Ravage


This is one shutterbug you really shouldn’t mess with.

(2019) Action (BrainstormAnnabelle Dexter-Jones, Bruce Dern, Eric Nelsen, Robert Longstreet, Joshua Brady, Ross Partridge, Chris Pinkalla, Drake Shannon, Michael Weaver. Directed by Teddy Grennan

 

One of the mainstays of grindhouse cinema in the 70s and 80s was the plotline that involved a young woman getting wronged (generally involving rape) by one or a bunch of redneck-types and then goes out to kick the ever-loving deplorable out of ‘em. Those movies fell out of favor, mainly because films depicting rape are frowned upon these days (which is a good thing). But, the kick-ass woman archetype has been passed down through the years in horror films and in revenge thrillers like this one.

Harper Sykes (Dexter-Jones) is a renowned nature photographer who has been acclaimed for going to remote and sometimes dangerous areas to get her shots and it has paid off; she has photographed two species that were thought to be extinct. Now she’s closer to home, in the (fictional) Watchatoomy Valley where, it is whispered, there are homicidal Catholics and cannibalistic Chinese living in the dense woods.

As she looks for a specific species of bird in the wilderness, she stumbles across something she’s not meant to see; a group of good ole boys feeding a man to their dogs. Sickened, she takes pictures of the perpetrators and high-tails it to the local police. Before she can show the sympathetic sheriff (Partridge) her pictures, she is abducted by the bad guys and taken to their leader, Ravener (Longstreet).

She is beaten and raped, but manages to escape, leading the men on a deadly chase where she turns out to be surprisingly vicious herself. On the way back, she runs into a nice old man (Dern) and winds up making it back to town, where a not-so-pleasant surprise waits for her.

This is as brutal a film as you’re going to see this year; it has elements of torture porn and the aforementioned grindhouse fare, but there is a bit of a modern vibe to it as well, so it never feels like a rehash of something that has come before. One of the reasons the movie works so well is the performance of Dexter-Jones, who is vulnerable at times, but hard as nails when the chips are down. She has all the makings of both an excellent action hero and a fine scream queen. She definitely has the confidence and charisma to carry a movie as she does here as she’s in almost every scene.

Most of the gore here is implied and for those who are concerned that the rape will trigger sensitive sorts, it is never actually shown onscreen but alluded to in dialogue. The ending is a wild one; you may be blown away or you may be disgusted. Either way, you won’t look the same way at dairy farms again.

There are a few problems here; most of the film is told in the form of a flashback, so we know in advance that the heroine is going to survive, even though she is bandaged head to toe in her interrogation scenes with a skeptical state detective (Weaver), which leads to another issue here – some cringe-inducing plot points. Why would a detective assume that a world-renowned photographer (as Harper is set up to be) is a demented meth-head? Why doesn’t she utilize the motorbikes that are available to her several times during the course of the film instead of trying to hike out on foot? And why does someone as methodical and as obviously well-trained as Harper is end up trusting someone who she doesn’t know, especially after she’s been burned before more than once?

Other than those sorts of things, this is a movie that grabs you by the throat and shakes you like a rabid dog with a piece of diseased flyblown meat in its maw. There isn’t anything terribly redeeming and considering the abuse that Harper takes, no triumphant feminist message; it’s just bad things happening to a good person who may have looked like a fairly vulnerable girl but turned out to be an ass-kicker of the first order. I enjoyed just about every minute of it.

REASONS TO SEE: A lot better than you think it’s going to be. Dexter-Jones proves to be an excellent action hero.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little far-fetched in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of profanity, and some sexual/rape references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Virginia near Somerset.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mother’s Day (1980)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Train to Busan Presents Peninsula

The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

The Sleepwalkers (Los sonambulos)


Country living isn’t all its cracked up to be.

(2019) Drama (MeikinCineErica Rivas, Ornella D’Elia, Luis Ziembrowski, Rafael Federman, Daniel Hendler, Marilu Marini, Valeria Lois, Gloria Demassi. Directed by Paula Hernández

Family dynamics are often a fragile thing. They may appear solid and strong on the surface, but cracks may run just beneath the surface, ready to make themselves known at a moment’s notice.

Luisa (Rivas) isn’t looking forward to spending the New Year’s break at her mother-in-law’s country home. While Meme (Marini) is congenial, she is definitely in charge of the purse strings and lets everyone know it. Luisa’s husband Emilio (Ziembrowski) insists and like a dutiful Argentine wife, she acquiesces. Her daughter Ana (D’Elia) is too busy being 14 years old to care, although not too busy to display angst and attitude at every available opportunity.

Also staying at the house is Sergio (Hendler), Emilio’s brother; and Ines (Lois), Emilio’s sister who is nursing a newborn. There is definite tension within the family; Meme is thinking of selling the house which Sergio is all for and Emilio is not. Into the mix comes Alejo (Federman), Sergio’s son and the obvious black sheep of the family. Young, manipulative, seductive, and brutally handsome, his arrival makes a tense situation even worse. Ana becomes interested in the confident, flirtatious Alejo, bringing further discord between mother and daughter. Neither one of them, however, are prepared for what comes next.

Hernandez/ fifth feature might well be her best. This is all about family dynamics and how people within families fall into familiar roles and not always healthy ones. On the surface it appears like a fun get-together where everyone is glad to see each other, but there is much tension hidden from view and it all comes out eventually. Even the stoutest pressure cooker must eventually let off steam.

The ensemble does some pretty good work here, with Rivas showing some real fire as Luisa who is extremely stressed with her relationships with both her husband and her daughter in very precarious positions and her job being threatened. D’Elia manages to perform on the same level; she’s got the petulant teenage daughter thing down to a science. She’s also amazingly beautiful; she is like a Raphael painting of cherubim come to life. Ziembrowski is also solid as the husband trying to understand his wife’s misery and failing spectacularly at it because…well, that’s what husbands do for the most part.

The pace is as slow as a summer afternoon on a particularly hot day; languid, in other words. At times it feels like not much of the story line is getting advanced but when the climax comes it’s pretty explosive and it is definitely worth all the buildup. The title refers to a condition that runs in the family, particularly with Ana who opens the movie by sleepwalking. It can also describe the pace as well.

This is not for those who look at Marvel movies as the height of cinematic achievement (although to be fair there are plenty of people who love Marvel movies that will get into movies like this one) but more for the cinephile, particularly those who are eager to sample movies from other countries and cultures. As much as I complained about the pacing, I kind of liked the way it moved slowly; it allowed me to savor the performances and the relationships that much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics here are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very slow-moving and lethargic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, nudity, sexuality and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last year and has been shown at prestigious film festivals ever since.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bacurau

#Female Pleasure


Getting down about FGM in Africa.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Vithika Yadav, Mike Scott. Directed by Barbara Miller

 

There are those who think “feminist” is a dirty word, that they are strident man-haters out to castrate the opposite sex and turn the world into a matriarchy. That the feminist movement might have legitimate and pressing concerns doesn’t necessarily occur to those sorts.

Swiss documentarian Barbara Miller looks at five women who are fighting different aspects of oppression that women face on a global scale. Closest to home is Deborah Feldman, an author and former member of New York’s Hassidic denomination of the Jewish faith. She found herself married to a man she barely knew and with absolutely no control over the direction she wanted her life to go. She decided to leave the faith and to take her son with her; she remains one of the few Hassidic women to win custody of her son when leaving the faith. She is reviled by those she formerly was part of the community with.

Former nun Doris Wagner, who while serving in a convent in the Vatican was raped by a priest there. When she confessed what happened to her to the Mother Superior, she found herself treated like a criminal, that it was her fault what happened to her. Essentially without recourse and feeling alone, she took the drastic step of renouncing her vows and attempting to communicate her story directly to Pope Francis, who she felt (as many Catholics do) might be ready to do something about the dangerous and brutal situation in the convent. To date, however, there have been no changes although Wagner is much happier these days as a wife and mother.

Japanese manga artist Rokudenashiko got into trouble when she made a model on a 3D printer of her vagina in order to make art out of them (including a fiberglass kayak). In a culture that is replete with porn, it was amazing to her that the depiction of a part of her body would elicit such a negative response but she was in fact arrested and charged with obscenity. She was eventually convicted of publishing the schematics so that others could use 3D printers to replicate her vagina, which falls under the corruption of minors. She continues to appeal the conviction, although she is now dating Mike Scott, formerly of the Welsh band The Alarm, who was drawn to her plot by a news story about her.

Indian activist Vithika Yadav is a founder of the Love Matters website. If rape is a problem here in the United States, it’s an absolute epidemic in India where women are regularly groped and assaulted. Most women in India do not feel safe going out after dark without a trusted escort. Yadav is trying to create an atmosphere where men learn to respect women and see them as partners rather than as chattel.

Somali refugee Leyla Hussein lives in London now, but in the country of her birth was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation, a barbaric practice in which the clitoris is cut off as well as in some cases other parts of the vagina so that women can no longer experience sexual pleasure. One of the most compelling scenes in the film has her showing on an oversize clay model to a group of Somali young men exactly what is done in the procedure. The horror on their faces speaks volumes.

While at times the tone gets a little shrill, this definitely isn’t an anti-man film; rather, it is anti-abuse of women. All five of these women just want women to retain control over their bodies and their lives. As has been said elsewhere, if the Somalis practiced the hacking off of male penises, a stop would have been put to it forthwith but the practice is spreading as refugees from countries that practice it are moving into Europe and North America.

The women are passionate and personable and tell their stories eloquently. If Hussein breaks down in frustration as she does at one point, it’s understandable. When you think about it, there has been a cultural fear of the vagina on a global scale for millennia. Women have been forced into arranged marriages (as have men, to be fair) but more to the point, into arranged roles in which they are subservient.

Even in Japan, women are encouraged to look and act more child-like with big bows in their hair and cutesy schoolgirl clothes, something Rokudenashiko buys into which I found a bit ironic. This is certainly a film for the #MeToo era although this isn’t just about rape – it’s about the oppression of half the worlds population by the other half. This is certainly an eye-opening movie and if you have an uncle who thinks feminists are lesbians who want to see men mowed down by machine gun fire, you might want to plunk them down and show them this film. Not that it would make much of an impression of the Rush Limbaugh-lovers, but you never know.

REASONS TO SEE: Looks at the issues of feminism with a global perspective. The storytelling is compact but often harrowing nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get strident at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, artistic depiction of female genitals and discussions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place over the course of five years with locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mountaintop

Nona


See no evil.

(2017) Drama (Rock Salt) Kate Bosworth, Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Diana Cabuto, Jasper Polish, Giancarlo Ruiz, Brittney Bell, Mildraide Lazarre, Lily Melgar, Chris Arellano, Ramsay Phelps, Jonathan Contreras, Billy Helmers, Mariana Cabrera Orozco. Directed by Michael Polish

 

Illegal immigration is a hot button topic these days and while some may chafe at the label “human rights crisis” that is in fact a more-than-adequate description of what’s going on at our southern border. Poverty and violence in Central and South American nations has led to a wave of refugees trying to make it to the United States and what has to be a better life than the one they are faced with.

Nona (Calderon) works in a small Honduran city “painting the dead”; that is, putting make-up on corpses at a local funeral home to make them funeral-ready. She is essentially alone; her father was gunned down on the way home from the local grocery to purchase a bag of chips, her brother knifed by a criminal gang, and her mother fled to America. Nona wants to join her but neither Nona nor her mother can afford the cost of getting her there.

Enter Hecho (McKinney), a bowler-wearing hipster with a free spirit and breezy attitude that belies his broken heart. He’s headed for Mexico – specifically Tijuana – and is willing to take Nona along for the company. She can pay him back for the expenses later. Although Nona is a smart and worldly sort, she finds the charm that Hecho exudes irresistible and agrees to go with him.

At first it seems like a great idea. Hecho seems to be in no particular hurry as they take various buses through the Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico, sometimes taking boats and on one occasion, a yacht. Sometimes they just hoof it but Hecho seems to have plenty of money to buy food, and occasionally party in bars and discos. The difficult and dangerous journey to the border is portrayed essentially as a stroll in the park. But when Nona reaches the border and Hecho turns her over to a coyote who will get her into the country, the parting of ways hides a dark truth that will shatter Nona’s life.

The movie makes a very jarring turn about two thirds of the way in and it is completely unexpected. I toyed with the idea of revealing what that turn is but decided not to reveal it to give that turn greater impact. Suffice to say it reflects a problem that is all too prevalent in the immigration equation.

The first two thirds of the movie could well be a travelogue with the attractive couple of Nona and Hecho sampling the culture along the way. The cinematography is idyllic and the pace somewhat languid. There is no romantic relationship between Hecho and Nona and little sexual tension so any thoughts of romance through the first part of the movie is best left put on the back-burner.

I don’t have a problem with tonal shifts in films, even ones as completely opposite as the tone of the last half hour is to the first hour. The problem is that the first hour of the movie doesn’t really set up the last 30 minutes adequately; it feels like the filmmakers wanted to give the audience a sense of how Nona must have felt when confronted by her situation which changed radically in a matter of moments. It almost feels like two different films and maybe it is. I think Polish would have benefited by spending more time on the second half of the film and less on the first.

Polish is a veteran director who has an impressively diverse filmography, although none of his films to date have really blown me away. I think this one was meant to but at the end of the day, while it is timely and even borderline essential, it is a disappointing treatment of a subject that deserves better.

REASONS TO SEE: The chemistry between the leads is strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: The abrupt shift in narrative is jarring and not adequately set up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual situations, rape, profanity, violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trafficked
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Echo in the Canyon

Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil)


Girls on patrol.

(2018) War Drama (Cohen Media Group) Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot, Zübeyde Bulut, Sinama Allevi, Mari Semidovi, Roza Mirzolani, Zinaida Gasolani, Maia Shamoevi, Nia Mirianashvili, Evin Ahmad, Ahmet Zirek, Erol Afsin, Nuka Asatiani, Behi Djanati Atal, Adik Bakoni, Tornike Alievi, Hamid Mirzolin, Farook Fadhil Hussein, Massoud Seydo, Kakha Kupatadze, Nino Osmanovi. Directed by Eva Husson

 

The Middle East has been ripped by conflict for decades now; the incursions of ISIS into Iraq and Syria only the recent chapter in a blood-soaked narrative. In 2015, news stories related the plight of women in Kurdistan who had been captured by ISIS, raped and sold into slavery; some of these escaped their captors and enlisted in the armed forces to fight back against their oppressors.

French journalist Mathilde (Bercot) is grieving for her husband who died in Libya months previously. She is not satisfied with her assignments, feeling they are not really telling the story of the atrocities going on. She hooks up with a platoon of women who have all survived capture by ISIS. They are led by the driven Bahar (Farahani), a former lawyer whose home town of Corduene is about to be the focus of an offensive by Kurdish forces.

Bahar and Mathilde bond as the French woman grows to admire the sisters of the battalion. Bahar is aware that her son (Alievi) remains in captivity in Corduene and looks to liberate him but is frustrated by an overly cautious commander (Zirek) who prefers to wait for the right time, unconcerned that time may be ticking away on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Husson clearly is passionate about the plight of these women and at times that works against her; the dialogue (which she co-wrote) is often bombastic and ponderous, sounding like a Hemingway account of war if it had been ghost-written by Sidney Sheldon. The film could have used a lighter touch but rather hits the audience like a bludgeon, from the overwrought score to the flashbacks which are often confusing.

That aside, there’s plenty to like here. The cinematography is superb and the action sequences are satisfying. More importantly, Farahani proves herself to be an actress with serious potential. Her expressive face often communicates much more than the clunky dialogue does and Farahani displays an excess of screen presence. This might be looked back upon as the film in which Farahani shows star potential. Personally, I can’t wait to see her in more.

The story the film is trying to tell is an important one and a tragic one. It’s really hard to understand how any religion can justify the treatment of other human beings this way. I guess I’m just an ignorant infidel but certainly there are moments that will get any reasonably feeling audience member’s blood boiling. I wish that the story had been handled with a lot more finesse, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Farahani delivers a triumphant performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker comes on too strong with the portents of doom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and some disturbing images, a bit of profanity and off-screen rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Husson became interested in the film after reading accounts of captive women escaping and taking up arms against ISIS. Because she had forged some strong relationships with Kurdish actors she’d toured with previously, the story resonated with her particularly.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Biggest Little Farm

Roll Red Roll


We revere our sons but marginalize our daughters.

(2018) Documentary (Sunset ParkAlexandria Goddard, Detective J.P. Rigaud, Ma’lik Richmond, Shawn McGee, Michael Nodramus, Jeremy Jones, Rachel Dissell, Michelle Nelson, Mark Nelson, Gretchen Nelson, Madeleine Nelson, Mario Cuomo, Jeno Atkins, Vinnie Fristick, Reno Saccoccia, Walter Madison, Mike DeWine, Mike McVey, Marianne Hemmeter, Michele Robinson. Directed by Nancy Schwartzman

Rape culture has become an aspect of the news cycle in recent years, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement in which women on social media who have experienced some sort of sexual crime from harassment to rape identified themselves as survivors. We have seen it in the light, inconsequential sentences given to those convicted of rape. We have seen it in the way those who report it are traumatized not only by the crime but by how they are treated afterwards. Boys will be boys, and boys rape or at least so the line of thinking goes.

Steubenville is a small town in the Rust Belt, a largely working-class town. There are not a lot of opportunities in Steubenville; most people have dead end jobs in the service industry as the manufacturing jobs that were once the town’s lifeblood are mainly gone. It’s most famous resident was the legendary Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin; after that, the town’s pride and joy is its high school football team which has won ten Ohio State championships since 1925 and as recently as 2017. The town supports its football team with a fervor verging on the religious.

In August 2012, a preseason party in Steubenville ended up with a student from another school (identified in the film only as Jane Doe, although the girl involved was identified by name on Fox News and other outlets) was raped by several members of the Steubenville football team. The girl had been drinking a lot to the point where she was passed out or nearly so. Two of the members of that team – Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays – transported her to another party and then to a third. Photos were taken. Video was taken. Tweets were made.

The girl was humiliated by the social media attention, amounting to a second rape. She decided to press charges even though her memory of the evening was very fuzzy. Detective J.P. Rigaud was assigned the case and he began the process of interviewing people at the party that she last remembered being at – the first one.

In the meantime, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard – who grew up in Steubenville although she was then based in Columbus – saw an item about two football players being charged in the rape of a teenage girl and thought that there had to be more to it than that. She began digging, looking up tweets and Facebook posts, even managing to search the archives of Twitter to see deleted tweets.

What she found was shocking – the utter lack of empathy, the objectification, the misogyny displayed by the boys (and even to a certain extent the girls of Steubenville High who shrugged and said “She should never have gone with those boys”) who joked about the event “Song of the night: Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.” “Holy shit! Something crazy’s going down, bro” and “She got raped harder than that black cop raped Marcellus Wallace.”

The town reacted with a mixture of shock – some shocked that the boys would behave as they did, others shocked that the blogger would treat their football stars as guilty before they’d even gone on trial.” Goddard was reviled and even feared for her safety as supporters of the football team called her all sorts of vile names and wished all sorts of disgusting things to be done to her. Eventually the Cleveland Plain Dealer picked up the story, then the New York Times. Finally, the hacktivist group Anonymous picked up on Jane Doe’s story and organized protests in Steubenville, targeting (somewhat unfairly) the police response, the town’s reaction, the lack of internal punishment for the players (neither Mays nor Richmond were kicked off the team despite the hard line taken by Coach Reno Saccoccia on underage drinking on his team.

Schwartzman presents the details dispassionately and chronologically. She is obviously outraged by what happened and she uses the film as a means of illustrating what rape culture means in a small American Midwestern town, supposedly the bastion of American values. One reporter mused “In protecting our sons are we putting our daughters at risk?” The short answer: yes.

The issue I have is that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Boys aren’t born rapists; we see only a little bit of the atmosphere that produced Mays and Richmond as well as the rest of the football team who thought this girl’s suffering was a big joke. While Richmond breaks down when apologizing to Jane Doe and her family in court, we never get a sense if Mays ever felt remorse or if the rest of the team felt any. Did anybody actually learn anything?

Also, these kids are all working class kids. I wonder if this case would have been treated the same way if the defendants came from a more privileged background. We’ve seen high profile cases in which wealthy white young men got off virtually consequence free for their actions. Some would say that relatively speaking, Mays and Richmond did the same.

Maybe that wasn’t Schwartzman’s function as a documentarian to find all the answers. The question is certainly raised in my mind at least so in that sense the documentary is a success, but it is a very hard film to watch emotionally and especially for those affected directly or (in my case) indirectly by rape, misogyny and sexual objectification. Goddard – the heroine of this story and a true inspiration – wrestles with the thought that she may be causing Jane Doe harm by forcing her to endlessly relive the events of that evening. Goddard comes off as a tough cookie but she dissolves into tears thinking about it.

Rape culture is a fact and we are living in it. Attitudes have to change, that much is certain. Women don’t deserve to be raped, no matter how much they drink, what they might choose to wear or where they choose to be. Men are not entitled to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want to or can’t give consent. Maybe in some way this movie – which will be playing the Florida Film Festival in a few weeks – will help move that change along.

REASONS TO SEE: The facts are well-presented. This may be the most in-your-face depiction of rape culture ever captured.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is a very hard movie to watch even if you haven’t directly been a survivor of sexual violence but particularly if you have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and frank discussions about rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was selected to kick off the 2019 season of the acclaimed PBS documentary film series POV in June.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Blue

Birds of Passage (Pajaros de verano)


Birds in plume.

(2018) Crime Drama (The Orchard) Carmiña Martinez, Josė Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, Josė Vincente Cote, Juan Bautista Martinez, Miguel Viera, Sergio Coen, Aslenis Márquez, Josė Naider, Yanker Diaz, Victor Montero, Joaquin Ramón, Jorge Lascarro, Germán Epieyu, Luisa Alfaro, Merija Uriana. Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra

 

Some movies are great because of technical achievements. Others are great because their story has universal appeal. Others achieve greatness through a combination of those elements. Rarely, a film makes greatness because of an ineffable quality all its own.

In Northern Colombia, the Wayuu people have lived speaking their own language, with their own traditions and customs for thousands of years. They do not trust Spanish speaking Colombians whose culture is as alien to them as Japan’s might be; in fact, many Colombians are unfamiliar with the Wayuu.

At the beginning of the movie (which is divided into five cantos, or songs), Zaida (Reyes), the daughter of the clan matriarch Úrsula (C. Martinez), is celebrating her coming of age. Her position makes her quite a catch for the men of the clan. One, Rapayet (Acosta) is particularly eager to claim Zaida as his bride but Úrsula is less sanguine about the idea. She gives him a ridiculously high dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows and five precious necklaces. Rapayet, who is regarded with suspicion by the clan because he has had business dealings with non-Wayuu, is nonetheless determined to make Zaida his wife. He and his partner Moisės (Narváez) have been picking coffee beans and selling them but a chance encounter with American Peace Corps volunteers leads them to a more valuable cash crop – marijuana.

With gringo pilots set to deliver the goods to market and leaving them ridiculous amounts of cash, Rapayet prevails on fellow clan member Anibal (J.B. Martinez) to use part of his ranch to grow weed for him which they sell to the Americans at a massive profit. At first the arrangement works swimmingly and both Anibal and Rapayet become wealthy with the latter able to afford the dowry and wed Zaida much to the matriarch’s dismay. However, she eventually gets with the program when she sees the money and prestige her new son-in-law is bringing to the clan.

But things aren’t ducky for long. First, Moisės proves to be something of a loose cannon. Then, the son of Úrsula proves to be even worse, a disrespectful, entitled lout whose indiscretions threaten to bring the clan to a civil war. Rapayet is only able to watch helplessly as everything he loves – his family, his clan, his culture – slowly begin to circle the drain.

This is quite simply put a masterpiece of Latin American cinema. Gallego and Guerra – who directed the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent – have outdone even that movie with a film that is lyrical in content but with elements of a tragedy as well as a crime drama all rolled into one. While not at the level of The Godfather it is still a movie that is going to make a whole lot of impact on the genre.

The cinematography is breathtaking, from the lavish luxury of Rapayet’s hacienda, the desolation of the empty plain it sits on, the simple beauty of the village, the lavish costumes of the villagers and the beauty that is Colombia. It is a gorgeous movie to watch. There are moments and images that will stay with you for a very long time.

While the movie takes place between 1968 through 1980, the timelessness of the lives of the Wayuu really doesn’t give those of us who are urbanized a sense of period. That the story is so compelling also contributes to the timelessness of the movie – greed and pride often do lead to a fall and therein lies the tragedy. One ends up wondering if the drug importing hadn’t been introduced to the clan would they have ended up being happier? Certainly, more of them would have been left alive.

Clearly the filmmakers have a great abiding respect for the Wayuu culture and just as clearly much research was done into it. The co-directors are adept at telling their story and it never seems to go in the direction you think it’s going to with few exceptions. There is a bit of an element of morality play here but at the end of the day this is masterful film making that should be at the top of every film buff’s must-see list this year.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers clearly have a reverence and respect for native cultures. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is a compelling one. This film never goes in the direction that you think it’s going to.
REASONS TO AVOID: The violence can be brutal and graphic which may offend the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and profanity, brief nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The co-directors were married but divorced during the production of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: New Jack City
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Roll Red Roll