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Pick A Side

A Shot Through the Wall

by Rachel Willis

“It’s important … that I understand your side of the story.”

Writer and director Aimee Long tackles a big topic with her debut feature, A Shot Through the Wall. Focusing on the aftermath of the shooting of a Black man shot by a police officer, Long tries to present the issue in shades of gray rather than the black and white portrayal often warring in the news or across social media.

When two police officers stop a group of Black teenagers on the street, a chase leads to an accidental shooting.

In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Officer Michael Tan (Kenny Leu) draws his weapon in the pursuit of one of the teenagers and his gun discharges. Whether the result of a misfire or a jumpy trigger finger is never made clear, but that’s not Long’s point. From Tan’s perspective -and his is the one on which we’re focused – it’s an accident.

This is one of the more troubling aspects of Long’s film. While it’s made clear from the beginning that Tan never meant to hurt anyone, we’re not given the alternative perspective of what the killing of a Black man at police hands means for the family or the community.

A moment in the film’s first act allows us a chance to see the anger and the demand for justice, but this is depicted as a blanket response. No one takes the time to show us how the hole in the wall of an apartment rips a hole in so many lives. Be it accidental or intentional, the result is more victims of an unjust system.

The only chance we get to understand the victim’s side comes in the form of Tan’s fiancée, a Black woman. Portrayed by Ciara Renée, Candace is the strongest character as her dual role in the conflict gives us a little more insight.

However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t inhabit their roles. Each one brings depth that makes up for the film’s storytelling weaknesses.

A few tough questions are raised in the film. Is Tan’s race a factor in his indictment? Would a white cop face the same legal persecution?

There is strength in the film’s second act, as we get a chance to know Tan, but it falls apart at the end. The idea that violence begets violence leads to a (forgive the pun) cop out.

There is no real justice to find here. Only more of the same in a society where oppression and injustice are too often the norm.

Growing Strong

Beans

by Christie Robb

Adolescence is hard. It’s beset with conflicts and struggles that come from all directions—society, parents, peers, your own body… In Tracey Deer’s Beans, we see Tekahentakwa’s (nicknamed Beans) coming-of-age narrative, well, a slice of it anyway. She’s coming up on her seventh-grade year and contemplating a move from her neighborhood school to Montreal’s posh Queen Heights Academy.

The posh and majority-white Queen Heights Academy.

Which is more than usually fraught because Beans is a Mohawk and the Mohawks are fighting to keep White Quebecois developers from expanding a golf course onto a Mohawk cemetery.

Inspired by the true events of the Oka Crisis aka Kanesatake Resistance of 1990, Beans is a mix of archival news footage and fictional drama.

What begins as a peaceful protest at the cemetery turns violent once a riot squad shows up and starts lobbing tear gas at the protestors. A police officer is killed, which leads to a stand-off. Mohawks and white police face each other behind barricades. Beans’s town is cut off from supplies, leaving it more or less under siege.

The details of the stand-off are a little unclear, the way world events can seem when you are in middle school. What Beans experiences is a betrayal of white adults. They fail to live up to their roles in the social system she thought she was living under. Shop keepers won’t sell groceries to “her kind.” Police won’t protect a car full of women and children from folks throwing rocks. People scream obscenities and spit at her adorable kid sister.

In the midst of this, Beans is trying on possible versions of her adult self. She meets an older, more contemptuous, teenage mentor and seeks advice on how to toughen up. She abandons her baggy 90s overalls and braids and experiments with side ponytails, crop tops, and lipstick. She practices swearing in front of the mirror. She learns more about administering violence and suffering it.

As tensions with the developers and government mount, Beans’s life grows increasingly complicated, forcing her to make choices and figure out the type of person she wants to be.

The cast delivers authentic performances. As Beans, Kiawentiio nails the vulnerability covered with a brittle armor of cynicism that I remember from middle school. Paulina Alexis does a great job as the tough older girl who has been through some shit. And Rainbow Dickerson shines as the ultimate adult role model—strong and nurturing, and able to let loose with the lecture to kids and adults alike.

As a monolingual person from the States, I would have appreciated subtitles for the French language news footage and a little bit more context on how the Mohawks and the Canadian Government came to a resolution. But, overall, Beans is a moving coming-of-age story that depicts many strong First Nations women. This is Tracey Deer’s first feature film and I look forward to seeing what’s next.

Inner Conflict

Dangerous

by Hope Madden

I remember watching the inexplicably popular Bad Boys for Life and marveling at the film’s narrative purpose: to convince Marcus (Martin Lawrence) that being a violent man is better than being a man who does not commit violence against others.

Sure, there’s a mother/son angle, some explosions, a disco scene, but everything that happens does so to convince Marcus that his real purpose is to commit violence.

It’s different than the traditional “one man against the world” action flick, where a peaceful man is forced back into violence to avenge the death of his wife/child/puppy. Those have long existed. This idea that a man who chooses not to physically harm others needs to somehow be persuaded that he prefers a life of violence, that it is his nature and should be celebrated, is kind of new. This theme is also the driving force behind the admittedly enjoyable Nobody, among others.

The latest film that hates to see a man get his baser instincts under control is David Hackl’s Dangerous.

Scott Eastwood leads a solitary life. He works out. He eats frozen dinners. He waters his plants. Then his mind-numbing peace is disrupted when his brother Sean’s death brings him to the remote island where Sean had been renovating an old military base into a hotel.

Eastwood, who channels his father more and more these days, is now non-violent with the help of some personality-deadening drugs and call-me-whenever guidance from his therapist, played by Mel Gibson.

That’s funny.

Hackl’s clearly working on a shoestring here, and though the film sometimes shows a lack of funds, on the whole, it’s competently made. The humor Hackl, Gibson and Eastwood mine from Christopher Borrelli’s script delivers Dangerous’s saving grace.

Because, yes, D (Eastwood’s character) falls into ex-military, Black Op style gunplay once on the island, but first the recovering sociopath has to deal with his mom. Beyond that, the mystery is convoluted beyond measure, Tyrese Gibson and Famke Janssen are pointless, performances are forgettable.

In the end, the whole mess feels like the familiar fantasy of doing right by your mother just one time and then disappearing so you can’t screw it up. Which is a better story than the one about a sociopath who decides being a decent human is just not being true to himself.

Life Less Ordinary

Waif

by Hope Madden

Just two years ago, writer Samantha Kolesnik crafted the hypnotic road trip horror True Crime and introduced us to a frightening, insightful and bold central figure.

Much has changed in Kolesnik’s approach to her latest novella, Waif. And yet, a master of complex characters, Kolesnik delivers another fascinating point of view vehicle in Angie, whose thoughts and rationalizations defy clean moral categorization. Waif travels an unusual path along with Angie, an abused wife whose husband concocts a bizarre plan to recapture her sexual interest. The undertaking draws her into a wild world full of new dangers, and it awakens something.

The novella probes this damaged psyche without apology or judgment, Kolesnik’s writing here frank and often frankly sexual. Where her previous novella delivered dreamlike stream of conscious horror, Waif’s punch is direct.

The plot itself is never less than fascinating, allowing Kolesnik to explore sexual politics, loss, and an almost endless set of ideas concerning abuse. Through Angie, a less-than-reliable reliable narrator, Kolesnik asks provocative questions, and the answers she offers are often disturbing.

She complicates the ideas of innocence, agency and complicity, and once again her choice of narrator allows for a morally fluid point of view, which gives the author opportunity to look at every topic from a wide and wild range of perspectives. The story role-reverses again and again, giving nearly every character the chance to try on the robes of victim and perpetrator, often willingly.

Waif wastes not a sentence on sermonizing. Instead, it explores dangerous possibilities in the name of reclaiming something you thought you’d lost.

Living Deliciously

First Cow

by Hope Madden

Kelly Reichardt films tell a story, but not in the traditional Hollywood sense. She draws you into an alien environment, unveils universal humanity and shows you something about yourself, about us. There’s usually a story buried in there somewhere. In this case, it’s about two outsiders in 19th Century Oregon who find friendship.

And a cow.

Cookie (John Magaro) is a gentle soul, not properly built for the fur trade. (You saw The Revenant, right?) He’s a baker at heart, not that he gets to do much baking on a trapping expedition with hungry, volatile, hunt-weary men.

He holds no value for these men, and has nothing in common with them. But somehow he sees a kinship with the naked Chinese man he stumbles upon as he forages for mushrooms in the woods.

It’s sweet and sad the way Cookie and King-Lu (Orion Lee) fall into a relationship. King-Lu has ambitions. He opens Cookie’s eyes to opportunities he’d never had the courage to consider. Through these characters Reichardt demonstrates how fragile, lovely and heartbreaking hope can be.

Working again with regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond, whose novel the two adapted, Reichardt keeps you pulling for her heroes. The narrative lulls you with understated conversations and observations while the meticulously captured natural beauty onscreen beguiles. Within that, we see the potential of a young country through the eyes of Americans determining the dream.

Reichardt explores loneliness in all her films, the sense that we are each simply and inevitably alone, though we struggle against it regardless. This exploration isn’t hurried. It breathes. She emphasizes the longing for connection in every quiet moment with her characteristic use of lighting, the way she frames nature and the naturalistic performances she draws from Lee and Magaro.

William Tyler’s lonesome score offers something both mournful and tender, which is fitting. Although these men’s very existence in this place testifies to hardy ambition, Reichardt lingers on moments of gentle camaraderie.

When Kelly Reichardt tells a story, she breaks your heart. She does it slowly and quietly, but it’s broken nonetheless.

Saturday Screamer: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.

But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard, along with his co-scribe Joss Whedon, is going to use that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.

Though Goddard was an unproven entity behind the camera, the duo have written and produced some of the most intriguing projects in film and on TV in recent memory, including Cloverfield, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon wrote Toy Story. There is nothing that garners higher praise from me than that particular credit.

Their quirky, dark humor is on full display in this effort.

Aside from the setup, the best thing to know about this film is nothing at all. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy the savage, wickedly funny lunacy.

I will tell you this, though: Best onscreen elevator ride ever!

Goddard and Whedon’s nimble screenplay offers a spot-on deconstruction of horror tropes as well as a joyous celebration of the genre. Aided by exquisite casting – particularly the gloriously deadpan Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – the filmmakers create something truly special.

Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror comedy.

Fans of the genre will be elated. Those who generally avoid horror cannot help but be entertained. I left the theater absolutely giddy. As smart as Scream, as much fun as Evil Dead, this film is as thoroughly enjoyable a horror flick as anything you’ll find.





Insidious

Where’s My Roy Cohn?

by Hope Madden

There’s a tendency in horror cinema, after a villain has established his evil nature in a film or two, to turn the story around and find out what made him a monster. In that vein, Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? is the madman’s origin story.

Horror fan that I am, I’ve still never been intrigued by what made Jason Jason, why Michael Myers was driven to murder, what caused Leatherface to don the mask. But it turns out, this horror story is more about the sequel, Son of Cohn.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” is a tantrum yelped by Donald Trump, unhappy about his attorney general at the time. And the title speaks volumes, about the kind of attack dog Cohn had been as a lawyer, and about the toxic legacy he’s left behind, right down to the oval office.

A fastidious student of the unlikely individual and his or her cultural impact, Tyrnauer made fascinating docs for years about little known citizens with big stories (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and Citizen Jane among them). And though his latest certainly bears some of the markings of Tyrnauer’s previous films, the only person who saw Roy Cohn as a little guy with big ideas was Roy Cohn.

 It’s tough to overstate the ruthless, amoral impact Cohn has had on American politics and culture. Though Tyrnauer shows traces of compassion when underlining Cohn’s self-hating behaviors (whether as a Jew or a homosexual), the filmmaker’s assessment of his cancerous affect is evident.

Cohn was the prosecuting attorney who pushed the Rosenbergs toward the electric chair before he became McCarthy’s advisor, mouth piece and thug. Then on to New York, where his mafia entanglements (he represented John Gotti, Tony Salerno and Carmine Galante) only aided in his close professional and personal relationship with Donald Trump.

A bizarre connector between the worlds of Studio 54, the mafia and the Archdiocese of New York, Cohn’s party photos articulate some kind of bacchanal populated by members of each of these affluent, influential and decadent groups. It would be impressive it weren’t so ominous and seedy.

He also owned the news, dictating stories to the New York Post from his kitchen table and bringing Rupert Murdoch to the oval office with his own dear friend, Ronald Reagan.

Roy Cohn is dead, but as Where’s My Roy Cohn? makes dismayingly clear is that his ghost still haunts us.

Annie Are You Okay?

The Intruder

by George Wolf

If you caught Dennis Quaid creeping around your house on numerous occasions, would you be scared, or just figure he was bringing over some mac and cheese?

Quaid might be one of the ultimate likable dudes, and his playing waaay against type is one of promising threads that The Intruder squanders in its warmed over dish of jump scares and borrowed ideas.

Beautiful couple Scott (Michael Ealy) and Annie (Meagan Good) are living the good life in San Francisco, but Annie feels it’s time they move to the country and start a family. She finds her dream house at the Napa Valley home of Charlie Peck (Quaid), and as quickly as you can say “overly rushed setup,” they’re moving in.

Charlie says he’s selling to head South, so why is he still coming over to mow the lawn, assist with the Christmas decorations, and find reasons to be alone with Annie?

Whaddya bet he’s not really retiring to Florida, or that some guy at Scott’s office would like nothing better than dig into Charlie’s past to find what he’s hiding?

Director Deon Taylor (Traffik) and writer David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace) are both treading familiar ground, too much on autopilot to successfully mine the contrasts they introduce.

It’s old ways versus new, city versus country, and a red hat wearing white guy terrorizing a black couple.

That’s plenty to chew on, but everyone goes hungry while characters make one idiotic decision after another on the subtlety-free ride to a finale lifted verbatim from a 90s thriller.

At some point, Taylor and Loughery needed to chose a path: logical, layered tension or unhinged, over-the-top fun.

It’s clearly evident which one Quaid wanted, but both he and the film end up undecided on the remodeling plans. Like that old, musty spare room with the bad wallpaper, The Intruder is a little creepy, too often unintentionally funny and in need of some work.

The Screening Room: Shocks and Awes

We run down so many movies this week, most of them great and well worth your time. Check out our thoughts on First Man, Bad Times at the El Royale, Goosebumps 2, Old Man & the Gun, All About Nina, The Sisters Brothers and everything new in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.