Luzzu


Fishing as it has been done for centuries.

(2021) Drama (Kino Lorber) Jesmark Scicluna, Frida Cauchi, Michaela Farrugia, Uday McLean, Yuric Allison, Paul Cilia, Reece Vella, Marcelle Theuma, David Scicluna, Marta Vella, Stephen Buhagiar, Noel Grech, Adrian Farrugia, Thelma Abela, Joseph Scicluna, Michael Sciortino, Sonia Cassar, Dianna Bonnici, Joseph Schiavone, Yorgen Vella, Emmanuel Muscat. Directed by Alex Camilleri

 

The Mediterranean island of Malta is not exactly a film hotspot. It is one of the smallest countries in Europe by land area, and is full of traditions that go back centuries. Like many other countries, though, it is finding that its traditions are under siege by the economic realities of modern geopolitics.

Jesmark (Je. Scicluna) is a fisherman. He, like his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him, have fished from a small, brightly painted wooden boat called a luzzu. However, Jesmark has found, like many of his compatriots, that fishing has been less successful as he is competing with vast trawlers that are able to catch thousands of fish in a single trip where he is struggling to net three or four. He adheres to the rules of the local fisheries board, and works hard. However, he is disquieted by the local fish auctioneers consistently selling his fish below what they are worth, and he is unable to find other buyers for his catch.

To make matters worse, Jesmark has a baby with his girlfriend Denise (M. Farrugia) and that baby is having growth issues, necessitating some expensive baby food, visits to specialists and medications – all expensive and all putting a strain on what little money they are able to save. And to top things off, his beloved boat, the Te Palma, has developed a leak that will not be cheap to repair. “Without a boat, you’ll lose your way,” a fellow fisherman warns. These things have driven a wedge between Jesmark and Denise, and she moves out with his son to live with her mother, who already has a strained relationship with Jesmark, whom she disapproves of.

Jesmark is forced to compromise his ethics, working on the black market selling fish illicitly, some out of season, some off the books. Jesmark indeed feels that he has lost his way, and with the European Union putting pressure on local fishermen to buy back their luzzus and move them into different occupations which Jesmark is extremely reluctant to do, it is looking more and more like he will have little choice if his small family is to survive.

It is unsurprising that Camilleri has a background in documentaries, for this has the look and feel of one. The marketing material describes the film as “neorealist” or “hyper-realistic” and both monikers are true; there is a very authentic vibe here – you can almost smell the salt air and the rotting wood of the docks. That is the mark of a good documentary.

Jesmark Scicluna, who is not a professional actor, is a real find here. Ruggedly handsome with a sober mien (he rarely smiles in the movie nor is there much reason for him to), he has a charismatic personality that leaps off the screen as he fights forces that he doesn’t understand and are way out of his control. It’s an extremely effective performance that is bound to resonate among those who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet even with a good job. If the fishing industry is really as bad as it is made out to be here, he could have a legitimate shot at a career in front of the camera.

The story moves effortlessly from the documentary-like first act into the second act which is more of a crime drama, although one that has little suspense. We feel more the economic squeeze on Jesmark than we do any sort of fear of the consequences if he is to be caught. This leads to an ending that is poignant and well-earned.

Camilleri is a protege of Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) who also produced the film. Like some of his mentor’s best films, Camilleri infuses this film with a sense of how difficult it is to survive when everything is stacked against you, as it is these days. This isn’t an easy movie to watch in the sense that it will take you out of your own troubles; chances are you’ll recognize some of your own troubles in the film. However, the movie is brilliantly acted by a largely amateur cast, wonderfully shot by Léo Lefevre, and certainly worth your time and trouble to seek it out.

REASONS TO SEE: Jesmark is an absolutely magnetic presence. An engaging story that has universal appeal. Perfectly captures the desperation of those living on the edge of a financial abyss.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too quiet and slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesmark Scicluna is an actual fisherman in Malta who was cast by Camilleri for the film, along with a number of other fishermen playing – you guessed it, fishermen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CODA
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Son of Monarchs

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The Sharks (Los tiburones)


On the inside looking out.

(2019) Coming of Age Drama (Breaking Glass) Romina Bentancur, Federico Morosini, Fabian Arenillas, Antonella Aquistapache, Valeria Lois, Bruno Pereyra, Jorge Portillo. Directed by Lucia Garibaldi

 

Janis Ian once wrote a song called “At Seventeen,” about a young girl’s awakening to sexuality and objectification, misogyny and emotional heartache. I wasn’t yet 17 when the song came out and I remember being absolutely confused by it; do girls really feel this way? Is this what they go through? No wonder I don’t understand them. If you think understanding the truth at seventeen is no picnic, try doing it at fourteen.

But that’s what faces 14-year-old Rosina (Bentancur), who lives in an Argentine seaside resort. When we first meet her, she’s running away from her home to the beach, chased by her father (Arenillas). We learn that she has injured her older sister Marianna (Aquistapache) who needs stitches near her eye. Rosina claims she didn’t mean it, but her diffident behavior makes you wonder if she did. As the two leave, Rosina sees a dorsal fin come out of the water. Could it be a shark? Nobody believes that it is; sharks are apparently rare in those waters.

Her father decides that Rosina will spend the summer helping him out doing maintenance on a resort – sweeping the debris off the tennis courts, pruning shrubs and so forth. She takes a shine to Joselo (Morosini), an older boy who is supplementing his fishing income by working for Rosina’s dad. In turn, Joselo has an interest in Rosina but it’s purely sexual. They meet at the garage where Joselo hangs out; he masturbates and she watches, but ignores his please for her to touch herself. Finally, he gives up and seems to lose interest in her.

But she doesn’t lose interest in him. She tries a number of different ways to keep his attention, but his focus seems on hanging out with his mates, playing soccer and trying to hook up with someone older. In the meantime, a seal carcass has washed up on the beach and the fishermen, whose livelihood could be decimated by a shark, start taking her story seriously.

Bentancur gives Rosina a perpetually bored, morose expression as if she is far above what is going on around her but at the same time can’t be bothered to change her circumstances. She is isolated within her own family group; her self-absorbed mother (Lois) is trying to start up an online beautician business without a basic understanding of computers, much to Rosina’s eye-rolling bemusement. Marianna, who is stressed out over a college entrance exam, she can’t stand and her little brother is beneath her notice. She spends most of her attention on Joselo and exploring her burgeoning sexuality, sometimes in graphic terms that might make the average guy squirm. Rosina feels like a real teenage girl, with all the maddening drama and emotional fallout that implies.

Garibaldi often places the camera behind Rosina, who never so much as cracks a smile until the movie’s final shot, almost as if we’re following her around like a documentary crew. She often uses wide shots to expand the distance around Rosina, even in interiors. We feel her isolation nearly from the get-go.

The pace is very deliberate and there isn’t a whole lot of action, so this is the kind of movie that Gene Siskel might have loved. Those with short attention spans and who are in need of more aggressive stimulation are probably not going to look on this movie kindly. Those who want to get into a character’s world – not inside her head so much because Bentancur gives such an internalized performance as Rosina – and who want to experience a certain moment in that character’s life unfiltered will probably delight in this. You’ll have to decide which camp you’re in and choose accordingly.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosina is a fascinating and realistic character.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sexual situations, profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This Sundance world dramatic entry from 2019 is Garibaldi’s first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic Pizza
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Legend of Swee’ Pea

Dolphin Kick


I don’t know what that kid said but that dolphin wants to kick his butt.

(2019) Family (Epic) Tyler Jade Nixon, Axle McCoy, Travis McCoy, Alexis Louder, DeVaughn Gow, Tim Ogletree, LaVaughan Hamilton, Maya Simmons, Quddus Newton, Tomli Culver, Jordan Pedreira, Erin Reign, Matthew Scott Miller, Barry Askham, Ana-Alicia Carroll, Dwayne Shockley, Frank Salas Jr., Myron Roberts, Carson Doll, Ryan Gonzalez. Directed by Philip Marlatt

 

I suppose that it could be said that of all the creatures on this green earth, the dolphin is probably the most intelligent. Certainly they have the ability to communicate and to learn. They have complex social structures within their pods. It also could be said that if it weren’t for family movies and Sea World they might just be more intelligent than humans.

Clint (T. McCoy) is grieving. His vivacious wife recently passed away and both of his kids – sunny Skyler (Nixon) and her older brother Luke (A. McCoy) are both devastated in their own way. While Skyler who in most ways seems like her late mom seems to be ready to move on, Luke remains introspective. Once an avid swimmer like his mother, he has refused to put so much as a toe into the water since his mom died.

What this kind of tragedy calls for is – a family vacation in an island paradise and not just any island paradise – the one here Mom and Dad got married on. Luke is about as excited to go as a cat would be to a rocking chair convention but he puts a stiff upper lip on and off he and his sister go with Dad bravely leading the way.

At first Skyler is entranced; the island is beautiful, tropical and the family has rented a gorgeous house on the sea. They’ve also rented a boat…and with the house apparently comes a dolphin who strikes up a friendship with the desolate Luke.

At first Luke is terrified of the cetacean but eventually begins to accept him, naming the dolphin “Echo” – and even to rely on him. As Dad makes friends with a group of marine biology students, particularly the smart and sassy Nova (Louder), the group of students is excited about the bond that Luke has made with the playful Echo. However, reality intrudes; Echo needs a pod and finding him one won’t be an easy task.

In the meantime surly fisherman Naz (Gow) has noticed that the lines to his buoys have been cut and he suspects a rival fisherman to be the culprit. But as the sabotage begins to spread to the other fishermen on the island Naz and his first mate Moe (Hamilton) realize that the lines haven’t been cut so much as chewed through and the logical culprit is the playful dolphin who has grown fond of playing fetch with stray buoys. Naz determines that in order for the fishermen to be able to retain their livelihood, Echo is going to need to meet up with an “accident.”

As family movies go this one is fairly harmless and even has some lovely underwater photography to boot. While Echo is partly rendered in CGI, there are plenty of practical effects as well. While the setting is a beautiful Caribbean island, the movie was actually filmed in Louisiana, specifically in the tropical paradise of Slidell. Talk about Hollywood magic, right?

Travis McCoy as the dad has lots of charisma and could have a good career ahead of him playing the “hot dad” if he so chooses. The kids are about as annoying and precocious as is standard with a family film and the juvenile actors who play them actually do a pretty credible job without feeling too forced, a common mistake with young actors. Kudos for that which is also a function of how the director handles them, so that’s to the plus side for Marlatt.

My issue though is that if feels like they got the overall tone of the family wrong. My understanding from the film is that the death of the mom was a fairly recent event. Only Luke displays any sort of melancholia that would be associated with grieving. Young Skyler has moments where something reminds her of her mom but these are fleeting and most of the time, she seems to be incredibly bubbly and positive. The husband who is now tasked with raising two kids by himself, almost never seems to show any sort of feeling one way or the other about his late wife. I think it would be a healthy thing for kids to see that daddies and mommies grieve too.

Other than that this is basic family film 101 with a likable dolphin who is apt to leap above the waves at any given moment, a pair of precious but precocious kids, ecologically committed young people and villains who really aren’t all bad a’tall. While I don’t think that a theatrical release is in the cards for this one, it is already available on most of the major streaming services and on DVD as well – it’s even region free so you can play it no matter where you are. If you have a kid or two who are into the ocean in a big way (and dolphins in a bigger way) and you’ve worn out your copies of Dolphin Tale and Free Willy, this might just be what your family needs.

REASONS TO GO: The kids will love this, particularly those who love animals or the ocean (especially dolphins).
REASONS TO STAY: Being kid-friendly doesn’t have to mean the movie is predictable and formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dolphin Kick is the first screen credit for young Axle McCoy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Final Wish