The Penny Black


Who knew collecting stamps could be so exciting?

(2020) Documentary (1091) Will Cassayd-Smith, Cheryl Baumbaugh, Alex Greer, Joe Saunders, Bonnie Collins, Allison, Roman. Directed by William J. Saunders

 

The Penny Black was the first self-adhesive stamp in history. It was first issued in 1840 and has a bit of an odd history. Because of its color, the British Post Office had to cancel the stamps using red ink, which as it turned out was water soluble and could be washed, allowing the canny to reuse the stamps. The British, who are nothing if not problem solvers, simply put out new stamps called Penny Reds which could be canceled with black ink which was NOT water soluble. Problem solved.

As you can guess, those stamps which are over 175 years old, are fairly valuable. But why, pray tell, are we interested in this old stamp? Well, meet Will Cassayd-Smith, an affable young Millennial living in Los Angeles. He sometimes would go outside his apartment to smoke, and there he would often meet one of his neighbors, a man with a heavy Russian accent he knew only as Roman. The two men got to know each other and often went out to local bars to have a few adult beverages. One night, when Roman had more than a few, he prevailed upon Will to watch a package for him. He’s been fighting with his wife, you see, and he doesn’t want to leave it with her because she might sell it just to spite him. Will says sure, Roman thanks him and says he’ll be back in two weeks.

Two weeks come and go and Roman doesn’t return. Will becomes concerned and takes a look at the package and finds one large book, two smaller books and several loose leaf pages – all filled with stamps. And, when weeks stretch into months, Will takes the collection to be appraised and discovers that there are more than a few stamps worth tens of thousands of dollars, including the Penny Black – which, incidentally, isn’t the most valuable stamp in the collection.

Will is beginning to freak out. He never counted on having to be responsible for something of that value. And what happened to Roman? How did he come by these stamps? The more Will finds out, the more unsettled he becomes. His friend, a sports documentary producer, becomes involved in chronicling the tale for Will.

But Will has a checkered past of his own. His father, from whom he’s estranged, was a con artist who forged documents and artwork, before being deported for his crimes. And Will suddenly has a brand new car, followed up by a brand new sailboat. How did he get them? Gifts. But one of the stamp books is missing. Where did it go? Will is vague. He doesn’t remember. Maybe when he and his girlfriend Alison broke up and he moved out, it accidentally got thrown out. Sounds a bit sketchy to me.

And that’s kind of the point. If ever there was a poster boy for unreliable narration, it’s Will. Saunders wisely doesn’t let you know what he thinks about the whole situation, other than it sounds fishy. He seems to accept Will’s explanations at face value, and that’s not hard to do because Will is doing and saying the right things. He has hired a private detective to look into finding the whereabouts of Roman. He also explores the possibility that the collection was stolen, talking to a woman in Arizona who reported a sizable theft of stamps from her grandfather’s estate. Are these stamps from that collection? We never find out definitively.

And that’s where the genius of the movie comes in – this isn’t a movie about explanations. You pretty much have to find your own. And when Roman does finally show up, things get really tense and crazy, but we are still left with far more questions than answers. One begins to wonder how legitimate Will’s tale is. And then one wonders if the filmmakers are in on it if it’s not. That’s brilliant filmmaking.

There are some hiccups. The soundtrack is overbearing and intrusive. One would have wished for less music, or at least something a little less obvious. The story also has a tendency to make abrupt cuts from one direction to the other; that may well have been how it developed in real time, but it still feels choppy.

We live in untrustworthy times. We view our neighbors with suspicion and our only friends are online, well beyond arm’s length. The movie isn’t commenting on that directly, but trustworthiness is certainly a major component of the movie. The story is compelling enough to hold your interest from beginning to end, at which time it directs you to the film’s website for further details. There are several deleted scenes available on the website, but no further clarity. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Some stories were never meant to be clear.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly intriguing story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is intrusive and overbearing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Slamdance in 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder Death Koreatown
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52

3 Day Weekend


No matter what, he’s got her back.

(2019) Suspense (Sleeper CellMorgan Krantz, Maya Stojan, Nathan Phillips, Scott MacDonald. Directed by Wyatt McDill

Sometimes a movie will show a tremendous amount of promise but end up sabotaging itself with the execution. 3 Day Weekend is just such a movie.

Millennial Ben Boyd (Krantz) decides that after a painful relationship break-up to go camping and get away from his heartache. Never mind that he really has no experience camping; how hard can it be to pitch a tent and set up a sleeping bag? Exactly.

However, he stumbles upon a deaf girl (Stojan) locked in the trunk of a car and intuits that a kidnapping is in progress. There is a menacing looking redneck (Phillips) with a gun involved and Ben’s attempts to rescue the damsel in distress go awry. When another redneck bearing a gun (MacDonald) shows up, things get even more lively, but Ben couldn’t possibly imagine the truth of what is happening; it certainly isn’t what it might seem to be to him at the time.

And there you have it; a simple concept, which McDill enhances by keeping dialogue to a bare minimum (there’s almost no dialogue at all in the first 30 minutes other than text messages which become important later), and to McDill’s credit he pulls it off. Also adding to the list of admirable qualities for the film is that it is told from the viewpoint of each character at various times with each character adding to the information that the audience has, changing our interpretation of events subtly until it ends up being quite a major shift. Kudos to McDill (who also wrote the script) for that.

Where the film loses its goodwill is in the camera work. McDill and cinematographer Brian Lundy rely a great deal on handheld cameras, leading to shaky cameras running through the Minnesota woods. He also utilizes some very questionable camera angles that end up annoying the viewer rather than impressing us with their skill. I’ve never been a big fan of shaky cam to begin with; it’s a much-overused camera technique. Used in moderation, it adds immediacy. Used to excess, it adds nausea.

It’s a shame because Lundy and McDill have some beautiful woods to work with, and McDill has written a very good film. However, movies are a visual medium and if that aspect of the project isn’t up to par, it really creates an unpleasant experience. The good news is that McDill shows a lot of potential here and if he just settles down a bit with the cinematography I’m positive he’s capable of delivering some really good movies.

REASONS TO SEE: Builds up the tension nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some really questionable camera angle choices and way too much handheld shaky-cam.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival, near where filming took place..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood and Money
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Musical Comedy Whore

Walking Out


A father-son piggyback ride – with a twist.

(2017) Drama (IFC) Matt Bomer, Josh Higgins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Ken White, Lily Gladstone, Erik P. Resel. Directed by Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith

 

The mountains are unforgiving. They are beautiful, yes, but formidable. One false step can leave you in a terrible situation. One mistake, one moment of lapsed concentration can make the difference between getting home safely and having your carcass gnawed on by animals.

Cal (Bomer) is an avid outdoorsman living in Montana. He is divorced with a child, 14-year-old David (Higgins) who lives most of the time with his mother in a more urban or at least suburban environment. Cal is about hiking, camping, hunting and respecting nature. David is about smartphones, chatting with his friends and videogames. Cal is 19th century, David is 21st century. Cal has some fairly concrete ideas of what it takes to be a man; David’s ideas are more fluid.

On his semi-annual visit to his Dad, David is less than enthusiastic but he’s a good sport and agrees to go hunting with his Pa. He proves to be a less than adept shot to his father’s frustration – and David’s own. Cal has quite a camping trip planned; he’s been tracking a moose in the high country and wants David to bag the animal as his first kill as a hunter. David would likely much rather play a hunting simulation game if he had a choice.

But David is the kind of kid who goes along to get along and depending on how charitable your view is, either sees how important it is to his Dad and gives in or simply wants to avoid a confrontation. Either way, the two head into the mountains where Cal hopes that this trip will bring the two closer together.

Things start to go wrong nearly immediately. They go after the moose only to discover that some rank amateur has already shot it and left it to rot which is a crime in Cal’s book. Looking for some other game to at least salvage the trip, things go wrong for the two men; horribly wrong in fact, leaving them stranded in the wilderness, one of them terribly wounded and no hope for rescue. They’ll have to walk out of the mountains on their own if they are to survive.

One of the words that best describes this movie is “simple.” In other words, the Smith brothers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; they set up their shots without a lot of complication, the plot is straightforward and we are almost forced to concentrate on character interaction. This works for me particularly when the characters are interesting and the performers bring those characters to life.

The movie rests heavily on the shoulders of Bomer and Wiggins and to their credit they both do a solid job but we are given a pretty straightforward dramatic conflict; Dad = he-man outdoors type who likes to shoot things; Son = pampered Millennial with a chip on his shoulder. As winning formulas go, this is probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Still, I grant you that this kind of relationship as we see here between Cal and David feels very much authentic, the kind of extreme gulf that exists between city folk and country folk. In a way the rift between Cal and David mirrors that between urban and rural in America.

The Montana scenery as lensed by Todd McMullen is as spectacular as advertised; there’s majesty, beauty and stark emptiness here. There’s a lot of snow, particularly when the movie switches from the prairies to the mountains but it’s a pristine snow of the kind you don’t find where people are. Even in all the whiteness there’s a kind of beauty that makes the audience shiver in sympathy and also feel VERY happy to be in a warmer climate at that moment.

The one Name in the cast is Pullman who plays Cal’s father in flashbacks when Cal describes his first moose hunt to his son. Pullman has hardly any lines at all and his appearances, all in a home movie-like sheen, are not enough to really make a difference here. The pacing of the film is pretty deliberate and after awhile watching the excruciating pain that one of the cast members is in gets hard to watch; as the two men make their way down the mountain, I began to wish the film would end quickly. Maybe ADD is catching.

Other than a few scenes this is a very talky affair with little action so people who might ordinarily be into this kind of survival film will likely be a lot more than a little bit put off by the film. Those into exploring relationship dynamics might see the adventure movie side to this and give it a wide berth. There is some promise here, not just the lead actors but also behind the camera as well. The Brothers Smith have a good eye, an ability to take a basic plot and make it their own. I suspect that I won’t remember much about the movie in the days to come but I’m much more positive that I’ll be remembering the directors in years to come as they craft movies that take story ideas, bring them to their essence and make a great movie around it.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery is beautiful. The father/son dynamic is unusually realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Bill Pullman is wasted in his flashback-heavy role. At times the movie is hard to watch and at other times I couldn’t wait for it to end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images of a mauling, adult thematic elements and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale considered the role of Cal but ultimately decided to pass because he didn’t want to be separated from his family on a remote location shoot so soon after the birth of his son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Woodpeckers