The Last Waltz

1982

by Matt Weiner

Wars are complicated. War movies? Not so much, at least not in this country. How, then, to tell the story of an invasion unfolding in the middle of a decades-long civil war?

In 1982, writer and director Oualid Mouaness narrows the lens in his feature debut to focus on the smaller picture. Set at the onset of Israel’s June 1982 invasion in Lebanon during the country’s ongoing civil war, Mouaness’s camera almost never leaves the fenced-in confines of one Beirut school.

Encroaching tanks and fighter jets begin the day as distant updates on the radios, with concerned teachers and school staff furtively trying to stay updated without alarming the children. But as the invasion progresses, it becomes impossible for anyone to keep the reality of war at bay.

How this plays out in a diverse country already torn apart by years of fighting becomes the subject of two love stories. For Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), concerns about her militia member brother outweigh keeping her relationship going with Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman), a fellow teacher with opposing political views.

Their complicated allegiances serve as a stand-in for the rapidly shifting political landscape in the country, and their uncertainties—toward each other, and the future—are played to great effect by both Labaki and Sleiman.

The film’s other main star-crossed love story is a much lighter one, as 11-year-old Wissam attempts to woo a classmate in the face of challenges both typical—pre-teen embarrassment—and extraordinary, like the one checkpoint to her house being closed.

The split between the faculty and the students is effective, to a point. Although as the idyllic bubble of the students clashes more and more with the war just beyond the school walls, the intensity given to Wissam’s courtship feels increasingly at odds with the stakes.

Some of that seems by design. Mouaness hints at the greater sectarian strife tearing the country apart, but there’s only so much metaphorical weight you can load onto the school’s metaphorical stand-ins. The film does such an economical job sketching the complexities of the war that any single, tidy resolution would do the message a disservice.

In the meantime, we are left feeling much like Wissam, aware for the first time of the complicated forces that determine our lives. And aware too of just how powerless we are to alter their direction.

Western Guilt

No Man’s Land

by Cat McAlpine

The liminal space between Mexico and Texas is home to fear, anxiety, and confusion. It is in this taut, emotional maelstrom that two families tragically collide.

The Greers have a struggling cattle ranch directly on the border. Young Fernando and his family are making their way into Texas illegally, led by their father, Gustavo.

“Texas looks like Mexico,” Young Fernando observes.

“Yes, it does,” his father agrees.

No Man’s Land hinges on the relationship between sons and fathers and their shared legacies. The film is a family affair in its own right, co-written by Jake Allyn (who also stars as Jackson Greer) and directed by his brother Conor Allyn. Also written by David Barraza, No Man’s Land attempts to tackle national tensions along the border.

This is a new and old western. It prods at current events but follows the familiar beat of a man on the run seeking redemption. Forced to flee, Jackson makes his way deeper and deeper into Mexico, paralleling an immigrant’s journey northward. He doesn’t speak the language but he’s willing to work, and work hard.

No Man’s Land subconsciously uses the same “he had his whole life ahead of him” argument we often see used for violent, young white men. Jackson is at the mercy of a culture, and in particular a grieving father, who owe him nothing. And yet it is their kindness, compassion, and forgiveness that truly save Jackson from the mistakes he’s made. He becomes more compassionate and understanding after experiencing Mexican culture, instead of simply recognizing the intrinsic value of other humans from the start.

Visually, the film is breathtaking. Technology is largely eliminated from the screen, horses are used as often as cars, and there’s a timeless western quality to the story. Jackson’s journey into Mexico is not made hazy with yellow filters, but instead shows a place more vibrant and green than his home.

The cast is another shining element in No Man’s Land. Allyn delivers an agonized but mostly understated performance as Jake. He’s matched by a wonderful Jorge A. Jimenez as Gustavo, a man constantly battling with himself. And George Lopez – as a Texas ranger who can’t speak Spanish – adds great dimension to the stories as they intertwine.

No Man’s Land is beautifully shot, emotional, and an honest extension of the western genre, but ultimately its call to unity could use some work.

Breaking the Pattern

Breaking Fast

by Rachel Willis

Most rom-coms, or rom-dramedies, follow a very specific pattern. You already know when each plot point will happen: the meet, the first date, the montage of falling in love, etc.

Writer/director Mike Mosallam’s first feature, Breaking Fast, follows this predictable model to the letter.

So, what makes Breaking Fast different? Mainly, the characters.

Mo (Haaz Sleiman) is a gay Muslim living in West Hollywood. His best friend, Sam (Amin El Gamal) is eager to see Mo get back into a relationship after his last ended when Mo’s closeted boyfriend broke up with him to marry a woman.

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, Mo meets Kal (Michael Cassidy). From here, you know the plot, but Mosallam weaves into the narrative elements with which you might not be familiar. Mo is adamant that his faith is not incompatible with his sexuality. And as he gets to know Kal, the two grow close as Kal breaks fast with Mo nearly every night during Ramadan.

Most of the gay men we meet in the film, including Sam, have turned their backs on any form of religion due to the harassment they have experienced in the name of faith. But Mo’s experience has been one of love and acceptance, and his devotion to his faith is a large part of the film.

Awkward dialogue makes for some tedious moments. Part of the problem is that Mosallam wants to paint us a new picture of Islam, one that is full of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, that lands on the screen feeling more like a lesson than an integrated narrative layer.

This isn’t the first movie to try to educate its audience, but the clumsiness of the execution weakens the film.

There are also some uncomfortable moments between Kal and Mo, and not the kind of uncomfortable that comes across as cute. These scenes are not awkward enough to leave you rooting for a couple, but embarrassing to the point of being hard to watch.

But then, there are the sweet moments between the two, and you do find yourself pulling for them as they weather the difficulties of a new relationship.

Too bad Breaking Fast never finds the right balance between what it is and what it wants to teach you.

Philadelphia Freedom

Brothers by Blood

by Hope Madden

It can be tough to find a fresh way to tell a mob story. Brothers by Blood doesn’t bother.

Director Jeremie Guez’s film, based on his own adaptation of Peter Dexter’s novel Brotherly Love, offers an intimate look at masculinity, loyalty, faith and redemption through the eyes of two men who are as close as brothers. They’re part of the criminal underground, and one (the brooding, quiet, good one) is worried that the other (the loose cannon) may have gone too far.

Like Mean Streets. Like The Drop. Eastern Promises, Casino, Legend.

Like a lot of movies.

Luckily, Guez has a strong cast with the potential of finding something uniquely human in these characters.

Matthias Schoenaerts is the quietly observant Peter, a reasonable man who isn’t proud of what he does but he keeps his head down, his mouth shut, and does the work. Michael (Joel Kinnaman), on the other hand, likes attention. He likes power and respect, and he’s quite sure he isn’t getting enough of either.

Kinnaman brings a weaselly quality to Michael that suits him. His best scenes showcase a level of insincere congeniality that really is sometimes chilling. Meanwhile Schoenaerts—a truly talented actor able to disappear into characters—is hamstrung by a role that requires little more than disappointed headshakes, askew glances and sighs.

The surrounding ensemble offers opportunities as well. Paul Schneider (nice to see you!) carves out a little authenticity as Jimmy, a restauranteur in over his head. Maika Monroe plays Jimmy’s kid sister Grace. They all grew up together—Jimmy, Michael, Peter and Grace—and now Grace has come back home.

Monroe, by the way, is fully twenty years younger than her co-stars, which makes the prospect of a love scene the single creepiest aspect of this film.

Talent be damned, Guez can’t find an original thought to explore. Everything about Brothers by Blood feels absolutely garden variety, although competently made. Except for the obligatory flashbacks, which are wedged in so poorly you almost overlook the fairly decent acting going on in them.

Mean Streets is $2.99 on Prime right now, by the way.

The Beat Goes On

Yung Lean: In My Head

by Brandon Thomas

Thanks to the internet, the world of new music is vast and wide. Anyone can put a song on their website, or upload a poorly produced music video to YouTube. Most of it goes unnoticed. That lack of notice is usually justified.

And then occasionally someone like Yung Lean comes along. 

In the early 2010s, a group of Swedish teens began uploading rap demos to Tumblr and Soundcloud. The same group gained even more notoriety when they began uploading videos to YouTube. This trio, the “Sad Boys,” and their de facto leader, Jonatan Leandoer Hastad (Yung Lean), soon found themselves on a meteoric rise across Europe and then the rest of the world. 

Music documentaries have become a popular subgenre in recent years. The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, and The Beastie Boys have all been the subject of recent, popular docs. Of course, these are artists already known and immortalized through their music and pop culture. The beauty of Yung Lean: In My Head is how the film uses Lean’s underground status to its advantage. The air of mystery is half the point. 

This documentary isn’t one that suffers from a lack of involvement from the principals. Lean’s story is told through his friends and collaborators, video footage shot while on tour, and family photos and video. Thankfully, the film doesn’t get too caught up in talking heads explaining every little detail. The copious amount of footage shot during the American and Canadian tour helps paint a picture of artistic freedom that slowly unraveled into drug-fueled chaos. 

Lean’s story takes a dramatic turn later in the film, one that shifts the focus away from music. This is an area where other films might stumble or even choose to not devote much time at all. Instead, In My Head pivots with ease. The focus was never just the music – it was Lean himself. 

In My Head may not have a subject with the culture cache of the Fab Four or Elvis Presley, but what Yung Lean does have is a compelling story born out of artistic creation and personal perseverance. 

He Ain’t Heavy

Stallone: Frank, That Is

by George Wolf

The title of this documentary is a correct assumption that Frank is not the first name you associate with the last name Stallone.

So that’s a nice, self-aware start to things. But despite a succession of famous faces telling us what a great and multi-talented guy Frank is, the film never can convince us that he’s worthy of a documentary in the first place.

One of the first things writer/director Derek Wayne Johnson lets us know is that Frank loves to talk. He does that often in the film, running through the events in his life with rambling, disjointed stories about how many times he was soooo close to being a contender…only to have fate snatch his dreams away.

Using his own words, many archival stills and too few videos, the Frank Stallone timeline begins to feel propped up by tall tales. These stories are often lacking in specifics (especially for a 73 minute film that clearly has the time) and loosely connected with a magical “and then I get a phone call.”

Still, Frank clearly does have talent. He has a fine voice, has written plenty of songs and even scored one big hit (“Far From Over”, from the film Stayin’ Alive that his brother directed). He’s also shown acting chops in some of the film roles he’s done (Barfly and Tombstone, for example).

But seeing his name as producer of this film only adds to the feeling that it’s nothing but a calculated promotional effort. Many of the platitudes from celebrity friends and facelifts seem more manufactured than authentic, and even though Frank appears fine with poking fun at himself, he never directly address the ironic elephant in the Stallone living room.

He tells us how hard it’s been overcoming the “Rocky’s brother” image even as he’s taking us through a career full of breaks he’s gotten for being just that.

A little self-awareness on that point and SFTI might feel less like, frankly, the insincere vanity project it becomes.

Fright Club: Best Cosmic Horror

Author Hailey Piper joins the club this week to tear through about 25 different cosmic horror movies, eventually landing on some fuzzy math favorites. Join us, won’t you?

6. Hellraiser

“The box…you opened it. We came.”

Man, those cenobites were scary cool, weren’t they?

Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s feature directing debut, worked not only as a grisly splatterfest suited to the Eighties horror landscape. It’s easy to see the film as an occult or supernatural horror, but it’s just as likely a cosmic tale of a dimension you could open without even trying, another reality on the other side of an afternoon’s puzzle past time.

5. Spiral (Uzumaki) (2000)

Higuchinsky’s mind bending 2000 Japanese horror went underappreciated upon release – likely because of the interest in ghosts and digital horror during that period. That’s too bad, because his adaptation of the not-yet-released Manga Uzumaki is a delight.

It starts with a snail shell. It ends with a town in chaos. If you missed it, you should remedy that now.

4. In the Mouth of Madness

Sutter Cane may be awfully close to Stephen King, but John Carpenter’s cosmic horror is even more preoccupied by Lovecraft. The great Sam Neill leads a fun cast in a tale of madness as created by the written world.

What if those horror novels you read became reality? What if that sketchy writer with the maybe-too-vivid imagination was not just got to his own page, but god for real? This movie tackles that ripe premise while ladling love for both of the horror novelists who made New England the creepiest section of America.

3. The Endless

There is something very clever about the way Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s movies sneak up on you. Always creepy, still they defy genre expectations even as they play with them.

Camp Arcadia offers the rustic backdrop for their latest, The Endless. A clever bit of SciFi misdirection, the film follows two brothers as they return to the cult they’d escaped a decade earlier.

It is this story and the pair’s storytelling skill that continues to impress. Their looping timelines provide fertile ground for clever turns that fans of the filmmakers will find delightful, but the uninitiated will appreciate as well.

2. Annihilation

Alex Garland’s work as both a writer (28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) and a writer/director (Ex Machina) has shown a visionary talent for molding the other-worldly and the familiar. Annihilation unveils Garland at his most existential, becoming an utterly absorbing sci-fi thriller where each answer begs more questions.

Taking root as a strange mystery, it offers satisfying surprises amid an ambitious narrative flow full of intermittent tension, scares, and blood—and a constant sense of wonder.

Just his second feature as a director, Annihilation proves Ex Machina was no fluke. Garland is pondering similar themes—creation, self-destruction, extinction—on an even deeper level, streamlining the source material into an Earthbound cousin to 2001.

1. The Mist

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head to town for some groceries. Meanwhile, a tear in the space/time continuum opens a doorway to alien monsters. So he, his boy, and a dozen or so other shoppers are all trapped inside this glass-fronted store just waiting for rescue or death.

Marcia Gay Harden is characteristically brilliant as the religious zealot who turns survival inside the store into something less likely than survival out with the monsters, but the whole cast offers surprisingly restrained but emotional turns.

The FX look amazing, too, but it’s the provocative ending that guarantees this one will sear itself into your memory.

Screening Room: One Night in Miami, Locked Down, Marksman, Rock Camp, MLK/FBI & More

Bad Boys for Life

Promising Young Woman

by Hope Madden

Emerald Fennell keeps you guessing.

In a riotous and incredibly assured feature debut as writer and director, she twists both knife and expectations in a rape-revenge riff that’s relevant, smart and surprisingly hilarious.

If you like your humor dark.

Carey Mulligan is flawless—when is she not?—as Cassandra. By day the one-time med student ignores customers from behind a coffee house counter. By night, she pretends to be obliterated in local clubs and dive bars.

Why would she do that? Well honestly, it’s because Cassandra’s life has lost its purpose and this is to a great degree the drug that numbs her. These opportunities to puncture the moral delusions of self-proclaimed “nice guys” who take her home provide catharsis. It’s like her own version of purgatory, as she forever tries to make amends for that one night back in med school.

And these moments are priceless as, one by one, Fennell exposes the hideous reality of gender norms and how little it takes for a man to be considered a good dude.

Mulligan is marvelous, giving Cassie the courage that comes from an utter disinterest in the opinions or well-being of others. And then a good guy from med school (Bo Burnham) stops in for coffee (in one of Mulligan’s finest, funniest scenes) and the stakes get higher.

Maybe she has a shot at turning the tables on those she considers responsible for this pain. Or maybe she’s found her one chance to put this pain behind her.

It’s a tightly wound script populated by spot on performances. Fennell has a gift for casting small roles with actors who can find the absurd humor and realistic horror of every situation: Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. But the cherry on this sundae is Burnham, who is quietly magnificent.

A pessimism runs through Fennell’s film that’s hard to ignore and even harder to criticize. But the film is true to the character of Cassie—a woman who’s profoundly dark and unforgiving but not wrong.

Fennell’s film is not a nuanced drama concerning rape culture. It’s not telling us anything we don’t honestly know already. It’s not a scalpel to the brain, it’s a sledge hammer to the testicles.

And why not?

A History of Non Violence

MLK/FBI

by George Wolf

This year’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day arrives during a time in history that has worn out the word “unprecedented.” And it is the gravity of these times that only serves to make veteran documentarian Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI ring with more timely urgency.

Mixing some impressive historical footage, newly declassified files and more recent interview perspectives, Pollard dives into the FBI’s harassment of Dr. King with a steady, tactical approach.

For those unfamiliar, it becomes a chilling reminder of a courageous and charismatic civil rights leader, and the powerful white men who felt the best way to weaken Dr. King was through revelations of his sexual indiscretions.

And as you hear racists from decades past recite the same, tired excuses for their fear and bigotry that we’re hearing now, the folly of our confident righteousness is exposed with a sad irony.

Looking back, former FBI director James Comey describes the assault on Dr. King as the saddest days in the history of the bureau. Those times were daunting, too, and they called for accountability that never came.

Are we condemned to repeat that history? We’ll see very soon, which makes the lessons of MLK/FBI as vital as ever.