Slut in a Good Way (Charlotte a du fun)


Sexual politics are hot.

(2018) Comedy (Comedy Dynamics) Marguerite Bouchard, Romane Denis, Rose Adam, Anthony Therrien, Vassili Schneider, Claudia Bouvette, Nicolas Fontaine, Audrey Roger, Samuel Gauthier, Elizabeth Tremblay-Gagnon, Jules Roy Sicotte, Adrien Belugou, Alexandre Godbout, Marylou Belugou, Mariane Johnson, Alexandre Cabana, David Fleury, Emaria Doumbia, Sharon Igbui. Directed by Sophie Lorain

 

=Heartbroken Charlotte (Bouchard) is obsessing on ex-boyfriend Samuel (Cabana) who has dumped her because he has discovered he is, in fact, gay. The plucky 17-year-old French-Canadian girl nevertheless believes she can get him back. Her besties – cynical activist Mégane, and shy awkward Aube (Adam) seek to take her mind off her folly, and they do so by ducking into a big box toy store. There, they see something that captures their attention. No, not acres of playtoys – more like the yummy college boys who skateboard around the store and capture the attention even of anti-love Mégane. Not only do the guys excite Charlotte’s romantic instincts, they send her libido into overdrive as she works her way through the beds of the store’s male population.

This beautifully photographed French-Canadian film by second-time director Lorain takes a look at sexual politics, specifically the double standard when it comes to having sex. While it is fine for the boys to have a contest to see how many girls they can sleep with, Charlotte’s amorous adventures garner her a reputation and the derision not only of the boys, but also of her fellow girls.

Like a lot of teen sex comedies (and this can only loosely be categorized as one), there are no adults anywhere to be seen and so the girls make their way through a tricky minefield of morality and social customs pretty much on their own. Fortunately, the three main characters are richly drawn with lots of depth; you can’t say about any of them that they are one-note or archetypes. Instead, we get real, living, breathing teen girls who, yes, are beautiful, but also bicker, make mistakes and figure shit out.

While sex figures in the movie’s subject matter deeply, parents should be aware that the depictions of sex are never done in an exploitive manner, and are also shown to have consequences, which also differentiates it from male-oriented sex comedies. While there’s an overuse of Maria Callas singing “Habanera” from Carmen (and an almost Bollywood-style soundtrack which just seems a little too oddball, if there is such a thing), this is a movie that has a tremendous amount of heart and an overabundance of hormones. In short, just like most teenage girls.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark examination of sexual double standards. The girls are given distinct personalities of unusual depth. A European-style film from Canada.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is a bit quirky.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity and sex as well as some drug use and teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The translation of the original French title is “Charlotte has fun.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On Demand, Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kanopy, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost World
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Give or Take

The Gig is Up


On to the next gig.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Al Aloudi, Annette Rivero, Nick Srnicek, Ying Lu, Rui Ma, Derek Thompson, Leila Ouadad, Jason Edwards, Mary L. Gray, Mitchell Amewieye, Prayag Narula, Jerome Pimot, Sidiki, Wu Guoyong, Ali. Directed by Shannon Walsh

 

The nature of employment is changing. More and more adults are being employed through the so-called gig economy, working for such tech giants as Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit. They are by-products of convenience and technology, as we rely more and more on our smart phones to provide us with products and services. Whenever you order a burger on Uber Eats, you are employing a gig worker to pick up and deliver the food to your door. When you summon somebody to put together your Ikea desk on TaskRabbit, you’re hiring a gig worker. When you call Lyft to get a ride to the airport, you’re being driven by a gig worker.

While some take these jobs out of necessity – perhaps they are undocumented workers like Algerian Ali in France, or maybe they are unable to secure traditional employment like Floridian Jason Edwards, a convicted felon with a mouth full of gold teeth, both of which are essential job offer killers – many take these jobs voluntarily, seeing these jobs as a means of escaping the tyranny of the cubicle. You set your own hours, and can make much more in tips than you would make at a traditional wage. Hearing promises like that, people tend to jump at the chance, particularly those in the more vulnerable echelons of society. You don’t need an education or social standing to get these jobs; you don’t need a great resume to acquire them. In that sense, the gig economy is truly egalitarian; in theory, it pays you on results.

But as entrepreneur Prayag Narula eloquently puts it, we’re trading the tyranny of a boss for the tyranny of an algorithm and that is much, much worse. The reality of gig work, as Canadian documentarian Shannon Walsh shows in her timely film, is that you are lured by the promise of good pay and employment autonomy but find yourself trapped as your wages are determined by your employer, who charges the consumer less than the work costs. The difference is made up by the gig worker, who must pay for their own fuel and maintenance out of their own pockets. The employer always – always – gets paid, whether through fees or in the case of food delivery, by upcharging the amount of food ordered by the customer compared to what the restaurant charges and pocketing the difference. The driver sees none of that; they exist on tips, and many customers choose not to tip them.

They also exist on ratings. One bad rating from a customer can severely impact their employment; a complaint from a customer can be devastating. Also, gig workers are tracked by numbers besides ratings; how long it takes them to deliver, how many deliveries they accept. If those numbers are below the curve, the worker is “deactivated,” tech-speak for fired.

Also, because these employees are classified as “independent contractors,” they are often not paid wages or salaries, and of course get no benefits whatsoever, including sick time. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and an on-the-job injury isn’t covered; the worker must pay their medical expenses on their own. We see further heartlessness when Leila Ouadad tries to get her employer to pay back wages to a fellow food deliverer in France who has been severely injured when riding his bicycle with someone’s dinner and being hit by a truck.

The movie also examines ghost workers, those online workers who do the kind of support that requires human eyes, like cleaning up data, transcribing audio and taking surveys. The largest provider of ghost jobs is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (or M-Turk) with over 500,000 registered workers (including Edwards). Many of these jobs pay pennies and are performed by people in Third World countries, who are paid not in cash (only workers in the United States and India get cash) but in Amazon gift cards, a reminder of a time when coal workers were paid in company scrip which was accepted only at company stores.

The movie is eye-opening. While some of the workers profiled, like Jason Edwards, are pretty clear-eyed and even have a sense of humor about their situation (some of the film’s sweeter moments occur when Edwards’ mother interrupts the interviews, much to the annoyance of her son), many seem caught in the grip of despair and exhaustion. Narula warns that if we don’t take action soon, these employers are going to make the Middle Ages look like paradise. While some gig workers, like the activist Al Aloudi, a San Francisco Uber driver, are beginning to fight back, many gig workers feel dehumanized, reduced to replaceable numbers in a vast, uncaring machine.

If this is progress, I don’t think the term is being properly used. This is more like regress. The one issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire; we like to think of Big Tech as progressive and benevolent, but they are showing themselves to be the new Robber Barons. Everyone who uses an app for some kind of delivery service should be required to watch this.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely and necessary film. Explores the pros and cons of gig work. Shows the global impact of gig work.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit too polite.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The median income for people using Mechanical Turk is $2 per hour.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Hell Hath No Fury

Be Still


Tea for two.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Ceroma) Piercey Dalton, Daniel Arnold, James McDougall, Amber Taylor, Meredith Hama-Brown, Sophie Merasty, Anja Savcic, Cameron Grierson, Brendan Taylor, Dakota Guppy, Ariel Ladret. Directed by Elizabeth Lazebnik

 

Back in the days where photography was a novelty, just taking a picture was pretty much a big deal. Eventually, adventurous souls discovered that images could be manipulated and a capturing of image became art. So had paintings progressed from imagery to impression, so did photography.

Hannah Maynard (Dalton) was a bit of an oddity; living in the 1880s in Victoria, British Columbia, she operated a photography studio with her husband and was much in demand as a portraitist. Her husband Richard (Arnold) was known for landscapes and natural photography, but Hannah was a wizard in the studio. She took hundreds, thousands of photos of newborn babies in British Columbia. As she took the daguerreotype, she would murmur “be still” to her subjects, because the old photographic plates required several moments for the image to be imprinted.

But of late Hannah wasn’t acting like herself. She was prickly and sometimes downright rude. She threw herself into her work, spending hours upon hours in the laboratory, coming out with her clothes stinking of chemicals. She couldn’t treat anyone with decency; not client, not her husband, not even her adorable little daughter Lillie (Taylor), who often pestered her. Her husband was beginning to fear for her sanity, consulting Dr. Fell (McDougall) who prescribed all sorts of strong pharmaceuticals.

But Hannah was becoming obsessed with multiple exposures, something that cinema’s Georges Melies would eventually become famous for. She had pictures of herself, sitting in three different places serving her other selves tea. Herself, in an impish portrait, was about to pour milk over her own head.

But as she and Richard were drawing further apart, it was clear that something was terribly amiss, something that was messing with her mind. Would it succeed in tearing her sanity into shreds, or would she find the strength to resist?

What’s going on may not become readily apparent, particularly if you don’t know the story of the real Hannah Maynard. I didn’t, and that’s not surprising; she has mostly been lost to history, despite the compelling and groundbreaking nature of her images. Had she been a man, it is likely everyone would know the name, but because she was a member of the fairer sex, for some reason that means her accomplishments have to be discounted. It’s something of a travesty and also something the film doesn’t deal with except in an oblique way.

Dalton bears a striking physical resemblance to Maynard, albeit minus the Victorian penchant for stern, unforgiving countenances. She has a difficult role to tackle; the Hannah Maynard portrayed here is snippy, and often argumentative. But she is a troubled soul, and Dalton gets that across beautifully.

The big problem here is that Lazebnik, who has made a number of short films including a previous one on Maynard, in her feature debut tends to overuse visual and audio effects. There is a constant industrial buzz that sometimes becomes overbearing, and the optical effects soon become tiresome. I understand the rationale in trying to portray the world as Maynard saw it, but Lazebnik should have trusted the story to do that and less on the camera tricks. It’s not that she shouldn’t have used them, it’s just that she overused them to the point where it became too noticeable. A little more nuance would have been more effective.

Nevertheless, she does a great service in presenting the story of a woman whose name should be better-known, but isn’t. Maynard’s actual photographs are shown during the closing credits, and they were very much ahead of her time. When you think of those big special effects-laden Marvel movies that we all seem to love so much, we should give a silent thank you to Maynard, whose innovation made movies like that possible.

The movie is making it’s world theatrical premiere Wednesday at the Vancouver International Film Festival, although it is currently available online at the Festival website in Canada through October 11. It is likely to make the rounds at various film festivals in the winter and spring; keep an eye out for it at your local festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story with a fine performance by Piercey Dalton.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overuses the optical, lighting and audio effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:T he film is based on a stage play by Janet Munsil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VIFF online site (Canada only – through October 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Old Henry

Emergence: Out of the Shadows


Some trains don’t take you where you want to go.

(2021) Documentary (SHER) Alex Sangha, Kayden Bhangu, Jag Nagra, Jaspal Sangha, Avtar Nagra, Harv Nagra, Rajwent Nagra. Directed by Vinay Giridhar

Coming out is no easy task even in the best of circumstances. It means admitting not only to those you care about but also to yourself, that there is something different about you. Doing it within a culture that places family so highly, but also considers homosexuality to be anathema, bringing shame to both family and community. In South Asia, many gay children have been disowned by their parents and the incidence of suicide among gay South Asians is horrifically high.

This Canadian documentary examines the coming out experience of three LGBTA individuals of South Asian ethnicity; Amar (who goes by Alex), Kayden and Jag. All three had very different experiences. Alex was raised mainly by his mother Jaspal, who left her husband when he became alcoholic and abusive. That in itself is unusual in the Sikh community, but Jaspar is an extremely strong woman and she proved to be extremely supportive of her son, making his coming out relatively easy, or at least easier than the others had it.

Jag had to contend with parents who had already seen their other child, Jag’s brother Harv, come out. It made her more hesitant to come out because she was concerned that her parents would be less able to handle it because her brother had already come out and it turned out to be difficult at first, but eventually her parents came around.

That wasn’t the case for Kayden, who already had a contentious relationship with his parents. They still live in India, and after he ran away from home (and eventually returning when he found it too hard to cope), he came out to his parents who responded by beating the living crap out of him and disowning him. He eventually ended up in Canada where he was often suicidal and calls to his mom just to hear her voice frequently ended up with her hanging up on him.

But eventually things got better for Kayden, who discovered a support group for young people like himself, of South Asian heritage who were gay. The organization, SHER, turned out to be a life saver for him as he discovered other in similar situations who gave him the love and support he had been denied by his family. These days he doesn’t think he’ll ever reconcile with his parents, and he remains angry at them, his father in particular – and justifiably so.

The documentary is largely straight interviews, which are conducted pretty professionally. There are occasionally some tears, but for the most part are more matter-of-fact. We see a lot of home pictures of the young children who became the adults we see being interviewed before us. Unfortunately, the music for the soundtrack is often used to make moments sound more dramatic. It’s actually totally unnecessary as those moments tend to speak for themselves. The filmmakers need to trust their audience a little bit more.

It seems such a waste, to deny your own flesh and blood for something they cannot help any more than they can help what toppings they prefer on their pizzas. How do you cope when the one place that you would expect unconditional love from, the one place that should support you no matter what denies your very existence? Organizations like SHER are necessary because of that; perhaps as we continue to become more enlightened vis a vis our LGBTQ brothers and sisters we won’t need them forever. Sadly, it looks like we’ll need them for a while longer, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very compelling stories about coming out.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is frank discussion of adult and sexual themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Sangha is the founder of SHER, an organization dedicated to supporting South Asian gay people in Canada. The group also funded and distributed this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boys in the Band
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mad Women’s Ball

The Holy Game


Who is going to be struck by lightning after one too many crude altar boy jokes?

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Grayson Heenan, Felice Alborghetti, Eric Atta Gyasi, Robert Sserate, Oscar Turrion, Duarte Rosado, Daniel Russian, Michael Zimmerman. Directed by Brent Hodge and Chris Kelly

 

There’s no question that the Roman Catholic church needs some image rehabilitation. Following the bombshell revelations that the church hierarchy covered up for priests committing pedophilia and knowingly reassigned these priests to new parishes who were unaware of the past indiscretions of the transferred priest, there seems to be some movement in that direction. For one thing, there’s a new Pope in town, one who seems intent on modernizing the church and acknowledging the sins of its recent past, but the damage has been done. The Church is having a hard time recruiting new candidates for the seminary (something that isn’t overtly mentioned in the documentary). Something tells me that at least initially, this film was meant in some ways to help rectify that issue.

Every year, the various seminaries in Rome stage a soccer tournament called the Clericus Cup. The various seminaries, representing all corners of the globe – which is an odd thing to say, given that the globe is a round object with no corners – and played in a spirit of friendly competition and spiritual devotion.

The movie follows a number of seminarians playing in the tournament, like Grayson Heenan, who is entering his final year of study in Rome. A native of Michigan and from what seems to be a fairly well-to-do family, he encountered resistance from his parents who were hopeful he would continue the family name, but he chose a life of celibacy and service. And, apparently, soccer, a sport he loves to play. He represents the North American Martyrs seminary, a once-powerful team that has in recent years underperformed but are favored to return to the finals, particularly given that Grayson is one of the best players in the tournament.

Then there’s Eric Atta Gyasi, a cheerful fellow who is always smiling. He is from Ghana and has spent 13 years trying to get ordained (most finish in four or five years), which leads one to believe that he’s in no particular hurry to return to Africa.

We hear about their daily routines and how soccer represents a break from that routine of studying, prayer and classes. We see Grayson being taught how to administer the Last Rites, and he seems to be able enough and certainly a compassionate sort. He talks repeatedly about service, of giving comfort to his community and seeing the priesthood not as a job but as a vocation, a calling that means more to him than the idea of starting a family, something that didn’t sit too well with his girlfriend at the time (she was invited to his ordination ceremony but declined to come, for which one could hardly blame her).

The public image problem is discussed, although more in terms of how people only see the negative side of the Church in the papers. And then we discover that one of the interview subjects being followed has been forced to leave his job in the church for having fathered a child after being ordained. For the sake of transparency, I think I should insert here that while a student at a Jesuit university, one of my teachers – a priest – was defrocked for having a relationship with a woman, whom he later married. He was also stripped of his job as a teacher and department head, which I thought was excessive. Certainly there were plenty of non-clergy teaching at the University, but this was a little while ago and they were far less tolerant of priests deciding to follow their hearts I suppose.

On a technical note, there were at least two fairly sizable portions of the film that had a graphic posted that the footage was not displayed due to a rights clearance issue – hopefully those will be resolved and those watching on VOD will either see the missing footage or have the audio cut from the film. It makes viewing the film as a critic a bit awkward.

The movie tended to skirt the issues a little bit. I don’t think it was the filmmakers intention to bring it up at all, but I think that all those looking to join the Roman Catholic clergy need to be aware that this is an issue that they are going to have to grapple with for some time to come. Getting the trust back will be a long and difficult process, and while seeing them cavort in shorts on the soccer field may at least humanize the priests a little bit – they are all human beings, after all – the movie doesn’t quite succeed in making the priesthood an attractive vocation, nor does it deal with the ongoing problem that the Church is faced with very well. There are moments that are fun, and interesting, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth here.

REASONS TO SEE: Humanizes members of the priesthood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Comes off as a recruiting ad for the priesthood.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Clericus Cup was founded following soccer stadium violence in which a police officer was killed by rioting fans; members of the clergy who loved the game wanted to show it could be played peacefully with great sportsmanship.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Religion of Sports
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Rebel Hearts

The Oak Room


Not the guy you want to see come into your bar after closing.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach, David Ferry, Amos Crawley, Avery Esteves, Coal Campbell, Adam Seybold. Directed by Cody Calahan

 

You’ve heard it before. A guy walks into a bar at closing time (or shortly thereafter) with a story to tell. It’s a dark and stormy night and the snow is falling, and the rest of the world is asleep, but those in the bar are very much awake.

Bartender Paul (Outerbridge) is closing up when a masked, hooded figure walks in – not something you want in the middle of a dark and stormy night. After nearly clobbering said figure with a baseball bat, the stranger removes his mask to reveal that he is Steve (Mitte), also someone Paul in particular is not happy to see. See, Paul was buddies with Steve’s Dad Gordon (N. Campbell) – everyone’s dad is named Gordon in Canada – and Steve had left town to go to college, flunked out and promptly disappeared. He hadn’t even come home for Dad’s funeral, so Paul was left to foot the bill. He still has Gordon’s ashes in a tackle box, waiting for Steve. Steve owes Paul, that’s for sure – but Steve wants to repay Paul with a story.

Steve’s not a particularly good storyteller – he tells Paul the ending of the story first, and is eager to tell him the beginning, but Paul isn’t interested. Paul has a story of his own to tell. And so the two men swap stories in the cold, wintery night, and there is something darker taking place in the bar than a winter storm could account for.

There’s a feeling of noir to the film, and that’s a good thing. The movie owes its gestation to a stage play, and there is definitely a stagey feel to the single set production which takes place in two separate bars, including the titularly named Oak Room – which isn’t the bar that Steve and Paul are sitting in. There isn’t a ton of action – how could there be when you’re talking about two guys telling stories, and those stories include stories about guys telling stories – and there’s a ton of dialogue, nor is the dialogue particularly snappy. What the film IS successful at is keeping the viewer’s interest and keeping the tension building, and there’s something to be said for that.

The themes of father-son relationships and their breakdowns, mistaken identities (as a metaphor, or at least that’s what I figured), and the place of stories in modern culture are all well-taken and require a little bit of thought from the viewer. Even so, this is the kind of movie you can sit back and watch on a cold, dark night if you’re looking for a certain type of atmosphere and not necessarily have to think too hard. How much effort you put into the movie won’t necessarily determine your enjoyment of it, which is a rare feat in moviemaking. I don’t always see it in the movies I review, but I try to applaud it when I do see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Your interest is piqued throughout. Has noir-ish elements with a Northern edge.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit stage-y and may be a bit too dialogue-heavy for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drinking and violence – some of it graphic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No women appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch .44
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
My Wonderful Wanda

Amber’s Descent


Amber is having a really bad day.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Kayla Stanton, Michael Mitton, Don Knodel, Nathaniel Vossen, Dione Russell, Colm Hill, Destiny Millins, Kirsten Khorsand, Sheron Russell, Jayden Shannon, Craig Paynton, Graham Daley, Sarah Seibert. Directed by Michael Bafaro

 

Trauma can do strange things not just to the body but also to the mind. It can affect us in ways we can’t predict and maybe not even understand.

Amber Waltz (Stanton), who is aptly named due to her profession as a concert pianist and classical music composer, has lived through a severe trauma, having survived being stabbed by her ex Mark (Vossen) who then slit his own throat while she watched, horrified. Understandably, she had a bit of a breakdown after that and decided to leave Seattle where she was living and moves to an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

The house is lovely and secluded although it needs a lot of work, which is why she hires handyman Jim (Mitton) to fix things up. Soft-spoken and eager to please, he is a bit of a comforting presence for her, particularly since she starts to hear odd, unexplained noises while doors open and shut by themselves. At first she can chalk these things up to the uirks of an old house, but as she begins to see little girls where little girls shouldn’t be, and then has a highly erotic encounter with a bigger girl, and her symphony seems to be magically writing itself, Amber begins to wonder if the house is haunted. Then she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Finally, she wonders if something far more sinister – and deadly – is befalling her.

Early on, the movie has a lot of haunted house tropes that might lead one to believe that they are watching just another ghost movie, but the movie actually surprised me with the direction that it eventually went, whichis an accomplishment in and of itself. Those who stick around for the end (and I won’t kid you, it’s a bit of a slog getting there) may well congratulate themselves on having the fortitude to hang in there and those that do will be rewarded with a nifty ending, although I will say that Balfaro chooses to show you how the film arrived there in case you couldn’t figure it out – underestimating the intelligence of your audience is generally a bad thing. However, good endings are a lot more uncommon than you might think, so it’s always a big plus when you get one.

Balfaro does do a good job of establishing a tense atmosphere and generally resists using jump scares, although there are a couple because you almost have to have at least a few these days. However, the movie is torpedoed by two things: the dialogue, which sounds unnatural, and the acting which is by and large somewhat flat. The movie lacks energy and inertia, which is generally provided by the actors but whether they were struggling with dialogue which I can understand because it often sounds like stringing words together in ways normal people don’t, or they just didn’t feel motivated. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the director, but good actors will give memorable performances without the encouragement of a director. There is accountability to go around here.

And it really is a shame because there are a lot of good elements here, including some lovely cinematography and the unfailing politeness of the characters, although when you discover that this is a Canadian production, a light bulb might suddenly switch on, as it did for me. Sometimes, the right crew and actors coalesce to make magic happen, but sometimes just the opposite happens and this is, sadly, one of those occasions.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is pretty inventive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff and flat, rarely arouses any sort of feeling in the viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexuality and nudity, horrific images and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton is no stranger to genre work, having appeared in the TV shows Supernatural and Lucifer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, <a Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindred
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
ThunderForce

Come True


Julia Sarah Stone is feeling blue.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Carlee Ryski, Christopher Heatherington, Tedra Rogers, Brandon DeWyn, John Tasker, Austin Baker, Shane Ghostkeeper, Christopher Thomas, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Tyler Dreger, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Tiffany Helm, Maria Renae, Millie Jayne, Alex Cherovsky, Michelle Rios, Pamela Parker. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

Dreams serve a therapeutic purpose, allowing the demons of our subconscious to stretch their metaphysical legs, as it were. Nightmares, though, are mostly just unpleasant and while they serve their own purpose, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would rather do without them. Nightmares are a pain in the ass; for some, however, they take over, become obsessions and perhaps imperil our sanity – and perhaps our lives.

18-year-old Canadian high school graduate Sarah Dunne (Stone) is one such. Every night she finds a different place to sleep – a friend’s house, the playground at her local park and so on. She is subject to sleep paralysis and vivid, terrifying dreams that have begun to take over her life. She has had a falling out with her mom and generally avoids her, stopping by her home only to shower and grab a change of clothes.

When she is given a flyer advertising a sleep study, she’s intrigued. A safe place to sleep where she will be monitored, where she’ll be paid and best of all, perhaps a cure for her affliction can be found. It’s a win-win-win situation. But right away, she senses that there is something not quite aboveboard in the study. The man running it, Dr. Meyer (Heatherington) seems to be way creepier than she would like, and the questions his assistant Anita (Ryski) asks following her night’s sleep are invasive and troubling. Worse yet, there is creepy nerd Jeremy (Liboiron) who may or may not be stalking her nd who may or may not be willing to tell her the dirty little secret behind this particular sleep study.

But things take a lurching turn for the worse when it begins to feel like Sarah’s waking life and dream life are beginning to merge, with frightening consequences.

Burns, in his second feature film, has some really promising ideas here, which sadly don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying film. The moody dream sequences are seriously underlit, which while atmospheric also makes it hard to figure out what’s going on at times which gets frustrating when repeated several times throughout the film. He also has a good sense of style; the movie becomes more dream-like the longer it goes on until he climax which is, sadly, a bit unsatisfying.

Stone has a kind of fresh-faced appeal and while her character is made to assert her over-18 status a bit too much – probably to make her romance with an older man a little less cringe-inducing – she still comes off as a strong, charismatic lead. Some of the imagery here is truly frightening and isn’t something you will want to watch just before bedtime. There is also a bit more technobabble than I generally like – that’s more of a personal preference – and Sarah’s angst which seems to stem from a rift with her mom which is never explained can get tiresome to people who don’t really care what the latest social media app has to offer.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything worthwhile here. Burns has an original voice and some decent instincts, but I get the sense that he isn’t quite adept at making that voice audible just yet. I’m hoping that he’ll continue to develop his talents because there’s definitely a sense that he’s got something special inside him that one day is going to flower and blow us all away. While this isn’t the film that’s going to do that, it certainly has enough positives that you might want to check it out or at least keep an eye out for his future endeavors.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating concept. Dream-like presentation.
REASONS TO AVOID: Execution is lacking. Too much technobabble and teen angst.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, terrifying imagery and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Burns’ second feature film after Our House (2018).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Test Pattern

The Walrus and the Whistleblower


Phil Demers is at the center of the protest.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Phil Demers, Doug Draper, Ted Satci, John Holer, Michael Noonen, Catherine Ens-Hurwood, Carolyn Narononni, Naomi Rose, Brendan Kelly, Angela Bontivagna, Ron Bucholz, Holly Lake, Murray Sinclair, Elizabeth May. Directed by Nathalie Bibeau

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I’ve never understood the appeal of watching trained animals perform. I’m not really big on zoos, although I am all for interacting with animals in a safe environment for both humans and the animals themselves. I have no problem with teaching children the wonders of the animal kingdom and the importance of respecting other species different than our own. So when I have the opportunity to go to marine parks where trained dolphins and killer whales perform for a stadium full of spectators, I am not terribly enthusiastic about attending. However, I realize that a lot of people feel differently than I do on the subject.

Marineland, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, has been showcasing performing dolphins, killer whales and other marine mammals since opening its doors in 1961. It is the largest employer in the area which has little other industry besides tourism. In 2000, they brought in walruses and trainer Phil Demers developed a special relationship with Smooshi – so named because she had a habit of smooshing up against his face – who imprinted on him, which to be honest I’m not sure whether or not that is unusual since that’s one of many avenues that the film never explores (this gets to be a theme throughout the movie and is its greatest drawback). The two were inseparable.

However, Demers was disturbed at the way the animals in general were treated at the park – a recurring litany that has dogged Marineland for decades. When a type of algae starting growing in the water that was harmful to the animals, they responded by using chlorine to kill it which in turn caused painful chemical burns that eventually no amount of drugs could soothe. When Demers discovered the tragic and torturous route Smooshi (and the other walruses that Marineland eventually added to the show) took in being purchased for the park, Demers finally resigned his job. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

He became an animal rights activist, picketing Marineland and taking on the Twitter handle WalrusWhisperer to bring the plight of the animals to the attention of the general public. He would be barred from the grounds of Marineland and later a large lawsuit was brought on by the marie park against him. In the meantime, Canada began to take up legislation to ban the keeping of certain marine mammals (but ironically, not walruses) from marine parks and aquariums. It is an uphill battle and Demers is basically a bearded David facing an unforgiving and vengeful Goliath but he soldiers on.

The movie takes a lot of its cues from Blackfish although its focus is on a specific incident even more so than Blackfish, which broadened its scope to look at animal abuse in marine parks globally. The laser-like focus here is on Marineland and its owner John Holer (who passed away during film, an event that caused mixed reactions in Demers) to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps with the wider focus of the other film, Bibeau might have felt she didn’t need to expand her view, but basically honed in on Demers’ story and while it is an admirable one, it could have used further context. The only negativity that comes in was that some of his fellow activists are frustrated with him because he refuses to embrace veganism, and what criticism is leveled at Demers is largely leveled by himself – “I sound like an asshole. I look like an asshole. I know the vein in my forehead is bulging,” he admits in a moment of self-examination.

The importance of the subject is unquestioned and the fact that in the years since Blackfish was released it appears that there hasn’t been a ton of change in the policies regarding the way marine parks treat the animals in their care is something that at least deserves mention, but it never is. Also Demers proclaims that he doesn’t want to win money out of all of this; he just wants Smooshi, but to what end? Releasing her back into the wild would be impractical at best and deadly at worst; she’s lived her entire life in captivity and doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild. So where would Demers keep her? There doesn’t appear to be much room in his house for her, and the bill for feeding a walrus would be appalling. But whatever plans Demers has for the care of Smooshi once released from the park are never elaborated on.

And that’s really symbolic for the movie as a whole; I don’t think Bibeau had much of a plan in assembling this film. Certainly it is an important story, and certainly it means a lot to her personally (see Trivial Pursuits below) but it feels like she didn’t really want to make much effort to dot her I’s and cross her T’s and this is a film that could badly use both, even if the story is compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating David vs. Goliath story. The footage of Smooshi and Demers being separated is absolutely heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leaves too many important questions unexplored.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug use and disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bibeau knew of Demers because he was her brother’s best friend growing up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Discovery Plus, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Come True

Crisis


Greg Kinnear makes his point to Gary Oldman.Cinema

(2021) Drama (QuiverGary Oldman, Armie Hammer, Evangeline Lilly, Greg Kinnear, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Cudi, Indira Varma, Lily-Rose Depp, Mia Kirshner, Guy Nadon, Michael Aronov, Adam Tsekhman, Veronica Ferres, Nicholas Jarecki, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Marcel Jeannin, Eric Bruneau, Duke Nicholson, Ellora Torchia, Daniel Jun, Luke Evans, Billy Bryk, Meghan Allen.  Directed by Nicholas Jarecki

One of the major problems facing our country right now – and yes, there are many – is the opioid epidemic. Something like 100,000 people die every year of overdoses of opioid painkillers, most of which began as prescriptions and moved on into full blown addictions.

Claire (Lilly) had been an addict, hooked on oxycodone. She’d managed to kick the habit, though, and had a career as a successful architect in Detroit. She asks her hockey-mad son (Bryk) to stop by the corner grocery on his way home from practice and pick up some tortillas. He never arrives back home. She goes out looking for him with her sister (Kirshner) but can’t find him; then she gets the news every mother dreads – her son is dead, of a drug overdose. Claire is stunned. “If he was an addict, I’d know!” she blurts out. Something doesn’t sit right about this whole affair and she is determined to get down to the bottom of it and figure out what happened to her boy.

Jake (Hammer) is a hard-bitten DEA agent who is trying to stem the flow of opioids coming into the country. He’s currently working on some Armenian gangsters who are importing them from Canada, and they are particularly interested on obtaining Fentanyl, which looks to be the new hot opioid-of-choice for the discriminating addict. He arranges a buy with Montreal-based drug kingpin Mother (Nadon) who turns out to be a lot more bloodthirsty than his name implies. Jake is under pressure from his boss (Rodriguez) to make a quick arrest; he’s been undercover for a year now with nothing to show for it. Jake is also trying to hide the fact that his own sister (Depp) is also an addict in rehab.

College professor Tyrone Brower (Oldman) has brought in a healthy revenue stream for the university by testing new products for Big Pharma in his lab. When on of the more unscrupulous companies touts a new wonder drug that is a non-addictive painkiller, the FDA is falling all over itself to approve the drug and stem the tide on the opioid crisis. But as Dr. Brower discovers that far from being non-addictive Klaratol is actually far more addictive and leads to death among his test subjects, he wants to blow the whistle, but the FDA doesn’t want to hear about it, the drug company will do anything to squelch his research and his obsequious dean (Kinnear) tries to convince him to forget his research. A crisis of morality beckons.

The three stories all parallel but only two of them converge – that of Claire and Jake. The Dr. Brower story, while interesting, never really touches what’s going on in the other two stories and seems like it should have been an entirely separate movie, but that kind of laxness in execution characterizes Crisis which has the advantage of being timely – the opioid crisis is certainly on the minds of many.

The cast is stellar and they all do pretty good jobs, particularly Lilly who has an excellent scene with Kirshner early on in the movie as her grief overwhelms her. The former Lost actress who is better known for her work in the MCU these days has always been a fine actress, but she rarely gets the opportunity to show off her mad skillz and so this is a refreshing change.

Jarecki cuts between the three stories rapidly and without any sort of linking device, so the changes are often jarring and inorganic. All of these stories have a certain amount of dramatic tension built in but Jarecki scuttles it by moving from story to story so quickly and so often that whatever momentum he builds up gets lost and the audience loses interest.

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t worthwhile; it is certainly well-acted and has a compelling subject, but the stories are so interesting that you want to spend more time on them, which Jarecki fails to do, ending up giving short shrift to all of them. He probably could have eliminated the Brower story completely and padded out the other two with further character development and made a more effective movie – and kept the Brower story as a separate, stand-alone movie. That would have been a more satisfactory solution. Perhaps he can still do that with a director’s cut, someday. I wouldn’t mind if he did.

The film is currently playing in limited release around the country but will be available starting Friday on most major streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime, Vudu and Google Play, to name just a few. Check their website (click on photo above) for further information on where the film can be streamed on Friday.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely exploration of different viewpoints of the opioid crisis.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dramatic tension is sabotaged by the quick cutting between stories.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug content, profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Dreamland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
‘Til Kingdom Come