My Fiona


Gemma can smile, but it hides the tears.

(2021) Drama (The Art Factory) Jeanette Maus, Corbin Reid, Sara Amini, Elohim Nycalove, Travis Coles, John Ennis, Ryan W. Garcia, Camille Guaty, April Lang, Thomas A. Keith, Jess Riley, Courtney Hawkins, Sterling Sulieman, Elle Vernee, Ursula Taherian, Boston Beck, Naiia Ulrich, Rachel Zink. Directed by Kelly Walker

 

When someone dies, they leave an ineffable hole in the lives of those around them. Sometimes that hole becomes so overwhelmingly large, its gravitational pull threatens to suck us in completely.

When Fiona (Amini) excuses herself from the desk she shares with her start-up company’s co-founder (and sole other employee) Jane (Maus) with a cherrful “I’ll be right back,” there’s no sense that anything profound is about to happen, but it does. Moments later, Jane is screaming in horror as her best friend lies dying on the ground in front of the building, having hurled herself off the roof.

At the funeral, Jane is numb but there is rage simmering under the exterior. She goes back to the office, searching for a clue as to why her friend did what she did. She connects with Fiona’s wife, Gemma (Reid), offering to babysit their son Bailey (Nycalove) so that Gemma can get back to work. And slowly (but surely), Jane begins to become more a part of their lives, while her own sexuality – she had been straight – begins to come into question as she begins to develop feelings for Gemma. After all, the two women have something important in common – Fiona’s ghost, still looming in their lives as surely as if they’d erected a statue in her honor.

Walker’s first feature film is a self-assured affair that rarely makes missteps. Sure, there are some scenes that feel maudlin and the ending’s emotional payoff doesn’t quite feel earned, and maybe there are a few too many indie film tropes (sad indie music over a montage here, tonal shifts sharp enough to scratch diamonds and so forth) but overall, you have to admire Walker’s choices. She opts for real emotions and real reactions over manufactured ones in most cases and sometimes the rawness hits you in the face pretty sharply.

It helps that she’s assembled a crackerjack cast to realize her vision. Maus, an acting coach and veteran actress best-known for Your Sister’s Sister and Charm City Kings, has magma simmering under a cool exterior. She seems okay, but Jane is SO not okay. From time to time she explodes with powerful and often unexpected ferocity (as she does at the funeral), but there is unexpected tenderness, as in the way she deals with Bailey’s tantrums. Her chemistry with Reid is undeniable and speaking of Reid, Gemma’s grief is mainly less explosive than Jane’s but no less deeply felt. Reid carries Gemma with quiet dignity and increasing frustration as she sees this intrusion on her grief as welcome at first, confusing later and upsetting after that.

Even more impressive than the two women is Nycalove. Bailey is naturally devastated by the death of his mother, and his acting out is completely understandable, albeit uncomfortable to watch at times. It can’t have been an easy task for the young actor, nor for the director in coaxing out a show of emotion like this from a juvenile, but both Walker and Nycalove were up to the task. Kudos to both of them.

Cinematographer Laura Jansen does some impressive work, both with a swooping spiral shot that circles around the tops of actors before coming to rest, to keeping tight close-ups on the tightly-wound Jane’s face, to some beautiful images throughout the film. My Fiona is not always an easy film to watch and while the short runtime isn’t going to dissuade anyone from watching – in fact, I might have added a few more scenes to develop Fiona’s personality a little more – it does, in fact, bear watching.

REASONS TO SEE: Nycalove gives a realistic portrait of a child grieving and acting out.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maus passed away on January 24, 2021 of colon cancer at age 39.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through May 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pieces of a Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Buds

The Catch


Some towns are darker than others…

(2020) Drama (Self-Released) Katia Winter, Bill Sage, James McMenamin, Kyle Gallner, Emy Coligado, Jere Burns, Gianna Capri, Ellen Hsu-Balzer, Melissa McMeekin, Thomas Kee, Caroline Portu, Dawn Tucker, Tuggelin Yourgrau, Bart A. Piscitello Jr., Bill Thorpe, M. Lynda Robinson, Michael T. Francis, Benjamin Grills, Patty O’Neil. Directed by Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer

 

All of us make mistakes in life. Some are minor little faux pas-types of things; others are life-changing errors that alter the course of our lives and generally, not for the better.

Beth McManus (Winter) has returned to the small New England fishing village that she left abruptly five years earlier and her family isn’t exactly overjoyed to see her back. Family patriarch Tom (Sage), a salty old lobsterman, is particularly gruff with his daughter. He still hasn’t forgiven her for missing her mother’s funeral. He has since remarried Lily (Coligardo), who worked as a nurse in the hospital where his first wife passed away.

The town is undergoing hard times and jobs are scarce Beth seems, now that she’s returned to where she grew up, as eager to leave the town in her rear-view as she had been five years earlier. Jobs are scarce and there’s that quiet certainty that the town is dying.

For Tom, he is coping with his lobster pots being cleaned out by an unknown miscreant. Beth, on the other hand, has discovered that her ex-boyfriend (McMenamin) is involved with drug smuggling within the lobster fleet. She immediately senses an opportunity to solve her problems and get out of New England to make a fresh start. That’s usually a good road to a bad end.

This is a dark film in more ways than one. The subject matter of family disintegration and of the slow and painful decline of the working class is one thing. There is also the physical film; much of it is deliberately underlit, giving the movie a blue and grey patina that while aesthetically pleasing can make the action harder to follow unless conditions are perfect.

Fortunatedly the movie is possessed of a strong cast whose names are not necessarily household names (and whose faces aren’t necessarily ones you’ll easily identify) but this is a troupe of actors who are absolute pros. The dynamic between Winter and Sage as Beth and Tom is absolutely believable and at various times, apt to make you angry or heartbroken.

One of the problems with the movies is that there are a lot of subplots going on, with one of Tom’s brothers involved in….well, I won’t spoil it. There is also the relationship between Beth’s ex and her that is complicated to say the least. The New England atmosphere also appears genuine and reminds us that it is a region that has its own special warmth – and it’s own special coldness. Make of that what you will.

In the meantime, the movie is playing the Florida Film Festival through tonight and the film is available to be streamed at the festival’s website through midnight EDT tonight. After that, keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit; the movie hasn’t gotten distribution yet, but something tells me that some purveyor of fine indie fare will snatch this up before too long.

REASONS TO SEE: Winter and Sage deliver engaging performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity (including sexual references).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winter will be appearing in the upcoming third season of the hit Amazon Prime series The Boys.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ozark
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Monday

Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day

The Fever (A Febre)


Justino stands guard.

(2019) Drama (Kimstim) Regis Myrupu, Rosa Peixoto, Johnathan Sodré, Edmildo Vaz Pimentel, Anunciata Teles Soares, Kaisaro Jussara Brito, Rodson Vasconcelos, Lourinelson Vladimir, Suzy Lopes, Erismar Fernandes Rodrigues, Dalvina Pinto Neves, Sandro Medeiros, Ricardo Risuenho, Silvia Pimenta, Josimar Marinho, Gabryelle Araujo Dos Santos. Directed by Maya Da-Rin

 

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian rainforest has endured a record deforestation that has displaced untold numbers of indigenous peoples living in the rainforest of the Amazon basin. As they move into more urban environments, their culture is in danger of being lost forever.

Justino (Myrupu) is one of those displaced people. A member of the Desana people whose native language is Tukano, he has lived for decades in Manaus, a massive port city on the Amazon where container ships stream in and out, leaving a sort of maze-like structure of cargo containers on concrete docks of the port. He is a security guard there, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a loaded gun, but mostly he stands watch, silent, his face expressionless.

He is called into the office of a doncescending HR manager who expresses condolences at his recent widowhood, but then upbraids him for being distracted on the job. He has reason to be, as well – his daughter Vanessa (Peixoto), a nurse in one of the understaffed Manaus hospitals, has been accepted to medical school and will soon be leaving for Brasilia, leaving her father alone in his tiny house on the edge of the rainforest.

The commute from the docks to his home is brutal, requiring two bus rides on which he often naps while standing up, followed by a long walk from the road to his house, where hammocks swing inside although he also has a more traditional bed. As news reports detail animal attacks in the city, he begins to come down with a mysterious fever, which leads to waking dreams that are terrifying and yet illustrate his lack of place in this world.

Da-Rin has both a marvelous visual and audio sense. The visuals have a lovely juxtaposition of light and shadow. In the cinematography of Barbara Alvarez, forest becomes city and city becomes forest. And hen there are the sounds; the clanking of the massive machines that lift the cargo containers from the ships onto the dock, and the natural sounds of insects, leaves rustling and the violence of the frequent rainstorms which become more expressive than the dialogue, which is kept to a minimum. Most of the actors here are given little to say.

And they don’t need to. Myrupu has a marvelously stoic face but he allows a half-smile to betray his bemusement, or his wry disgust. His voice is quiet, but he is eloquent in other ways. While supportive of his daughter going to college, there is a part of him that doesn’t look forward to the loneliness of her absence. He tells a story early on of a hunter who goes hunting despite the fact his family has all the food they need, and is taken by the monkeys of the forest to a land of dreams. And that’s where Justino has been taken, a place between the modern world and the natural one. He retains a foot in each.

He endures casual racism from a white co-worker (Vladimir) and chiding from his brother (Sodré), and brushes off the concerns of his daughter (“I’ll be fine,” he murmurs) even as his mysterious fever grows worse. The movie seems to be a metaphor for what we are losing when we wipe out the indigenous of a region. The United States did much the same thing and the loss of the culture of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country is incalculable. They still exist and retain parts of their culture, but the way of life they had is long gone and so are many of their stories and mythology. These are stories that we will never get back, and Brazil seems to be heading for the same fate. The destruction of the rainforest is an ecological issue, to be sure, but it is also a cultural one that sometimes gets overlooked in our rallying cries to save the rainforest.

REASONS TO SEE: Very straightforward and powerful. A rare look at the indigenous of the Amazon basin and how they cope with modern civilization. Myrupu gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced for American sensibilities.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Da-Rin’s first narrative feature film; she has previously made documentaries including Lands and Margin, both of which have partially inspired this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Embrace of the Serpent
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Groomed

Test Pattern


Hospital waiting rooms can be worse than what sent you there.

(2019) Drama (Kino Lorber) Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, Ben Levin, Amani Starnes, Caroline Bloom, Ronald Woodhead, Becki Hayes, Joseph Rene, Katy Erin Donna Morrell Gafford, Jason Michael Hawkins, George Oliver Hale, Kay Salem, Kally Khourshid, Melissa Jo Bailey, Molly O’Leary, Amanda Joy Erickson. Directed by Shatara Michelle Ford

Sexual assault has been a widespread issue in this country for some time, but it has come into more focus since the advent of the #MeToo movement that brought to the attention of how many women were affected by sexual assault on social media. I remember watching in shock, horror and near-tears as family members and friend after friend posted #MeToo on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, indicating that they had survived this most personal and cowardly of attacks.

Part of the problem is that the media tends to be overly salacious of the crime, rarely giving it the sober, stark treatment it deserves. With the advent of more women settling into the director’s chair, the time seems right for that issue to be addressed.

Renesha (Hall) is a beautiful, successful African-American woman working for a large corporation in Austin. However, she feels some dissatisfaction with the corporate lifestyle in general. On a girl’s night out with her friend Amber (Bean) and others, she meets up with Evan (Brill), a slightly sh*tfaced white young man who works as a tattoo artist and has no ambition whatsoever, but taken by the beauty and intelligence of Renesha, he works up enough liquor-fueled courage to get her number and call it. The two end up going out together, and sparks fly.

They end up moving in together. Evan convinces Renesha to give up her corporate job and follow her passion; she takes a job with the Humane Society. He works at home, creating his own tattoo studio. Things seem to be going really well.

Then on another girl’s night out, Renesha and Amber meet up with a couple of young white men who ply the two with drinks. Renesha wants to go home, but Amber convinces her to stay and drink and consume cannabis-laced edibles. It becomes clear that the boys have added a different drug to the mix as both Amber and Renesha become nearly unconscious.

When Renesha wakes up, it is in the bed of one of the white boys in a hotel room. She is dropped off – dumped – unceremoniously in the middle of the road near her house. Evan, out of his mind with worry, insists on taking Renesha to the hospital and having a rape kit done. Renesha would much rather take a long hot bath and go to bed but Evan is adamant. And their long, painful journey continues.

Ford has a definite voice and a definite style here; she begins the film at the moment of the sexual assault, giving us the point of view of Renesha – very dreamlike and confusing, before cutting away to the night she and Evan met. It is a bit confusing at first – you wonder if she’s meeting up with the man who’s about to rape her, but soon it becomes clear that it is not. Ford tells the story without sexualizing it; she doesn’t linger on Renesha’s body or show much of what transpires. If I have an issue with the sequence, the lead-up is a bit lengthy, although I think Ford is trying to make a point that the two African-American women were being groomed for sexual assault by two sexual predators who probably had done something like this many times before without consequence. There are guys like that out there, who think that this is natural, okay behavior – the ends justify the means.

There is also the subtext of the relationship with Evan. His behavior before the sexual assault seems sweet, but there is something going on below the surface; Renesha changes everything from her hair to her body – she adds dozens of tattoos, all Evan’s work – as well as her job and her residence. It can be argued that Renesha wanted a change to begin with, but it feels somewhat like she’s being manipulated and as women tend to do, seems to be trying to please the man she’s with perhaps to an extent that might be crossing the line into abuse. Certainly, Evan’s behavior after the assault reflects that he has an abusive side and may have all along.

There is also an indictment of the healthcare system as Evan hauls the unwilling Renesha from hospital to clinic looking for a rape kit to be performed and meeting obstacles all along the way, from systemic failures to incompetence. One is also left to wonder if Renesha had been white would she have been treated differently. Ford leaves no doubt as to how SHE feels.

Ford has the luxury of a terrific actress in the lead role. This is definitely Hall’s film and she runs with it. She’s one of those actresses who can communicate as much with a single glance as she can with a page full of dialogue. She has a good foil in Brill who has a role that is a bit mercurial and perhaps thankless, but he’s not the perfect boyfriend – which is a good thing – but he’s not an absolute jerk – which is also a good thing.

The one thing that really holds this movie back is the ending. It is abrupt and unsatisfying, feeling almost like Ford had just had enough of the story and packed things up. I don’t think the movie would have worked with a neat, tied-with-a-bow ending that resolves everything – the subject matter is far too complex for that. Still, the ending was so disappointing for me that my rating came down a full point to a point and a half because of it. That’s a shame because up until the last few minutes of the movie this was a movie whose praises were worthy of being sung but while I still recommend that you see the film, be aware that there is a caveat involved.

REASONS TO SEE: Hall delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending kind of just peters out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sexual content and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Ford.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I May Destroy You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Own the Room

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