Recon (2019)


Walking in the woods on a snowy evening.

(2019) War (Brainstorm) Alexander Ludwig, RJ Featherstonhaugh, Franco Nero, Chris Brochu, Mitch Ainley, Christopher Crema, Julian Domingues, Sam Keeley, Lochlyn Munro, Tyler Hynes, Blake Williams, Robert Stratford, Nathan Jean, Chase Sander, Luigi Platania, Justin Derrickson, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Christie Burke. Directed by Robert David Port

 

It is World War II and the fighting in Italy is coming to a close. The Nazis are on the run, and the fascist government in Rome has collapsed. An American officer, Captain Rogers (Munro) – not Steve – has tasked one of his units with going into the Italian mountains to find reliable intelligence as to where the Germans are and whether they are massing for a counter-attack.

This particular unit is a bit traumatized. They had witnessed their commanding officer (Hynes) execute an innocent and are being sent on a dangerous mission with very little idea of what they are getting themselves into. The sergeant splits his team into two units; we are following the one led by Corporal Marson (Ludwig), along with Privates Asch (Brochu), Heisman (Featherstonehaugh), and Joyner (Keeley). They run into an aged Italian man named Angelo (Nero) who is willing to lead them into the mountains – even though his English is dicey at best – and point out where the Germans are, but can they trust him, or is he really a German spy, who is leading them to their death?

It wouldn’t take much to get them there. They are being stalked by a German sniper (Jean) and the mountains are bitter cold and full of wolves. They must traverse rickety rope bridges and the stress becomes palpable as the men bicker among themselves, much to the disgust of Angelo who, as it turns out, has some military experience.

The movie is surprisingly strong, but then again, Port was an Oscar winner for his documentary short Twin Towers. He builds a sense of dread that is gripping, and while the characters are a bit war-movie cliché – the loud-mouthed city boy, the aw-shucks football player, the conflicted leader, they’re all here. Cinematographer Edd Lukas does a great job of capturing the stark winter landscape, making it both forbidding and beautiful.

The movie is a bit slow-moving as we follow this remarkably talkative unit into dangerous territory where snipers could be anywhere; even when they are under fire by a hidden gunman, they still insist on talking as if their pursuer can’t hear them. It’s a bit unrealistic and it does take the logically-minded out of the movie a bit.

The performances, though, are strong – in particular Ludwig, who most know from the recently-completed Vikings TV series, and Nero, who is worth seeing even in a fairly small but pivotal role. Brochu is also sufficiently entertaining as the team’s wiseacre. Apparently based on an actual incident (as chronicled in a book by Richard Bausch entitled Peace which was the original title of the film), the movie could have used some trimming but be that as it may, it’s a surprisingly strong, surprisingly taut war movie that should be on the radar of war movie buffs.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a decent job of setting a tense, suspenseful atmosphere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a while to get where it wants to go.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in British Columbia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Private Ryan
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dear Santa

Beasts Clawing at Straws (Jipuragirado japgo sipeun jimseungdeul)


She drives all night.

(2020) Thriller (ArtsploitationDo-yeon Jeon, Woo-sung Jung, Sung-Woo Bae, Man-sik Jeong, Jin Kyung, Shin Hyon Bin, Ga-ram Jung, Jun-han Kim, Yuh Jung Youn. Directed by Yong-hoon Kim

 

South Korea has been quietly, without fanfare, turning into a world class film capitol. It’s no accident that the most recent Best Picture came from South Korea; the movies there have been getting better and better in quality over the past 15 years, and now can proudly be put up there with any on the planet.

This ensemble noir black comedy/drama/thriller starts off with a Louis Vuitton bag left in a sauna locker. The very put-upon attendant at the gym, Jung-Man (Bae) discovering that the bag is full of cash. Enough to make a lot of problems go away, and brother, does Jung-Man have problems. His mother is convinced that Jung-Man’s wife is trying to kill her, but only if her son’s fecklessness doesn’t kill her first; she’s convinced her flesh and blood can do nothing right. The kind of money that’s in the bag can get the bitter old woman into a facility for bitter old women and Jung-Man and his wife into a nicer home.

But how did that bag get there in the first place? Oh, that’s explained in a flashback as Tae-Young (W-s Jung), a customs inspector with the moral compass that always points at his own best interests, has fallen deeply into debt to mobster Du Man (Jeong). You see, Tae’s girlfriend, brothel owner Yeon-Hee (Jeon) ran out on her debt to Du Man after Tae-Young vouched for her, meaning that now he owes her debt. He must come up with the money quickly, and so he comes up with a scheme to defraud a sucker, whose girlfriend, Mi Ran (Bin) works in the brothel of Yeon-Hee. The sucker also beats her regularly, so she enlists a Chinese client to kill the boyfriend and make it look like an accident. There is also a greasy cop who is sure that something unsavory is going on, and there’s also a serial killer on the loose. Got all that so far?

It sounds like a mess and I’ll admit that early on, it’s a bit difficult to follow. You need to be on your toes and paying attention, but I promise you, it is truly worth it. The ending brings all these separate stories together and as things slowly begin to untangle, your first instinct will be “How did I not SEE that coming” before sinking into a satisfied smirk that you’ve lucked into watching one of the better crime movies in recent memory.

The ensemble cast is really good – there’s not a false note in any performance that I could see. The movie is so well-scripted and so perfectly plotted that even though you may sometimes have some doubts that the filmmakers can tie all this together, they do. That they do with as much style and humor as they do is a tribute to their filmmaking skills; I’d put this on the level of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, two filmmakers who have clearly influenced Yong-hoon Kim a great deal.

If you like movies that keep you guessing, if you like movies that have endings that give you faith that it is still possible to create great movies, if you like movies that you like better the more you think about it after seeing it, and if you don’t mind slowly building to that point, this is a movie you need to see. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service; this one’s a keeper.

REASONS TO SEE: An intricate plot that keeps you guessing. The ending is jaw-dropping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slog at times (but worth it in the end).
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on a novel by Japanese writer Keisuke Sone.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Rakuten Viki
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knives Out
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Recon

The August Virgin (La virgen de agosto)


What Madrilenos do in August.

(2019) Drama (OutsiderItsaso Arana, Vito Sanz, Isabelle Stoffel, Joe Manjón, Maria Herrador, Luis Heras, Mikele Urroz, Naiara Carmona, Simon Pritchard, Violeta Rebollo, Sigfrid Monléon, Francesco Carril, David López, Julen Berasategui, Alonso Diaz, Lucia Perlado, Soleá Morente, Pablo Peña, Lorena Alvarez. Directed by Jonás Trueba

 

In Central and Southern Europe’s largest cities including Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Venice, it isn’t unusual for much of the population to desert the city during the month of August for cooler climates or at least places where beaches are plentiful. Keep in mind that air-conditioning is not as common in Europe as it is here.

\Eva (Arana) is a thirty-something who has, after years of following the flock out of town in August, decided to remain in Madrid for the month of August. It seems time for her to make a change; she’s an actress who is ready to try some other way of life. She is apartment-sitting for a friend closer to the city center, and takes part in the religious festivals (including that of the Blessed Virgin, hence the title) that take place in early August.

She is a bit of a tourist in her own city, hanging out in places where the tourists (there are always tourists) hang out. There she meets a Welsh ex-pat (Manjón) and his English cousin (Pritchard) at a bar she hangs out in with her upstairs neighbor (Herrador), a performance artist.

For the most part, Eva isn’t much of a talker so much as a listener, but occasionally she reaches out at unexpected moments. This movie is as languid as the heat of the dog days. It moves at a pace that American audiences may find unbearable and to be honest, nothing much of note happens. This is a slice of life in the truest sense of the word. Eva drifts through, looking to find herself but unsure what precisely she’s looking for. There’s a bit of a twist near the end of the film but it’s not so much an “a-ha” moment as it is a “wait…what?” moment.

Arana is the film’s saving grace; her presence is low-key but nevertheless compelling. You want to hang out with her, whether she’s floating about a local swimming hole, hanging out in a bar, dancing in the streets, or eating in one of Madrid’s many bistros. The conversation here isn’t life-changing so much as it is life-affirming. This is what people do every day when it’s too hot to think too hard.

Trueba is one of Spain’s most promising directors, if you listen to the Spanish press. If being a fly on the wall in someone’s life is exciting to you, this might well be the kind of movie that’s for you. However, if you watch movies to escape the ordinary, this is going to bore you silly. Me, I can go either way depending on my mood; I do love a lot of what this movie is about, although I will say that the twist doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie and that at just over two hours, the movie coud have used some trimming here and there. Still, if life is what you seek, here is where you’ll find it.

REASONS TO SEE: Arana has low-key but compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Languidly paced and a bit of a drag.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Leonard Cohen t-shirt that Eva lends Sofia is the same one Trueba used in his first film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beasts Clawing at Straw

Hearts and Bones (2019)


Getting the shot.

(2019) Drama (Gravitas) Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes, Melanie De Ferranti, Toni Scanlan, Brandon Burke, Victoria Haralabidou, Fran Kelly, Karim Zreika, Michael Kotsohilis, Jamie Oxenbould, Danielle King, Antonia Puglisi, Aker Shagouk, Jack Scott, Lucy Doherty Nico Lathouris, Simon Melki, Teresa Zaidan, Ava Carofylis. Directed by Ben Lawrence

 

We live in times in which great horrors are visited upon the innocent. In places like South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Venezuela, and elsewhere, civilians are caught in the crossfire of warring factions. It has gotten to the point where we no longer call photojournalists covering these atrocities “combat photographers” but “conflict photographers” because it is no longer a war, but something worse.

Dan Fisher (Weaving) is a much-admired “conflict photographer” who has been to every trouble spot around the globe in his distinguished career. After returning home to Sydney following a harrowing experience when he came upon the aftermath of an ambush, he is hanging on by a fingernail. He suffers from terrible nightmares; he has been away from home so much that he has resorted to putting a post-it note on his bedside lamp so that he knows where he is when he wakes up. On top of this, he found out that his partner Josie Avril (McElhinney) is pregnant. This does not go over well, as is explained later in the film. Dan is preparing to publish a book of his photographs, and an exhibition of his work is being presented by a local museum.

Through this he meets Sebastian (Luri), a cab driver from the South Sudan who has moved to Sydney with his wife Anishka (Watson) and infant daughter, with another baby on the way. Sebastian has come to view some photographs of a South Sudanese village where he once lived and where his family was butchered when the whole village was massacred.

Sebastian is asking for a lot; he wants to view the pictures, and then have them neither published nor exhibited. One can imagine the reasons for it; those photographs would bring up memories that would be painful. Sebastian also wants Dan to photograph the choir that he is a member of, the type of work that Dan doesn’t do.  But Sebastian has come at a bad time; Dan is in the midst of a panic attack and faints dead away. Sebastian picks him up and takes him to the hospital in his cab.

An unlikely friendship develops between the two men, who both harbor destructive secrets. Those secrets are threatening to tear both men apart, and destroy their lives and relationships. Maybe, though, they can help each other through the minefields of their past and find a future worth living in.

 

This Australian film has been the recipient of all sorts of honors back home, and is only just now making its way here. The movie tackles a lot of themes; how PTSD can occur in not just those who fight in a conflict, but the observers and recorders of it as well, and the difficulties faced by refugees trying to put together shattered lives, often in an environment is hostile to their even being there.

Weaving, the veteran actor best known in the U.S. for his work in high-profile franchises like the Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings saga and the MCU, turns in one of the finest performances of his career, and that’s saying something. Dan is basically a good man haunted by all kinds of demons, some of which we get to see and others that remain hidden in the depths of his soul. Weaving gives Dan a kind of tortured dignity, never overplaying even when Dan is losing control of his emotional calm. It’s a brilliant and ultimately humane performance.

=Luri is a real find. A non-professional, he handles an emotionally wrenching role with the aplomb and confidence of a veteran, and gives a performance that rivals that of Weaving. Both men have excellent chemistry together, and for their characters, it is their wounds that bind them, which plays out in a fascinating way.

The movie is brutal at times on an emotional level; we are dealing with the kinds of pain in all four of the leads that are almost too much to bear, and yet people everywhere somehow manage to survive it, although not always. This is the kind of movie that has nothing subtle about it which is a double-sided shillelagh, The in-your-face nature of the emotional conflict means the viewer must confront that emotion head-on, which isn’t always easy for everyone. Those who have trauma of their own that they are dealing with may find this especially difficult.

Nonetheless, this is one of the finer movies of this peculiar cinematic year. Great acting, a mesmerizing story and earnest motives by the filmmaker make this a movie you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO SEE: Weaving and Luri turn in career-defining performances. Brutal on an emotional level. Effective throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: More of a blunt instrument than a surgical scalpel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief violence, adult themes and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luri hadn’t acted before this film; when he was cast, he was working as a garbage collector.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The August Virgin

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

Team Marco


If you can’t see the forest for the VR, you’re missing out on life.

(2020) Family (GoldwynOwen Vaccaro, Anthony Patellis, Thomas Kopache, Anastasia Ganias, Louis Cancelmi, Greg Rikaart, Jacob Laval, Antoinette LaVecchia, Kevin Interdonato, Caitlin Hammond, Jake Katzman, Skyler Lipkin, Joseph Callari, Ethan Coskay, Raymond Sammak, Precious Pia, Andrew Annicharico, Bobby Guarino, Candice Guardino, Noa Lev-Ari.  Directed by Julio Vincent Gambuto

 

Hollywood has a habit of looking at the very old and the very young with nearly equal disdain; senior citizens are technology-averse, doddering and full of aphorisms that pass for wisdom in a world geared towards neat little soundbites; the very young are technology-obsessed, attached to their smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles like they have superglue on them. How do these disparate generations possibly communicate?

Marco (Vaccaro) is a soon-to-be 12-year-old boy whose mother (Ganias) is a nurse in Staten Island, and whose father (Cancelmi) is a videogame designer living on the West Coast. Yes, they’re divorced. Marco has been promised by his dad that if he gets to level 100 on his dad’s latest videogame, that he will fly Marco out to a prestigious videogame convention where Marco will be surrounded by the latest and the greatest – a 12-year-old gamer’s idea of heaven.

Throwing a monkey wrench into all this is Marco’s grandfather, Nonno (Patellis), an irascible old man mourning the loss of his wife and forced to live with his daughter and grandson in a house too small as it is. Nonno sees Marco as almost a shut-in with no friends, no exercise, and no life to speak of other than the fantasy life he leads online. Marco’s anxieties have translated into germ phobia and imagined food allergies which Mom tolerates, but doesn’t actively discourage. Marco regards his grandfather with all the warmth and acceptance that he would a case of chicken pox.

Wise old grandpa sees that an intervention must be made, and he confiscates all of Marco’s electronics with the promise that he can get them all back if he can put together a team of young boys to play bocce ball against his grandfather’s team – and Nonno happens to be a bocce ball champion. It’s a tall order, but if Marco wants to get to that convention, he’ll have to take the plunge.

Generation gap movies can be amusing – very often it’s hard to believe that differing generations are even the same species as ourselves – but they are, generally speaking, not terribly clever, particularly those meant for family viewing. For whatever reason, Hollywood has always felt that the way to find common ground between generations is to dumb things down as much as possible, and that is certainly somewhat true here. The screenplay is predictable, and while there are some moments that genuinely made me misty-eyed, it felt like there was a great deal of lost opportunity here.

We have a man in mourning for his wife of many years; we have a child so eager to impress his father who lives on the other side of the country that he’s willing to do almost anything, not realizing that his father shouldn’t be making spending time with him conditional on whether he plays the game he designed or not. That feels wrong from a parental point of view and in fact there are a lot of parental don’ts in the mix here. I can imagine that a lot of Italian-Americans might end up objecting to the portrayal of the grandfather as being a bit too stereotypical. The accent has all the flavor of Chef Boy-ar-dee.

Vaccaro is a pretty good young actor, but he plays the kind of kid (at least, in the first half of the film) that would make Mother Teresa reach for the leather belt. While he (and we) learn more about bocce than any of us probably ever wanted to know, Marco at least matures a little bit but for many, it will be too little, too late. Perhaps it’s because my son is a gamer that I have little patience for the whole “Gaming is everything” mentality that Marco has; it hits a bit too close to home, so take that aspect with a grain of salt. Still, early on in the movie I wanted nothing more than to put every electronic device I own into a landfill, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the effect the filmmakers were going for.

As family entertainment goes, it does the job adequately, but only just. There are a ton of much better family films out there to be shared with multiple generations and as the holidays approach with the prospect of sharing close quarters with grandparents and grandkids, there is no doubt that you can do much better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Some genuinely heartwarming moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses itself in generation gap cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vaccaro was 13 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Samuel Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Girl

Out of the Fight


As American as appletinis.

(2020) Drama (GravitasRandy Wayne, Jordan Jude, Chris Mullinax, Judy Norton, Robert Miano, Carle Atwater, Corie Robinson, Lily Thomas, Ron Chevalier, Tisa Key, Michael Aaron Milligan, Jon-Paul Gates, Paul Sampson, Aaron Mitchell, Rob Wolfe, Beejan Land, Curtis Nichouls, Holdyn Barder, Christopher Heskey, David William Arnott, Russell Snipes, Talia Andrews. Directed by Steve Moon

It’s a familiar story as America continues to deal with the longest armed conflict in its history; soldiers are trained to go out into the field to defend….well, our way of life ostensibly, although I think most soldiers would be hard-pressed to say what our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has to do with protecting the American way. Superman would weep. Politics aside, we send these young men and women out to fight and die, but those who survive are dumped back into civilian life, often in the grip of PTSD and barely able to cope with life back home.

Jason Pete (Wayne) has served three tours in Afghanistan and has returned home to a loving wife Emily (Jude) and a four-year-old daughter. His body is scarred with wounds received in service, but it is his mind that is more deeply wounded and less apparently so. The VA provices him with a psychiatrist (Norton) but the sessions don’t appear to give him much peace. He turns to drinking and pills to ease his inner pain, but it doesn’t help. A friendly local police officer (Mullinax) tries to guide him through, but will it be enough?

The movie makes us aware – if you weren’t already – that our vets are committing suicide in terrifying numbers. It doesn’t directly address the question, but certainly most of us will hbe thinking it – if we can afford to spend money on new tanks and planes and battleships we don’t need, why can’t we spend the money to give our servicemen and women the post-deployment care they need and deserve? It is truly a national scandal.

It is a truly worthy subject for a film, but the execution is a bit lacking. Much of this is due to the low budget, which is readily apparent in the action scenes. Filmed locally in Alabama with a local crew and cast, there is some inexperience showing in terms of on-camera performances, which tend to be a litte wooden. There are a few relatively well-known names in the cast, including former Waltons star Judy Norton as the psychiatrist (she also co-wrote the script with the director), and veteran character actor Robert Miano as Jason’s commanding officer, but while their performances are more relaxed, there are a number of performers who don’t look comfortable in front of the camera.

The filmmakers talked to more than fifty veterans and their families to get their impressions of how they coped with the return of warriors to civilian life; every one of them, it was reported, had served with someone who had killed themselves, attempted to or was dealing with severe PTSD. I assume they used some of those stories here, and to be truthful, there are some moments that are incredibly gripping and harrowing, but more often than not, this feels like other films on the subject that have dealt with the same topic. I’m wondering if the filmmakers might not have served the subject better by making a documentary and interviewing the various family members on-camera rather than create a drama around it; something tells me the real stories would be far more compelling than this.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers admirably turn their camera on a still very real and serious problem that has yet to be effectively addressed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Standard issue for the genre.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Pete house in the film was demolished after filming was completed to make way for a new road.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When I Came Home
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Team Marco

Once Upon a River


A little walk in the woods.

(2020) Drama (Film MovementKenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuwak Kapashesit, Kenn E. Head, Lindsay Pulsipher, Dominic Bogart, Evan Linder, Sam Staley, Coburn Goss, Arie Thompson, Josephine Decker, H.B. Ward, Claudia Church, Bradley Grant Smith, Angela Rak, Jules Reid, Shane Simmons, William Sidney Parker, Kayla Frischkorn. Directed by Haroula Rose

 

It goes without saying that the world can be a cruel, difficult place even under the best of circumstances. Thus has it always been, and chances are, always will be despite our best intentions.

Nobody needs to ell that to Maggie Crane (DelaCerna). At 15, she lives with her Native American father Bernard (Means) on the Stark River in Michigan. It’s 1977 and the battle between conservationists and industrialists is in full swing. Maggie’s mom Luanne (Pulsipher) has abandoned the family, wanting a much different lifestyle than her husband was willing or able to give her.

Now the sole parent, Bernard teaches her how to shoot a gun, how to fish, how to be self-sufficient – lessons taught to him by his own father. Those lessons are going to come in handy when a tragedy leaves one person dead and another injured, forcing Maggie to leave her home in search of her mother. Travelling down the river, she meets Will (Kapashesit), a full-blooded Cherokee, who encourages her to explored her own native heritage. She also meets and is briefly caretaker for Smoke (Ashton), an emphysema-ridden old curmudgeon who is resisting being put in an assisted living facility by his family, while continuing to live life pretty much on his own terms – which includes continuing to smoke heavily, not a good idea for someone with a lung disease.

Maggie’s journey is one that could have made for a fascinating film, but the director makes some odd choices here. We get little idea what’s going on inside Maggie; she seems to be merely reacting to what goes on around her and often relies on older men for guidance and help. She makes an extraordinary number of poor decisions – not unusual for a 15-year-old girl – but doesn’t seem to learn anything or really take much ownership for them. It becomes frustrating for the viewer as we see her making these bad calls and we never really get a sense of what is driving her to them. After awhile, we tend to lose interest.

That’s a shame, because DelaCerna shows signs of being a gifted actress. Her performance here is very natural and at times spectacular; perhaps with a different director she might have turned in one of those monster performances that put her on everbody’s radar, but as it is I’m sure many of those who see her in this film will be keeping an eye out for her next one.

So, too, with cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, who is given some beautiful scenery to work with and turns in a master class of near-perfect framing and perspective. It is not often you notice a cinematographer for things beyond having an eye for a pretty picture, but the invention Hornsby shows here shows her to be someone who needs to be working on important projects.

Based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, the movie turns a blind eye to Maggie’s Native America heritage for the most part, and seems to see her journey as simply a means of taking her from one bad situation to another. This might have been originally meant to be a coming of age film; if so, it would need to show some kind of growth in the main character, and I left the film feeling that Maggie was doomed to continue making the same kind of mistakes over and over again. I suppose that’s true of a lot of people, but it certainly isn’t something I want to watch an entire movie about.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching teens make bad decisions isn’t my idea of fun.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexuality and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatanka Means is the son of Russell Means, the Native American activist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Peanut Butter Falcon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Out of the Fight

A Crime on the Bayou


The bayou may be timeless, but it’s not unchanging.

(2020) Documentary (Augusta) Gary Duncan, Richard Sobol, Leander Perez, Dan Rather (voice), Lolis Eric Elie, Armand Defner, Lolis Elie, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Robert A. Collins, Angela Davis. Directed by Nancy Buirsky

“The more that things change, the more they stay the same”. This is especially true of American race relations. This documentary, the third in a series of documentaries by Buirsky documenting lesser-known cases of the Civil Rights movement, dusts off a vitally important case that should be right up there in the history books but isn’t.

Gary Duncan was a 19-year-old fisherman in Plaquemines Parish in southern Louisiana in 1965. He was picking up his wife and newborn son at the hospital when he noticed a brewing altercation outside the newly integrated high school; two African-American boys (one of them Duncan’s cousin) were surrounded by four white youths. Duncan stopped and tried to defuse the situation; the white boys were belligerent but Duncan managed to get the two black kids into his car and drive away.

However, the white kids told a different story. They informed police that Duncan was threatening and had slapped one of them (in fact, Duncan had just touched one of them lightly on the elbow). He was arrested that night.

Duncan had reason to be afraid; the parish was run by one of the most notorious bosses in the South; Leander Perez, a strict segregationist and unabashed racist (he was proud to share on talk shows how “Negroes were morally (inferior)” and had limited learning capacity. Perez initially wanted to just send a message to Duncan to reiterate Duncan’s place in the food chain. However, spurred on by his mama’s righteous indignation, Duncan stood up. He refused to plead guilty and end the incident.

Instead, they went to the offices of a civil rights law firm in New Orleans and were assigned Richard Sobol, a white Jewish lawyer from New York who had come for a few weeks to assist in civil rights cases and ended up staying in Louisiana for decades. In the face of a deck stacked against the two of them, Sobol persevered when a Perez-appointed judge refused to allow Duncan a trial by jury. Sobol took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Earl Warren court ruled unanimously that all defendants were entitled to a trial by jury for any criminal violation, something that some states had prevented – particularly in the South, where bogus arrests were the norm.

Buirsky talks with most of the principles (Perez, who died weeks after losing the case, is one of the exceptions) and uses actual audio of the Supreme Court arguments and uses voice re-enactors reading the transcripts from the local trials. There are also contemporary and archival interviews with those involved. Buirsky tries to give a little too much background information as we get a lot of background on the Civil Rights era and how scary it was ot only for people of color living in the south, but also for the white lawyers and activists who tried to help them.

The background music is haunting, ranging from Dixieland to blues to ragtime to ambient sounds. Buirsky, though, has a tendency to go off point in trying to project a complete picture, which often slows the pacing down and for those of us who are familiar with the tribulations of the Civil Rights movement back then, offering redundant information. I think she could have gotten her point across a bit more succinctly than she did. Sticking more to the case at hand would have benefitted the film; at times I felt like focus was being lost in favor of context. I think most of us understand that the civil rights of the accused were being consistently disregarded and belittled.

The case was a landmark decision, but few people have heard of it. Films like this that remind us of the lesser known battles in the Civil Rights movement are priceless, not just to remind us how far we’ve come and how bad things were, but also to remind us that things are still pretty bad and we have a loooooooong way to go. It gives one pause to consider that this case, had it been argued in today’s Supreme Court, might not have rendered the same decision.

The film is playing DOC NYC through today; it still can be screened online by American residents. It will continue to be available at virtual online festivals (particularly around New Orleans) in the coming months; it should be available either as Virtual Cinema or through VOD streaming services shortly. Given the state of affairs in American race relations, it should be required viewing for all Americans.

REASONS TO SEE: An important document about a landmark case in the civil rights movement that doesn’t get the due it should be afforded. Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders from the case in question from times to give background – to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial slurs as well as some adult themes and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobol passed away shortly after filming for this documentary was completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rape of Recy Taylor
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Once Upon a River