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

Recon (2019)


Walking in the woods on a snowy evening.

(2019) War (Brainstorm) Alexander Ludwig, RJ Featherstonhaugh, Franco Nero, Chris Brochu, Mitch Ainley, Christopher Crema, Julian Domingues, Sam Keeley, Lochlyn Munro, Tyler Hynes, Blake Williams, Robert Stratford, Nathan Jean, Chase Sander, Luigi Platania, Justin Derrickson, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Christie Burke. Directed by Robert David Port

 

It is World War II and the fighting in Italy is coming to a close. The Nazis are on the run, and the fascist government in Rome has collapsed. An American officer, Captain Rogers (Munro) – not Steve – has tasked one of his units with going into the Italian mountains to find reliable intelligence as to where the Germans are and whether they are massing for a counter-attack.

This particular unit is a bit traumatized. They had witnessed their commanding officer (Hynes) execute an innocent and are being sent on a dangerous mission with very little idea of what they are getting themselves into. The sergeant splits his team into two units; we are following the one led by Corporal Marson (Ludwig), along with Privates Asch (Brochu), Heisman (Featherstonehaugh), and Joyner (Keeley). They run into an aged Italian man named Angelo (Nero) who is willing to lead them into the mountains – even though his English is dicey at best – and point out where the Germans are, but can they trust him, or is he really a German spy, who is leading them to their death?

It wouldn’t take much to get them there. They are being stalked by a German sniper (Jean) and the mountains are bitter cold and full of wolves. They must traverse rickety rope bridges and the stress becomes palpable as the men bicker among themselves, much to the disgust of Angelo who, as it turns out, has some military experience.

The movie is surprisingly strong, but then again, Port was an Oscar winner for his documentary short Twin Towers. He builds a sense of dread that is gripping, and while the characters are a bit war-movie cliché – the loud-mouthed city boy, the aw-shucks football player, the conflicted leader, they’re all here. Cinematographer Edd Lukas does a great job of capturing the stark winter landscape, making it both forbidding and beautiful.

The movie is a bit slow-moving as we follow this remarkably talkative unit into dangerous territory where snipers could be anywhere; even when they are under fire by a hidden gunman, they still insist on talking as if their pursuer can’t hear them. It’s a bit unrealistic and it does take the logically-minded out of the movie a bit.

The performances, though, are strong – in particular Ludwig, who most know from the recently-completed Vikings TV series, and Nero, who is worth seeing even in a fairly small but pivotal role. Brochu is also sufficiently entertaining as the team’s wiseacre. Apparently based on an actual incident (as chronicled in a book by Richard Bausch entitled Peace which was the original title of the film), the movie could have used some trimming but be that as it may, it’s a surprisingly strong, surprisingly taut war movie that should be on the radar of war movie buffs.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of setting a tense, suspenseful atmosphere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a while to get where it wants to go.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in British Columbia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dear Santa

Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

(2018) Drama (1091) Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Ennis Esmer, Salvatore Antonio, Brandon McKnight, Genevieve Kang, Caroline Bartczak, Lauren Collins, Jason Tome, Cody Black, Robert B. Kennedy, Brock Morgan, Rufio Luey. Directed by Jesse Zigelstein

 

In recent years, chefs have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming rock stars in their own right. A celebrity chef can pretty much write their own ticket, able to command the attention of foodies the world over who will walk across hot coals to get a table at their restaurant. For this, we sometimes excuse behavior we wouldn’t accept in our own workplace. If Gordon Ramsey were my boss, I’d be sitting him down in HR with a lawyer handy after one of his tirades.

Danny (Abrams) has gone from being the darling of hipster foodies, the hot young chef to being a dinosaur in his own bistro. His restaurant is hemorrhaging money and his past due bills are piling up; even though his restaurant is packed night after night, he is drowning in debt. The only life preserver on the horizon is his school chum Mark (Esmer) who has agreed to come to his restaurant for a meal with a group of potential investors who might prove to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He needs to wow the table or face the closure of a business he has spent ten years building.

The film chronicles the day of that dinner. Danny is already in hot water with Chloe (Chorostecki), his house manager and sometime lover who he stood up the night previous. He is perturbed because the new hot food truck with the new hip not chef (Tome) is parked cross the street from his eatery. His sommelier (Antonio) reports that none of his wine providers will extend any credit to him any longer. His landlord (Kennedy) has had it up to here with missed rental payments and bounced checks; he has to the end of the month to get caught up or Danny will be evicted.

To make matters worse, a supercilious food blogger (Collins) informs Danny that his talented sous chef Keith (McKnight) is jumping ship for the chance to become an executive chef in his own restaurant. And Danny has forgotten that his ex-wife (Bartczak) is bringing his son (Black) over because it is his day to watch him. Along the way, Danny will rant, scream, and berate his put-upon staff while pushing away the one person who seems to believe in him at all. As the night progresses, Danny seems to be falling apart. Can he pull it together to save his restaurant?

First-time feature director Zigelstein paints a realistic portrait of life in an upscale bistro, and of the challenges (that are sometimes insurmountable) that independent restaurants face. It is no secret that restaurants fail at a staggering rate; it is one of the toughest businesses to succeed at.

Abrams does strong work as Danny, a man whose own hubris is his own worst enemy. Danny believes that he is still the biggest and brightest star in Toronto; that belief has become increasingly delusional and everyone knows it except Danny. He’s not a pleasant person to be around and he’s certainly not a pleasant person to work for. He’s the stereotype of an asshole chef, the kind we see on TV and in the movies and whose behavior may be amusing from a distance, but if you are forced to deal with it day after day would no doubt provoke PTSD in a major way. Danny’s tirades and tantrums eventually grow wearying and by the time the movie comes to an end you may not give a ratatouille whether Danny saves his bistro or not.

That aside, the movie feels pretty authentic to me, but as I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen myself you might want to take that with a grain of salt. This is definitely not a film for Vegans (there’s a scene that is critical to the plot that involves the butchering of a hog, and it appears they use an actual hog carcass or at least a realistic facsimile of same) nor is it a film for those whose idea of a high class meal is the daily special at Appleby’s. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to merit a look-see and as the rental fee is extremely reasonable ($3.99 at most streaming services), you really can’t go wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at some of the obstacles restaurants face.
REASONS TO AVOID: There comes a point where the tantrums become tiresome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of profanity and some brief violence. There are also images of meat being butchered that may upset vegans or those sensitive to such scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Abrams and Chorostecki had supporting roles on the excellent but lamentably canceled Hannibal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Made in Italy

The Cuban


The memories of when we were young.

(2019) Drama (Brainstorm) Louis Gossett Jr., Ana Golja, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly, Giacomo Gianniotti, Shiva Negar, Jonathan Keltz, Layla Alizada, Kane Mahon, Tabby Johnson, Margaret Lamarre, Gerry Mendicino, Richard Chevolleau, Emily Piggford, Mazida Soroor, Paulbaum Wildbaum, Wajma Soroor, Nadine Roden, Pazz Neglia, Olga Consorti. Directed by Sergio Navarretta

 

Our culture is remarkably cruel to the elderly. We have a tendency to shut them away in warehouses for the old, out of sight and out of mind. We sigh and tell ourselves that it is in the best interests of those whose golden years are tinged with rusted iron; in reality it is as often a convenience for ourselves.

Young Mina Ayoub (Golja) is a pre-med student starting her first day on the job in an extended care facility. One of her assignments, as passed on to her by head Nurse Baker (Holly) is to care for Luis Garcia (Gossett), a cantankerous gentleman who is in the throes of vascular dementia and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He refuses to eat the dietitian-prescribed food that is supposed to be good for his ailing heart. She notices a poster of Benny Moré on the wall, a legendary Cuban trumpeter. Her late father had introduced her to Cuban music so she has a bit more familiarity with it than the average Afghan immigrant.

She also lives with her Aunt Bana (Aghdashloo), who as an administrator for the facility, is watching Mina like a hawk. Bana had a career as a physician in Kabul before the violence there forced her to move to Canada but it meant giving up her career and taking care of her niece, who by then had been orphaned

Mina is oddly drawn to Luis and decides to play some Cuban jazz records to see if they would stimulate something more than the vacant stare he gives (when he’s not throwing plates in her general direction when she tries to get him to eat). She also discovers that Luis is willing to eat Cuban food that he remembers fondly, so she begins cooking some for him and bringing it in.

Gradually we discover that Luis was one of the most revered guitar players in Cuba, whose band Los Cubanos played all over the world and shared the stage with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie. He also was deeply in love with Elena (Golja in a dual role), the band’s singer. The food and the music begin to awaken Luis and he and Mina begin to bond. She also begins a romance with Kris (Gianniotti), a teacher’s assistant at her college who is studying psychology and has some insight into Luis’ condition, as well as a guitar. Soon, it appears Luis is coming out of his shell, but that generally means that the other shoe is about to drop.

Navarretta, whose career spans 20 years although he has mostly directed short films, is a bit heavy-handed in places; for example, the flashback scenes of Luis in Havana are vibrant and colorful; the scenes in the nursing home drab and colorless. We get that Luis’ life is more vivid in his memory than in his intolerable present, but I don’t think it was necessary to make the home look like Alcatraz.

The performances here are strong with the 84-year-old Gossett showing that he won an Oscar for a reason; he imbues Luis with humanity and dignity, despite the fact that his dementia is robbing him of both. Luis is often volatile, his moods swinging wildly from violence to joy to child-like to weary, sometimes within the confines of a single conversation. Although his Cuban accent slips from time to time, his chemistry with Golja is undeniable and she brings a great deal of life to the film; she’s another veteran of the DeGrassi series that seems to have employed nearly every actor in Canada at one time or another.

Although the movie is low-key, it does show a genuine affection for Cuban music and culture, not to mention a valid point to make about how the elderly are treated in modern Western society. I could have done without the subplot of the romance between Mina and Kris; it distracts from the real story which is the relationships between Mina and Luis, and between Mina and her family, which is also an important commentary on the expectations of immigrant families which I could relate to directly. This is a movie that some might write off as a Hallmark channel type of film, but I can assure you that it is much, much more – it is a hidden gem that film buffs would do well to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: A love letter to Cuban music as well as an indictment of how we warehouse the elderly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Mina and Kris feels unnecessary
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was written by Hilario Duran, a veteran Cuban pianist whose own life story has many similarities to that of Luis Garcia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rebuilding Paradise

Root of the Problem


It’s definitely not hammer time…

(2019) Faith Comedy (VisionSergio Di Zio, Claire Rankin, Chantal Perron, Dwight Layne, Jason Therrien, Leslie Benn, Pete Seadon, Dawn Nagazina, Ty Loupelle, Anna-Marie Frances Lea, Wrama Willis, D’Arcy Browning, Stephane Legault, Brad Pajot, Brad Kimmel, Gordon Andersen, Roise Muldoon, Marnie Madden. Directed by Scott Corban Sikma

 

They say that money is the root of all evil (and one glance at how out-of-control capitalism has affected this country makes it hard to argue the point), although there are those who will say that only people who have never had money feel that way.

Paul Campbell (Di Zio) is a hard-working realtor who believes in turning over properties quickly; the more he sells, the more he makes. The trouble is, that he never seems to be able to make quite enough and his family – wife Grace (Rankin), daughter Kari (Benn) and son Landon (Loupelle) – has gotten used to him not being around when they need him. Paul has become money-obsessed, tight-fisted to the point where his miserliness has become a family joke.

His best friend Jack Mitchel (Therrien) is trying to sell the factory that plunged the town into depression when it went out of business. Jack kind of takes Paul’s abrasive self-confidence in stride, although Paul’s money issues are beginning to wear out their welcome. As far as Paul is concerned, though, there is hope on the horizon – Grace has a rich uncle who was devoted to Grace (and vice versa). Certainly, when the news comes that Uncle Joe has passed on, the news is met with mixed emotions by Paul – he’s sad for his wife, but there’s some relief that their financial difficulties will disappear once the will is read.

People will shock you, though – when the reading of the will takes place, beloved Uncle Joe has left all his cash to charity and left Grace and Paul with just a potted plant. Paul is understandably disappointed, bed ut that disappointment is short-lived – it turns out that money does grow on trees, after all, and the plant that dear old Uncle Joe left them had one. Suddenly, Paul has more money than he knows what to do with.

He chooses not to tell anybody about the new windfall, and goes on a spending spree for his own stuff – like a riding lawnmower and a Porsche. This leads to a rift between Paul and Grace, who isn’t aware of where the money is coming from – and Paul is spending it like it’s going out of style, which also attracts the notice of a police detective (Perron) which further complicates Paul’s life. It is only when a crisis point is reached that he begins to appreciate the family he has neglected and begins to see that money can’t buy everything.

The film is classified as faith-based but while scripture is discussed and church contributions make up a good chunk of the film, you never feel like you’re watching a cinematic sermon, so kudos to Sikma for that. But there are a few flaws here.

Paul is almost loathsome, although there are flashes of a decent person underneath from time to time – although those times are few and far between until the excrement hits the fan, so to speak. Di Zio does a pretty decent job in the lead role, but his character is almost cartoonish at times and that detracts from the message. You can’t take the movie seriously if you don’t take Paul seriously. You wonder why anyone would choose to be his friend, let alone married to him.

The concept is a good one, although it could have been handled a little better. Sikma goes for a kind of sitcom feel here, and you may end up wondering where the laugh track went while you’re watching this. This is most apparent in the score by Beau Shiminsky which is generic to the point that it sounds like you’ve heard it on Must-See TV back in the day.

Again, I liked the idea behind the movie but wish it had a movie that was deserving of the concept around it. Maybe if the director had gone a little bit more serious and a little less sitcom this might have won me over, but as it is I can only give it the mildest of recommendations.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is imaginative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has all the worst qualities of a sitcom.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Paige was forced to retire from the ring in 2018 due to a neck injury.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Thousand Words
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Tobacconist