing legislation modifying the process of reporting child abuse and helping reboot the welfare system so efficiently that it became a model for other states – that’s not mentioned at all. It seems to me that would go a lot further to cementing Bill’s legacy than downplaying the awful things his brother did.

Bill’s in his mid-80s now and retired to Southie. His story is a compelling one and while I do think that it deserves to be told, I’m certain that it could have used a little more positive reinforcement for Bill and less of that for Whitey. The man served his constituency well for three decades, and went on to be president of the University of Massachusetts, only to see that stripped from him when he refused to answer questions about his brother’s whereabouts in front of a Senate hearing. That was the consequences of a moral choice he made, but perhaps his legacy needs to be more about what he accomplished and less what his brother did.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story, a real-life Angels with Dirty Faces.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-centric and a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitey Bulger was murdered within 24 hours of being transferred to Hazelton Prison in West Virginia. His family has requested an investigation into the affair.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Mass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Werewolves Within

The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

New Releases for the Week of June 25, 2021


F9 THE FAST SAGA

(Universal) Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Charlize Theron, John Cena. Directed by Justin Lin

After having her plans thwarted by Dom and his gang in the last entry in the franchise, Cipher goes full-on below-the-belt when she enlists Dom’s younger brother to help her exact her revenge.

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

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: PG-13 (for language, action and sequences of violence)

Lansky

(Vertical) Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly. An elderly Meyer Lansky is investigated by the federal government one last time as the Feds look for hidden millions they believe he has stashed away. He then tells them a tale of things previously unknown about his time as the head of Murder, Incorporated.

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

Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: CMX Daytona, CMX Merritt Square
Rating: R (for language, strong bloody violence, and some sexual references)

Werewolves Within

(IFC) Sam Richardson, Milana Vayntrub, George Basil, Sarah Burns. The oddball inhabitants of a quirky town, already divided by the construction of a proposed pipeline, are trapped by a snowstorm in the local inn. The newly arrived forest ranger and postman must somehow keep the peace while they are terrorized by a mysterious creature which may or may not be a werewolf.

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

Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: CMX Daytona, CMX Merritt Square, Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language throughout, some bloody violence, and sexual references)

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

The Evil Next Door
Gaia
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
The Holy Game
(Tuesday)
Rollers
Too Late

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

F9 The Fast Saga
The Holy Game
Werewolves Within

Bullied (Rock Sugar)


Standing up for yourself, even when you’re terrified.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Jacinta Klassen, Olivia Sprague, Lulu Fitz, Saya Minami, Akira Matsumoto, Candice Leask, Kirar Mercy, Samuel Barton, Giustino Della Vedova, Edward Valent, Destiny Oung, Tobie Webster, Francine McAsey, Joshua Charles Dawe, Holly Dodd, Giovanni Piccolo, Isabel Mulrooney, Bianca Andreadis, Molly Fisher, Joanna Melo Howard, Justine Jones. Directed by Angela How

 

It is hard enough to grow up without someone deciding to make a victim of you for something that you have no control over, like the color of your skin, or your ethnic background. We are taught from an early age not to respond, but there comes a point where you feel you must sstand up for yourself or be a victim in reality.

Charlotte (Klassen) has a nice life; she lives in a beautiful home in a Melbourne suburb that looks onto what amounts to a private park for the neighborhood. While she has run-ins with her strict mother (Minami) and her father (Matsumoto) who is kind and more laid-back, but has a drinking problem. She’s pretty smart, although her mother feels her younger sister Isabelle (Mercy) has more potential.

As the film opens, Charlotte has been confronted by Brenda (Fitz) who has been bullying her unmercifully, largely because of her Asian heritage, but also because Brenda knows she can get away from it. She has curried favor with her teachers, is an outstanding gymnast and a “model student,” although I’m sure Charlotte would disagree. Charlotte’s most recent test has been an utter failure and Brenda wants to make sure everyone knows it, but when Charlotte reaches for the paper she ends up hitting Brenda. But the vice-principal, who calls Charlotte’s mortified parents into the office to discuss the incident, doesn’t believe Charlotte’s story about being bullied. She ends up suspended and grounded by her furious mom, although Dad suspects that his daughter isn’t lying.

However, it is the Christmas holidays and mom’s best friend Janice (Leask) who is pregnant, and her husband Mark (Della Vedova) are staying for the holidays. It ends up with excessive drinking (particularly on the part of the guys) and charlotte’s misery only deepens. Eventually, she goes out into the park while everyone is sleeping with a bottle, and you know that isn’t going to end well.

The next day the neighborhood is rocked with the news of Brenda’s disappearance. Charlotte knows more than she’s telling, even as Mark, Janice and her mom and dad aid in the search for the missing girl. At last, Charlotte uncovers some disturbing truths and must come to face her own role in all of this.

This is the first feature for Asian-Australian director How, and she has some nifty ideas, but I think she doesn’t have a clear idea on how to properly express them. The film takes a severe twist about 2/3 of the way through, a jarring turn that while you don’t expect to see it coming, turns the remainder of the film into a completely different movie than the one you were watching. The movie, already dark to begin with, turns pitch black. I think the film would have been better served dealing with Charlotte’s relationship with her mom, with Brenda and with her own ethnicity. Unfortunately, we are steered away from that as the movie goes off the rails. It’s a case of trying to do too much; the whole Mark storyline could have been a separate movie and should have been.

The acting here is, as is generally the case with micro-budget indies, fairly uneven. Klassen is solid as Charlotte, but not all of her juvenile acting peers are as comfortable in front of the camera as she is. The movie is technically proficient, and cinematographer Ben Milward-Bason comes up with some inventive camera angles from time to time. Most of the time though, it is an easy film on the eyes.

How has some really good ideas, and she needs to make sure that those go fully developed before charging off in another direction. She was on the way to making a powerful motion picture on a timely subject – Asian-Americans have been the target of an unprecedented spike in hate crimes as are Asians around the world, largely due to the rhetoric of a former American president and his supporters in regards to the recent pandemic. I’m not sure if all that was going on when How wrote the screenplay, but it is certainly a topic that requires further exploration. I just wish she had stuck to her guns and given it the focus it deserved.

REASONS TO SEE: How has some very good ideas.
REASONS TO AVOID: There were better ways to tell this story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity and a scene of pre-teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for How, who graduated from UCLA; it was titled Rock Sugar upon its Australian release but had its name changed for American distribution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dirties
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Birthday Cake

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