Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau

Ema


Meet Ema.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Josefina Fiebelkorn, Giannina Fruttero, Paola Giannini, Antonia Giesen, Susana Hidalgo, Paula Hofmann, Mariana Loyola, Paula Luchsinger, Eduardo Paxeco, Cristián Suárez, Catalina Saaedra. Directed by Pablo Larrain

In this post-#MeToo world, I think it’s safe to say that the concept of femininity is changing. We are seeing less and less of the traditional female attributes of acceptance and submission, as a society that has largely been misogynistic has forced women to stand for themselves and become more aggressive.

Ema (Di Girolamo) is the perfect example of that. A reggaeton dancer in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, she is enigmatic, her on-again, off-again relationship with her husband Gaston (Bernal) who is also her dance group’s choreographer almost defiantly off-again at the moment. They are the parents of an adopted pre-teen boy named Polo (Suárez) who after a disastrous time in their home has been returned to the adoption agency, after he set a fire in their home that badly burned her sister’s face. The dead cat in the freezer is also attributed to Polo.

Her adopted son’s penchant for burning things might come from Ema, who prowls the streets of Valparaiso at night with a gang of girls from her troupe, setting cars, traffic signals and other things on fire. Ema sees herself as above conventional morality – assuming she recognizes any sort of morality at all – and has hatched onto a plan to get her son back, even after she herself had decided to return him. The plan, half-baked as it is, includes getting to know Polo’s new adoptive parents and seducing the both of them. Ema uses her body as a means of getting what she wants. I guess that passes for empowerment.

Larrain, one of Chile’s premiere directors with such movies as Neruda, No and Jackie under his belt, goes the experimental avant garde route here and your enjoyment of this will depend very much on your tolerance of such things. There really isn’t a story as such here; this is more of a character study through a series of incidents.

Part of the issue lies with Ema herself, and herein lies my dilemma as a reviewer. Di Girolamo delivers an outstanding performance, ice-blue, red-hot and alternately vulnerable and distant. She can be vicious, generally lacking any sort of impulse control, and has that arrogant artist thing down pat. We are riveted by her, enthralled by her abject freedom but then repelled by her utter disregard for nearly everybody else. If Polo is, as he is made out to be, a psychopath, Ema is absolutely self-absorbed to the point of psychosis. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a commentary on the current generation or not.

Bernal, one of Latin America’s most gifted actors, is largely wasted here, given little to do other than react to whatever is going on with Ema, but after all, the name of the film is NOT Gaston. He does the best he can, as does Cabrera as Polo’s new adoptive father.

The visuals are striking, as are the dance sequences which look competitive to what you would find in New York. Those who are more into the visual side of film than anything else will enjoy this. Those who are looking for a story…not so much. This is a movie to be admired, but not loved.

REASONS TO SEE: Ema is a complicated character. Stylized and at times visually stunning.
REASONS TO AVOID: I admire the movie more than I like it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s debut at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her Smell
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Sleepwalkers

Los Lobos


21st century latchkey kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacified (Pacificado)


You have to grow up fast in the favelas.

(2019) Drama (ReAgent MediaBukassa Kabengele, Cassia Gil, Débora Nascimento, Léa Garcia, Raphael Logan, Jefferson Brasil, Rayane Santos, José Loreto, Thiago Thomé, Shirley Cruz, Rod Carvalho, Murilo Sampaio, Mariana Lewis. Directed by Paxton Winters

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro have long been the home of the working and poor classes of the city and as such a breeding ground for crime. They have also been a fertile location for some of the best films to come out of Brazil over the years.

Prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the Brazilian government decided to crack down on the favelas, making sure that the image of the city wasn’t tarnished. Several of the more notorious crime bosses were rounded up and tossed into jail. Among them is Jaca (Kabengele) who is released just after the closing ceremonies of the Games. He receives a hero’s welcome in the favela for as the boss there he took care of the residents and was their arbiter and go-to guy when they needed help, since nobody else gave a toss about them.

Jaca, however, doesn’t want to resume his old life. He knows that his reappearance has made the man who took over for him after he went to prison, Nelson (Loreto), somewhat nervous. He reassures Nelson that he, Jaca, has no interest in resuming his former life and that Nelson will remain in charge. Nelson, though, isn’t buying it.

What Jaca really wants to do is open up a pizzeria, something that Nelson finds amusing. However, Jaca’s former partner (and brother) Dudu (Logan) isn’t laughing. Dudu is eager to have the position of power and prestige he enjoyed when he was Jaca’s good right hand. Jaca’s wife Andrea (Nascimento) has become a drug addict and sells stuff to get buy, although now that Jaca is out, nobody wants to sell to her anymore for fear of being in Jaca’s crosshairs.

Then there’s Tati (Gil), his 13-year-old daughter who longs to emerge from the shadow of her parents and spread her own wings. However, the cops don’t believe that Jaca has gone straight, neither does Nelson and things are going to blow as soon as the pacification project is discontinued – which will be soon.

=Winters gives us some rich characterizations; most of the main cast are well-drawn and come off as three-dimensional people rather than one-dimensional clichés. Kabengele has a quiet intensity that makes him perfect for the role of Jaca, while Gil expresses a wisdom beyond her years, born of a harsh life in the favela. As for Nascimento, she just might be the most beautiful woman on Earth right now; but she is also an exceptional actress, giving what could have been an unsympathetic role a kind of dignity and pathos.

The camera is always moving in the film, sometimes to the point of vertigo-inducing. Strangely, the pace of the film doesn’t match the kinetic movement of the camera, giving the movie a kind of dichotomy of speed. It is a little bit off-putting.

Still, this is a solid tale of life in the favelas blending a kind of 1930s Warner Brothers gangster aesthetic with gritty modern urbanism. It’s a heady combination that, with a little judicious editing, might have been one of the cinematic highlights of the year.

REASONS TO SEE: Kinetic camera work.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced despite the above.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winters is an American director working for the first time in Brazil with a Brazilian cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: City of God
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Dog Doc

Workforce (Mano de obra)


Taking what they’re giving ‘coz we’re working for a living.

(2019) Drama (Lucia FilmsLuis Alberti, Hugo Mendoza, Jonathan Sanchez, Horacio Celestino, Rodrigo Mendoza, Ramiro Resendiz, Jessica Galvez. Directed by David Zonana

It’s a scene that could be taken from any city in the world; construction workers building a house they could never ever afford, building materials scattered around the site, the sound of hammering competing with loud music on the radio. Then a body plummets down from the sky…

The body belongs to roofer Claudio, brother to Francisco (Alberti), a mason. Claudio’s death leaves his widow Lupe (Galvez) pregnant and without any possibility of a breadwinner to take care of her and her baby. Worse yet, the homeowner (Mendoza) insinuates that the reason Claudio fell was because he was drunk, a lie nobody believes but everyone accepts. What are they gonna do?

When the homeowner mysteriously hangs himself, Francisco decides to take possession of the mostly finished house, along with the families of several of the workers including the volatile Shorty (Sanchez). Francisco has a lawyer looking to get the house for the families living in it as the homeowner had no heirs. Soon, the dynamics between the workers now living in a luxury home in one of Mexico City’s toniest neighborhoods begins to change.

First-time feature director Zonana proves to have an excellent eye for shot composition, from the opening frames to the closing reel. The production design is also a great aid in that it takes the very modern house and gives it a sense of surrealness; sleek and modern but unfinished and rough-hewn in places. Along with cinematographer Carolina Costa, Zonana has a discerning eye; the opening shot is perfectly framed, allowing the body of Claudio to hurl from above just out of frame, landing out of frame, all the while observing the construction activity in the courtyard. The final shot is a wide-angle overhead shot that captures the despair and inhumanity of the situation. Both make for powerful bookends.

Alberti gives a nuanced performance in the lead role, starting out as a kind-hearted and socially aware man, but changing as his position of authority within his communal home begins to take its toll. By the time of the movie’s abrupt but inevitable ending, he has almost faded from the picture.

In these days of rising right-wing nationalism, there are more and more films coming out about the plight of the working class and more to the point, how they are exploited by the wealthy class. This movie has elements of satire to it but it is very much grounded in reality; the workers essentially accept late pay-checks, over-zealous fines for breakage and the condescension of the owner because they need the paycheck. Even the mini-worker’s revolt shown here re-emphasizes that the poor, as always, has the forces that are meant to protect them also against them.

REASONS TO SEE: Some lovely shot composition.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the plot points came off as a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and sexual content here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beneath Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Exit 0

White Lie


There’s nothing worse than a bald-faced liar.

(2019) Drama (Film Forge) Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Thomas Olajide, Connor Jessup, Sharon Lewis, Christine Horne, Darrin Baker, Zahra Bentham, Shanice Banton, Spencer Glassman, Hershel Blatt, Carolina Bartczak, Matthew Owen, Dedra McDermott, Julia Knope, Tameka Griffiths, Deborah Tennant, Jamilah Ross, Lanette Ware. Directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas

“O, what a tangled web we weave/when first we practice to deceive” said Scottish author Walter Scott and he had the right of it. As we have seen from the behavior of our President, eventually the truth shall find you out, something that as parents we try to instill in our children. It doesn’t always work.

Katie Arneson (Rohl) is a campus celebrity at her Ontario university. Majoring in dance, she is managing to keep up her studies despite undergoing chemo treatment for an aggressive cancer that she has been fighting for a couple of years. She has received some help from charitable events held in her honor to help defray her expenses but it is a daunting task to face, particularly when your mother is deceased and your father isn’t a part of your life anymore. She is determined to survive, however and the truth is that the only thing that could stop Katie from beating cancer is the fact that she doesn’t have it.

That’s right; she’s made the whole thing up, fooling her professors, donors, classmates and even her girlfriend Jennifer (Anderson) who has been one of her staunchest supporters. However, a foundation supplying a much-needed grant that will ensure that her education is paid for is requiring some medical information which of course she doesn’t have. Her solution is to find a doctor willing to falsify records for her and she finds one in Jabari Jordan (Olajide) but first she needs to meet his price to supply the documents, which means she has to approach her father Doug (Donovan) for the two thousand needed – and let’s just say he is skeptical about her state of health and as it turns out, has good reason to be.

The movie has an almost thriller-like tone and the reason is largely Rohl, who takes a part that is absolutely unsympathetic and manages to turn the audience in her favor. Even as we hate what she’s doing, we still root for her not to get caught. A Hollywood production might have had her discovering the error of her ways and making amends but thank God for independent films because the director team of Lewis and Thomas don’t go that route. Rather, they explore the repercussions of her actions.

The largely discordant score gets intrusive at times, but this is offset by the fine eye of the directors and cinematographer Christopher Lew who utilize bleak, wintry backgrounds, cold grey skies and sterile hospital/doctor’s office environments (often overexposed to further highlight the bleakness of the environment) to give a sense of the world Katie inhabits. She desires the money she’s getting out of it, of course – a girl’s gotta eat, even if they ARE on chemo (sort of) – but moreover she desires the attention, the sympathy, the feeling of being enveloped by caring people, something she never apparently got from her Dad who eventually blows the whistle on her, causing her world to crash down around her.

The ending is actually pretty nifty although it is stretched out a bit too long by the writer-directors, but aside from that quibble the movie is a fine piece of cinematic work. It hasn’t gotten the attention of a distributor despite having played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but something tells me that sooner rather than later that is a situation that will be remedied. In the meantime, seek it out at your local film festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely subject in the era of “alternative facts.” Morbidly fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The nifty ending is dragged out a bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Katie Arneson wasn’t based on a specific person but is an amalgam of a number of high-profile cases.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes:100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Over the Rainbow