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

Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma)


Danger lurks everywhere in prewar Japan.

(2020) Historical Drama (Kino Lorber) Yû Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Higashide, Ryôta Bandô, Yuri Tsunematsu, Minosuke, Hyunri, Takashi Sasano, Chuck Johnson, Nihi. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

 

Marriage is built on trust. Trust comes with open and honest communication. Certainly we all have our secrets and over-sharing isn’t necessarily healthy for a relationship, but without communication, there can never be trust and without trust, no marriage can survive.

Satoko (Aoi) loves her husband Yusaku (Takahashi) very much. He is a prosperous silk merchant in the Japanese city of Kobe in 1940 during the height of imperialist Japan. He fancies himself a cosmopolitan sort, having visited America (and liking it) and being fond of Western customs. But Japan is in the middle of an era of retrenchment, when doing things – like wearing a suit and tie or drinking whiskey will bring the suspicions of the police upon you for being “un-Japanese.”

Yusaku also likes to direct home movies that are silent, vaguely noir espionage thrillers starring Satoko and his nephew Fumio (Bandô), who also works for him in the silk impor/export business. Satoko’s childhood friend Taiji (Higashide) who is now the head of the local military police, warns Satoko about her husband’s Western ways, and Western associations – a British client of theirs (Johnson) is arrested as a spy. Yusaku bails him out but Taiji is now watching Yusaku’s every move.

\So it’s the perfect time for Yusaku to take Fumio on a month-long trip to Manchuria, recently conquered by Japan, right? But when he comes back, he begins acting cagey, arousing the suspicions of Satoko and Taiji both. But while Taiji thinks that the liberal Yusaku might be getting involved with espionage, Satoko is thinking he’s getting involved with the mysterious woman Hiroko (Hyunri) that he brought back with him from Manchuria. When she turns up dead on the beach, things take a turn for the worse.

Kurosawa certainly knows his movie lore. He manages to capture all sorts of different genres from the era, from noir to melodrama to romance. This movie is one I almost wish had been filmed in black and white; it certainly would fit right in with any TCM movie marathon. He also gets an impressive performance from his leading lady. Satoko starts off as being a bit of a ditzy diva, goes through an “anything for hubby” stage, and then ends up as a woman in peril. Aoi carries off each version of her character with aplomb and makes each change in her attitude very natural and understandable. As submissive as Satoko is initially, by the end of the movie she’s far stronger than anyone might have thought she’d turn out to be.

He also knows how to make the suspense intense. He brings up the level of tension almost imperceptively through the first half of the film so that by the time things come to a head, you don’t notice you’ve been sitting on the edge of your chair for the past half hour. His work here shows that he should be a much more well-known talent here than he is; he’s basically known for Tokyo Sonata and Kairo, two fine films, but he’s clearly a world-class talent. With a name like Kurosawa, you almost have to be (although he’s not related to the iconic Japanese director).

It is rare for Japanese films to be critical of their government’s behavior during the Imperial era of the 30s and 40s but this movie takes on events of actual wrongdoing that is pretty much never discussed. Not many directors feel comfortable questioning the misdeeds of their country’s past, but Kurosawa is evidently an exception. Incidentally, the lab referred to in the movie actually existed and the things that Yusaku and Fumio claim that happened there, actually did. That lab is a museum today.

This has the look and feel of a classic film, and the quality to become a classic in its own right. While it may fall on the overly melodramatic side upon occasion, Kurosawa never loses sight of his main focus and keeps his eye on the prize throughout. While the coda (which takes place five years after the film’s action begins) may seem a bit anti-climactic (and indeed, I thought it wasn’t really necessary), the movie nonetheless takes you back in a good way.

REASONS TO SEE: A throwback of a film in all the right ways. Really gets the suspense dialed up. Picks up the pace to a fever pitch in the second half.
REASONS TO AVOID: Piles on the melodrama a bit too thickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and some scenes of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fumio grumpily refers to Manchuria as “settler’s paradise,” he is echoing a slogan that the Japanese government actually used when resettling Manchuria with Japanese peasants in the 30s and 40s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Zookeeper’s Wife
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Secret of Sinchanee

Never Gonna Snow Again (Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie)


Zhnia knows where his massages rank.

(2020) Dramedy (Kino Lorber) Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostraszewska, Agata Kulesza, Veronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Lukasz Simlat, Andrzej Chyra, Krzyfsztof Czeczot, Maciej Drosio, Olaf Marchwicki, Astrid Nanowska, Wojciech Starostecki, Jerzy Nasierowski, Konstantin Solowiow, Blanka Burzynska, Adrian Podlaski, Lena Wochal, Casper Richard Petersen, Maria Seweryn. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert

 

Remember when it seemed as if everyone in the movies was wealthy and white? The pendulum has swung in a differing direction and now it feels like movies tend to be about marginalized groups more often than not, superhero movies notwithstanding.

Into a toney, gated community on the edge of a big Polish city, comes Zhenia (Utgoff), a handsome, enigmatic young man from the Ukraine with a serene smile and the magic hands of a trained masseuse. He speaks Russian, and as he gets a residents permit for plying his trade in the development he informs the bureaucrat that he lived in Pripyat, the village just outside of Chernobyl. Zhenia was just seven years old when the reactors blew.

He is accepted in the community as not only a wonderful masseuse but an excellent listener, even if some of the residents are concerned that he might be radioactive. He does seem to have some supernatural ability to take away pain and anxiety, even for a little while. He also can hypnotize his clients and from time to time move objects with the power of his mind.

Several of the middle-aged women in the community have become infatuated with Zhenia, including Maria (Ostraszewska), an exhausted mother whose children are contemptuous of her, Wika (Rosati) whose husband (Simlat) is dying of cancer although with almost blind optimism he assures everyone around him that he is indeed getting better, and a woman (Figura) whose devotion to her bulldogs approaches a kind of mania. But who is Zhenia, why is he there, and what does he hope to accomplish before the demons of his past catch up with him?

Movies like this can go one of two ways; one is the mythic, which is not the way Never Gonna Snow Again goes. The filmmakers, veteran Polish auteur Szumowska and her longtime cinematographer Englert, who shares directing credit with her here. While Zhenia has at times some Christ-like qualities, this really isn’t a Christian parable. Instead, there is a lovely bittersweet feeling here, almost elegiac in places. The greys and blues that are the bulk of the palate that Englert uses make this ideal rainy-day viewing.

\Utgoff is tremendous here. Zhenia is a bit of a cypher, releasing information about himself in dribs and drabs, but Utgoff makes him compelling. He moves with a dancer’s grace (and in fact, Zhenia dances a ballet at a couple of points in the movie) and with an impressive physique is bound to make a few hearts of those who find such men attractive go pitter pat. Utgoff has a good deal of charisma, but wisely knows when to use it and when to be less forthcoming. The end result is that Zhenia turns out to be something of a blank slate that the other characters (and the viewers) project their own interpretations on.

And Englert is nothing less than spectacular as a cinematographer here. If he toiled in Hollywood, he’d be getting regular Oscar nominations – his shot compositions are some of the finest you’ll ever see in a movie. Szumowska has the experience to know when to let the images speak for themselves and doesn’t always clutter them with dialogue. It makes for an almost spiritual feeling in certain places.

The one criticism I’d make about the movie is that the plotting sometimes feels too static; we get these wonderful images and some compelling business but it doesn’t always take us anywhere. In that sense, this is a movie that is better experienced than watched passively. Let it wash over you and make you a part of it rather than trying to figure it out might be the best way to go, because if you choose the latter course, you may end up feeling frustrated at several points in the movie.

There is some satire here, and some pointed, sharp humor as well as some social commentary (the title itself is a reference to climate change) and some thoughts about Polish nationalism – a trend which seems to be running in a number of Western nations lately, including our own. However, the points are rarely made more than gently and subtly, and while some characters appear to be taking stands in favor or against one cause or another, we are never preached to, at least overtly.

\All in all, this is the kind of movie that weaves its own magic and you’ll either be enchanted by it, or you won’t. I do think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it (which, I suppose, is true for any movie) but it is worth the effort. This is the kind of movie that will stay with you for a long while afterwards.

REASONS TO SEE: Utgoff is compelling. Beautiful shot composition. A wonderfully bittersweet tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is kind of static in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, some profanity, sexual overtones, and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Poland’s official submission for the most recent Best International Feature Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS:As of 8/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teorema
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Who Are You, Charlie Brown?

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

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts


Art that evokes the primal side of man.

(2021) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Bill Traylor, Sharon Washington, Jason Samuels Smith, Richard Oosterom, Greg Tate, Russell G. Jones, Charles Shannon, Dr. Howard O. Robinson, Radcliffe Bailey, Leslie Umberger, Roberta Smith. Directed by Jeffrey Wolf

 

Bill Traylor is a name that may not register with the average American unless the average American happens to be an art lover – most average Americans aren’t, however. Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama back in 1853. Following Emancipation, he became a sharecropper and supported his growing family as a farmer – he was practical enough to grow edible crops rather than cotton, although he grew a lot of that as well.

He was also a bit of a drinker and a carouser; his marriages were dotted with infidelity on his part, fathering children by many different lovers. In his 80s, he was no longer able to work on a farm and so moved to Montgomery, where he was homeless off and on and supplemented his relief checks with drawings he made on found paper.

His work has been called “beautifully simple,” “primitive” and “powerful,” all of which are accurate. In many ways his drawings are reminiscent of the cave drawings that were drawn tens of thousands of years ago. His pictures are vibrant, full of movement and capture the era of slavery and the Jim Crow South.

We are treated to art experts discussing his work and its significance, black artists who discuss his lasting influence on African-American art, and his descendants who regale us with anecdotes about his colorful life. Actors read relevant passages from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith adds motion and sound to the interpretation of his work. All of this is set to a magnificent blues soundtrack.

The problem with the film is that it is often extraordinarily dry, playing like it was meant for an advanced art history course at an Ivy League school. There are a lot of talking heads which when given the vibrancy of the art that we’re shown seems a bit counterintuitive.

It is the artwork that is the center of the film and Wolf takes great pains to show us as much of it as he is able. We are given artistic insights into the work; arguing couples are shown pointing in different directions, animals are totems that are predators in some cases, observers in others. The color blue represents the blues. It’s hard to believe that Traylor accomplished all of this with scraps of cardboard and paper, pencils and children’s poster paint, but he did.

Sadly, much of his work was discarded years after his death and presumably has been lost forever, although some hold out hope that it may surface in an Alabama landfill someday. There are still several hundred pieces of his work available and there is no denying its power and pull to the human spirit. If you’re going to see one documentary about an artist this year, this is the one to catch.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is as compelling as it’s creator. Wonderful blues soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally becomes overly dry with too many tallking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are descriptions of horrific violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traylor preferred to work with scraps of paper he found in the trash rather than clean sheets of paper that admirers would give him; he would work the imperfections in the scraps into the artwork.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maya Angelou And Still I Rise
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Two Gods

Slalom


The ski slopes can be their own kind of prison.

(2020) Sports Drama (Kino Lorber) Noée Abita, Jérémie Renier, Marie Denarnaud, Muriel Combeau, Maira Schmitt, Axel Auriant Blot, Melle Tistounet, Gaspard Couder, Maxence Clément, Victor Senegas, Alice Berger Sabbatel, Catherine Marchal, Fred Epaud, Dominique Thomas, François Godart, Michael Vander-Meiren, François Briaut. Directed by Charléne Favier

 

The relationship between an athlete and their coach is one driven by trust. In recent years, we have heard – to our horror – of youth coaches who have taken advantage of their positions of authority to gain sexual favors from those in their charge. It is not a pretty story.

Lyz Lopez (Abita) is a 15-year-old girl with enormous potential to make the French ski team. Her single mom (Combeau) works far away, leaving her alone to study at an exclusive private school where she is trained by Fred (Renier), a slalom champion who has retired from the sport. Fred is, at first, demanding and autocratic, but soon turns gentle and supportive as the unconfident Lyz starts to win races and, more importantly, believe in herself. The relationship between Lyz and Fred grows closer.

It is cringeworthy when we see Fred touching Lyz in places I would not want my teenage daughter to be touched by her coach; nor would I want to have her grilled about her menstrual cycle, as Fred does to Lyz. But we all know where this is heading; so, too, does Lyz, I believe. And she’s okay with it, at first, as she enjoys the attention of a charismatic, attractive older man but when the house of cards begins to tumble and the inappropriate crosses the line into abuse, it threatens to destroy both coach and athlete.

Although there are scenes of sexuality, this is not a sexy film. As we watch Fred groom his victim for later sexual conquest, we recoil and see Fred, perhaps, as a monster, although there are signs that Fred himself is a wounded soul, even more so than the vulnerable Lyz. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, however.

The movie hinges on the performances of Abita and Renier. It is no surprise that the latter delivers; he is, after all, a veteran of several Dardenne Brothers films and has a history of charismatic performances. However, Abita is a relative newcomer who lit up the screens in Genese and shows that she is likely to be one of the most important actresses in Frances for the next several decades with her performance here. It is subtle, nuanced and rarely goes in for unnecessary histrionics. She is absolutely note-perfect here.

So too is the cinematography; the ski sequences are breathtaking as the camera is right there with Lyz on the slopes, giving the audience a feeling as close as possible to flying down a mountainside without first having to strap on a pair of skis themselves.

The subject matter is handled matter-of-factly and although most will tend to see Fred as a monster (and he is), there is more than one dimension to the character which makes the role somewhat heartbreaking. If you’re looking for a nice, neat, Hollywood resolution at the end of the film, you are likely to be disappointed. What you WILL get, however, is an outstanding, sober and quietly damning look at how easily authority is abused.

REASONS TO SEE: Harrowing and occasionally deeply disturbing. Ski footage puts the viewers on the slopes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the teen angst material seems forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, nudity, sexuality, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film (after several shorts and a documentary) by Favier and is based on her own experiences as a young athlete.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downhill Racer
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Oak Room

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

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

The Reason I Jump


The diversity of humanity can leave one breathless.

(2020) Documentary (Kino Lorber Jordan O’Donegan (narrator), Jim Fujiwara, David Mitchell. Directed by Jerry Rothwell

 

Raising a child requires patience. This is especially true for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. They are often unable to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, some to the point that they are essentially non-verbal, requiring different means of expression. A young 13-year-old Japanese child named Naoki Higashida wrote a book, detailing what goes on inside his head and why he will jump up and down, seemingly for no reason (it’s to self-soothe).

The book has become something of a revelation for parents with autistic children who are unable to or have difficulty communicating. The film, which uses a voice actor to narrate passages from the book, visits five kids in similar situations from around the world. Amrit, in India, communicates using drawings and paintings to illustrate not only what her daily routine is, but how she experiences the world.

In England, Joss (the son of two of the producers for the film) battles memories of past traumas that feel current to him; for example, when his father goes to pick up a pizza for dinner, he has a meltdown in the car with his mother, insisting that there is no more pizza – until his dad appears, pizza and sodas in hand. His mother’s patience and loving reassurances are heartbreaking.

In America, close friends Ben and Emma communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. They are surprisingly articulate – at one point, Ben says (through the alphabet board) “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.” Finally, the film shifts to Sierra Leone where the parents of Jestina (the youngest child depicted here) face an almost insurmountable barrier of misinformation, superstition and fear (some autistic children are put to death there) as they try to bring a greater understanding of who these kids are and what they are capable of to villages who may see them as being demonically possessed.

The film does its best to replicate the overload of sensory input that those on the spectrum encounter every day, and at times this is effective. The passages from the book are illuminating and are effectively used, and when Higashida admits “I don’t pretend for a moment that everything I’ve written applies to all autistic people,” we are reminded that just like all children are different, so is every case of autism. What might be successful in one case may not be in another and while we get a sense of the loyalty and diligence that parents of kids on the spectrum have to possess, it can be daunting for those who aren’t directly affected by autistic family members or friends to see what these kids and their families go through every day.

Does the movie provide the same kind of eye-opening revelations that the book does? I don’t think so, no. There is an approximation of what Higashida is trying to get across and while we see more viewpoints than just his own, we also end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed. And that might be what Rothwell is trying to get across, but I don’t think that is the whole of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. Still, the movie might be an effective tool for those who are less experienced with autism and how it affects both the children and their parents, and that can’t be discounted either.

REASONS TO SEE: An often-compelling glimpse inside those who are unable to communicate.
REASONS TO AVOID: Requires some patience to get through.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won an audience award for documentary features at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notes on Blindness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Night in Miami

The Changin’ Times of Ike White


Ike White, striking up a 70s rock star pose.

(2019) Music Documentary (Kino Lorber) Ike White, Lana Gutman, Greg Errico, Stevie Wonder, Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Goldstein, Deborah White, Rico Fanning, Daniel Vernon, Monalisa White, Bruce Jackson, Carole Michaela Reynolds, Baron Ontiveros, Alvin Taylor, Angelique Stidhum.  Directed by Daniel Vernon

Some films need to have a detailed description of the plot. Others actually benefit from having the viewer know as little as possible going in. This is one of the latter types of films.

The basics: Ike White was a talented songwriter and musician whose 1976 album Changin’ Times garnered him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and the admiration of Stevie Wonder. But Ike White didn’t have the usual route to a record release; he recorded the album while in prison for the murder of a shopkeeper.

During the course of a convenience store robbery, the 86-year-old store owner was shot by White who claimed that the shooting was an accident. Nonetheless, the 19-year-old Ike was convicted and sent to prison for life. Ike escaped from prison life with a small portable keyboard, a guitar and a harmonica which he played whenever he could. Legend has it that while cleaning the execution chamber, he would take breaks playing his guitar – while sitting in the electric chair (a nice story, but the electric chair was no longer in use by the state of California by the time Ike was incarcerated).

Word got out to producer Jerry Goldstein who arranged for a mobile studio to be driven to the prison, along with a couple of supporting musicians and a trio of female backup singers. Goldstein’s teenage secretary Deborah became so enamored of Ike that she married the guy and had a daughter by him. His music came to the attention of Stevie Wonder, who arranged for a high-priced lawyer for Ike who got his sentence commuted and Ike was a free man after 14 years.

But here is not the happy ending you’d hope for, but perhaps the realistic twist you’d expect. Ike continued to make bad decisions once out of prison, getting involved with drug use. Deborah left him, reconciled, left him again, reconciled again and finally left him for good. Shortly after that, Ike disappeared. That’s where the story gets weird.

Documentary filmmaker went on the hunt for Ike and found him – singing in Las Vegas lounges under an assumed name, married to a frowsy blonde Russian woman (who also doubled as his manager) and surprisingly eager to discuss his convoluted story. And that’s where the story gets really weird.

We get to hear Ike’s story from those close to him, and from Ike himself. He is full of all sorts of stories, but he is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. The more the film unravels, the more untrustworthy he proves to be. The movie heads off into directions you don’t expect it to take, complete with some jaw-dropping revelations and one very massive change in the narrative about halfway through which may leave you wondering what next – and where the movie can possibly go from there. Trust me, it’s not over by a long shot and even when the final credits roll you might be still wondering just what the heck you saw.

Vernon wisely leaves it to the viewer to reach their own conclusions, and not all those conclusions are going to be charitable. White was undoubtedly a superior musician and maybe at one time in his life he might have had the talent to be a difference-maker, although listening to his music later on you might wonder if it was all a con. No, not all of it was but there are plenty of revelations here that may leave you feeling dizzy in a good way. Undoubtedly, he was a chameleon who floated through life, never showing the same face to anyone.

I can’t say that you’ll really get to know Ike White ub any of his other guises by watching this. He remains an enigma to those who knew him best and a 77-minute documentary isn’t going to give you much more than surface impressions. I don’t think you’ll ever meet anyone quite like him, though.

If you’re tired of the typical obscure artist music documentary, this could well be what you’re looking for. It’s not typical of anything and like any great documentary, it doesn’t always lead you to where you expect it to. It might make you sad, it might make you angry, it might even leave you feeling like you’ve glimpsed genius, but it won’t leave you bored.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your usual music documentary. Takes some sharp left turns. Occasionally so surreal you may wonder if it really happened.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a little steam near the end and feels a bit incomplete in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sensuality, drug content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Test and the Art of Thinking