Pure Grit


Sharmaine Weed doing what she loves.

(2021) Documentary (Bankside) Sharmaine Weed, Savannah Martinez, Brandon Weed, Charity Weed, Kashe Weed, Amari Bercier. Directed by Kim Bartley

 

Native Americans in the 21st century face many challenges, not the least of those they have faced since European colonizers came to steal their land from them. They seek to retain their cultural identity while fitting in to a modern world. They do that while living on reservations where economic opportunities are extremely limited, where most live in poverty and where many are plagued by alcohol and drug addiction.

For Sharmaine Weed, a Shoshone living on the massive Wind River reservation in Wyoming – “God’s country” as she puts it early on in the film – escape is through bareback horse racing. This isn’t the type of racing you see at Churchill Downs; it is extremely dangerous, as Sharmaine found out firsthand when her sister Charity rode for the first time, and suffered grievous injuries leaving her disabled. Sharmaine took a year off to help care for her sister, and her sister’s daughter.

She is back riding now, for the first time since her sister’s injury, and sporting a new girlfriend – Sharmaine is one of the few lesbians on the reservation – Savannah. The two are very much in love. But things at home are getting rough; her younger brother Kashe is turning abusive and Savannah wants Sharmaine to move to Denver. So Sharmaine gets a job out there and puts together enough money to buy a horse to run the summer racing season. Sharmaine looks at it as an opportunity for a fresh start – but things don’t run entirely to plan as they generally have a habit of doing.

Bartley spent three years shadowing Sharmaine and her patience pays off in a rich portrait of a family trying to stay afloat in difficult conditions and specifically of a young woman with fire, passion and determination who has her sights set on a goal, but is pragmatic enough to recognize that it isn’t worth sacrificing everything for. She is aware of the traps that reservation life offer – the despair, the alcoholism, the drug addiction – and she manages to avoid them, largely because of her dogged refusal to surrender to them. Her love for horse racing also carries her through, and she’s good enough at it that she can survive and thrive in that world.

Her relationship with Savannah is complicated; Savannah is six years younger and is still just barely old enough to drink legally. Her mind is still on things that Sharmaine has long since moved beyond (if they were ever important to her in the first place), and that puts a strain on their relationship. Savannah wants to enjoy life; Sharmaine wants to build something permanent. It’s not always the love that makes a relationship strong; sometimes it’s a matter of being on the same page in life. There’s nothing wrong with a young woman of 21 wanting to party, dye her hair, and in general be concerned more about less vital things. There is also nothing wrong with a young woman of 27 turning her eyes to the future. We’ve all been in relationships with people who wanted different things with their life. Maybe we loved those people with a passion, but a viable relationship just wasn’t possible.

Bartley does her own cinematography and it is often breathtaking. Horses leaving tracks in the Wyoming snow, drone shots of the endless prairie, the Weed family out hunting and fishing together. We quickly understand that the hunting isn’t done for sport; this is how the family puts food on the table. That they thank the animals they kill for their food for providing them with sustenance is a part of their cultural heritage.

We rarely get such an intimate glimpse at reservation life, and this one is a particularly thorough one. We can see the willingness to fight in Sharmaine’s eyes as she does her damnedest to make a life for herself that is free of drugs and alcohol. The movie could have used a little bit of work on the editing; some of the story progresses in a kind of an uneven manner. The film could have used a smoother flow to it and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt.

The movie is an Irish-American co-production, and is making its North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California today. Unfortunately, that particular film festival doesn’t have a streaming component, so you will likely have to wait until the movie makes an appearance at a festival near you, which it should do in the Fall or Spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on one streaming service or another shortly after that. This is a strong movie about a person you can’t help but admire and I strongly recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot. Inspiring and intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story doesn’t flow as naturally as it might.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wind River reservation, where Charmaine and her family live, is the seventh largest in the United States, and is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rider
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Summerland


A brief respite before the war.

(2020) Drama (IFC) Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Dominic McGreevy, Amanda Root, Jessica Gunning, David Horovitch, Aoibhine Flynn, Amanda Lawrence, Casper Allpress, Toby Osmond, Joshua Riley, Sally Scott, David Ajao, Nina Beagley, Sian Phillips, Daniel Eghan, Ty Hurley, Marie Hamm. Directed by Jessica Swale

We are increasingly reminded, in these days of pandemic and political divisiveness, that there was a time when everybody was expected to Do Their Bit. People made sacrifices for the greater good. Oh, how times have changed.

Cranky author Alice Lamb (Wilton) despises children. She types away on her “academic treatises” on British and Celtic mythology in her cottage in Kent. However, the Alice of 35 years earlier (Arterton) was….still in the same cottage and still despised children and still typing away at her academic treatises. That’s when Frank (Bond) shows up at her door. He’s an evacuee from London in need of a temporary guardian while his RAF pilot father and Ministry of Defense mother are busy fighting the war, each in their own way. Alice is flummoxed; she had no idea that a kid was coming to live with her but she is gently reminded that she volunteered, even though she doesn’t remember volunteering. In fact, she wants the boy taken somewhere else at once. The authorities promise to look into finding him a place to live, but it will take about a week and she needs to suck it up until then.

Alice is obviously not fond of people in general, and perceptive Frank realizes that there is something that caused this self-imposed solitude. He is not necessarily a brilliant child, but he has a good heart and keen observational powers and soon he begins to thaw out the chilly Miss Lamb, whom is thought to be a witch by the village kids and maybe even a Nazi spy. As such, she is often the butt of childish pranks, which further makes her despise the younger set.

But Frank is so genuine and so willing to please that eventually Alice begins to care for him – so much so that she begins to open up about her past, and the relationship with Vera (Mbatha-Raw) that dare not speak its name, but which was nevertheless the love of Alice’s life. Unfortunately, Alice is terribly inexperienced at the whole parenting thing and makes a huge mistake when faced with a terrible situation and ends up making a discovery about the identity of Franks’ mother that will shock her to her very core and nearly lose her relationship with Frank in the bargain.

One of the first things you will notice about the film is the absolutely lovely cinematography of Laurie Rose – although I am of the considered opinion that it is nearly impossible to make an English village look ugly. Nearly every shot is picture perfect, from the wild seaside to the snug interiors to the waving fields of wheat. You may end up considering a vacation to Kent somewhere down the line after seeing this.

The second thing you’ll notice is the strength of the performances here. Gemma Arterton is one of those actresses who seems to always turn in a strong performance but never gets the kind of credit she deserves. She certainly has the talent of an Anne Hathaway or an Emma Stone and those are the sorts of roles and movies she should be getting. It’s a shame that she isn’t. As for veteran Tom Courtenay, I could be perfectly happy of an entire film of him reciting the collected works of William Wordsworth; he’s the kind of actor that you fall in love with each and every performance. He has a small but important role here and he makes the most of it.

The flaw here is that the twist, when it comes late in the movie, is jaw-dropping and not in a good way. It will leave veteran cinema buffs shaking their heads and muttering “Really? You went there? REALLY?!?” However, getting to that point is so enjoyable and so beautiful to watch that at least in my case, I was in a forgiving mood by the end of the film.

Although available on VOD at present, it will be playing at the Florida Film Festival on Saturday, August 8th at 5:45pm at the Enzian. Tickets may be purchased here. It is not a part of the Virtual Festival selections, so if you are planning on only attending the Festival this year by remote viewing, you’ll have to pay the additional rental fees to your streaming platform of choice. It is, however, worth it. For those outside of Florida, it is also playing at selected theaters as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent performances by Arterton and Courtenay in particular. Goes to unexpected places occasionally. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The twist is somewhat preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has no relation to the 2003-2005 TV series of the same name that starred Lori Loughlin, Zac Efron and Ryan Kwanten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77/100, Metacritic: 55/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guernsey Literary and Eel Pie Society
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Apollo 11

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

Wetlands (2017)


The secret to life is simply fishing.

(2017) Drama (Abramorama) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Reyna de Courcy, Christopher McDonald, Jennifer Ehle, Louis Mustillo, Barry Markowitz, Sean Ringgold, Rob Morgan, Lauren LaVera, Tyler Elliot Burke, Pamela Dunlap, Melissa Goodwin, Quinn Fucci, Celeste O’Connor, Lou Morey, Jim Fitzpatrick, Natalie Paige Bentley, Dana Kreitz, Donna DeGregorio. Directed by Emanuele Della Valle

 

There comes a time in some lives where we have to start from scratch. Circumstances, bad decisions, bad luck; whatever the case may be, a new beginning becomes necessary once we hit rock bottom. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen.

Babel “Babs” Johnson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the son of an alcoholic religious fanatic and an absent father, has returned to the Jersey shore town outside of Atlantic City where he grew up. It’s in a bleak area of dilapidated homes, empty storefronts and swampy shore known as the Wetlands. He was once a narcotics detective in Philadelphia but a crippling heroin addiction and a heinous act sent him to rehab. He left behind Savannah (Graham), his embittered wife once a trust fund baby but now taking up with Surfer Girl (de Courcy), a surfboard maker who dreams of moving to Hawaii and starting her own business, but has taken to being a drug courier for Jimmy Coconuts (Mustillo) and in a not-too-smart move, skimming some of the drugs and selling them herself.

Babs doesn’t care about any of that. What he’s worried about is his daughter Amy (O’Connor) who despises him for leaving her with her mother and her lover, both of whom are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to Amy. For now, he’s on the police force of a small town, partnered with Paddy Sheehan (McDonald), a garrulous hard-drinking roustabout who is in debt up to his eyeballs to the local drug lord known as Lollipop (Markowitz) due to his taste in confections and who also happens to be the boss of Jimmy Coconuts. Paddy is married to Kate (Ehle), a newscaster reporting on the pending arrival of a late season hurricane which threatens to cause all sorts of havoc.

If the plot sounds a little bit scattershot, that’s only because it is. Fashionista and first-time director Della Valle seems torn between doing a noir-laced crime thriller and a drama about a broken man trying to start over; either one would have been an interesting movie on its own and if Della Valle had managed to fuse the two together he could have had an indie classic on his hands. Sadly however the two tales don’t mesh very well and we’re left with a choppy, uneven movie that doesn’t have any sort of flow to it. There is a murder in the movie that seems to be the crux of matters but it doesn’t occur until only about 15 minutes are left in the film which gives that last bit an almost rushed feel.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has had numerous supporting roles in a variety of films as well as memorable turns on TV’s Oz and Lost steps out into a much overdue lead role here and he does okay for himself, although he’s not given a very interesting character to work with. Sure, Babs has a lot of baggage and in the hands of a more capable writer could have been unforgettable but we are mainly left with a lot of clichés and backstory that is hinted at throughout the movie (told in black and white flashbacks) until near the end when the big reveal turns out to be not too difficult to predict.

The supporting cast isn’t too bad. McDonald takes the role and runs with it, giving a pretty slimy character a sheen of bonhomie. Ehle gets a role that gives her an opportunity to be sophisticated and sexy and she nails both of those aspects. Graham, who I’ve adored as an actress since her breakout role in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me gets to do a role that might bring back memories of her performance in Boogie Nights although the movie isn’t up to the latter’s standard.

There are some really terrific images here, like a roller coaster post-hurricane standing in water but even the hurricane is somewhat anti-climactic. There are a lot of decent threads here but the overall whole is pretty disappointing; everything feels like it’s all build-up and no pay-off. In this town, that kind of thing can get you bumped off.

REASONS TO GO: There are some phenomenal images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed and the flow is uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, drug content, sexuality, some nudity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue Ruin
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Rebel in the Rye