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

Nomadland


This is what mesmerizing performance looks like.

(2020) Drama (SearchlightFrances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes, Douglas G. Soul, Ryan Aquino, Bryce Bedsworth, Annette Webb, Teresa Buchanan, Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Makenzie Etcheverry, Rachel Bannon, Brandy Wilber, Suanne Carlson, Roxanne Bay, Sherita Deni Coker.  Directed by Chloé Zhao

 

Many people look at the Okies of the Depression, entire families who put all their belongings in their trucks and tried to find somewhere they could work and believe that those folk were a symptom of their times. What most Americans don’t know is that the economic realities of the 21st century have led to an entire new generation of rootless migrant workers, going from one seasonal job to the next, living out of their vans or in camps.

Fern (McDormand) has been hit by two catastrophes. First and foremost, her beloved husband Bo has died. To make matters worse, the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, where they were both employed, has shut down. Empire, being a company town, now has no work and has itself shut down. Fern has been thrown out of her company housing where she has lived for decades. She decides to gather what belongings she can fit and put them in a van where she makes herself as comfortable as possible, getting a temporary job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for the Christmas rush. She is given free parking in a trailer park, paid for by Amazon. When the job goes away, so will the space.

She befriends a woman named Linda May (May) who urges her to attend a convocation of nomads in Arizona, to be presided over by nomad guru Bob Wells (Wells) who has garnered an impressive following with his pragmatic and imaginative videos of how to survive living out of a van. She tells the child of a close friend in Empire who asks her if she’s homeless, “Oh no, honey, I’m not homeless…I’m houseless!”

She is loathe to head out to Arizona but when finding more work proves fruitless, she changes her mid and drives down there. There she meets Dave (Strathairn), an old man who becomes sweet on her, and Swankie (Swankie), a veteran nomad who is dying of cancer and wants to see as many natural wonders as she can while she still can. Her impending fate doesn’t prevent her from remonstrating with Fern that she needs to be more pragmatic because they are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody to help them if their van breaks down “You can die out here!”

Fern remains something of an enigma throughout the movie until near the end where we start to get the picture as to why she makes the choices that she does. McDormand, one of the most gifted actresses in the business with Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and three other nominations. This film will undoubtedly give her a fourth, as she has already won this year’s Golden Globe for the role (the movie also won the Best Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe at the recent awards ceremony). While Fern isn’t the most talkative person ever, her eyes are often haunted, staring out in the distance, her thoughts kept to herself but her eyes betraying her melancholy. She works hard and makes due without complaining, taking what joys she can where she can – like going skinny dipping by herself in a rock-strewn river in Colorado.

The one false note that the film strikes is the relationship between Fern and Dave. There is a sweetness to Dave, but Fern isn’t having it and that would be fine, except it feels like the relationship seems to be added on just to add romantic tension. The movie doesn’t need it.

Zhao utilizes the magnificent vistas of the prairies, the Rockies and the desert Southwest, taking Fern to a variety of jobs, from working the lunch counter at Wall Drug in South Dakota (a place to which I’ve actually been and it is so much more impressive than the film shows), a beet harvester in Nebraska, and a trailer park hostess in Arizona. She finds quiet moments of peace amongst concrete dinosaurs or under the stars. And despite Dave’s sweet advances, she seems content to remain on her own.

This is a slice of life that most Americans have no idea even exists, but the movie is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. While Zhao tends to leave details out of her film, there’s no doubt that this is a perilous way of life, especially now with so may more out of work than when the movie was filmed, let alone when it takes place (approximately 2011). People who have worked hard all their lives and couldn’t quite get ahead find themselves unable to afford a place to live in, forcing the to live from gig to gig. And what happens to them when they are no longer able to drive? It isn’t a question the movie asks but it was definitely on my mind, given that most of the characters in the film or either middle aged or elderly.

There is a lyricism here, a dignity that is all the more apparent because many of the actors in the film are non-professionals; they are actual nomads who live in their own fans. They, too, live with the specter that jobs aren’t guaranteed and that despite their willingness to work, they may get somewhere, find that the job they expected was already gone, and not be able to afford the gas to get them somewhere else. Most of these people have no health care insurance, so when people like Swankie get seriously ill, their only choice is to let nature take its course.

It seems impossible to believe that Americans can live like this in the 21st century; our nation is wealthy and prosperous, or so we’re told, but that’s only if you own the business. For those who toil in those businesses and make money for the 1%, their future may not be all too different than the one Fern faces.

REASONS TO SEE: McDormand gives another in a long line of outstanding performances. Gritty and realistic examination of American economic realities. Rings true as a human story. Honest in every way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Fern and Dave seemed forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some full-frontal nudity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhan interviewed several real life nomads to get some informational background for the film; some of the more articulate interviewees were given roles playing fictional versions of themselves in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Leisure Seeker
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Days of the Bagnold Summer

Cowboys


There’s a reason they call it Big Sky country.

(2020) Drama (Goldwyn) Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slaght, John Beasley, Seth Breding, Angela Marshall, Steve Dodd, Armando Garcia, Heather LaPointe, Jared Broxterman, Emily Moran, Matt Mhoon, Mari LaPlante, Sawyer Pule, Travis W. Bruyer, Michaela Dixon, Kasey Kurit, Lori Wubben. Directed by Anna Kerrigan

 

Montana has always been a beautiful place where rugged individualism has been admired, and where values are conservative and based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. It is an environment that, from time to time, has been unforgiving of those outside the norm.

At first blush, it appears that Troy (Zahn) and Joe (Knight) are on a father-son camping trip in the beautiful wilds of Montana. When Troy’s truck breaks down, the two end up staying the night at the home of Robert Spottedbird (Farmer), a friend who lends the two his horse. But it becomes clear that there is something not quite right with the scenario. We soon find out that Joe’s mother and Troy’s estranged wife Sally (Bell) has frantically discovered that Joe is missing from his bedroom and calls the police, putting dogged detective Faith (Dowd) on the case.

We are told the backstory to all this in flashbacks, how Joe was born a girl but is convinced that she was born in the wrong body. While Troy is willing to accept this, the more devout Sally is not. Sally, ever-pragmatic, also realizes that this kind of revelation is likely to get Joe bullied at best, and maybe something worse.

As the search for the two goes on, we find that Troy is not nearly a perfect father; he’s bi-polar, and while he’s pretty affable so long as he stays on his meds, he’s prone to fits of rage, one of which in the defense of his son lands him in jail and leads to Sally separating from him. However, the more time Joe spends with Sally, the more he realizes that his mother will never let him be who he is meant to be, couching her denial in terms of “God’s plan.” It is a refrain many transgender folk have heard all too often.

Sally knows that Troy is unreliable, and the longer she is separated from Joe, the more she realizes her own role in his being gone. She also realizes that the longer this goes on, the less likely it is that Troy will come out of this unharmed. As Troy and Joe navigate the wilderness, Joe’s love for cowboys and the cowboy mythology begins to crumble as he realizes that his father, who once seemed to be his only option, might not be competent enough to get them both to Canada – and that Troy has absolutely no plan whatsoever once the two arrive there.

This is a timely movie, inasmuch as it was released a couple of weeks before the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a sweeping reform that would insure the rights of transgenders and other LGBTQ citizens (it faces an uphill battle to pass in the Senate where it will need 60 votes). Kerrigan makes the most of the beautiful Big Sky scenery captured by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey, giving us breathtaking vistas and moments of exquisite natural beauty. There are also moments of ugliness, as townspeople come down on Joe and his desire to be male.

The four major roles of Troy, Joe, Sally and Faith are all perfectly cast and Kerrigan gets some outstanding performances from all of them. Bell and Zahn are generally noted for their comedic roles, but both handle the drama here with aplomb, with Zahn giving an absolutely outstanding performance that is sure to bring him some meatier parts in the future. Knight, as Joe, conveys a bittersweet melancholy and world-weary wisdom that belies his character’s years; one can imagine that it would be awful to have to deal with two damaged parents as well as his own issues of sexual identity. Knight’s performance should provide a role model for kids in that situation everywhere.

This is not a movie with easy answers; there are no white hats here (nor are there black hats either). Both Sally and Troy are flawed human beings doing the best that they can and the love they have for Joe is absolutely palpable. There is no doubt that this is, already, one of the year’s best films and should give families undergoing similar issues a starting place for necessary conversations.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery. Zahn is as good as he’s ever been and Knight is a revelation. Some moments of heart-rending pathos.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kerrigan insisted that the role of Joe be filled by a trans/gender-fluid actor, which Sasha Knight is.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Kid Like Jake
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Nomadland

Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares)


For those trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States, the trip can be hell.

(2020) Drama (Kino LorberMercedes Hernåndez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Virela, Ana Laura Rodriguez, Armando Garcia, Laura Elena Ibarra, Juan Pablo Acevedo, Xicoténcati Ulloa, Jessica Martinez Garcia, Maria Luisa Juårez, Ricardo Luna, Juliéta Rodriguez, Iker Valadez Urtaza, Susan Korda, Jorge Escalante, Cynthia Franco, Carlos Valenzuela, Bertha Denton Casillas.  Directed by Fernanda Valadez

 

Immigrants from south of the border have been demonized to the point of ridiculousness; not everyone who comes into the country from Mexico is illegal, not everyone that comes into this country is a criminal, not everyone who comes is illiterate. Most are just ordinary folks trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree with that instinct.

But this isn’t a film about them. It’s not easy or dangerous to migrate from Mexico’s interior to the United States, and uncounted numbers of those who try to get to our border never arrive. They are kidnapped, robbed, raped and often murdered. For their families, it is as if they disappeared off the face of the earth.

Magdalena (Hernandez) had bid goodbye to her teenage son Jesus (Varela) and his best friend Rigo (A. Garcia) who were heading to Arizona where they hoped to find work. But months have gone by and no word from either boy, nothing to say they’d arrived, nor a sign that they had returned. Magdalena and Rigo’s mother Chuya (Ibarra) go to the authorities hoping to get some word, but the authorities either can’t or won’t help. Finally, begrudgingly, they are shown a book full of pictures of corpses that have been recovered – and to the horror of both women, there is Rigo. However, there’s no certain proof that Jesus shared the same fate as Rigo. So as any good mother would do, Magdalena goes off in search of her son, trying to retrace his steps.

It is a dangerous journey, with corrupt officials, cartel killers and unscrupulous coyotes who would murder her in a heartbeat, but doggedly she tries. She gets some help along the way; a sympathetic receptionist at a hostel for migrants; another mother named Olivia (A.L. Rodriguez) who had been searching for her missing son for four years without any sort of word, and lastly from Miguel (Illescas) who had made it to the promised land and spent several years there, only to be captured and deported back to Mexico. Now he’s hoping to reunite with his own mother, but there is no guarantees he will find her.

This is a unique look at the issues facing Mexican migrant workers; the looming threat of violence that hangs over every step of their journey and in fact has insinuated itself into all avenues of Mexican life, as well as the inability of those sources that would ordinarily aid them to provide any sort of protection or assistance. Valadez tells her story simply and starkly, without a lot of frills although there are a few and when they show up they are kind of jarring.

One thing Valadez and cinematographer Claudia Becerril have is a good eye; the shots are exquisitely framed and photographic effects are often utilized to illustrate subtle points (a flashback of the day Jesus informed Magdalena he was leaving is shot through a dirty glass window, giving a kind of faded patina to everything – but Jesus himself remains in sharp form, as if Magdalena’s memory is beginning to fade). There is a little bit of Catholic mysticism here as well that shows very late in the movie and almost comes out of a different movie into this one.

The performances are naturalistic. Most of the cast and crew here are women, which is something to celebrate; this is definitely a mom-centric film and any mother’s heart is going to ache for the women here as they wait interminably for word of their missing loved ones. Despite a modest budget, the technical proficiency of the movie stands out. The movie is often gripping and while it never has the emotional catharsis an American version might make of it, there is a quiet dignity that may change a few viewpoints about the Mexican people…in a perfect world. In the world we live in, however, stories like this are all too commonplace and too many Americans seem to think that those who disappear deserved what they got. That’s the truly messed-up aspect of all of this.

REASONS TO SEE: Quietly suspenseful. Very powerful in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Norte
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Willy’s Wonderland

One Night in Miami


Four giants. Four legends.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Christian Magby, Joaquina Kalukango, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Derek Roberts, Beau Bridges, Emily Bridges, Amondre D. Jackson, Jerome Wilson, Hunter Burke, Robert Stevens Wayne, Randall Newsome, Matt Fowler, Chris Game, Jeremy Pope. Directed by Regina King

 

On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later become better known as Muhammad Ali (and who will be identified as such throughout the rest of the review for the sake of clarity), was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest – if not the greatest – heavyweight boxer that ever lived.

In town that night for the fight were three of his friends – Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), football legend Jim Brown (Hodge) who was just about to embark on an acting career, and soul legend Sam Cooke (Odom) who was one of the most popular singers in the country. All four were friends and they gathered at the Hampton House hotel to celebrate the triumph of Ali (Goree).

While this actually happened, what transpired that night in the hotel has been the subject of speculation, and playwright Kemp Powers – who recently co-directed Soul – wrote a stage play about it that he has now adapted for the screen, to be the feature directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King.

It is also sobering to note that within one year, two of the four men in that room would die violent deaths. Much of the focus is on X and Cooke, who are at loggerheads; the Black Muslim leader – who after some disagreements with Elijah Muhammad (Gilliard) is getting ready to break off and start his own movement – believes that Cooke should be singing about the struggle, protest songs about racial injustice to use his fame to spotlight the cause. Cooke counters that he doesn’t believe that kind of song will sell and that he can do much more as a black businessman than as an angry young black man singing about injustice. That’s the crux of the argument, and both of the participants are passionate about their positions – and to be honest, a bit rigid in their viewpoints.

There is a temptation to make these legendary figures larger than life and in some ways, that’s how they come off, but at the same time, King and Kemp humanize the men, Ali is unsure of the religious conversion, and wonders if he can give up the things that a conversion would demand, like alcohol and pork. Brown suspects that football has taken him about as far as he can go and that his future lies in acting, which at the time was a nearly impossible industry for African-Americans to break into. It was a turning point in all their lives and indeed, in America itself. King captures that moment very effectively.

It helps that she cast the film perfectly and the actors in return gave her uniformly great performances. I was particularly impressed with Hodge, who gives Brown (the sole surviving member of the quartet, by the way) a quiet dignity and gravitas, even as he experiences in a telling preamble to the film the blunt racism of the time as exhibited by a family friend (B. Bridges). Goree also nails the braggadocio of Ali as well as the charisma.

But the marquee performances are sure to be Ben-Adir and Odom. Ben-Adir gives a quiet intensity to Malcolm X that is certainly comparable to the Oxcaar-nominated turn by Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. In some ways I think that he manages to make the icon still relatable although I think that as written the character is made to look more rigid and unbending than perhaps he really was. I can see Malcolm giving Sam Cooke an upbraiding along the lines of what is given in the film, but I think he would have listened to his friend’s side as well – I don’t think that the Malcolm X in the film does that.

Of the two, Odom has a tougher task in many ways; he not only has to capture Cooke’s enormous talent and legendary presence, but also show a practical side – as well as a tragic flaw of being a womanizer. I think it’s very possible Ben-Adir will duplicate Washington’s feat of an Oscar nomination for the role. I think Odom deserves the same honor as well.

King may also add an Oscar nomination as a director in addition to her Oscar win as an actress. Even given a stage play that takes place in a hotel room as a source, she manages to keep it from feeling stage-y, using subtle camera movements and the judicious use of mirrors to give the film a depth of field that is anything but claustrophobic. King is already one of my favorite actresses; she may well turn out to be one of my favorite directors as well. Certainly this is a movie that has to be considered a major contender for this year’s Oscars and in an awards season that will be unusual to say the least, a real stand-out. The movie had a brief Christmas theatrical run and is currently available for viewing on the Amazon Prime service, included without additional charge for subscribers.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the frontrunners for Best Picture. Note-perfect representation of the era. Dialogue worthy of Aaron Sorkin. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Thought it was a leeeeetle harsh on Malcolm X.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, who play husband and wife Sam and Barbara Cooke, are married in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Skyfire

Gun and a Hotel Bible


It’s never a good thing when your Gideon Bible starts telling you fish stories.

(2019) Drama (Freestyle) Bradley Gosnell, Daniel Floren, Mia Marcon, David Shoffner, George Christopher, Delaney Milbourn, John A. McKenna, Wes Selby, Mark Laird, Zachary Fancey, Jimmy McCammon, Grace Fae. Directed by Raja Gosnell and Alicia Joy LeBlanc

Faith isn’t an easy thing to pin down. We don’t always know how strong it is; faith can come and go on a dime. We think we recognize it, but it is only when we are truly tested that we know whether or not our faith is real.

Pete (B. Gosnell) is facing just such a test. He’d met his wife Cindy (Marcon) in a seedy hotel bar. For him anyway, it was love at first sight. She was one of those women who just lights up a room; so full of life, so full of oy, every eye was on her. So he was surprised as hell when she sat down at his table and in the space of a night extracted his life story. Six months later, they were married. Should have been a happily ever after, right?

But life rarely offers us a happily ever after. The magic went out of the relationship and now Pete has discovered that his Cindy has been coming back to the same hotel every Friday night to meet Leo (Christopher) for an evening of passion. So, Pete has come to the hoteland gotten himself a room for Friday night. He packed light; a backpack, and in the backpack, a gun.

Gideon (Floren), or “Gid” as he likes to be called, has a pretty stationary life. He likes to do things by the book, which is understandable since he is a book – or perhaps more to the point, THE book – the Gideon Bible that is left free in hotel rooms for travellers to read. This particular Bible has been sitting in the same hotel room for six decades. He’s seen his share of tragedies and passions; one of his pages has been torn out by a stoner to use as a rolling paper “Judges. Ironic, huh?”) and on the back a child has drawn her own Picasso-esque masterpiece.

When Pete comes in, Gic strikes up a conversation, being an outgoing, people-loving sort. Gid quickly discovers what Pete’s intentions are and holds a conversation with Pete on the nature of faith, the inequities of translation and interpretation, and navigating right and wrong as he tries to guide Pete in a different direction than the one he’s planning on.

This movie had its beginning as a stage play, and sadly, hasn’t really risen past its beginnings. Most of the action takes place in the confines of a hotel room, and there is a stage-y feeling to the production and to be honest, to the dialogue as well. The rhythms here all scream “stage play” much more than they do “film”. Considering that the two co-stars co-wrote and starred in the sgtage version and co-director LeBlanc directed the original stage version, it isn’t so surprising. Raja Gosnell (Brad’s dad) is a veteran director of feature films; you’d think that he would have added a more cinematic quality to the production, but alas, no.

That’s not to say that this doesn’t have things going for it. The concept is imaginative and the opening sequence when Pete narrates how he and Cindy got together is pretty nifty and the movie tackles some pretty deep subjects. It is one of those rare movies that discusses faith from a rational standpoint, never feels like it’s preaching. I know a few theologians who are going to have some pretty stirring conversations based on this if they ever get to see it.

Gosnell the younger and Floren have a good chemistry and each does a pretty good job with their roles,Pete being scruffy and down on just about everything (as you might imagine) while Gid is a bit of a huckster, optimistic in an “Up With People” kind of vibe, and a little bit too into the Cubs. While the film is a brisk 60 minutes long, your tolerance for watching what is essentially an extended conversation will determine how much you’ll end up enjoying this movie. For me, it was thought-provoking enough to sustain my interest.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of imagination here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very stage-y; other than the opening scene, lacks a sense of being a film rather than a stage play.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play that debuted at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTub]e
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Museum Town

Tiger Within


The eye (and teeth) of the tiger.

(2020) Drama (Film ArtEdward Asner, Margot Josefsohn, Diego Josef, Taylor Nichols, Luke Eisner, Julie Dolan, Jade Weber, Joey Dedio, James C. Victor, Mikul Robins, Zachary Mooren, Frank Miranda, Csynbidium, Angelee Vera, Mark Dippolito, Sabastian Neudeck, Sam Thakur, Liam Fountain, Ryan Simantel, Jonathan Brooks, Linda Rich, Charee Devon, Erica Piccinnini. Directed by Rafal Zielinski

 

Once in awhile, you encounter a film that has its heart in the right place, but lacks the execution to pull off its intentions. That’s this Tiger to a “T”.

Casey (Josefsohn) is an angry 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose parents are divorced. She lives with her feckless mom (Piccinnini) in Ohio along with mom’s unsavory boyfriend (Brooks); she decides it’s time to head to L.A. to be with her Dad (Victor) except that he has a new family of his own and his shrewish wife wants no reminders of his old life anywhere near her daughters. Overhearing her stepmother’s tirade, she walks off and decides to make her own way in the City of Angels.

Easier said that done and she ends up sleeping in a cemetery, where she is discovered by Samuel (Asner), a Holocaust survivor leaving a stone on the memorial to his wife. Even though she has a swastika spray painted on her black leather jacket, he takes pity on her and buys her a meal, which leads to an offer for a place to stay. Casey has been brought up to believe that the Holocaust was a hoax and the swastika is largely for shock value, which in the early 80s (when this was apparently set – more on that later) might have worked but even at that point there were plenty of people utilizing Nazi symbology for shock value.

The two end up forging a bond that is surprisingly strong; she sees in him the parental guidance that she never had; he sees in her the child he never got to raise (his own offspring were killed in the camps during the war). Together, they turn out to be really good for each other.

The makings for a good movie are definitely here. Unfortunately, there are some script choices that tell me that writer Gina Wendkos doesn’t trust her own story; for example, she tacks on an unnecessary and pointless romance for Casey – after we’ve seen her employed as a sex worker (!) in Hollywood. There is also precious little character development and the story often relies on predictable tropes that give the viewers death by cliché.

Asner can be a force of nature as an actor, but he has mellowed somewhat since his Emmy-winning days as Lou Grant. It might well be age, but he is far more subtle here. While I thought his German-Yiddish accent a little over-the-top, he does his best to dispense wisdom to a young woman who isn’t always receptive to it. On the other hand, there’s Josefsohn who has the thankless task of playing a belligerent punk chick with a chip on her shoulder and making her relatable. That Josefsohn pulls it off is impressive; that she holds her own with Asner is not only a testament to her talent but also a tribute to Asner’s generosity as an actor.

The film seems to be set in the early 80s, but there are a lot of anachronisms (all the cars are modern and the Los Angeles location looks contemporary. Making a period piece is a lot more than hitting the thrift store; you need to see to all sorts of details, otherwise the viewer is pulled out of the illusion. The problem is that if the film were set even a few years ago, for Samuel to be married with children in the concentration camps would put him well over the century mark in years. Still, considering Asner’s actual age, they could have set the film just after the millennium turned and it likely would have been acceptable.

The movie’s themes of forgiveness, family and education are certainly laudable, but the movie is really about the relationship between Samuel and Casey; the extra stuff is just padding and just cluttered up the story. If only the filmmakers trusted the story and the characters to be compelling, they might have made a compelling film. Instead, we get a well-intentioned miss.

REASONS TO SEE: Josefsohn has some real potential.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some sexuality – involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asner was 90 when the movie was filmed: Josefsohn was 14.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reader
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wonder Woman 1984

Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story


Eighties flashback alert.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassDominique Swain, Cody Renee Cameron, Serena Maffucci, Moxie Owens, Leah Ann Cevoli, Psalms Salazar, Elizabeth Lamboy-Wilson, Emily Cheree, Christina Veronica, Thomas Haley, Mark Schaefer, Ryan Vincent, Natalie Fabrizio, Abby Latip, Leah Schaefer, Misha Suvorov, James Seaman, Corey Shane Love, Michelle Maylene. Directed by Robin Bain

 

There is a question that bedevils those that want to bring to the screen a portrayal of social ills, like sex trafficking; how do you bring that to the screen to decry exploitation without being exploitative yourself? It’s an extremely fine line and many well-meaning filmmakers are unsuccessful at navigating it.

The movie – a sequel to a 2016 movie in which the director starred – follows the stories of Hope (Owens) and Baby Girl (Salazar), the former a starry-eyed teen looking to escape an intolerable small town life with the promise of the glamor of being a model and actress, the latter a single mother with few options to feed, shelter and clothe her daughter. They are both enticed into the world of prostitution by Paige (Cameron) – Hope’s childhood babysitter – and Paige’s girlfriend Destiny (Maffucci), who are both out to make as much money as possible so that they can maintain a party hearty lifestyle.

While the exploiters turn a blind eye to the realities of the situation, the exploited deal with the psychological and physical fall-out of their profession (and not their chosen profession), falling into a spiral that they cannot escape from without outside intervention. It is the sad reality that a large number of young women have found themselves trapped in all over the globe.

Those who see prostitution as a victimless crime might come away with a different impression after seeing this. Certainly, there are some women who enter the game with both eyes wide open, and enter the trade with a plan to get out once they’ve made enough money and in fact choose to become sex workers. For many others, it is the only way out of desperation, or at least they have been convinced, either by others or themselves, of that idea. I remember a friend of mine in college who told me that if she flunked out of school (which she was in danger of doing at the time) that she would have no other choice but to become a hooker, because she had no other skills or work experience. Fortunately, she managed to stay in school. Not everyone is so fortunate, whether because of economics or other situations – not the least of which is drug addiction, which is an expensive proposition.

The question I asked earlier about walking the fine line is very applicable here because, in my opinion, Bain isn’t totally successful at walking the line between exploitation and drama. The ratio of sex acts to fall-out is probably higher than it should be; I get the commercial necessity of titillation in order to draw in an audience in order to get one’s message across, but that message is diluted by the erotic content in this case. It is further diluted by turning the story into a soap opera-esque miasma that is heavy on the suds and light on character development. It doesn’t help that the dialogue and acting are about at the level of a Cinemax late night skin flick.

That’s a shame because I think that the intentions of Bain are honorable. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is out to call attention to a situation that year after year, continues to be ignored by society in general while the lives of hundreds of young women are destroyed, often ending in drug overdoses, murder or suicide. Happy endings, for these women, are exceedingly rare.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely for those who loved lurid 80s softcore teen hooker porn.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes what could be a serious subject and turns it into a turgid soap opera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of sexuality, some nudity and drug use, as well as plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Craven’s day job is as a professor of film studies at Marlboro College in Vermont.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angel
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mark of the Bell Witch

Elyse


In 2020, catatonia might be viewed as a blessing.

(2020) Drama (GravitasLisa Pepper, Anthony Hopkins, Aaron Tucker, Tara Arroyave, Fran Tucker, Julieta Ortiz, Griffin Thomas Hollander, Donat Balaj, Anthony Apel, Danny Jacobs, Everett Kelsey, Connor Garelick, Natalia Tucker, Susan Papa, Brittani Ebert, Riccardo Spinotti, David M. Jackson, Daisy Barber, Annette Dugan, Diana Arroyave. Directed by Stella Hopkins

 

Some movies are just slam dunks as far as critics are concerned. They are easy reviews to write; the words just flow. Some are much harder to articulate though.

This turgid melodrama stars Pepper as the titular character, a well-coiffed, well-dressed wife of a wealthy lawyer (A. Tucker), living in a gorgeous modern house where her adorable son (Hollander) is looked after by a solicitous nanny (Ortiz). But all is not perfect in paradise. Elyse suspects her husband – baselessly, it turns out – of having an affair with the nanny’s daughter Carmen (T. Arroyave) who works at her husband’s firm. She also has a very dysfunctional relationship with her patrician mother (F. Tucker).

At a dinner party, fueled by too much drink, she has a meltdown. Her husband, concerned over her increasingly volatile behavior, wants her to see a psychiatrist, a Dr. Lewis (A. Hopkins) who had some success with one of the other lawyers in his firm. Elyse agrees and actually develops a bond with him. However, not all is what it seems and to quote David Byrne, “You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful house?”

 

This is something of a family affair, with the director being married to one of the stars, and also related to two other actors by blood (her maiden name is Arroyave). There is also a mother/son team of actors playing mother-in-law/son-in-law here. That’s all very cozy, but it feels very much like this was cast largely from people the director knew and was comfortable with, rather than getting the best actors for the roles. It shows particularly in the lead roles where, with the exception of the one Oscar winner in the cast, the performances are uniformly stiff and uninspired.

But then again, the dialogue is truly dreadful. You can’t ask an actor to say a line like “This house is an empty shell…of vanished dreams” and expect him (Aaron Tucker, in this case) to make it sound like something a real human being would say. You know a film is going to be pretentious when the opening voice-over narration quotes The Wizard of Oz and you know that the film is about mental illness. I mean, Zoinks! Home viewers may end up banging on their TV in frustration as the first half of the film is in black and white with occasional splashes of color in a ham-fisted attempt at symbolism. Even when the main crux of the plot unfolds – it’s not a spoiler to say that Elyse is actually catatonic and in a mental hospital with Dr. Lewis trying to reach her and bring her back into consciousness – there is little to surprise the viewer and a whole lot to make them want to watch something else.

Still, Anthony Hopkins – who also produced the film and scored it – is a reliable factor and worth watching even in a bad movie, and trust me gang, the rating for this would be a hell of a lot lower if the Oscar-winning actor wasn’t present. Believe it or not, I take no joy out of trashing a film; I know that nobody goes into making a movie with the intent of making a bad one, but sometimes, despite the best intentions, that is exactly what is produced. However, Hopkins fans don’t have to feel bad about his lot – in a couple of weeks, his new film The Father will be coming out and that might well be one of the best films of a year that most of us will want to forget anyway.

REASONS TO SEE: Anthony Hopkins is always a treat.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is simply awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Stella Hopkins has been married to star Anthony Hopkins since 2003.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Farewell Amor

The August Virgin (La virgen de agosto)


What Madrilenos do in August.

(2019) Drama (OutsiderItsaso Arana, Vito Sanz, Isabelle Stoffel, Joe Manjón, Maria Herrador, Luis Heras, Mikele Urroz, Naiara Carmona, Simon Pritchard, Violeta Rebollo, Sigfrid Monléon, Francesco Carril, David López, Julen Berasategui, Alonso Diaz, Lucia Perlado, Soleá Morente, Pablo Peña, Lorena Alvarez. Directed by Jonás Trueba

 

In Central and Southern Europe’s largest cities including Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Venice, it isn’t unusual for much of the population to desert the city during the month of August for cooler climates or at least places where beaches are plentiful. Keep in mind that air-conditioning is not as common in Europe as it is here.

\Eva (Arana) is a thirty-something who has, after years of following the flock out of town in August, decided to remain in Madrid for the month of August. It seems time for her to make a change; she’s an actress who is ready to try some other way of life. She is apartment-sitting for a friend closer to the city center, and takes part in the religious festivals (including that of the Blessed Virgin, hence the title) that take place in early August.

She is a bit of a tourist in her own city, hanging out in places where the tourists (there are always tourists) hang out. There she meets a Welsh ex-pat (Manjón) and his English cousin (Pritchard) at a bar she hangs out in with her upstairs neighbor (Herrador), a performance artist.

For the most part, Eva isn’t much of a talker so much as a listener, but occasionally she reaches out at unexpected moments. This movie is as languid as the heat of the dog days. It moves at a pace that American audiences may find unbearable and to be honest, nothing much of note happens. This is a slice of life in the truest sense of the word. Eva drifts through, looking to find herself but unsure what precisely she’s looking for. There’s a bit of a twist near the end of the film but it’s not so much an “a-ha” moment as it is a “wait…what?” moment.

Arana is the film’s saving grace; her presence is low-key but nevertheless compelling. You want to hang out with her, whether she’s floating about a local swimming hole, hanging out in a bar, dancing in the streets, or eating in one of Madrid’s many bistros. The conversation here isn’t life-changing so much as it is life-affirming. This is what people do every day when it’s too hot to think too hard.

Trueba is one of Spain’s most promising directors, if you listen to the Spanish press. If being a fly on the wall in someone’s life is exciting to you, this might well be the kind of movie that’s for you. However, if you watch movies to escape the ordinary, this is going to bore you silly. Me, I can go either way depending on my mood; I do love a lot of what this movie is about, although I will say that the twist doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie and that at just over two hours, the movie coud have used some trimming here and there. Still, if life is what you seek, here is where you’ll find it.

REASONS TO SEE: Arana has low-key but compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Languidly paced and a bit of a drag.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Leonard Cohen t-shirt that Eva lends Sofia is the same one Trueba used in his first film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beasts Clawing at Straw