Sweat


In the world of social media influencers, image is everything.

(2020) Drama (MUBI) Magdalena Kolesnik, Julian Swiezewski, Aleksandra Konieczna, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Tomasz Orpinski, Lech Lotocki, Magdalena Kuta, Dominika Biernat, Katarzyna Dziurska, Wiktoria Filus, Bartosz Sak, Edgar Griszczuk, Dorota Zieciowska, Katarzyna Cynke, Bogna Defecinska, Mateusz Król, Andrzej Soltysik, Anna Kalczynska. Directed by Magnus von Horn

 

We have always been a celebrity-obsessed culture, but the very nature of celebrity has changed. Ubiquitous social media “influencers,” popular vloggers whose popularity has led to companies vying for their endorsements, has brought things to new depths – although to be fair, something as shallow as celebrity has no depth to speak of.

Polish fitness guru Sylwia (Kolesnik) has more than 600,000 followers. She lives in a tony apartment in Warsaw, makes personal workout appearances in malls and posts incessantly about her daily life, often pimping energy drinks, workout equipment, workout wear and so on. She refers to her online followers as “My loves,” and her model-pretty face beams beatifically at the internet.

However, all is not rosy for Sylwia. Recently, in a moment of depression, she tearfully vlogged about her loneliness and her wish for a boyfriend she could love and who could love her back. Her sponsors are aghast; this goes against her upbeat image and being a downer could jeopardize her standing. She is stressing out over an upcoming appearance on a popular morning TV show that is far from locked down as well as the upcoming birthday celebration with her mother (Konieczka), with whom she has a not-so-warm relationship. And the topper is that she has herself a stalker (Król) who sits in his car outside her apartment building, watching her covertly as she walks her beloved Jack Russell terrier Jackson, masturbating as she does. There’s also her studly workout partner Klaudiusz (Swiezewski) with whom she has a platonic relationship – maybe.

The production design here is impressive. Sylwia’s world is cold and antiseptic, with lots of straight lines, bright neon colors and sterile atmospheres. It’s very modern – and very soulless, a commentary I think on the nature of internet celebrity. But is the dark side of being an influencer really so dark? There’s a scene late in the film where she runs into an old school friend whose life is considerably worse than her own, which does give her pause. Contrary to appearances, Sylwia is not dumb or even that shallow. Her image is carefully marketed and manipulated by Sylwia herself, and if she’s a bit jaded and cynical, it’s only because she achieved what she wanted to and discovered that the price for that achievement isn’t what she thought it would be.

The movie runs a little bit long – the worst culprit is the opening workout sequence that shows Sylwia and Klaudiusz endlessly doing various aerobics, high-fiving her followers and in general working up quite a, umm, sweat. A little judicious editing here would have made the sequence more effective.

You can thank Kolesnik for that. Not only is she insanely beautiful and fit, there’s also a lot more to her than the average workout chick spouting affirmations and aphorisms. If her image is a shallow one, it’s only because she’s giving the people what they want, and more importantly, what she thinks her sponsors want. I like that von Horn doesn’t really indict the whole culture of Internet influencers and artificial celebrity – people famous for being famous. He lets us see both sides of the coin, as it were, and make up our own minds. After all, some people would consider Sylwia living her perfect life. Not among them, however, is Sylwia herself.

The movie is currently out in theaters, but will be available on the MUBI arthouse subscription channel in about three weeks.

REASONS TO SEE: Kolesnik is a charismatic lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, particularly during the opening workout scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kolesnik is primarily a stage actress in her native Poland; this is her first appearance as a lead in a feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Ones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Holy Game

The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

Bullied (Rock Sugar)


Standing up for yourself, even when you’re terrified.

(2021) Drama (Gravitas) Jacinta Klassen, Olivia Sprague, Lulu Fitz, Saya Minami, Akira Matsumoto, Candice Leask, Kirar Mercy, Samuel Barton, Giustino Della Vedova, Edward Valent, Destiny Oung, Tobie Webster, Francine McAsey, Joshua Charles Dawe, Holly Dodd, Giovanni Piccolo, Isabel Mulrooney, Bianca Andreadis, Molly Fisher, Joanna Melo Howard, Justine Jones. Directed by Angela How

 

It is hard enough to grow up without someone deciding to make a victim of you for something that you have no control over, like the color of your skin, or your ethnic background. We are taught from an early age not to respond, but there comes a point where you feel you must sstand up for yourself or be a victim in reality.

Charlotte (Klassen) has a nice life; she lives in a beautiful home in a Melbourne suburb that looks onto what amounts to a private park for the neighborhood. While she has run-ins with her strict mother (Minami) and her father (Matsumoto) who is kind and more laid-back, but has a drinking problem. She’s pretty smart, although her mother feels her younger sister Isabelle (Mercy) has more potential.

As the film opens, Charlotte has been confronted by Brenda (Fitz) who has been bullying her unmercifully, largely because of her Asian heritage, but also because Brenda knows she can get away from it. She has curried favor with her teachers, is an outstanding gymnast and a “model student,” although I’m sure Charlotte would disagree. Charlotte’s most recent test has been an utter failure and Brenda wants to make sure everyone knows it, but when Charlotte reaches for the paper she ends up hitting Brenda. But the vice-principal, who calls Charlotte’s mortified parents into the office to discuss the incident, doesn’t believe Charlotte’s story about being bullied. She ends up suspended and grounded by her furious mom, although Dad suspects that his daughter isn’t lying.

However, it is the Christmas holidays and mom’s best friend Janice (Leask) who is pregnant, and her husband Mark (Della Vedova) are staying for the holidays. It ends up with excessive drinking (particularly on the part of the guys) and charlotte’s misery only deepens. Eventually, she goes out into the park while everyone is sleeping with a bottle, and you know that isn’t going to end well.

The next day the neighborhood is rocked with the news of Brenda’s disappearance. Charlotte knows more than she’s telling, even as Mark, Janice and her mom and dad aid in the search for the missing girl. At last, Charlotte uncovers some disturbing truths and must come to face her own role in all of this.

This is the first feature for Asian-Australian director How, and she has some nifty ideas, but I think she doesn’t have a clear idea on how to properly express them. The film takes a severe twist about 2/3 of the way through, a jarring turn that while you don’t expect to see it coming, turns the remainder of the film into a completely different movie than the one you were watching. The movie, already dark to begin with, turns pitch black. I think the film would have been better served dealing with Charlotte’s relationship with her mom, with Brenda and with her own ethnicity. Unfortunately, we are steered away from that as the movie goes off the rails. It’s a case of trying to do too much; the whole Mark storyline could have been a separate movie and should have been.

The acting here is, as is generally the case with micro-budget indies, fairly uneven. Klassen is solid as Charlotte, but not all of her juvenile acting peers are as comfortable in front of the camera as she is. The movie is technically proficient, and cinematographer Ben Milward-Bason comes up with some inventive camera angles from time to time. Most of the time though, it is an easy film on the eyes.

How has some really good ideas, and she needs to make sure that those go fully developed before charging off in another direction. She was on the way to making a powerful motion picture on a timely subject – Asian-Americans have been the target of an unprecedented spike in hate crimes as are Asians around the world, largely due to the rhetoric of a former American president and his supporters in regards to the recent pandemic. I’m not sure if all that was going on when How wrote the screenplay, but it is certainly a topic that requires further exploration. I just wish she had stuck to her guns and given it the focus it deserved.

REASONS TO SEE: How has some very good ideas.
REASONS TO AVOID: There were better ways to tell this story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity and a scene of pre-teen drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature for How, who graduated from UCLA; it was titled Rock Sugar upon its Australian release but had its name changed for American distribution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dirties
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Birthday Cake

Take Out Girl


It’s not easy scratching a living in the mean streets.

(2020) Drama (1091) Hedy Wong, Ski Carr, Lynna Yee, J. Teddy Garces, Lorin Alond Ly, Dijon Talton, Mier Chasin, Lizette Hunter, Joe Rudy Guerrero Jr., Tony Bentajado, Cole Bernstein, Melissa Del Rosario, Adia Bell, Collin Hayes, Zavieh Harrell, Veronica Mitsuk, Marilyn Simon, Caslin Rose, Tania Nolan, Crystal Powell, Jody Marie. Directed by Hisonni Mustafa

 

Life is hard, particularly in neighborhoods that are not affluent. It seems like the game is rigged for those who already have all the money they could ever need and those who are just trying to get out of poverty and make a decent life for themselves have little to no chance at succeeding at that worthy goal.

Some just give up, but that’s not how Tera Wong (Wong) is wired. She is a born fighter, bred to take crap from nobody, and raised in an environment where you have to stand up for yourself or face being knocked down over and over again. That’s life in the bottom of South Central. She’s gone to college to learn business to better take care of her mother’s failing Chinese restaurant, but has withdrawn from school as she realizes that she is needed at the restaurant more.

Her mom (Yee) is bone-weary, suffering from a back injury she can’t afford to get fixed up – or even get decent pain meds for. She can’t even afford to take time away from work to rest her back. It’s a grim catch-22 that makes Tera, and her gang-banging brother Saren (Ly) angry and frustrated. Cousin Crystal (Chasin) also works at the restaurant, although her outlook is a little more optimistic. In the meantime, Tera knows all the side hustles in the world won’t elevate this restaurant out of the gutter, where she and her family seem destined to reside.

Then while out delivering, she crosses paths with Lalo (Carr), a local drug dealer. He seems to take a shine to Tera, who calls him on his crap, much to the disgust of Lalo’s enforcer Hector (Garces) and Girl Friday Chuey (Hunter). That’s when Tera hits upon an idea; she can run drugs for Lalo without ever being given a second glance. Most of Lalo’s runners affect a look right out of a gangsta rap video, almost asking for the cops to keep a wary eye out for them. Who would give a cute Chinese girl a second glance?

At first things work out better than Tera could have dreamed as finally she’s making enough money to help her mom in a concrete way. However, there is always a price to pay for walking on that side of the street and as tough as Tera may be, that bill will come due and sooner rather than later.

Urban crime dramas concerning unlikely people getting involved in the drug trade are nothing new; there are even several about Asian women getting caught up in drug distribution, some fairly recent. Few have had as electrifying a performance as the one delivered here by Hedy Wong to fall back on. Wong, who co-wrote the movie based on her own experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, plays a young woman who has learned to keep the walls up and the defenses on high alert. Her stiff posture, with the baseball cap slung low over her eyes, her lips tight in a kind of cupid-bow pout with a hard edge on it tell you all you need to know about the character. She is seemingly fearless – until you look closer. Her eyes sometimes betray the fact that she’s in over her head and knows it.

Her hard edges might make it difficult to identify with the character early on; when someone mutters “bitch” under their breath after an interaction with her, you can’t help but agree. But that’s not her whole story, and as the movie unspools you begin to see deeper into a character who has had to become hard out of necessity.

The dialogue is meant to be gritty and snappy, but it comes off as a bit cliché. Also, while the movie starts off compelling, it seems to lose its way about halfway through and finishes with a sputter rather than a roar, utilizing an ending that feels rushed and unearned. You may well lose interest by that time; I just about did, although the final twist would have been a good one if the filmmakers had taken the time to develop the ending a little more. In other words, if they had given as much care to the ending as to the beginning this might have been a much more solid film, but you end up feeling like you watched half a movie by the time the end credits roll.

REASONS TO SEE: Starts out as a compelling urban drama.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam and peters out at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity along with drug references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although meant to portray downtown Los Angeles, the movie was actually filmed in nearby Riverside.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Nice
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Citizen Penn

There is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad)


The face of a woman who knows that there is, in fact, evil.

(2020) Drama (Kino Lorber) Ehsan Mirhosseini, Shaghayegh Shoorian, Kaveh Ahangar, Alireza Zaraparest, Shahi Jila, Mohammad Seddighimehr, Mahtab Servati, Mohamad Valizadegan, Darya Moghbeli, Kaveh Ebrahim, Salar Khamseh, Gholamhosein Taseiri, Alireza Zareparast, Parvin Maleki, Reza Bahrami, Pouya Mehri, Baran Rasoulof. Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

 

Iran may as well exist on another planet by Western viewpoint. A religious oligarchy rules the country with an iron fist; people can be arrested for crimes of morality, and even executed for them. As with the United States, there are those in Iran who oppose capital punishment. Director Mohammad Rasoulof is one of them.

Already stripped of the right to make films in his native country, Rasoulof made this film surreptitiously and without government approval. It was smuggled out of Iran and played the Berlin Film Festival, where it achieved (justified) acclaim. Now appearing in art houses and on virtual cinema, the two and a half long film is an anthology of four stories, unrelated except all are about capital punishment in some form.

In the first chapter, Heshmat (Mirhosseini) is a middle aged man working for the government. He watches television blankly during the day, then goes to pick up his wife (Shoorian) from work and his daughter, whom he dotes on, from school. He goes grocery shopping for his infirm mother and helps clean her house. He dyes his wife’s hair and seemingly has a loving, bantering relationship with her. But he seems distracted – on his way to work at 3am the next morning, he pauses at a stoplight, even when it has turned green, staring into space. One wonders what he’s thinking about, before he jerks awake and proceeds on his way to work. There, we discover what he was thinking about in the most shocking way possible.

The second chapter finds Pouya (Ahangar), a military conscript doing his compulsory service, given an order that goes against his own personal morals. He talks with his fellow buddies, who warn him that failure to carry out his orders could get him court martialed, extending his military service and possibly preventing him from getting the passport his girlfriend is pestering him to get so they can emigrate to Austria. His decision on how to deal with his moral dilemma seems sudden and perhaps not thought fully through, but it is one that feels realistic.

The third chapter concerns another soldier doing compulsory service, Javad (Valizadegan) who is on a three day pass to visit his fiancée (Servati) and her family. He stops to bathe in a clear stream, and there is good reason for it as it turns out. He arrives when her family is mourning the death of a favorite teacher, who was executed. She is beginning to wonder whether there is a future for her in Iran; he has a secret that could conceivably tear the couple apart.

Finally, in the final story Bahram (Seddighimehr) and his wife Zaman (Shahi) welcome their niece Darya (B. Rasoulof) visiting Iran for the first time from his brother’s home in Germany. The couple have isolated themselves in the sticks, working as beekeepers after he had trained to be a doctor and she had been a pharmacist. There is a strained, awkward feeling between the three; Bahram has something to tell Darya but doesn’t know how to do it. When he does finally admit what he has to say to her, it is an absolutely devastating emotional moment for the film.

Whether or not you agree with capital punishment, this is a movie that resonates on every level, looking at the subect from a variety of points of view. It depicts the effects of decisions to participate in capital punishment – or at least to look the other way – on lives and relationships. I don’t know that it will make anyone who is pro-capital punishment change their minds, but it simply presents the consequences of taking human life in a straightforward manner.

The film is necessarily minimalistic since Rousolof is forbidden from making films; it had to be shot on the sly and what technical post-production additions (such as a score) were kept to a bare minimum. Rousolof is an engaging storyteller who gets across his points in ways that often are breathtaking, particularly in the first and last chapters. He does have a tendency to rely on blindsiding his audience which might seem a cheap tactic, but it works very well in this case.

He also draws characters that are realistic and casts non-professionals (mainly) who inhabit these parts well. I don’t think that I’ve felt as strong an emotional reaction to any film I’ve seen so far this year; it is destined to be a movie that will end up on a lot of year’s best lists, not to mentioin may end up as a powerful, influential movie that will carry echoes beyond its Iranian origins. This is for any lover of cinema, a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures ordinary life in powerful ways. Explores the morality of capital punishment from a variety of points of view. Compelling characters and performances. Keeps the score to a minimum. Some really shocking moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While it won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlinale (the highest honor at the Berlin Film Festival), it is banned in Iran for what is perceived to be anti-government sentiment.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Sweat
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Without Remorse

Everything in the End


There are worse places to spend Earth’s final days than in Iceland.

(2021) Drama (Hello Charles) Hugo de Sousa, Bergdis Julia Johannsdottir, Lilja ɒorisdottir, Joi Johannsson, Elizabeth Austin, Gunnar Ragnarsson, Raul Portero, Reynir Ingvason, Kolbrun Erna Petursdottir, Ylfa Marie Haraldsdottir. Directed by Mylissa Fitzsimmons

 

I don’t know why it’s so hard to make a good movie about the end of the world. Very few have succeeded, possibly because the subject is so grim it’s hard to even contemplate. Facing our own mortality is never easy, but facing the end of any sort of future for the human race – unthinkable, but given how much we’ve abused this planet, it might be something that bears contemplation.

Young Paulo (de Sousa) is stranded in a small town in Iceland. He, like everybody else, is aware that the planet is about to fall victim to a cataclysm that is going to end all life in a few days. He is Portuguese but doesn’t seem particularly heartbroken about not being able to return home. Instead, he tries to form bonds with everyone else he meets, from a sweet English expat (Austin) to a terrified young single mother (Johannsdottir) to an innkeeper who seems resigned to the coming cataclysm (Ragnarsson).

That’s essentially it for the movie, other than stunning shots of Icelandic country side and endless, repetitive shots of the ocean crashing on the rugged shore. It feels like the filmmaker looked at this movie as an opportunity to spend some time in Iceland and forgot to bring a script with her. Everything seems so flat and without emotion. There is little hysteria (one person drowns themself) and most people seem to just go on with life even as the hours count down.

There should be some profound insight about the fragility and wonder of life, but I really didn’t see any. There are a lot of pretentious utterings and little emotional impact to the film, not enough to sustain anyone’s interest. One gets the sense of a party coming to an end and everyone headed home without much in the way of regret. I don’t know if it was because I saw this at home and not with an audience, but I just didn’t connect with this film at all; it just felt as lifeless and dull as what was awaiting the cast at the end of the movie. When the end finally came, it was more of an “oh well” than an “ah shit.” That seems to me to be a lame epitaph. This was one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen at the Florida Film Festival.

REASONS TO SEE: Some beautiful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious as all get out. Barely over an hour long, it still felt padded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut narrative feature film for Fitzsimmons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
The Paper Tigers

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