Stop and Go


Who knew the pandemic would be such a wild ride?

(2021) Comedy (Decal) Whitney Call, Mallory Everton, Julia Jolley, Anne Sward Hansen, Stephen Meek, Jessica Drolet, Baylee Thornock, Noah Kershisnik, Dora McDonald, Tyler Andrew Jones, Tori Pence, Marvin Payne, Jonathan Baty, Jetta Juriansz. Directed by Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek

 

Obviously, the big story from the past 18 months is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected nearly every human on Earth, either directly through actually coming down with the virus (or having a loved one affected by it) or through the various lockdowns and safety measures that dominated our lives in the early days of the pandemic. Now that we have endured the Delta variant, is it time yet for a comedy set in the pandemic?

Jamie (Call) and Blake (Everton) would seem to think so. They are sisters who are transitioning from their twenties into their thirties when the pandemic strikes. The two women party together and share everything, including living space in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They also share a near-hysterical wariness off germs that may well have been triggered by the outbreak; we see them using disinfectant like they had just taken a stroll through Chernobyl. Like all the rest of us, they are frustrated by a maddening lack of information and a sneaking suspicion that what we’ve been told may or may not actually be accurate.

They also share a grandmother (Hansen) whom they love deeply. However, word comes from the retirement facility in which she lives that there has been positive cases there, and recommending that anyone who could pick up their loved ones and put them up do so at the earliest time. Nana’s retirement home is in Washington state…normally their other sister Erin (Jolley) would take care of this since she lives in the same town, but she isn’t exactly the most responsible person ever and has chosen that moment to take a cruise. “Prices were so good,” she exclaims.

So it’s up to the two girls, and they decide that they will have to drive from New Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, so a road trip it is. They will have to face all manner of obstacles, from germ-laden gas pumps to angry bikers to a very creepy guy (Meek) who is caring for Nana’s beloved dog. Along the way they will get phone calls from Jacob Harper (Thornock), a nine-year-old student of Jamie’s who she entrusts with caring for the classroom rats while the two girls are picking up their Nana and who has an unhealthy attraction to Jamie, much to the suspicions of his mother (Drolet), and then there is Scott (Kershisnik), with whom Blake had one date before the lockdown and now can’t get out of her mind.

There is a tremendous amount of chemistry between Call and Everton; they riff off of each other like a veteran comedy team, and there is an obvious affection for one another that comes through in their performances. The two girls are extremely likable and one would hope that there are many more buddy movies for the two of them in their future.

The humor is clearly meant for the Internet generation; the rhythms and humor is very much like what you might hear in a podcast. To be honest with you, I’m not a fan of it – too many times the podcasters aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are, and while these two women are at least able to come up with a funny line here and there, too often they end up just sounding smug and snarky. It doesn’t do anything for me at all.

And there’s the elephant in the room. Is the pandemic a suitable subject for humor right now, in 2021? While some might argue that the movie isn’t about the pandemic but rather about the bond between the sisters and the journey that they take, COVID is a central factor in the action here – it is literally what drives the action, so the question remains legitimate. And as people continue to die from the disease to the tune of hundreds and thousands per day, I have to say that it isn’t appropriate yet. This is a movie that needed to be made a decade from now.

So it’s likely I’m giving the movie a much harsher score than I might have, but it’s hard to overlook that it makes fun of people’s desire to protect themselves from a disease they knew almost nothing about and continue to try to determine what is actual information and what is misinformation about. For that reason, I just can’t recommend the movie, although I do hope Call and Everton make more movies together. They really are a dynamic duo.

REASONS TO SEE: Legitimate chemistry between Call and Everton.
REASONS TO AVOID: Inappropriate to use the pandemic as a vehicle for humor when people are still dying from it. Not nearly as funny as it thinks it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Everton and Call, lifelong friends, were previously in sketch comedy shows Studio C and Freelancers before writing this film together (there is the clip during the end credits of the two of them together as children).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Barb and Star at the Vista del Mar
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cry Macho

Los Lobos


21st century latchkey kids.

(2019) Drama (Animal de Luz) Martha Reyes Arias, Maximiliano Nájar Márquez, Leonardo Nájar Márquez, Cici Lau, Johnson T. Lau, Kevin Medina, Josiah Grado, Marvin Ramirez, Alejandro Banteah, Edwin Ramirez, Aylin Payen, Shacty Diaz, Maria Teresa Herrera, Amy Puente, Robert Louder, Celine R. Lopez, Jeanette M.. Loera. Directed by Samuel Kishi

Often, particularly these days, we see movies about immigrants from their direct point of view. If there are children, they are either separated from their parents or essentially secondary aspects of the story. We rarely see the immigrants’ story from the point of view of their children.

Lucia (Reyes-Arias) has come to Albuquerque from an unnamed Latin American country with her two children, Max (M. Nájar Márquez) and his little brother Leo (L. Nájar Márquez) in tow. They follow her as she looks for a place to stay, finally settling on a ratty furnished apartment where the Mrs. Chang (C. Lau), the landlady, doesn’t require references. The kids are mollified because their mother promises that they will go to Disney.

>However, she needs to work and she gets a pair of jobs that keeps her out of the house all day. She gives the kids a series of rules to follow, taped English lessons that they can listen to on a battered cassette player, and hope for the best.

Kids being kids, they get into all sorts of mischief, drawing pictures in crayon on the walls and generally making a mess for their exhausted mother to pick up when she finally gets home from work. Mostly, though, they get bored, the drawings of their alter egos the “ninja wolves” decorating the walls and what paper they can find (and there are some charming animations based on those drawings as well).

This is something of a personal film for Kishi, who also wrote the film who experienced very similar circumstances as a five-year-old child. His kids-eye view is helped by some surprisingly strong performances by the two child actors playing Max and Leo. Their performance is completely natural and they seem to relate very well to Arias as a mother-figure.

Kids being kids can be a double-edged sword; while it does feel authentic, there are times where it feels like you’re babysitting while unable to speak or communicate in any way with your charges. All you can do is watch them do their thing and your tolerance for this will depend on how tolerant you are at watching other people’s kids.

Still, this is a decidedly different viewpoint and one which deserves to be seen (and heard). I also found the ending to be enchanting and magical, although be cautioned that there are some moments which are far from either. Still, this is a solid and laudable effort that is likely to be making the rouds on the Festival circuit once things return to normal.

REASONS TO SEE: Mostly, kids being kids.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are stretches where it feels like we’re watching a nanny-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is fairly family-friendly and might give kids the opportunity to look at kids from other cultures and how they react to the United States (or children of their own culture).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Max and Leo are played by real-life brothers who had no previous acting experience.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Florida Project
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Inside the Rain

Cents


Girls can be great at math too.

Girls can be great at math too.

(2016) Drama (Cents LLC) Julia Flores, Lillie Kolich, Jy Prishkulnik, Claire Mackenzie Carter, Monique Candelaria, Esodie Geigner, Lora Martinez-Cunningham, William R. Stafford, Kate Chavez, Lindsy Campbell, Laurel Harris, Catherine Haun, Kristin Hansen, Zechariah Baca, Vivian Nesbitt (voice), Melissa Hipple, Paige Kelly, Katy Burke, Kelley Lewallen, Lauren Myers. Directed by Christopher Boone

 

It’s a little known secret but there is the beginning of a scene in New Mexico going on. Talented filmmakers have begun to produce some interesting and challenging films in the area and it might just be that the Land of Enchantment might just be the next hot filmmaking mecca.

Sammy Baca (Flores) is an only child, being raised by her mother Angela (Candelaria) who got pregnant at 15 and has been Sammy’s sole parent all along, Angela’s boyfriend having sent her packing the moment responsibility reared its ugly head. Angela works as a nurse practitioner but wants to take the next step up and go to medical school to become a doctor. It has been a challenge for her; Angela has received rejection after rejection which has given her ego a pounding. Sammy wonders why Angela is even bothering; nobody believes in her, not even Sammy.

Sammy herself is unpopular. She’s got some serious talent with math, able to solve complex problems in her head at only 12 years old and has gotten tutoring in advance calculus from Ms. Dyer (Geigner), a math teacher who has taken an interest in Sammy. Sammy is regularly getting in trouble with the principal (Martinez-Cunningham), the latest episode being illegally selling gum at school (I didn’t even know that was a thing).

There happens to be a penny drive going on at school under the aegis of school Queen Bee Hannah Evers (Prishkulnik) who rules the roost with an iron fist, using social media as a way to keep those beneath her (which is everyone) in line. Hannah’s coterie is also involved, including Katie Schmidt (Kolich) who was Sammy’s best friend until the fourth grade, and Emily Foster (Carter) who is a bit of a toady with ambition.

Sammy hits upon an idea to make more money for the penny drive. Basically it involves having people pledging to give one penny each day, but the hook is that they also then must bring in another person the next day to pledge a penny the remaining days, then each of them bring another person the next day and so on and so on. It’s a pyramid scheme, yes, even though the drive is for a good cause, but a pyramid scheme nonetheless that will collapse of its own weight eventually. Still, it’s making more money than the drive had previously which makes Hannah absolutely insane with jealousy…and Sammy has plenty of secrets that can be used to hurt her.

I will have to admit that this is one of the most authentic movies I’ve seen regarding pre-teen and tween girls, as well as about their relationship with one another and with their moms. A lot of times we see kind of a sanitized version of girls this age as essentially brave little princesses who save the day with smarts and Girl Power! Their moms are wise and adoring and nobody ever makes any mistakes.

All the characters here make some fairly big ones; Sammy herself has a moral compass that doesn’t always point true north. She doesn’t always do things for the right reasons and she has something of a chip on her shoulder. She says some genuinely hateful things to her mom – just like adolescent daughters sometimes do. That doesn’t make Sammy a terrible person; it just makes her a person.

This is definitely a femme-centric movie; guys who prefer car chases and explosions will probably find little of value here for them, although they might just get educated about how 12-year-old girls think and act which might come in handy if they ever, you know, have a daughter or a sister. I think a lot of women will find this familiar territory in a good way; they will find themselves relating to a girl who is outcast because she is capable, and they’ll also relate to the Queen Bee situation at school, particularly younger women who have been through schools in the age of social media.

With adolescent girls comes adolescent drama and there is an awful lot of door slamming and temper tantrums (some thrown by adults) here. Those with a low tolerance for that kind of thing may well find this unpalatable, but in general, this is a very solidly made movie that doesn’t really shake the foundations of filmmaking but simply tells a story well, and makes it relatable and realistic – even better. Those are some talents that even some longtime pros don’t have. All in all this is an impressive feature by a filmmaker with a great deal of potential from an emerging filmmaking center. It’s the kind of work that long careers are built on.

REASONS TO GO: The portrayal of middle school girls and their relationships is quite authentic. The film is surprisingly charming.
REASONS TO STAY: As is true with most adolescents, there is a great deal of temper tantrums and door slamming. Sammy to begin with isn’t the easiest person to like.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is nothing here that would be unacceptable for middle school kids or their parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The school scenes were filmed at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VMX, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Will Hunting
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Anatomy of Monsters

Saint John of Las Vegas


Saint John of Las Vegas

Some pictures can't be done justice by a simple caption.

(2007) Black Comedy (IndieVest) Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Peter Dinklage, Emmanuelle Chirqui, John Cho, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew McDuffie, Ben Zeller, Aviva, Danny Trejo, Avu, Josh Berry, Isabel Archuleta. Directed by Hue Rhodes

Sometimes, the most expedient solution to facing one’s demons is to run away. It is also one of life’s truths that the easy way is generally not the right way to deal with problems.

John Alighieri (Buscemi) has a particular demon – gambling. He has lost everything due to his addiction and is desperately trying to find himself a “normal life” and by fleeing the gambling dens of Sin City may have found it in the auto insurance company he finds employment at in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But what is insurance but a different kind of gambling? And although John has found himself a new girlfriend – the effervescent Jill (Silverman) who is far prettier than John could have possibly hoped for – he still finds himself in need of cash, so his boss Mr. Townsend (Dinklage) gives him a mission for his sins . Okay, that’s a different allegory.

He sends John out into the field to investigate the claim of one Tasty D. Lite (Chirqui), a stripper in Las Vegas. Accompanying John is Virgil (Malco), a taciturn man who is one of the company’s top investigators.

Into the desert they go, where they meet a strange collection of nutjobs and oddballs, like Smitty the Carnival’s Flaming Man whose fire suit has malfunctioned, going off every twenty seconds or so, turning him into an inferno. Smitty has to wait until the fuel is exhausted but has a desperate craving for a cigarette, which isn’t exactly fire-retardant.

Then there’s Militant Ned (Nelson), a nudist with an automatic weapon dead set on preventing anybody from entering his land. And Tasty herself, who is in a wheelchair after her accident; John asks her for a lapdance which she gamely provides.

The whole point, as Virgil informs John, is to find a way to deny the claim. As John discovers, a normal life may be a whole lot less fulfilling and honest than the one he was trying to avoid, one which he meets head-on in the shopping marts and casinos of Las Vegas.

First time filmmaker Rhodes loosely based his script on the Inferno of Dante Alighieri, and all the temptations show up in one form or another – some more obliquely than others. The problem here is that for a black comedy, there’s far more black than comedy. Some of the bits are pretty funny (the Flaming Man bit for example) while others are mere head-scratchers.

Buscemi is perfectly cast, playing a man who is not entirely sin-free who is in a constant state of confusion. Nobody does the guilty conscience like Buscemi. Dinklage as always strong in his role, playing the money-grubbing and bullying boss to perfection. Silverman, also as always, is wasted in a role that plays on her sex appeal but doesn’t use any of her comedic talents.

This is a wildly uneven movie, well-done in some parts and horrible in others. The concept itself is interesting, but when you think about it, how many people know their Dante well enough to really figure out what’s going on, or more importantly, care? In your case, it’s probably a wash; Buscemi is worth checking out but there is little more than that out there that will either make any sense or worse still, elicit any laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: Buscemi, Malco and Dinklage are solid and the quirky characters that show up throughout the film are at least entertaining. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wildly uneven; some of the bits work like magic, others fall completely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spike Lee was one of the producers for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $111,731 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Delgo