Tag Archives: Cat McAlpine

25 for 2021

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Looking back, what will we remember about the 2021 year in film? Musicals, black and white palettes, smoking, ensembles and impressive debuts are the trends we’ll think of first. But more specifically, we’ll remember these 25 favorites:

1. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.

Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)

It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.

2. The Power of the Dog

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Kodi Smit-McFee, Jesse Plemmons, Kirstin Dunst and a particularly brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch bring her story to life. The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Coen brother Joel delivers a vision that’s both decidedly theatrical and profoundly cinematic with his solo directorial effort. Filmed in Bergman-esque black and white to glorious ends, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Lord and his Lady and this, friends, is a dream team. Two of the most celebrated and talented actors of modern cinema square off, and the veterans give an inconic relationship a depth that tinges the eventual madness with touching grief.

A uniformly brilliant ensemble (kudos in particular to Kathryn Hunter’s inspired turn as the witches) gives this dreamy take on the Bard its life.

Coen’s venture into Shakespeare, though it strips away the humor and quirk you may associate with Coen Brother filmmaking, stands as a strikingly Coen film. And that has never one time been a bad thing.

4. Summer of Soul

According to director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

You might, too.

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount. But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through a deeply effective context of time, place, and population.

5. West Side Story

Right from the opening minutes, Steven Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. From one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothly precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow.

It just looks freaking fantastic.

And in bringing his own vision to a classic story, Spielberg gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Christie Robb’s favorite film of 2021: Luca

Pixar/Disney’s Luca fosters self-acceptance and bravery in kids who were in the process of transitioning back to in-person school.

6. Flee

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Using that man’s actual voice in the conversations with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

7. Nightmare Alley

What director Guillermo Del Toro brings to this remake of a 1947 noir classic, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Bradley Cooper as Stan, the journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply. As much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

8. Drive My Car

Adapting a short story into a three-hour class on screenwriting, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffer from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring testament to grief, forgiveness, moving on and the unending lure of a fine automobile.

9. Riders of Justice

Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, as he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in this dark comic revenge fantasy.

But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.

Matt Weiner’s favorite film of 2021: Riders of Justice

It’s the feel-good Christmas comedy that brings the whole family together with good cheer, redemption, philosophical detours on the meaning of life and a body count that puts Die Hard to shame.

10. Wild Indian

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikeable man onscreen.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the central performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa (a stunning Michael Greyeyes) is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, God forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actor Greyeyes the opportunity to command the screen and he more than rises to the occasion.

11. Pig

This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.

Nicolas Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film he’s in. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Here, co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.

Brandon Thomas’s favorite film of 2021: Pig

Pig is a beautiful commentary on grief while also serving as a reminder that Nicolas Cage never stopped being one of our finest actors.

12. Passing

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. Likewise, Ruth Negga is superb as Irene’s friend/nemesis Clare, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor.

13. Belfast

Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Director Kenneth Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. 

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (a magnificent Jude Hill) trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

14. The Green Knight

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight. The story itself may be more than 700 years old, but credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with a never-better Dev Patel and an exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Cat McAlpine’s favorite film of 2021: The Green Knight

The Green Knight is a visual spectacle that matches the scale of journeying within oneself, masterfully portrayed by a wide-eyed and constantly wet Dev Patel.

15. C’mon C’mon

A man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, particularly endearing in this film. Nine-year-old Woody Norman soars as the nephew, his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv.

C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

16. The Lost Daughter

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast meets the challenge.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Olivia Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

17. The Humans

Two of 2021’s most prominent film themes – impressive debuts and stellar ensembles – come together in rookie writer/director Stephen Karam’s The Humans.

Adapting his own stage play, Karam displays wonderful instincts for how his story of a family reunion could move from stage to screen with relevant new layers. Buoyed by a first-rate cast including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans slowly revels itself as a domestic horror show, with familiar tensions and deep-seeded fears becoming more frightful than anything going bump in the night.

18. The Worst Person in the World

Led by a revelatory performance from Renate Reinsve, the latest from Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier effectively fuses coming-of-age sensibilities and romantic drama.

As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier crafts small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.

19. Zola

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and with Zola, director/co-writer Janicza Bravo tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

Bravo, Taylor Paige and Riley Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) all bring indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Rachel Willis’s favorite film of 2021: Adventures of a Mathematician

Adventures of a Mathematician offers devastating insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in history.

20. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This third installment of Jon Watts’s Spidey franchise showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made his first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by star Tom Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, No Way Home uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy.

21. Spencer

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, this look at the final weekend in the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles is draped in sadness and longing, but it’s one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Kristin Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves.

Filmmaker Pablo Larrain chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

22. Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.

As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. First-time writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

23. Candyman

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

24. The Last Duel

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Director Ridley Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design. Scott’s remarkable cast — Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — digs in to these old ideas to find startling relevance.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

25. No Time to Die

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Cary Joji Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses Daniel Craig’s final Bond film with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

Daniel “Schlocketeer” Baldwin’s favorite film of 2021: No Time to Die

No Time to Die is a fantastic action adventure epic, a pitch-perfect ending to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond and a wonderful modern encapsulation of the writings of Ian Fleming.

Almost Made It:

Lamb

Beta Test

The Harder They Fall

Mass

Shiva Baby

CODA

Two for One

The King’s Man

by Cat McAlpine

When Orlando Oxford’s (Ralph Fiennes) wife dies in front of him and his young son Conrad, his life is irrevocably changed. No longer is he a brave action taker. His life revolves around protecting his young son and respecting his wife’s dying wish. Naturally, this leaves an older Conrad (Harris Dickinson) desperate to prove himself as a man and meet danger at the front lines of WWI.

That’s the first five or so minutes of The King’s Man.

Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn returns for his third entry in the franchise with something darker and sillier, plagued with tonal whiplash.

What made his first two Kingsman films so successful was their absurd violence, over-the-top villains, and classic spy premise. This prequel goes without those key elements for almost an hour. Instead, we get a tense father-son drama about how war calls to all young men.

The narrative of the first half of the film is punctuated with plot, plot, and more plot to explain the growing tensions leading to the world’s most gruesome war.

When the Oxfords decide their only hope is to assassinate Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), I laughed out loud. It’s the same absurdity that made the rest of the series so enjoyable, but the ensuing hijinks were at odds with the movie I’d been watching.

Most odd of all, The King’s Man’s two most disparate scenes are its best.

One features Ifans — fantastic as Rasputin, both horrifying and hilarious and perfectly suited to the series. In stark contrast is a night-time knife fight in no man’s land. Conrad’s experience at the war front is heart-wrenching and filled with equal parts hope and horror. Then Vaughn rips us right back into plot, plot, and more plot. Emotional arcs are completed with single, short scenes and we are finally delivered into the nonsensical action we expect, well into the film’s second hour.

With The King‘s Man, Vaughn has made two films. The first, a period war drama. The second, a Kingsman prequel. Both films are well done and enjoyable but squashed together they become difficult to keep up with.

Tick, Tick, Boo!

Autumn Road

by Cat McAlpine

Riley Cusick does it all. He is the writer, director, and plays two leads in Halloween-themed horror Autumn Road. The film focuses on twin brothers Charlie and Vincent (Cusick), running a haunted house in their small hometown, and struggling actress Laura (Lorelei Linklater, Boyhood), who returns home for the anniversary of her sister’s disappearance.

Cusick establishes a wonderfully quiet but chaotic tone for his film. As a director, he has a great eye for establishing his shots, wonderfully capturing a small town filled with lonely people. A long shot of a spinning cup of cocoa. A lingering look at a dark parking lot. A masked man sprinting down a sunny highway. Cusick leaves a strong visual mark painted in warm tones.

It’s a good feature film debut done on the indie scale. But there’s room for growth. The script is weak, resulting in unrealistic dialogue that performs poorly paired with a handful of mostly wooden performances. Meanwhile, Cusick’s owl theme is haunting but heavy-handed.

Autumn Road still shines though, mostly when Cusick allows himself to become a little unhinged or when his monologues have time to ramp up into the insane. One such moment is when Vincent holds auditions for the haunted house. The scene is just the right mix of silly, campy, and genuinely disturbing.

Linklater does best with the more realistic dialogue, which allows her to be vulnerable and broken. She glows in a flashback scene with her sister. But she’s often saddled with difficult moments like suddenly mentioning her roommate’s recent death while making it about herself. “I’ve got bad luck in my bones. It follows me around like a dark cloud.” She says, conflating the disappearance of her sister with her roommate’s violent end.

Despite the genre, the violence of Cusick’s film is always shocking. Much of that violence never meets a resolution. In fact, most of the tension in the film remains unresolved, both painting a bleak picture and leaving the watcher unsatisfied. There seem to be no real-world consequences for the actions in Autumn Road.

Ultimately, Cusick’s feature-length debut is a fine effort. But his future endeavors may be best served if he dedicates his focus to a single role.

Girls Are Better Off Dead

Mayday

by Cat McAlpine

Life’s hard for Ana, who is sleeping in her car and doing her best serving under her abusive boss. Although the time and place aren’t specified and don’t matter, the dark and dated dance hall she caters in suggests that Ana’s gloomy life is somewhere in Eastern Europe. But she won’t stay there for long.

An act of violence shakes Ana (Grace Van Patten) from her stupor and in a dreamy mashup of Alice in Wonderland, Sucker Punch, and a hint of Sylvia Plath, Ana escapes her life by crawling through a glowing oven. On the other side, she discovers a ragtag group of girls – brutal and intoxicating Marsha (Mia Goth), hearty Gert (Soko), and sweet Bea (Havana Rose Liu). The girls play at war, picking off men from any side of an unknown eternal conflict to torture and kill. Instead of a magic tree house, they live inside the hull of an old U-Boat. Like coastal sirens, they hop on the airwaves and cry “Mayday,” leading men into storms and uncertain territory.

Nervous at the thought of killing, Ana warns, “I’ve never been in a war.”

“You’ve been in a war your whole life, you just don’t know it,” replies Marsha.

Writer/Director Karen Cinorre creates a beautiful and increasingly dark dreamscape for Ana to explore her trauma, but the dialogue is heavy-handed while the plot stays meandering and loose. The result is a contemplative romp through female rage, painted like a grim fairytale that isn’t quite sure where it’s going.

Aesthetically, the film is fantastic, and it is anchored by strong performances. Van Patten is enjoyable to watch as Ana comes into her own. Goth is terrifying and power-hungry, a believable cult leader. But Cinorre’s fever dream burns on too long and gets too caught up in its own rules of make-believe, casting off metaphor and leaving it for dead. War is a childlike fantasy playscape for the girls who feel powerless otherwise. But are they all dead? Is this a shared hallucination? Some of the players are characters from Ana’s own life while others are strangers.

One scene implies that Ana has gunned down a whole camp of men, but it shows her doing a choreographed dance with them instead. Is this an illusion inside of an illusion? Mayday doesn’t stand up to questioning, which suits the fantastical film just fine most of the time.

Ana must discover what measure of hope and rage suits her. Marsha is all rage. Bea all hope. And Gert doesn’t want to talk about it. As soon as Ana takes to killing men, she starts seeing all the ones who were kind to her before. And though their fairytale island is littered with ill-suited husbands and would-be rapists, Ana still struggles to condemn the whole kingdom of men.

Ultimately, Mayday is a fine telling of how to find our rage and how to tend to our sadness without letting go of the good the world still has to offer.

An Unbroken Wheel

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

by Cat McAlpine

In the small village of Nazareth, in the tiny Kingdom of Lesotho, a man recounts the wisdom his father once gave to him. “My son, what they call progress…It is when men point their damning finger at nature and proclaim conquest over it.” It is that poisonous progress that the people of Nazareth are fighting against in This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, and it is a losing battle.

The film follows 80-year-old widow Mantoa. After the death of her last surviving child, she finds herself utterly alone and mired in grief. The story unfolds like a mythic, dark fairytale with beautiful vignettes and discordant music. Director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese carries us from moment to moment as Mantoa repeatedly has to contemplate her grief. Though she resigns herself to simply wait to be buried alongside her family, a new challenge arrives with a blazer and a megaphone. The village will be relocated, a dam will be built, their fields will be flooded.

What of the dead? What of Mantoa? The elderly woman convinces the village to resist the spinning wheels of progress. Together they seek to find what is left for their community in the land where their dead are buried. Twice we are reminded that Nazareth is the name that new settlers gave the land. Before that, it was always known as the Plains of Weeping.

Jerry Mofokeng delivers a reverent and deeply sad narration of Mantoa’s struggles. Using the framework of a narrator, with a different voice and perspective than Mantoa, further perpetuates the storybook feel. But this is not a happy children’s tale. This is a story about capitalism’s infinite reach. This is a story about grief, culture, and perseverance. This is a story about the dead.

Mary Twala is phenomenal in her final role as Mantoa. Her emotion is palpable even when she sits in silence. Her rage and her pain don’t slow the narrative or taint it with bitterness. Instead, Twala propels Mantoa with the depths of her grief. She is an absolute powerhouse, and the film would not succeed as well as it does without her.

And the film does succeed. It is incredibly beautiful, rich with color, light, and shadow. Every scene is a haunting painting. The cast, mixed with actors and non-actors alike, brings you to witness the erasure of a real place and real people, and you mourn with them. When Mofokeng intones that the dead buried the dead, he reflects on a village that will soon be hidden under water.

Though the people of Nazareth still live, something about them will be lost forever. They are some of the last of their kind as new roads, and new buildings, and new dams continue to creep into the quiet places of the world. Progress fills up little villages with the walking dead as ways of life are washed away.

Hear Her Roar

Steel Song

by Cat McAlpine

A crowd is gathered in a concrete hall. The space might be at a fairgrounds, where animals are displayed and children show off their crafts. But not today. Today, the crowd leans over the red metal railing to watch full-suited knights absolutely wail on each other. Welcome to Medieval Armored Combat.

Steel Song follows several women involved with the ancient, full-contact sport. They practice hacking away with axes. They paint and stitch personal sigils. They strap into full suits of armor and fight in combat, sword to sword.

Though tournaments separate bouts by sex, director Adrian Cicerone never pits the women in his film against each other. In fact, he shows very little of their competitive results. It would be easy to compare the women to one another. The Armored Combat League (ACL) National Championship features 9 female competitors to 48 male. But instead, Cicerone focuses his lens on the camaraderie of the community, and his film is made the better for it.

Steel Song doesn’t delve into the history of sword combat or how the society of steel combatants functions now. Instead, it briefly explores the lives of Bridgette Parkinson, Shoshana Shellans, and Julee Slovacek-Peterson, and discovers how armored combat is just one large part of their lives.

“I keep fighting because of what I can continually prove about myself, to myself,” says Shellans.

That’s the theme of the film. Cicerone doesn’t focus on the competition because every armored fighter is really fighting against themselves, for themselves. It’s an incredibly difficult sport, with bouts only lasting 3-5 minutes because of the amount of exertion required. Even covered head to toe in armor, combatants still come away bloody. They also always come away smiling, with most matches ending in a hug between competitors.

Steel Song is a beautiful hour and fifteen minutes, complete with appropriate instrumentals, that relishes in the joy of being yourself.

Muses one of the women, “I think everybody would be so much happier if they could just be them.”

White Savior: The Documentary

Queen of the Beach

by Cat McAlpine

While returning from his trip filming traveling preachers in India, Chris McDonell becomes enamored with some young girls hawking their wares on a beach in Goa. One precocious girl, in particular, catches his eye, and her name is Shilpa Poojar. At the time, Shilpa’s only nine years old, and she works full-time to help support her family.

Almost desperately McDonnell repeatedly asks her, “Do you have a dream? Are you happy?” Shilpa shrugs several times before finally admitting that she’d like to go to school, but she can’t afford it. Unable to shake the idea that this young girl is working instead of getting an education, McDonell sets out to change her fate.

McDonell has many paths he could follow in his telling of Shilpa’s story, but he largely avoids any avenue except trying to convince her to go to school. As he returns to India year after year, Shilpa’s interest in school fluctuates. She’s the breadwinner for her family, and if she stops earning an income her family won’t eat. It’s rare that you see a documentary so heavily dependent on the director inserting themselves into the narrative, but McDonell is determined to “save” Shilpa in the way he deems best.

As he is entangled with Shilpa’s family, McDonell grows disheartened that there isn’t an easy win ahead of him. The girls he’s desperate to help are businesswomen who easily out-barter him. He’s constantly promising them gifts in exchange for their participation in the documentary, and his proximity to the young girls sometimes feels uncomfortable. He never acknowledges the obvious power imbalance between himself, a white adult man with the promise of money, and the young Indian girls who are desperate to earn their daily keep or otherwise be beaten. Once or twice, McDonell recognizes that India is often a location for sex tourism, but he doesn’t delve.

McDonell never delves, in fact. He is desperate to make a documentary about sending Shilpa to school, and that’s the documentary he makes despite all odds. He never ends his mission, even when Shilpa is run out of her shop on the beach because she is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with McDonell.

“I come here to help, and instead I cause all of these problems.” He worries out loud to her.

“This is called life, Chris.” She consoles him. “This is India life.”

The documentary is worth watching just to meet the whip-smart, incredibly charismatic Shilpa, who carries on despite horrible circumstances. But her journey seems halted and messy through McDonell’s insistence that she receive his help the way he wants to give it. Cultural context is sidestepped and ignored. Her story ends with no update on her adult life. Does she still have dreams? Is she happy?

We are left with a multitude of unturned stones and unanswered questions. The only thing that is clear is that McDonell is proud of what he thinks he’s accomplished.

Justice v Tradition

A Crime on the Bayou

by Cat McAlpine

The nation was one month into federally enforced integration in 1966 when Gary Duncan pulled his car over to intervene between a group of boys spoiling for a fight. That afternoon, Duncan became a marked man.

Targeted with a litany of false charges, he was arrested again and again. He could have accepted battery charges for a crime he did not commit and paid a fine. But he refused to be painted as a criminal for simply being Black. So he and his Jewish attorney, Richard Sobol, took the case to court, stepping to the corrupt titans of 1960s Louisiana, like white supremacist judge Leander Perez.

Remembering one of his final arrests with tears in his eyes, Duncan recalls “I said ‘I’m not going to jail. I’m tired.’…I was ready to die.”

Another clip shows young Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to attend desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Weeping, she tells the interviewer, “I’m not afraid. They’ll have to kill me to keep me from getting my education.” She was six years old at the time.

The most striking juxtaposition in A Crime on the Bayou is the use of black and white footage paired with full color, high-quality interviews. Director Nancy Buirski utilizes a unique handheld technique for the talking heads portions of the film, staying extremely tight on her main subjects’ faces. It reminds us that 1966, and the Civil Rights Movement, was not as long ago as we’d like to believe. Many of the young people immortalized in black and white photos, screaming their protest of the integration of schools, are still alive and well today. They are a part of our society. They are your neighbors. They vote and run for office or lead companies.

Little Ruby Bridges is still alive too. She’s only 66 years old.

Buirski embraces the setting of the desegregation crisis and resulting Civil Rights movement. She employs drone footage of Louisiana, archived footage of New Orleans, and jazz music interludes. Buirski reminds us that culture cannot be separated from its struggles and ugly parts.

The documentary also explores the struggle of Jewish Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, particularly Jewish attorneys and civil rights lawyers. The holocaust had only occurred 20 years prior, and many Jewish families were relatively newly immigrated and fighting for a new life. With them, they carried their own memories of genocide and totalitarian rule. And while the trauma of the two cultures cannot be compared— you can never compare trauma and come up with a winning outcome—Black Americans and Jewish Americans often found themselves fighting against the same forces.

This moving film is a reminder that the world does change, but slowly. We cannot brush off the sins of the past so easily, as many of us are still living them.

At an hour and a half, this documentary moves quickly and doesn’t languish in the trauma of Black men the way many other films do. Instead, it is honest about the inherited traumas we carry. It methodically exposes how entire systems have been built to suppress minorities. Most importantly, it reminds us that the fight continues, and that whenever possible, we must rise to the challenge of upholding justice.

Do Not Pass Go

Murder Bury Win

by Cat McAlpine

Friends Chris, Adam and Barrett are trying and failing to launch their indie board game Murder Bury Win. When a mysterious benefactor expresses interest in developing the game, the friends have to ask themselves how far they’re willing to go to make their dreams come true.

Those unfamiliar with modern board games and the cutthroat, rarely lucrative industry that’s behind them may be left out on a handful of jokes. Especially the constant references to “Flaming Puppies,” a stand-in for the real game Exploding Kittens. But the film eventually descends into stakes we can all understand – life or death.

Writer/Director Michael Lovan spends a little too much time setting up the story and the other shoe could drop 10 minutes earlier. Murder Bury Win shines best when it’s being silly, and the more fun it has, the better it gets.

When Chris (Mikelen Walker) discovers he’s in the presence of his hero, he’s bathed in a holy glow from the window behind him. Fantasy scenes of the board game world make for fun vignettes. The horrifying use of a cheese grater pushes the comedic thriller into horror. These little moments stand out despite a sometimes stilted script.

The performances from the small ensemble cast shine across the board. Walker is a dreamer, and a stoic straight man who has finally had enough. Henry Alexander Kelly is able to summon grit for the soft and caring Barrett. And Erich Lane’s Adam becomes unhinged so easily, so seamlessly as the film progresses that he matches increasingly insane circumstances perfectly. Brian Slaten as Officer Dan and Craig Cackowski as V. V. Stubs both create fun, sometimes outlandish characters that counterbalance the main trio. And Lovan’s cameo brings such a weird energy that I wish he’d been in more of the film.

Lovan has an eye for color, effectively using red to bathe the remote cabin where most of the film takes place. The custom game mat, the too-long curtains, and even the backing of The Murder Wall (yes, you read that correctly) are all the color of blood. It trains you to recognize blood later as it appears in an otherwise white bathroom, in a fine mist across faces, and seeping through the bottom of a brown paper bag.

Each of the best friends is dressed in a bold signature color, yellow, blue, and green, like tokens on a gameboard.

Overall, Murder Bury Win is a zany look at our murder fantasies and what it takes for an ordinary person to suddenly become capable of such bloody acts. Whether you’re a board game fan or not, this film makes for a fun playtest.

Truth Bombs

Stealing School

by Cat McAlpine

Senior April Chen (Celine Tsai) is days away from graduating from DuPont University, and she already has a lucrative job waiting for her in Silicon Valley. All she has to do is get through her academic misconduct hearing. But her TA, Keith Ward (Jonathan Keltz), is determined to pin her for plagiarism and as the hearing wears on tensions rise and secrets are unearthed.

In a mockery of a courtroom, Stealing School analyzes the personalities and egos that run rampant in academia, criticizing its self-importance, bureaucracy and institutional racism. A particularly good running gag is various character’s introduction of their thesis titles. If you’ve ever had a brush with higher education, you’ll recognize all the archetypes that writer and director Li Dong cross-examines.

Particularly brutal is the Canadian school’s PR policy which seems to rely entirely on “being better than American schools.” Their only answer to accusations of racism and misconduct is that at least they aren’t like the institutions to their south.

Stealing School has good pacing, and a delicious unfurling of tensions between various characters during breaks and in flashbacks. The film analyzes how important it is to be likable, rather than right or good. Keltz is absolutely loathsome and delivers the best performance of the film, being too eager, too righteous, too vindictive. Tsai matches him with a subtler performance, walking a moral gray area that has you unsure of her innocence until the final moments of the film.

The rest of the supporting cast matches their archetype well, all either jaded by the academic world or still obsessed with its ability to give them better opportunities. But Stealing School’s criticisms don’t stop at academia. Dong also explores racism in broad strokes and the toxic culture of tech that only asks that you provide good code.

Stealing School is a tight hour and 14 minutes, which keeps its mostly single setting from feeling claustrophobic. With good pacing and a satisfying end, this is a great watch for your evening, especially if you regret your degree.