Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective


Effective land management techniques that go back two millennia.

(2021) Documentary (Inhabit) Michael Kotutwa Johnson, Kalani Souza, Ervin Carlson, Frank Lake, Teri Dahle, Bill Tripp, Chris Caldwell, Pershing Frechette, Caleb Johnson, Betty Cooper, Marshall Recore, Gregory Arteche, Kathy McCoury, Kenneth Brink, Tony Waupochick, Rick O’Rourke, Stormy Palmeteer, Laurie Reiter, Shirley Kauhaiho, Vikki Preston. Directed by Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer

 

Native Americans have always had a very special relationship with the land that they lived on. They consider it their sacred duty to act as stewards, to protect and nurture the land that protects and nurtures them. For millennia they lived in harmony with their surroundings, until European colonists came and chose to exploit that land, driving them into small reservations and nearly annihilating their culture. In spite of it all, that culture perseveres and their connection to the land endures.

This documentary examines the relationships of five different indigenous peoples and the land they live on; the Hopi of the American Southwest, the Karuk of Northern California, the Blackfeet of the Plains, the Menominee of the Northern Midwest and the Native Hawaiians.

Dr. Michael Kotutwa Johnson of the Hopi explains dry farming – farming done without artificial irrigation – and how it has been able to bring drought-resistant crops in even in the arid Southwest. He shows ancient Hopi methods – using a planting stick to push the seeds deeper into the soil where they get to where the moisture is retained, and shy away from the straight lines of Western farming, using drought-resistant plants like certain strains of beans and corn to help make the Hopi more self-sustaining; more importantly, as climate change could potentially turn farming land more arid, it will provide valuable ways to continue to feed those who rely on that farmland for food.

As California has been ravaged by wildfires, the Karuk aboriginals have had the solution for generations; controlled burns that rid the redwood forests of highly flammable underbrush; the smoke from the controlled burns gathers in the canopies and helps retain moisture in the soil, and the nutrients from the burning also enrich the soil. More importantly, these control burns make the trees more fire-resistant with layers of carbon that protect the trees in case of a wildfire. Bill Tripp of the Karuk oversees their efforts at keeping the homes and people on their reservation safe from the devastating wildfires that have plagued the state the past two years, and it may be that the state of California is taking notice of their methods.

For the Plains natives, the buffalo was always a major economic engine; the bison provided food, clothing and shelter for the natives, but the animals – who once numbered in the millions, were down to about 200 by the mid-20th century and were on the endangered species list. Careful stewardship of the buffalo, including that of Erwin Carlson (President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council) and Teri Dahle (Program Director of the Iinii Initiative that is providing an ecological reserve on which the buffalo can thrive) have brought the animals back from the brink of extinction to the point that they are no longer on the edge of extinction; in fact, non-native culture is discovering the benefits of the bison as an alternative to beef.

For the Menominee tribe of the Northern Midwest, the forest is their sacred land and protecting it is their responsibility. They do it through selective tree harvesting, removing diseased and stunted trees for lumber harvesting while planting seedlings for future growth. Chris Caldwell of the Menominee shows graphically the deforested areas adjacent to the reservation where lumber barons wiped the forests out without regard for replanting. The Menominee forests are thick, lush and healthy, illustrating how a sustainable model can be economically viable for all concerned.

Finally, native Hawaiians led by the Reverend Kalani Souza illustrate the concept of food forestry – using native plants and roots as a food source. Planting breadfruit, taro and other plants native to the islands creates a sustainable food source that thrives in Hawaii’s temperate climate, even as European settlers threatened to overwhelm the islands with pineapple and coffee plantations, neither native to Hawaii. As seen in all these examples, the wisdom of the original inhabitants is finally being heard, as it is being rediscovered by the indigenous peoples themselves.

Co-directors Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer prefer to tell their stories in a non-linear fashion, jumping around from region to region which does dilute the power of the messages a bit. However, the talking heads recruited here are incredibly persuasive and passionate about their various fields of expertise. The cinematography is often breathtaking and conveys the spirituality with which Native Americans regard the land they reside on.

We non-indigenous folks have a tendency to misunderstand the deep connection between indigenous peoples and the land they live on; it is a part of their culture that is often overlooked. As the world is faced with the sobering realities of climate change, it is somehow comforting to know that some of the solutions are ancient and have been with us for two thousand years and more. We ignore this ancient wisdom at our own peril.

This is the last day that the film will be available online as part of the DocLands film festival (you can purchase it by clicking the link under Virtual Cinema below), but keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit. It is also likely to end up on PBS or Discovery at some point.

REASONS TO SEE: The information is fascinating. Beautiful cinematography in an almost spiritual way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bounces around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Native Americans of the Karuk tribe used controlled burns to regulate forest undergrowth two thousand years ago; for awhile in the early 20th century it was illegal to use that method on their own tribal lands. Ony now as science has discovered the benefits of controlled burns have they been allowed to return to their tried and true methods.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (today only)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If a Tree Falls
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Riders of Justice

The Djinn


There are some things you don’t want to see in your flashlight beam.

(2021) Horror (IFC Midnight) Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein, Tevy Poe, John Erickson, Donald Pitts, Jilbert Daniel, Isaiah Dell, Colin Joe, Omaryus Luckett. Directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell

 

One of those old truisms that you don’t need to complete the sentence to understand its meaning: “Be careful what you wish for.” As this film posits, also be careful who you make your wish from.

Dylan (Dewey) is a mute 12-year-old boy reeling from a family tragedy. His dad (Brownstein) is a late night DJ who is working a double shift on what the title card describes as a pleasant summer night in 1989. The two men have moved into a new house in a new town and Dylan will be on his own until Dad comes home. The bond between them is strong but Dylan wonders, using American Sign Language, “Would Mom have left if I weren’t…different?” While Dad assures him that he’s perfect the way he is, Dylan isn’t so sure.

Dylan also confirms that the previous resident, an old man (Pitts), indeed died there. He thoughtfully left behind a framed portrait of himself, as well as The Book of Shadows in a burlap sack for Dylan to find, complete with instructions on how to summon a Djinn who would grant whichever wish Dylan makes – so long as he survives an hour alone with the Djinn and so longas he does’t extinguish the candle he has lit for the ceremony before midnight. Those Djinn, they’re sticklers for the rules.

Most of the film is of a terrified Dylan fleeing and hiding from the Djinn (Erickson) while having flashbacks of his sad, disturbed mom (Poe). The Djinn can take a number of different forms and it does so throughout the short running time of the film, giving Dylan a different horror to deal with. All of this is done with virtually no dialogue; what dialogue there is occurs at a dinner table scene at the beginning of the film and is spoken by Dylan’s Dad. There is also a recording of the instructions for summoning the Djinn, although whether that is in Dylan’s head or not is up to your interpretation.

For a film like this to work you need a child actor who can express a variety of emotions (mainly fear) almost completely through body language and facial expression, and the filmmakers found one in Dewey. He does a remarkable job carrying the film on his frail shoulders, although the filmmakers tendency to use extreme close-ups of his face in a rictus of terror doesn’t do him any favors. However, for a role like this they coud have done much, much worse.

The monster itself isn’t super terrifying although it does the trick for the most part. There is an overuse of jump scares, particularly a central air unit that kicks off with an apocalyptic thud that would fray the nerves of any homeowner after not too long.

There are a fair amount of horror tropes here and the filmmakers wisely don’t try to reinvent the wheel. What they do is provide a basic, no-frills horror film off of an interesting premise and deliver it in a compact amount of time without an overabundance of filler. These days, that’s something of an accomplishment.

REASONS TO SEE: Different in a good way. Some nice world building.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies a bit too much on jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some frightening violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Islamic/Arabic mythology, a djinn is a highly intelligent spirit who is neither good nor evil, but is capable of mimicking any form and occasionally can possess human beings.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witchboard
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective

Two Gods


A tisket, a tasket, I’ll teach you to make a casket.

(2020) Documentary (CNN) Hanif Muhammad, Furquan Maynard, Nazir Dowell, Rashed Reece, Joann Maynard, Keerah Davis, Barbara Campbell, Jayne Hodge, Khadija Samad, Tyler Hodge. Directed by Zeshawn Ali

 

Poverty and racial injustice make a wicked one-two punch. We have been watching in horror as thousands of young black men have fallen prey to it, destroyed by despair, drugs and crime. It is no easy feat to turn away from what appear to be easy – or sometimes, only – solutions.

But Hanif Muhammad did manage to break the cycle for himself. As a young man, he made plenty of wrong choices, and paid the price, ending up incarcerated. However, he found Islam and his new faith enabled him to turn down a righteous path. He got himself a trade, building caskets and conducting funeral rites for his fellow Muslims in the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey.

He hoped to show a couple of other kids from the neighborhood that life didn’t have to be an inevitable spiral into death. He took 12-year-old Furquan Maynard and 18-year-old Nazir Dowell under his wing, both boys without fathers, to give them an example of a better way.

But it isn’t easy. Farquan’s mom has a boyfriend who beats up both her and her son, and she seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Nazir has already had brushes with the law and if he can’t make some sort of correction is liable to wind up in one of Hanif’s caskets. It also must be said that Hanif’s grip on sobriety and stability is fragile at best; temptation bedevils him at every turn and he is one bad choice away from losing everything he’s built.

This searing black and white documentary is a stark slice of the streets, with all the positive and negative that it implies. We see the obstacles these young boys are up against, how so many of the men in the neighborhood have wound up dead too young or in jail too long. There aren’t a lot of talking heads here; this is mainly a stream of consciousness type documentary a la Erroll Morris, and while from time to time it feels that the Ali loses the focus of his story, for the most part his movie keeps viewers locked into a story that could be goingon anywhere in America that has neighborhoods that are under siege from that one-two punch.

Hanif is a flawed man, but he is charming in his own way, dancing to hip hop music as he works on his caskets in the shop he works in. His faith is undeniable, and one thing the movie might accomplish is to allow people to see Islam in a different light; all we ever tend to see is fanatics foaming at the mouth for a holy war, terrifyingly ignorant of the truth that there is nothing holy about war.

These aren’t those sorts. They are people, just like thee and me, who only want to live their life with dignity and perhaps, the potential to prosper. But these particular people have more obstacles to overcome than most, and it isn’t always sunshine and light. Some of this movie is grim indeed and I’m not talking about the images of dead bodies being prepared for burial. Ali has crafted a movie that is real and open and honest and informative. This is an outstanding work from a director who is someone to keep a sharp eye on for the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Hasif is an engaging subject. A real slice of the streets.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as images of corpses being prepared for burial.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 edition of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.
BEYOND THE THEATER:/span> Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Djinn

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts


Art that evokes the primal side of man.

(2021) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Bill Traylor, Sharon Washington, Jason Samuels Smith, Richard Oosterom, Greg Tate, Russell G. Jones, Charles Shannon, Dr. Howard O. Robinson, Radcliffe Bailey, Leslie Umberger, Roberta Smith. Directed by Jeffrey Wolf

 

Bill Traylor is a name that may not register with the average American unless the average American happens to be an art lover – most average Americans aren’t, however. Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama back in 1853. Following Emancipation, he became a sharecropper and supported his growing family as a farmer – he was practical enough to grow edible crops rather than cotton, although he grew a lot of that as well.

He was also a bit of a drinker and a carouser; his marriages were dotted with infidelity on his part, fathering children by many different lovers. In his 80s, he was no longer able to work on a farm and so moved to Montgomery, where he was homeless off and on and supplemented his relief checks with drawings he made on found paper.

His work has been called “beautifully simple,” “primitive” and “powerful,” all of which are accurate. In many ways his drawings are reminiscent of the cave drawings that were drawn tens of thousands of years ago. His pictures are vibrant, full of movement and capture the era of slavery and the Jim Crow South.

We are treated to art experts discussing his work and its significance, black artists who discuss his lasting influence on African-American art, and his descendants who regale us with anecdotes about his colorful life. Actors read relevant passages from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith adds motion and sound to the interpretation of his work. All of this is set to a magnificent blues soundtrack.

The problem with the film is that it is often extraordinarily dry, playing like it was meant for an advanced art history course at an Ivy League school. There are a lot of talking heads which when given the vibrancy of the art that we’re shown seems a bit counterintuitive.

It is the artwork that is the center of the film and Wolf takes great pains to show us as much of it as he is able. We are given artistic insights into the work; arguing couples are shown pointing in different directions, animals are totems that are predators in some cases, observers in others. The color blue represents the blues. It’s hard to believe that Traylor accomplished all of this with scraps of cardboard and paper, pencils and children’s poster paint, but he did.

Sadly, much of his work was discarded years after his death and presumably has been lost forever, although some hold out hope that it may surface in an Alabama landfill someday. There are still several hundred pieces of his work available and there is no denying its power and pull to the human spirit. If you’re going to see one documentary about an artist this year, this is the one to catch.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is as compelling as it’s creator. Wonderful blues soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally becomes overly dry with too many tallking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are descriptions of horrific violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traylor preferred to work with scraps of paper he found in the trash rather than clean sheets of paper that admirers would give him; he would work the imperfections in the scraps into the artwork.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maya Angelou And Still I Rise
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Two Gods

Sweet River


There are few things more beautiful than a mother smiling at her child.

(2020) Horror (Gravitas) Lisa Kay, Martin Sacks, Genevieve Lemon, Rob Carlton, Eddie Baroo, Chris Haywood, Charlotte Stent, Jordan Shields, Cymone Rose (voice), Bryan Probets, Jack Ellis, Jeremy Waters, Sam Parsonson, James McGregor (voice), Jayden McGinlay, Ario De Beer, Kate Dodd, Kelly Joyce, Hamish Cleary, Kerry Blakeman, Ashley McLeod. Directed by Justin McMillan

 

In the face of unthinkable tragedy, we have a tendency to pull ourselves into a protective shell, admitting only those we trust absolutely. When that tragedy is accompanied by unimaginable horror, that shell often leaves us unable to escape.

The town of Billins in the sugar cane country of Tweed Valley has had more than their share of tragedy. A school bus crash into the Tweed River resulted in the drowning of a good portion of the town’s children. Some of those that remained as well as a few visitors fell victim to a serial killer (Ellis) who eventually, wracked by guilt, hung himself.

Hanna (Kay) comes to Billins after all these events have occurred, renting a worker’s cottage on the edge of the cane fields. Unbeknownst to her, James Lipton – the man (Waters) who rented her the cottage – has met with an untimely end but his neighbor John Drake (Sacks) honors their rental agreement, although his wife Eleanor (Lemon) is less neighborly. It’s hard to blame her – the couple are mourning the death of their daughter Violet (Stent) – more on that later.

Hanna can relate, because she is in mourning as well – her son Joey disappeared, a presumed victim of the serial killer although his body was never recovered. In fact, Hanna believes Joey’s body is somewhere in the cane fields and while the local constable (Carlton) tries to persuade her to leave, she is adamant; she’s not going anywhere until Joey’s remains are found and properly laid to rest.

But something else is going on in the town. The children may be dead but they are surely not gone; many of the townspeople can see them and there is some comfort in that. The fact that Lipton had boasted that he was going to harvest the cane field the night he died is not insignificant. The dearly departed may not always be completely gone.

This Aussie film doesn’t lack for ambition, although it doesn’t seem as if director Justin McMillan absolutely knows what he wants his film to be. At times it is a supernatural horror film that is rife with haunted house tropes (things that go bang in the night, half-seen figures of giggling children and so on), while at other times it is a sober look at the effects of grief on a small town a la The Sweet Hereafter, which it appears heavily influenced this film (then again, so did Children of the Corn).

The movie is constructed a bit awkwardly, with a ton of sub-threads and flashbacks that make it a confusing watch at times. That’s a shame, because a lot of the elements here work from Kay’s heartfelt performance to the slow build-up of tension to some of the more horrific elements. At the end of the day, McMillan tries to make this more intricate than it needed to be and his ambitions outstripped the film’s ability to deliver. It’s a bit on the unsatisfying side particularly because there are so many elements that work well, but still worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: A slow burner of a thriller.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of good elements but an unsatisfying whole.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tweed Valley, where this was filmed, is located in New South Wales, Australia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Tall Grass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mandibles

The Paper Tigers


Cobra Kai has nothing to be worried about.

(2020) Action Comedy (Well Go USA) Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Jae Suh Park, Peter Adrian Sudarso, Yoshi Sudarso, Gui DaSilva-Greene, Matthew Page, Yuji Okumoto, Andy Le, La’Tevin Alexander, Phillip Dang, Ken Quitugua, Brian Le, Kieran Tamondong, Ray Hopper, Jozaiah Lagonoy, Annette Toutonghi. Directed by Quoc Bao Tran

 

Those of us who were around back then remember Spielberg’s version of growing up in the 80s and 90s. Idyllic, suburban existences in which you make the best friends you’ll ever have. Those movies have generated a kind of subgenre of nostalgia that is with us even to this day – not just from Spielberg, who rarely if ever does those sorts of movies anymore, but in movies and TV shows that mine such films as The Goonies, E.T. and The Karate Kid.

But even Ralph Macchio grows up which has led to a successful TV show based on the movie called Cobra Kai. This movie has little to do with the Netflix show, but audiences of that show may well find this movie to be their cup of tea. Danny (Uy) is finding mid-life to be a crisis. A divorced dad who sees his son (Lagonoy) only occasionally and as his ex-wife Caryn (Park) has come to expect, generally ends up disappointing him when he does get together. Danny wasn’t always like that though; as a teen, he was part of the Three Tigers, disciples of Sifu (another term for sensei) Cheung (Roger Yuan). Danny was Seattle’s version of the Karate Kid, so phenomenal was his speed that he was known as Danny Eight Hands.

But now his buddy Hing (Ron Yuan) has come to him with terrible news – Sifu Cheung is dead and it looks very well like he might have been murdered. The two round up the third tiger – Jim (Jenkins), who of the three of them was the only one to stay in shape, but is training MMA fighters and has lost the discipline that his teacher instilled in him. The three feel the need to bring their Sifu’s killer to justice, but they’ll need to load up on the Ben-Gay and Advil if they’re going to do any sort of butt-kicking.

Much of the comedy is derived from the three men’s age and lack of physical prowess. Although Jim is still relatively fit, he’s still a middle-aged man and he’s just not up for competitive martial arts any longer. Both Danny and Hing are woefully out of shape and although Hing has some healing powers that he learned from Sifu Cheung, he also has a bad knee following a construction accident and has ballooned into a pear-shaped couch gelatin. Danny fares even worse; his memory tells him he’s got lightning-quick reflexes, but his 40-year-old-plus body tells him those days are long gone. For someone whose martial arts prowess was a source of pride (and maybe even arrogance), it’s quite a blow to the ego.

The fight sequences are good enough, and while the plot is a bit stale (the Shaw Brothers made a cottage industry out of this sort of tale back in the 70s) the gung-ho attitudes of the actors as well as a genuine chemistry between the three of them gives the viewer something to hang their gi on. However, the humor and the over-emphasis on the deteriorating physical condition of the Three Paper Tigers becomes a little bit repetitive and maybe a little too broad for some tastes. Still, this is a movie that has a tremendous amount of heart at the center as even when half your life has gone by, it’s still not too late to fulfill the potential you had as a kid.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of heart here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The comedy may be a bit too broad for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity including racial slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quitugua, who plays the film’s villain, was also the movie’s fight choreographer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cobra Kai
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Sweet River

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

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