Saint Judy


Don’t fence me in.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Blue Fox) Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany, Common, Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Ben Schnetzer, Gabriel Bateman, Waleed Zuaiter, Mykelti Williamson, Peter Krause, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Chapman, Gil Birmingham, Roxie Hanish, Rob Brownstein, Fahim Fazli, Samira Izadi, Kim Strother, Allel Aimiche, Anne Betancourt, Peter Jason, Michael Hagiwara, Ceci Lugo. Directed by Sean Hanish

 

Judy Wood (Monaghan) is a lawyer who moved to Los Angeles so that her son (Bateman) can be close to his dad (Krause) from whom Wood is divorced. She gets into the immigration law firm of Ray Hernandez (Molina). She’s expected to churn out open-and-shut cases as quickly as possible, but she latches on to the plight of Asefa (Lubany), an Afghan activist who tried to set up a school for women, which the Taliban took exception to and subjected her to torture and rape. She fled to the United States to request asylum – only to discover that the law didn’t cover women in that situation because women aren’t a minority. Drugged by American prison officials, at the end of her rope, knowing that she will die if she is returned to Afghanistan, Judy is her last hope.

Released in the midst of the Trump presidency when immigration was a hot-button topic, the film boasts a top-knotch cast led by the criminally underrated Monaghan, who has a career full of terrific performances but never seems to get the credit due for her talents. This movie, which pretty much barely created a ripple during its release, is the perfect example. I think that at some point Marvel needs to cast her as a superheroine so that she can start getting the roles and recognition she deserves. Unfortunately, despite some strong supporting performances (particularly from Lubany, Common as a sympathetic prosecutor, Molina and Kruse), the script eschews human drama in favor of emotional outbursts, plot development in favor of pontificating. While nobody can argue with the importance of Wood’s work or the justness of her cause, the movie seems to have taken its title a bit too seriously, which is ironic since the name was given to Wood as a bit of an insult – too good to be true, never met a cause she didn’t stand up for and so on. The movie would have benefitted from less posturing and more insight.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan is appealing, leading a stellar cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: On the schmaltzy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and the description of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dmitry Portnoy, who wrote the screenplay, was a former intern of Wood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Erin Brockovich
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Audible

Stateless


(2019) Documentary (Hispaniola/PBS) Rosa Iris, Juan Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz. Directed by Michéle Stephenson

Here in the United States, we grapple with our own race relations. On the left, claims that institutional racism has kept Americans of African descent from achieving their own American dream, whereas from the right equally firm assertions that racism is individual, not institutional and that great strides have been made since the Jim Crow era.

In many ways, racism here has been a subtle presence over the past thirty years, but during the Trump administration, it became more overt. We have, in many demonstrable ways, regressed back in time. However, the racism here is nothing compared to what it is in the Dominican Republic.

In 2013, their Supreme Court handed down an astonishing decision that stripped citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent going back to 1929. That left more than 200,000 people stateless – without a country, without rights. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti; in the Dominican, Spanish is spoken whereas in Haiti the language is French. The Dominicans tend to be lighter-skinned; Haiti is largely populated by those of African descent. The Dominican is relatively prosperous whereas Haiti is impoverished, and what infrastructure had been there was largely reduced to rubble in the earthquake and hurricane that followed it.

The wealthy sugar cane plantations in the Dominican had long imported Haitian labor to do the brutal work in the cane fields, but in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to execute all Haitians inside the Dominican border, and they responded by not only doing that but murdering Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, even Dominicans with no Haitian blood but darker-skinned. Tens of thousands were murdered.

This Canadian-made and financed documentary follows three people; lawyer and activist Rosa Iris, whose primary job is getting citizenship for those whose citizenship was unjustly taken away. She runs for office, hoping to reverse the nationalist trend that has enveloped the Dominican. One of her clients is her cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat, one of the 200,000 affected. He is prohibited from seeing his children and has been living in Haiti, hoping to get his legal status resolved. Finally, there’s Gladys Feliz, a grandmotherly sort who represents the nationalist movement. Hers is the most chilling sequence of all; she seems on the surface to be a lovely and rational person, but then she says things that are simply horrible and clearly racist. For her, Haitians are all about robbery, rape and murder (sound familiar?) and who are out to subvert the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic.

The stories are interwoven with a folk tale-like story of a woman named Moraime, who fled the 1937 massacre. The cinematography for the Moraime sequences are almost dream-like and hauntingly beautiful, as opposed to the stark pictures of the poverty of Haiti and of the Dominican Haitians.

There is a terrifying sequence in which Rosa Iris is driving Juan Teofilo from the Haitian border to Santo Domingo to submit paperwork. Their car is stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Any one of them could result in arrest. We watch mainly through hidden cameras, the tension in the faces of the occupants of the car palpable.

Much of the latter half of the film revolves around the campaign by Rosa Iris to be elected to the national assembly, hoping to bring her activism to the halls of power. Already a target for threats of violence due to her assistance of Haitian-descended Dominicans in getting their citizenship reinstated, now becomes a target for death threats. She is concerned for not only her safety but the safety of her beguiling young son. In all honesty, while her efforts to resolve the injustice politically are noble, we end up spending more time watching her campaign than dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles that face Dominicans of Haitian descent; the meeting that Juan Teofilo has with an apathetic clerk in the records office is one of the most compelling bits in the film. His melancholy face is as memorable as Rosa Iris’ courage and heroism is.

This is a marvelous and chilling film. The United States isn’t quite this bad yet, but we were definitely on the road that leads to what we see here, and we’re not off of it yet (I was thinking that while Gladys Feliz espouses her hateful invective that it was ironic that she would likely be the sort of person that Trump’s policies would have excluded from immigrating to America). The movie, which won best Canadian feature at the recent Hot Docs festival, is also playing Tribeca this weekend. For those who aren’t able to make it to that festival, it will be airing on the wonderful PBS documentary series P.O.V. on July 19th and should be available for streaming after that. This is a movie that those who are passionate about social justice should have on their short list.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosa Iris cuts a heroic figure. The story is compelling and all-too-tragically familiar.
REASONS TO AVOID: The electioneering distracts from the central issue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the election, Rosa Iris continued to receive death threats for her support of the Haitian community; she eventually requested and was granted asylum in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: PBS (effective July 19), Tribeca @ Home (through June 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Penn
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
P.S. Please Burn This Letter

Monday


Love can leave us underwater.

(2020) Romance (IFC) Denise Gough, Sebastian Stan, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Michalis Laios, Michalis Alexakis, Giorgos Valais, Vangelis Mourikis, Fivos Kontogiannis, Grigoris Sarantis, Panagos Iokeim, Dominique Tipper, Prometheus Aleifer, Dimitris Kouroubalis, Orfeas Aygoustidis, Alexandros Logothetis, Syllas Tzoumerkas, Nikos Gialas, Elli Tringou. Directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos

 

The flush of love is equal parts sex and ego. We feel a connection that builds us up, comforts us, makes us feel deserving and worthwhile. And then there’s the sex. Let’s not forget that.

Greek director Papadimitropoulos (Suntan) doesn’t let that happen as his ex-pat couple Chloe (Gough), an immigration lawyer living in Athens but preparing to return to the States to take a hefty offer at a Chicago law firm, and Mickey (Stan), an oh-so-fine musician now working as a popular nightclub DJ, engage in passionate sex at the drop of a hat, or generally, with a whole lot less cause.

This romance takes place over the course of several weekends in their relationship, all involving some sort of watershed moment in the couple’s lives. We see them meet in an Athenian disco, begin making out before even learning the other’s name, and ending up naked on the beach which gets them escorted to the hoosegow. Despite Chloe’s career plans, that draw towards Mickey changes them and the two begin a relationship.

We learn that Mickey is the irresponsible one, a manchild who lives a party hearty lifestyle in a profession that most certainly has a shelf life, and is the father of a six-year-old son that his ex won’t let him see because of Mickey’s irresponsible tendencies, tendencies that will begin to surface and imperil the budding relationship, although it doesn’t stop them from having sex anywhere and everywhere.

In case you haven’t guessed from my vague clues, there are a lot of sex scenes in the movie which may make certain viewers uncomfortable or downright hostile. If sex scenes bother you, this is a movie to be avoided. Me, I’m all for a good roll in the hay during a movie, but while I get that the director was trying to make a point, I do subscribe to the theory that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The saving grace here is that Gough and Stan are not only attractive but charismatic screen presences, particularly Stan who most viewers know better as the Winter Soldier in the MCU films and Disney Plus TV show which has created quite the stir among fans in recent weeks. Stan has tended to be cast as a second banana in many of his appearances but Monday at least proves that the young actor is ready to take the next step in his career.

The movie clocks in at nearly two hours long which is about half an hour too long for a movie of this sort. Cutting about half of the sex scenes might have done the trick. Still in all, if you’re in the market for watching a couple of hot, attractive people in a romantic, sun-drenched location, this might be the cup of tea for your kettle.

REASONS TO SEE: Stan is a charismatic performer with a future as a romantic lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: Much too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a great deal of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Realm of the Senses
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Rookies (2021)

Collisions


Nobody knows how to tuck you in as well as your mom.

(2018) Drama (Widdershins) Jesse Garcia, Izabella Alvarez, Ana de la Reguera, Jason Garcia Jr., Erika Yanin Perez, Clanya Cortes, Suilma Rodriguez, Molly Noble, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Molly Brady, Joey Hoeber, Duane Lawrence, John Flanagan, Thomas Cokenias, Christopher Gonzales, Tina Marie Murray, Mike Schaeffer, Sarah Kramer, Veronica Valencia. Directed by Richard Levien

Over the last year or so, America’s immigration policy has come under fire, particularly in how families are treated at the border – children separated from their parents at the border and sent into cages to live. As horrific as that is, the media hasn’t really commented on the fact that immigrant parents have been deported for decades, often leaving their children at the tender mercies of the foster care system.

12-year-old science prodigy Ital (Alvarez) who has a very real chance of getting accepted to the California Science Academy and her younger brother Neto (Garcia Jr.) arrive home from school one day to find that their apartment has been apparently ransacked. However, it is much worse than that; ICE had broken into the home and arrested their mother Yoana (de la Reguera) and taken her to a detention center with the eventual plan to deport her.

They are placed with their uncle Evencio (Garcia), a carefree trucker who has been estranged from his more down-to-earth sister. The difference between Evencio and Yoana is that Evencio has a green card and Yoana does not. Evencio helps them find an immigration lawyer but Ital has little faith that the lawyer is competent enough to reunite the small family and insists that Evencio take them to see their mother who has since been transferred from the Bay Area where they live to a detention center outside of Phoenix. Reluctantly, Evencio takes the kids he doesn’t want on the road with him in his truck to see the sister with whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship.

Given the recent headlines, the movie is about as timely as it gets. With the Director of Homeland Security (under whose jurisdiction ICE falls) having recently been fired for not being hardline enough on illegal immigration, the movie undertakes to show the human side of the immigration question from the viewpoint of immigrants who are already in this country. Yoana works several jobs to support her kids and to provide them with a better life than she ever could have given them in Mexico. She’s a widow trying to do her best in a world that isn’t kind to people of her skin tone.

The movie is constructed as a character drama within a road movie within an issue film and while that’s not unique, it’s rare that a road movie revolves around any sort of issue and Levien is to be congratulated for making that kind of leap. He doesn’t sacrifice any of the elements that make the drama work to make it more of a road movie yet that’s what this demonstrably is. Everything works in harmony even though on paper you might think it wouldn’t.

While the adult performers (mainly Garcia but also de la Reguera in an abbreviated role) are all fine, the film is carried by Alvarez and Garcia Jr. Ital is a firecracker of a young girl who has had to grow up a little more quickly with her dad deceased; in some ways she’s the man of the house. Alvarez gives her the right amount of spine and vitriol – she doesn’t have a lot of respect for her ne’er-do-well uncle – and she is absolutely a mama bear when it comes to her younger brother. The character is written to be a little bit too precocious in my eyes and this becomes really apparent in the last reel when Ital decides to take matters into her own hands. I think any child would be absolutely terrified of having their mother taken away and we see Ital be angry about it but we never see the fear or hurt. Perhaps that is part of her nature but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. We don’t see the child side of Ital hardly at all.

Garcia also has a lot of screen time and Evencio is a kind of guy who likes to party and doesn’t take life too seriously. He drives a truck and makes a good living at it but it’s part of the lifestyle he wants which is of maximum freedom. So at truck stops he is happy to get wasted, party with truck stop hookers and generally hang out with his buddies. Of course, Evencio is a young guy and that is the nature of young guys so at least that part of his character makes logical sense.

The cinematography is solid which you would expect from a road movie, but not spectacular but then again it really doesn’t need to be. Vistas of desolate California would tend to distract from the human equation of the drama and that’s where the focus properly lies. Levien, a first-time feature filmmaker based in San Francisco, is trying to point out the inherent cruelty in this country’s policies regarding illegal immigration and in that he’s mostly successful. I get it that Ital needed to be a strong 12-year-old girl for the purposes of this movie but I think it would have benefited strongly if she had been allowed to be a little girl a little bit more.

REASONS TO SEE: A very timely subject well-acted by the cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film goes off the rails near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug use, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival near San Francisco.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Infiltrators
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Teen Spirit

A Most Wanted Man


R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Neil Malik Abdullah, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Rainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit, Herbert Gronemeyer, Ursina Lardi Directed by Anton Corbijn

 

It is a tricky world out there, complicated and dangerous. These days, being a spy is a lot more than playing baccarat and sipping a superbly made martini and spies aren’t urbane, elegant men in formal wear. They’re more often than not rumpled, middle aged bureaucrat sorts who wouldn’t make an impression on anyone at first glance.

 

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is such a spy. He chain smokes, drinks too much and has a pot belly not well-disguised by his ill-fitting suit. He looks like middle management for some automobile manufacturer – in fact, he is middle management but in a far different vocation. He is part of an anti-terrorist group, a small but dedicated group who monitor potential terrorist activities in Hamburg, a port city in Germany from which Mohammed Atta once organized the events of 9-11.

 

Since then, German intelligence has kept a close eye on what’s going on in the city as have their counterparts in the CIA. While Gunther’s group operates in a quasi-legal state, able to break German law with a certain amount of impunity, Dieter Mohr (Bock), the local station chief, is more of a by-the-book sort who has a bureaucrat’s soul and  the keen political sense of a born game player. Naturally he and Gunther clash repeatedly, Dieter disdaining the cowboy tactics of Gunther and Gunther less than forgiving of Dieter’s lack of field experience and political gamesmanship.

 

Into this highly volatile environment comes Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen man who has escaped Russian prison and entered Germany illegally. The Russians have branded him a terrorist, but Gunther sees him as a means to an end. He could be just what the Russians say he is, or the innocent victim of overzealous Russian hatred for Chechens in general. Gunther really doesn’t care which. He sees him as an opportunity to get to bigger fish in the pond, particularly Dr. Abdullah (Ershadi), a spokesman for Arabic charities who may actually be raising money for terrorist organizations while decrying terrorist activities publicly.

 

Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. He needs to get in touch with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe) for reasons that are his own. Gunther, a manipulative and sometimes cruel man, knows that he needs to make Annabel and Tommy his operatives and he will stop at nothing to do it, be it blackmail, kidnapping and intimidation, or even death threats. Whatever it takes.

But there are games within games, with a U.S. Embassy official (Wright) who may or may not be a CIA operative and who may or may not be Gunther’s ally. Gunther and his team are walking a fine line and with Mohr breathing down his neck he may not make it out of this one unscathed.

 

This is based on a recent John Le Carre novel (the acclaimed author is also a producer on the project) and like most Le Carre works, this is more of a gritty look at the world of espionage rather than the gloss and glamour of the James Bond series. Anton Corbijn, whose last film was The American which is similarly themed, is the perfect choice to sit in the director’s chair. Like the work of Le Carre, that film is complex and tense with characters whose motivations are maddeningly unclear. In other words, probably a more realistic look at the intelligence business.

This is the last leading role that Hoffman would complete before his untimely passing earlier this year and thankfully, it’s a good one. Gunther is world-weary, tired of the constant betrayal and backstabbing which on occasion has cost him the lives of his colleagues. The only people he truly trusts are on his team and one suspects, he isn’t 100% certain about them either. He is a master manipulator but he can also have his own buttons pushed. Near the end, you hear Hoffman wheezing as he breathes – whether that was an indication of the actor’s ill health or if he was capturing the out of shape frustration and passion of Gunther as things come to a head we’ll probably ever know.

McAdams is a good actress in her own right, but she is hidden behind a German accent whose authenticity varies. Dafoe and Bruhl are also fine actors but neither has a whole lot to do. Wright makes a fine foil for Hoffman, cool and terribly overbearing who clearly has little respect for Gunther and European intelligence in general.

 

In fact, this has a much more European outlook on modern espionage and intelligence. Le Carre generally had a fairly cynical outlook towards the benevolence of the CIA and often made them either incompetent or villainous in his books. There is often a moral complexity to his work which requires a lot more patience than American audiences tend to be comfortable with.

And therein lies the rub. American audiences are not tailor made for the kind of pacing and complexity that comes with the best of Le Carre’s work. There is no easy way to put it – we Americans tend to have a very finite attention span and we require stimulation nearly non-stop. That’s what years of video games will do to you.

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does a great job of making Hamburg a character in the movie. She’s dingy, gritty and a little bit disreputable here – we see the seedy underbelly of a town that already has a rough reputation to begin with. We get that palpable sense of danger and dissatisfaction.

I found this movie to work on a lot of levels, particularly in regards to Hoffman’s performance which has an outside shot of netting him a posthumous Oscar. Roadside Attractions, the art house arm of Lionsgate, has a few Oscar nominations to its credit so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I found the middle of the movie to be a bit tough sledding, but nevertheless this is a fitting send off to one of the best actors of his generation who left us too soon.

REASONS TO GO: Stand-out performance  by Hoffman. Nice tension. Hamburg used as a character in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Le Carre likes a lot of twists and turns which some moviegoers may not appreciate. Stately pacing.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he also appears in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two but his filming hadn’t been completed when he passed away).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Boyhood