Everything in the End


There are worse places to spend Earth’s final days than in Iceland.

(2021) Drama (Hello Charles) Hugo de Sousa, Bergdis Julia Johannsdottir, Lilja ɒorisdottir, Joi Johannsson, Elizabeth Austin, Gunnar Ragnarsson, Raul Portero, Reynir Ingvason, Kolbrun Erna Petursdottir, Ylfa Marie Haraldsdottir. Directed by Mylissa Fitzsimmons

 

I don’t know why it’s so hard to make a good movie about the end of the world. Very few have succeeded, possibly because the subject is so grim it’s hard to even contemplate. Facing our own mortality is never easy, but facing the end of any sort of future for the human race – unthinkable, but given how much we’ve abused this planet, it might be something that bears contemplation.

Young Paulo (de Sousa) is stranded in a small town in Iceland. He, like everybody else, is aware that the planet is about to fall victim to a cataclysm that is going to end all life in a few days. He is Portuguese but doesn’t seem particularly heartbroken about not being able to return home. Instead, he tries to form bonds with everyone else he meets, from a sweet English expat (Austin) to a terrified young single mother (Johannsdottir) to an innkeeper who seems resigned to the coming cataclysm (Ragnarsson).

That’s essentially it for the movie, other than stunning shots of Icelandic country side and endless, repetitive shots of the ocean crashing on the rugged shore. It feels like the filmmaker looked at this movie as an opportunity to spend some time in Iceland and forgot to bring a script with her. Everything seems so flat and without emotion. There is little hysteria (one person drowns themself) and most people seem to just go on with life even as the hours count down.

There should be some profound insight about the fragility and wonder of life, but I really didn’t see any. There are a lot of pretentious utterings and little emotional impact to the film, not enough to sustain anyone’s interest. One gets the sense of a party coming to an end and everyone headed home without much in the way of regret. I don’t know if it was because I saw this at home and not with an audience, but I just didn’t connect with this film at all; it just felt as lifeless and dull as what was awaiting the cast at the end of the movie. When the end finally came, it was more of an “oh well” than an “ah shit.” That seems to me to be a lame epitaph. This was one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen at the Florida Film Festival.

REASONS TO SEE: Some beautiful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretentious as all get out. Barely over an hour long, it still felt padded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut narrative feature film for Fitzsimmons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
The Paper Tigers

It Is Not Over Yet


The picture of compassion.

(2021) Documentary (First Hand) May Bjerre Elby. Directed by Louise Detlefsen

 

Aging is a bitch. Getting old means the physical degrading of our bodies as we slowly lose the ability to do the things we once took for granted. Worse yet, society tends to treat the aged as lovable idiots who are terrible drivers, absolutely clueless when it comes to technology and generally burdens on society.

As I write this, my mother is 85 years old. I see her regularly and yes, her memory isn’t as reliable as it once was. She tires easily. She has many infirmities which she sometimes complains about. I can see her spiraling down, no longer the woman I remember her being, the woman who raise my sister and I, who worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known and who fought fiercely for my sister and I to get the very best opportunities we could to have a good life. She remains sharp and still essentially herself. Not every child gets that blessing for their parents.

In Denmark, as in the United States, elder care is a problem, particularly for those with dementia. Often their kids at some point have to put them in a care facility, exhausted and no onger to provide the care for their parents that is needed. In those places, the patients are often medicated within an inch of their lives, shut in their rooms, frightened, angry and lonely, their memories faded to virtually nothing. They are given little stimulation and less attention.

Danish nurse May Bjerre Elby worked in facilities like that. Worse yet, she had to place her father in a facility like that and watch the neglect take its toll until he passed away. Horrified at the treatment of people who had worked all their lives and helped build Denmark into the country it is today, she decided to do something about it. She opened a care center in Dasmarsminde, north of Copenhagen. Rather than utilizing advanced technology and pharmaceuticals (her residents are given little more than occasional pain medication for the aches and pains of old age), Elby instead went back to the philosophies of the original nurse Florence Nightingale as well as Danish philosopher Løgstrup for a more compassionate kind of care.

The eleven residents are given almost resort-like treatment; they are led on walks through the beautiful Danish countryside, into the garden and chicken coop, and are treated as adults. Staff look them in the eyes and give them hugs, also encouraging them to hug trees (something my mother would definitely approve of) and in general, enjoy the moment. Cake is served on a regular basis. When one of the residents passes away, the survivors drink a toast to their fallen comrade and sing their favorite song as their coffins are wheeled out to a waiting hearse.

We are introduced to a variety of the residents such as temperamental Torkild whose wife Vibeke has become unable to care for herself; Torkild also has dementia but refuses to believe it so his children manipulate him into staying with Vibeke until she is able to walk again, something that is unlikely to happen There is Inge, who flirts shamelessly with Torkild, and whose husband Jørgen has essentially given up on life, unable to take care of himself or his wife. There’s gentle Grete who breaks down at one point in the arms of a patient staffer. And yes, we meet the staff as well, particularly Dorte and Lotte.

The movie is at times overwhelming, but there is so much beauty here; yes, there are beautiful shots of the woods in all four Danish seasons (the filmmakers spent a year at the facility) but it is the beauty of the human spirit that really impresses about this movie. May’s facility is the sort of place I would want my mother to be in if her cognitive functions deteriorated to the point where she needed better care than my sister or I could provide for her ourselves – and I do think that’s at the core of May’s philosophy of care; treating the patients as she would want her own parents to be treated. It is a revolutionary – and somewhat controversial – idea for the care for our elderly, and one I hope is adopted throughout the world. Those of that age group spent their lives working, building a home for their children, creating the world (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) that we live in. They deserve to be given dignity, respect and compassion. Perhaps if we treated our elderly that way, we could learn to treat each other that way as well. And wouldn’t that make for a better world entirely?

REASONS TO SEE: A beautiful rendering of how humans respond to compassion. Treats the elderly with respect. Highly moving and emotionally gripping. Tackles a subject we tend to turn away from as a society.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get extremely painful to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: The film deals with adult themes and the sometimes painful realities of dementia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bjerre recently won the prestigious Fonsberg Prize, an award given to Danish citizens who raise awareness of social issues.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dick Johnson is Dead
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Everything in the End

Trigger Point (2021)


Barry Pepper ain’t saving Private Ryan anymore.

(2021) Suspense (Screen Media) Barry Pepper, Colm Feore, Eve Harlow, Carlo Rota, Jayne Eastwood, Nazneen Contractor, Laura Vandervoort, Karen Robinson, Rainbow Sun Francks, Greg Bryk, John Kirkpatrick, Ryan Malcolm, Reid Janisse, Juan Carlos Valis, Tim Progosh, Brian Cook, Anthony Ferri, Plato Fountidakis, Susie Blanco. Directed by Brad Turner

 

When you’re talking about shadowy spy agencies (not so much the CIA of Jason Bourne or the MI:6 of James Bond) you are generally talking about murky moral compasses and blindingly serious characters who are extremely competent at killing, only without the ability to let loose a bon mot at the moment of vanquishing his opponent.

Nicholas Shaw (Pepper) is one such. He is meticulous, and never ever misses. He is out of the game now, retired to a bucolic small town where he regularly has breakfast in the local café and orders books from the local book store, getting on nicely with his neighbors. They would never suspect that in a previous life, he was a deadly assassin.

And they DEFINITELY wouldn’t guess that he was captured and tortured, giving up the identities of eight members of his team who were then murdered by Quentin, a mysterious crime boss. Nicholas doesn’t remember much of this, only that he needs to lay low for a short time – the rest of his life, say. Then, his past comes walking through his door in the person of Elias Kane (Feore), his former boss. It seems that Elias’ daughter Fiona (Harlow) went out looking for Quentin and has since been captured. She is likely dead, but there is only one person living who knows the true identity of Quentin – that is Nicholas, although he doesn’t remember that crucial piece of information. So as he is the only person who could possibly rescue Fiona, he will have to un-retire and go after the person responsible for taking away everything from him. Sounds fair.

Some critics have compared this to the Bourne franchise, and that’s not inaccurate although Robert Ludlum’s world is much more well thought out. Pepper, who has played sharpshooters before, is perfect for this kind of work, and he is the stand-out here. However, if you can’t figure out who the bad guy is here, you’re either not paying attention or you don’t go to movies much.

The action sequences are decent enough, although the movie could use more of them. The script is on the talky side, which isn’t a point in its favor. Pepper would do better in a role where he has less dialogue – not that he isn’t good at dialogue, but his character would be more effective if he spoke less, and Pepper is a good enough actor that he could pull off getting things across without having to spell things out.

Overall, this isn’t bad entertainment if you’re waiting for a new John Wick film to come down the pike (that’s still another year away, true believers) although I caution you that there is far less action than in that estimable franchise nor is the world here as fully developed as that one. One could say it’s a low-rent Jason Bourne without the exotic locations or the exquisite plotting. No, that’s not it either; this is more a B-movie low-budget spy thriller of the sort Bruce Willis was doing a decade or two ago. There’s something to be said for those films, so long as your expectations aren’t that high.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining super-competent assassin thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly serious; could have used some lighter moments to break up the monotony.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some brief sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turner has more than thirty years of experience, mainly in the television side doing episodes of 24 and Homeland, among others.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cold Light of Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
It Is Not Over Yet

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest (Kim Kanonarm og Rejsen mod Verdensrekorden)


The master at work.

(2021) Documentary (Good Company) Kim “Cannon Arm” Købko, Michael Dyst, Mads Hedegaard, Carsten Tommy Lauridsen, Svavar Gunnar Gunnarsson, Michael Trier, Emil Godfredsen, Billy Mitchell, Christoffer Daniel, Morten Riis Svendsen, Rasmus Roten Nadsen, Peter Udby, Mette Zacchariasson, Jesper Øland, Johnny Bonde, Helge Frisenette. Directed by Mads Hedegaard

 

Those of a certain age will remember what it was like to stand in an arcade for hours on end playing videogames with your friends. Our parents despaired of our timewasting activities; it is therefore somewhat ironic that we of that age now despair of the timewasting activities of our children, justifying it with “at least we were out of the house with our friends instead of staring at a screen alone in our room,” conveniently ignoring the fact that we were largely staring at a screen ourselves.

Kim Købko is a 55-year-old Danish grandfather (!) who loves arcade gaming, and he’s pretty good at it; he holds the world record as the movie begins for playing 49 hours straight on a single quarter on the somewhat obscure game Gyruss. His friends are mostly gaming champions as well; Michael Dyst, a published poet and poetry slam veteran, holds record scores on Puzzle Bobble 1 and 2, while physicist Svavar owns some Tetris records to his credit.

Kim realizes that at his age, his physical reflexes will soon begin to deteriorate, as will his mental acuity. He wants to make one more run at a grand challenge; to more than double his own world record by playing Gyruss continuously on a single quarter for 100 hours.

This is much more daunting than it sounds. That’s more than four days mostly standing up, running outside for bathroom breaks, eating while you play (which limits the menu somewhat), taking sleep breaks of 15 minutes only when you’ve built up enough lives so that the game doesn’t end while you are napping. Careful count has to be kept of how many lives are in the bank; the game itself only displays three, while it adds twelve for every million points scored. Too many lives in the bank will also cause the game to end; therefore Kim will need his friends to help him keep track of his lives and keep his spirits up, while monitoring his physical health.

It’s incredibly taxing on a physical level, not to mention mentally; as the hours go on without proper sleep, the mind is affected since the toxins of the day haven’t been dispelled by sleep. People can hallucinate when sleep-deprived, a very bad situation if you’re trying to keep from seeing the dreaded “game over” screen.

Not only does the player need to be in tip-top condition, so does the game. It has to be remembered that these games are over 35 years old; in the electronics world, that’s the equivalent of being old enough to remember the First World War. Finding the electronics needed to keep the game working properly is nearly impossible, and keeping original circuitry operating is a tedious task (we see the grim reality of that as one of the games Kim plays abruptly cuts out during game play which would be a disaster during a marathon game).

Hedegaard is part of Kim’s inner circle and a fellow gamer at the Bip Bip Bar in Copenhagen, where the group hangs out. As such, he has a deep understanding of the group dynamics and above all the comradery that has developed between them. There is a scene where they visit the grave of Thomas, a member of the group who battled depression and eventually took his own life; he acted as a mentor to Kim and pushed him to go after his dreams, no matter what they might be. While Kim is far too internally-oriented to voice it, you get the feeling that his single-minded pursuit of the record is largely due to Thomas.

While Kim is the central figure in the film, he is not a particularly interesting man. Unlike most of his friends, we don’t get a sense of what he does outside the arcade. If he has a job, we aren’t told what it is. He rarely speaks and when he does, its mostly in a barely audible mumble. Although we are told in the beginning that he is a grandfather, we never see a grandchild or child in the film, nor a wife or even an ex. Apparently if the film is any indication, they aren’t a part of his life. In fact, none of his circle appears to have any sort of girlfriend or partner of any sort.

Hedegaard does give us some background into competitive arcade gaming (legendary arcade gamer Billy Mitchell makes a brief appearance) but also delves into how gaming, music theory and physics share some common ground. These are interesting sequences that are often enhanced by clever animations. Those who aren’t necessarily familiar with arcade games will not feel left out of the loop.

But having an affinity for gaming definitely helps. People get into gaming for different reasons. Most of the guys in this circle of friends can be considered outsiders; guys who don’t necessarily fit in with the popular sorts; they are largely introverts who come into their own only when among themselves. I’m sure you know somebody like that or maybe YOU are just like that. Even if you don’t game, you can relate to folks like this, although something has to be done about their hair. At least one of them went full-on Viking and that just doesn’t work in 2021, dudes.

The movie is currently playing at two prestigious festivals; Hot Docs in Canada, and CPH DOX in its native Denmark. The movie can be streamed from those sites for those who live in those countries; otherwise, keep an eye out for it on the Festival circuit or at your local art house.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of gaming history and a surprising amout of quantum physics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Anti-climactic and a bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The average person utters about 16,000 words during a single day. Kim rarely exceeds 250.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Trigger Point

Lady Buds


A bitter harvest.

(2021) Documentary (Pacoline) Felicia Carbajal, Joyce Centofanti, Cheryl Mumzer Goldman, Pearl Moon, Chiah Rodrigues, Sue Taylor, Karyn Wagner, Dani Burkhart, Eileen Russell, Monique Ramirez, Liz Poindexter, Lori Ajax. Directed by Chris J. Russo

 

We have a tendency to use marijuana as something of a punchline, socially speaking. It brings visions of stoners getting an urgent case of the munchies at 2am after a day smoking weed and navel-gazing, laughing at jokes that nobody but other stoners understand, and high-tailing it (pun intended) to Taco Bell for all the gorditas they can afford.

With California legalizing cannabis for recreational use, there is a seismic shift taking place among the growers of the plant. Heretofore small growers essentially ruled the roost (many in Humboldt County, a beautiful redwood-dotted mountainous region), Proposition 84 – which was promised to keep big agribusiness out for at least a year after the prop went into effect – presented the largely outlaw culture of Humboldt and Mendocino counties a confusing maze of bureaucracy and paperwork that soon, it becomes clear, is meant to pave the way for Big Agra to take over.

While the perception that cannabis culture is largely male-dominated, there are a surprisingly large percentage of women who have been involved in the industry and this documentary from first-time feature filmmaker Russo (not related to the Russo Brothers of the MCU so far as I know). Some have been involved with the business for decades, like farmer Chiah Rodrigues, a second generation farmer whose parents were both part of the counterculture; she runs a farm with her husband who prefers to spend time cross-pollinating and cross-breeding different strains of marijuana to produce a superior bud. Then there are the Bud Sisters, long-time friends Pearl Moon and Joyce Centofanti, who joyfully partake of their own product and have become civic leaders in Humboldt for their passion for the business. There are also relative newcomers to the table, like Karyn Wagner, a former New York restauranteur who switched coasts to be with her pot-grower husband and after his untimely death, sought to create branding for her product, calling on her experience in the dining industry. A newcomer to the industry is Sue Taylor, a retired Catholic school principal who hopes to open a dispensary in Berkeley that caters to seniors and would also serve as an education center into the benefits of cannabis, but has to overcome the hurtles of dealing with a bureaucracy that is anything but helpful. Finally there is the energetic Felicia Carbajal, a Latin and queer activist looking to raise the profile of people of color within the industry where they are grossly underrepresented (as they are in most businesses that provide opportunities for success).

As with most documentaries that follow multiple subjects, your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how you relate to the individuals depicted in it. For me, I found the Bud Sisters to be absolutely delightful. They would definitely be a hoot to hang out with, although it would be dangerous to me as I am, regrettably, allergic to cannabis. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be entertained, and so will you be, listening to their irreverent attitudes. You also feel for the small farmer like Rodrigues, who is seeing a lifetime of work going up in proverbial smoke as she sees the writing on the wall; the legalization brought a dramatic drop in price, as well as the dangers posed by the recent wildfires in California. Some of the old-timers speak of their way of life disappearing, but that was inevitable, just as the invasion of large-money interests into the industry is inevitable. It is extremely likely that the small grower won’t survive when you have a deep-pocketed business able to operate at a loss for years while driving the competition out of business. That has how capitalism has worked for centuries.

This is largely an anecdotal documentary; it doesn’t delve deeply into facts and figures, mostly following along its subjects and taking what they have to say as gospel. Also, while the movie is marketed largely as a celebration of women in the emerging industry, more attention seems to being paid to the fact that they are LGBTQ in some cases or people of color in others. We don’t really get a sense of what being a woman brings to the table of the cannabis industry that is different than what a man brings. You get a sense that all of the people here portrayed are champions of the medicinal values of marijuana and are genuinely interested in helping people even more than they are making a profit, but I’m sure there are some women in the industry who are entirely profit-oriented and it would have been nice to hear from one of those, particularly a young person as most of the subjects in the documentary are middle aged or older.

At the end of the day, you do get some insight into the disquieting prospects the small farmers face in the teeth of big business and big government bureaucracy (California is notorious for making its citizens jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops in order to get anything done) and in that sense, is a fairly universal message for anyone who is thinking of operating a small artisanal farm. The insights on that end are worth looking into, but otherwise I would have been a little happier had the documentary dropped perhaps one or two of the subjects and focused more on the Bud Sisters, Rodrigues and Taylor who I thought were the most interesting subjects.

The movie recently made its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Canada, and Canadian readers can stream the film from their website which can be found here. Keep an eye out for it as it should be making the rounds of film festivals throughout the summer and fall.

REASONS TO SEE: The Bud Sisters are absolutely and irrepressibly charming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use (as you might imagine) as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proposition 64, a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use for marijuana, passed on November 8, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evergreen: The Road to Legalization
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest

My Fiona


Gemma can smile, but it hides the tears.

(2021) Drama (The Art Factory) Jeanette Maus, Corbin Reid, Sara Amini, Elohim Nycalove, Travis Coles, John Ennis, Ryan W. Garcia, Camille Guaty, April Lang, Thomas A. Keith, Jess Riley, Courtney Hawkins, Sterling Sulieman, Elle Vernee, Ursula Taherian, Boston Beck, Naiia Ulrich, Rachel Zink. Directed by Kelly Walker

 

When someone dies, they leave an ineffable hole in the lives of those around them. Sometimes that hole becomes so overwhelmingly large, its gravitational pull threatens to suck us in completely.

When Fiona (Amini) excuses herself from the desk she shares with her start-up company’s co-founder (and sole other employee) Jane (Maus) with a cherrful “I’ll be right back,” there’s no sense that anything profound is about to happen, but it does. Moments later, Jane is screaming in horror as her best friend lies dying on the ground in front of the building, having hurled herself off the roof.

At the funeral, Jane is numb but there is rage simmering under the exterior. She goes back to the office, searching for a clue as to why her friend did what she did. She connects with Fiona’s wife, Gemma (Reid), offering to babysit their son Bailey (Nycalove) so that Gemma can get back to work. And slowly (but surely), Jane begins to become more a part of their lives, while her own sexuality – she had been straight – begins to come into question as she begins to develop feelings for Gemma. After all, the two women have something important in common – Fiona’s ghost, still looming in their lives as surely as if they’d erected a statue in her honor.

Walker’s first feature film is a self-assured affair that rarely makes missteps. Sure, there are some scenes that feel maudlin and the ending’s emotional payoff doesn’t quite feel earned, and maybe there are a few too many indie film tropes (sad indie music over a montage here, tonal shifts sharp enough to scratch diamonds and so forth) but overall, you have to admire Walker’s choices. She opts for real emotions and real reactions over manufactured ones in most cases and sometimes the rawness hits you in the face pretty sharply.

It helps that she’s assembled a crackerjack cast to realize her vision. Maus, an acting coach and veteran actress best-known for Your Sister’s Sister and Charm City Kings, has magma simmering under a cool exterior. She seems okay, but Jane is SO not okay. From time to time she explodes with powerful and often unexpected ferocity (as she does at the funeral), but there is unexpected tenderness, as in the way she deals with Bailey’s tantrums. Her chemistry with Reid is undeniable and speaking of Reid, Gemma’s grief is mainly less explosive than Jane’s but no less deeply felt. Reid carries Gemma with quiet dignity and increasing frustration as she sees this intrusion on her grief as welcome at first, confusing later and upsetting after that.

Even more impressive than the two women is Nycalove. Bailey is naturally devastated by the death of his mother, and his acting out is completely understandable, albeit uncomfortable to watch at times. It can’t have been an easy task for the young actor, nor for the director in coaxing out a show of emotion like this from a juvenile, but both Walker and Nycalove were up to the task. Kudos to both of them.

Cinematographer Laura Jansen does some impressive work, both with a swooping spiral shot that circles around the tops of actors before coming to rest, to keeping tight close-ups on the tightly-wound Jane’s face, to some beautiful images throughout the film. My Fiona is not always an easy film to watch and while the short runtime isn’t going to dissuade anyone from watching – in fact, I might have added a few more scenes to develop Fiona’s personality a little more – it does, in fact, bear watching.

REASONS TO SEE: Nycalove gives a realistic portrait of a child grieving and acting out.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maus passed away on January 24, 2021 of colon cancer at age 39.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through May 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pieces of a Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Buds

My Wonderful Wanda (Wanda, mein Wunder)


Not your typical family gathering.

(2020) Dramedy (Zeitgeist) Agnieszka Grochowska, Marthe Keller, André Jung, Jacob Matschenz, Birgit Minichmayr, Bruno Rajski, Iwo Rajski, Anatole Taubman, Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewki, Gottfried Breitfuss. Directed by Bettina Oberli

 

In recent years, women from Eastern Europe have flocked to wealthier countries in Western Europe to act as in-home caregivers for wealthy families. Often, these women are the sole breadwinners for their families and are away from their children often for months at a time.

Wanda (Grochowska) is one such, a Polish woman who travels by bus to Switzerland where she works for the industrialist Wegmeister-Gloor family who have a gorgeous home on the shores of Lake Zurich. Patriarch Josef (Jung) has been laid up by a stroke and needs Wanda to stretch his atrophied limbs, help him go to the bathroom, bring meals and whatever else needs doing. She does so with quiet competence and compassion. Josef is fond of her, but perhaps not so fond as his 28-year-old son Gregi (Matschenz) is, although Gregi lacks the intestinal fortitude to act on his desires. Daughter Sophie (Minichmayr), a redheaded hurricane who is petulant and paranoid, and says all the wrong things, arrives with her lawyer husband Manfred (Taubman), while regal Elsa (Keller) presides over all with elegance and warmth.

Wanda also has a less savory side deal going on with Josef that yields unforeseen consequences and throws the delicate family dynamic into chaos. Sophie, already convinced that Wanda is out to screw the family over, is livid and while a compromise is worked out that will theoretically make everyone happy, nobody consults those most affected by the situation.

While there are elements of a class war farce going on here, the movie is really about family dynamics and although there is a good deal of eccentricity in this particular family, there is something realistic about them as well. Oberli, who co-wrote the film along with Cooky Ziesche, takes great pains to give the family members distinctive personalities and backgrounds. Oddly enough, that is not the case for the title character whose motivations and feelings are rarely expressed in the movie, and while some of her backstory is given through Zoom conversations with her kids back in Warsaw, Wanda remains the most enigmatic character in the movie.

The acting is strong here, but none stronger than Keller, who like Charlotte Rampling, was a big star in Europe who was imported to Hollywood in the 1970s and then after a brief run as a leading lady, returned back to European movies. She remains an engaging screen presence and is the emotional center of this particular film, and for those like me who got to know her in films like Bobby Deerfield and Marathon Man, it is wonderful seeing her again, particularly in a role that utilizes her talents nicely.

The movie tends to be at its weakest when it goes for farce, particularly in the third act. It does run a little bit long for American audiences and some of the action tends to be a little bit soap opera-esque in places, but overall this is a strong film with some terrific performances that while not particularly illuminating, is at least a bit different than what we’re used to.

REASONS TO SEE: Keller is a regal presence, and it’s wonderful to see her onscreen again.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the soapy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keller trained as a ballet dancer before a skiing accident at age 16 forced her to change her emphasis to acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being There
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Fiona

The Oak Room


Not the guy you want to see come into your bar after closing.

(2021) Thriller (Gravitas) RJ Mitte, Peter Outerbridge, Ari Millen, Nicholas Campbell, Martin Roach, David Ferry, Amos Crawley, Avery Esteves, Coal Campbell, Adam Seybold. Directed by Cody Calahan

 

You’ve heard it before. A guy walks into a bar at closing time (or shortly thereafter) with a story to tell. It’s a dark and stormy night and the snow is falling, and the rest of the world is asleep, but those in the bar are very much awake.

Bartender Paul (Outerbridge) is closing up when a masked, hooded figure walks in – not something you want in the middle of a dark and stormy night. After nearly clobbering said figure with a baseball bat, the stranger removes his mask to reveal that he is Steve (Mitte), also someone Paul in particular is not happy to see. See, Paul was buddies with Steve’s Dad Gordon (N. Campbell) – everyone’s dad is named Gordon in Canada – and Steve had left town to go to college, flunked out and promptly disappeared. He hadn’t even come home for Dad’s funeral, so Paul was left to foot the bill. He still has Gordon’s ashes in a tackle box, waiting for Steve. Steve owes Paul, that’s for sure – but Steve wants to repay Paul with a story.

Steve’s not a particularly good storyteller – he tells Paul the ending of the story first, and is eager to tell him the beginning, but Paul isn’t interested. Paul has a story of his own to tell. And so the two men swap stories in the cold, wintery night, and there is something darker taking place in the bar than a winter storm could account for.

There’s a feeling of noir to the film, and that’s a good thing. The movie owes its gestation to a stage play, and there is definitely a stagey feel to the single set production which takes place in two separate bars, including the titularly named Oak Room – which isn’t the bar that Steve and Paul are sitting in. There isn’t a ton of action – how could there be when you’re talking about two guys telling stories, and those stories include stories about guys telling stories – and there’s a ton of dialogue, nor is the dialogue particularly snappy. What the film IS successful at is keeping the viewer’s interest and keeping the tension building, and there’s something to be said for that.

The themes of father-son relationships and their breakdowns, mistaken identities (as a metaphor, or at least that’s what I figured), and the place of stories in modern culture are all well-taken and require a little bit of thought from the viewer. Even so, this is the kind of movie you can sit back and watch on a cold, dark night if you’re looking for a certain type of atmosphere and not necessarily have to think too hard. How much effort you put into the movie won’t necessarily determine your enjoyment of it, which is a rare feat in moviemaking. I don’t always see it in the movies I review, but I try to applaud it when I do see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Your interest is piqued throughout. Has noir-ish elements with a Northern edge.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit stage-y and may be a bit too dialogue-heavy for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drinking and violence – some of it graphic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No women appear in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch .44
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
My Wonderful Wanda

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

The Rookies (Su Ren Te Gong)


Toto, we’re not in Racoon City anymore.

(2019) Action Comedy (Shout!) Talu Wang, Sandrine Pinna, Milla Jovovich, David Lee McInnis, Meitong Liu, Timmy Xu, Suet Lam, Kwok-Kwan Chan, Zhan Xiao, Nuo Lu, Kathy Chow, Paul Allica, Bernadett Ostorhazi, David Rayden, Mekael Turner, Kyle Paul, Pierre Bourdaud, Barret Coates, Temur Mahrnisavilli, Isaac Fernandez, Franz Rugamer, Bjorn Freiberg, Timea Saghy. Directed by Alan Yuen

 

You’ve probably seen this one before; a billionaire decides to unleash a world-ending catastrophe being opposed by a dedicated spy of undeniable physical skills. Then again, saving the world isn’t what it used to be.

In this hot mess by veteran Hong Kong action director Alan Yuen, social media extreme sports star Zhao Feng (Wang) literally drops in on a meeting of criminal gangs who are delivering the gas to the billionaire in exchange for the (wait for it…you guessed it…(wait for it)…Holy Grail. Indiana Jones would be rolling in his grave if he had one. Graham Chapman certainly is.

Feng is rescued from the gun-toting baddies by Bruce (Jovovich), a stone-faced agent for the Order of the Phantom Knighthood (I’m not making this up) and who now recruits Feng into the Order to help them steal the Grail from its current resting place in the collection of a Hungarian squidillionaire and keep it safe while protecting the world from the crazed Iron Fist (McInnis) who frequently talks to his dead wife’s eyeball, which he keeps preserved in a jar. Doesn’t everybody?

Feng is joined in his quest by a ragtag team of other novices; Miao Yan (Pinna), a cop with anger management issues, Ding Shan (Xu), a somewhat eccentric genius and crackpot inventor, and LV (Liu), an unemployed doctor who worships Ding and cheerfully tests his dangerous inventions. Feng’s own exaggerated ego may come back to haunt the team as they race against time and the odds to save the planet. Can these rookies succeed where seasoned pros have failed?

Like many Hong Kong action films dating back to the 80s and 90s, there is an absurdist streak that is rampant in the film, something that Hong Kong audiences tend to accept a bit better than their American counterparts. However, Yuen takes it to new heights (or depths) in this case with sight gags that fall flat and quips that lose something in translation. And speaking of translation, the distributors elected to dub this rather than subtitle it which is not always a good idea. Unfortunately, some of the signs and titles go untranslated which is frustrating to those who don’t read Mandarin, and we get the sense that the translation may not be all its cracked up to be.

But most folks watch these sorts of films for the action sequences and those are in general right on the money. Feng may be an insufferable boob whose face you may want to punch ten minutes into the movie, but Wang (or his stunt double) is a pretty able action star which does take some of the sting out. Jovovoich, ever the consummate pro, does what she can here until her character is sidelined way too early in the movie and she is more or less out of the picture from then on.

The CGI tends to be pretty weak here, but from what I can tell Chinese audiences tend to be a lot less discriminating in that regard, so take that for what it’s worth. There is some entertainment value here, but American big-budget action fans are likely to find this primitive, dumb and unsatisfying, but those who have already embraced Hong Kong action films for the delights that they are may find this a worthwhile investment of their time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lowbrow humor wears on you as the film goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released in China in 2019, but did mediocre business which may account for it not getting a Stateside release until now.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Slalom