Tag Archives: Christie Robb

Phantom of Felonies

The World We Knew

by Christie Robb

The World We Knew is haunted by the ghost of a better script.

Directors Matthew Benjamin Jones and Luke Skinner have an interesting concept here: six robbers running from a job gone sideways hide out in a haunted house.

The setting is good: creepy, decaying, isolated farmhouse. Arts and Crafts-style wallpaper peels away from rotten plaster. Lights flicker from a generator in need of refueling.

Laurens Scott’s cinematography is effectively eerie. Low camera angles and jump cuts keep us in an ominous holding pattern, gazing into the darkened edges of the frame waiting for things to get creepy.

The acting is good—nothing excessively melodramatic or hammy. All the characters feel lived-in and relate to each other extremely realistically. As Barker, the patriarch of armed robbery, Struan Rodger (the Three-Eyed Raven from Game of Thrones) is especially good when he captivates the others with a story.

But, in the end, the script doesn’t captivate. There’s a missed opportunity to peel back the onion layers of each character’s backstory by way of their conversation. They are all one-note. The kid who can’t shake his first kill. The boxer who killed a dude in a fight. The rat. The dying guy. The old jail-bird. The big bad.

Failing interesting character development, there’s also no suspense with the haunting or the violence. And with the exception of some blood gurgling from an open mouth, not all that much gore either.

It’s a slow slog to a predictable end. But I’d like to see this concept resurrected with better writing.

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

Full Frontal and Funny

Red Rocket

by Christie Robb

Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is like an ill-trained golden retriever—all smiles and charm until he starts humping your leg and pissing all over the furniture.

In Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, Mikey makes a hangdog reappearance in his hometown of Texas City, Texas. He left 20 years before with hopes of making it big out in Los Angeles—as a porn star. That didn’t exactly turn out well for him and now he finds himself broke and on the doorstep of his ex Lexi (Bree Elrod), begging to be let back inside.

He’s a fast talker who makes a good elevator pitch, and despite a history that you can just tell is littered with drama and bad vibes, Lexi lets Mikey move in—provided he contributes to the rent and does some chores around the house.

From here, Mikey tries to pick up the pieces of his life and start over. Unfortunately, the stigma against sex workers limits his employment prospects. So he hooks up with an old boss and starts peddling weed to make ends meet.

Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) has made a comedy this time out, albeit a black one. Once Mikey catches a glimpse of the pert 17-year-old server Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local Doughnut Hole, he embarks on a mission to pimp her out to the porn industry.

She’s smart, sex-positive, and down to be filmed, but Mikey is full of lies, promoting unrealistic expectations that give the comedy a touch of a tragic undertone.

All of this is set against 2016 DNC and RNC convention speeches that make reoccurring cameos on the TVs in the background, underscoring the hogwash that Mikey is spouting.

Quotable and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Red Rocket finally answered a question I had floating around the back of my mind for years—exactly how much bouncing would be involved when a well-endowed naked man runs full-out on a city street.  

Everybody Be Cool, This Is a Robbery

Blonde. Purple

by Christie Robb

The story of a bank heist gone awry, writer/director Marcus Flemmings’ Blonde. Purple owes a great deal to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Both films share a nonlinear structure, include references to pop culture, have a dark sense of humor, include characters speaking in verbose monologues quoting Great Works of Literature, and have key scenes taking place in a little diner.

In the case of Blonde. Purple, there is more of an identifiable A storyline. Julian Moore-Cook’s bank robber has retreated into a mortgage lender’s office at the bank he was trying to rob after his partner was shot by the cops. In his attempt to flee, he left the cash behind but grabbed a 16-year-old girl as a hostage (Ellie Bindman).

Soon a police crisis manager calls him on the phone to try to negotiate next steps.

How the various elements came together to get both the robber and hostage to this point are covered in the other sequences preceded by intertitles.

Moore-Cook and Bindman are not particularly strong actors. Their banter is ok, but their more emotional moments tend to be somewhat over the top—more appropriate to the stage than the screen.

Adam J. Bernard does strand out as Nath, the partner who was shot. His performance in the flashbacks is more natural and a monologue he gives on the difference between films and movies citing Nicholas Cage projects is charming.

Overall though, the movie is weak with some scenes that seem included simply to give more actors parts to play rather than to contribute to the plot. Also somewhat jarring is the fact that about half of the actors speak with British accents. It gives the film a bit of a Guy Ritchie vibe but adds to a sense of confusion as to the setting.

If the fun of Pulp Fiction was its post-modern remix of pop culture tropes, Blonde. Purple feels like a copy of a copy of a copy, unfocused and messy. It lacks the sense of innovation and the style that made Tarantino’s work so groundbreaking in the 90s.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Sociopaths

Ankle Biters

by Christie Robb

As we near the end of the year, pop culture tries to sell us on the idea that the small people who live amongst us are little doe-eyed innocents that deserve to be spoiled with sweet treats and presents and matching sets of family pajamas. Glossed over are the moments when their grown-ups awake in a cold sweat to find a shadowy presence in a onesie staring down at them. Or the times when they inform Grandma that she’s likely going to die soon. Or the phase when they turn to you on the couch and very casually mention something bone-chillingly creepy like that they want to see what “mommy looks like without skin.” 

Bennet De Brabandere, writer/director of Ankle Biters (originally titled Cherrypicker), isn’t trying to sell you on this whole sugar and spice con. In his movie, the kiddos may be small and doe-eyed, but they are also cold, calculating, and capable.

When recently widowed mom Laura (Marianthi Evans) starts dating hockey jock Sean (Zion Forrest Lee), Laura’s four daughters are predisposed to dislike him. They don’t want their dad to be replaced.

When Sean invites them away to his lakeside cottage for a bonding weekend and they notice bruises on their mom, the girls start to get worried. When snooping, they find cell phone footage of Laura and Sean involved in some rough sex and light bondage and make a series of wrong conclusions. Determined to protect their mom, the four girls turn what could have been an innocent vacation into a horror-comedy.

While the practical effects are pretty good, the standouts in this movie are clearly the Reid sisters (Lily, Violet, Rosalee, and Dahlia). They manage to convey the winsomeness and feral grit that combine to make up the foundational character of a young girl.

The adult acting perhaps leaves a little bit to be desired. Most of the dialogue seems to have been re-recorded after the fact. And rather than reacting to what another person has said or done, the actors often exhibit the blank stare of a person waiting their turn to talk. The plot leaves some loose ends untied. (What’s with the dog? And the lawyer?) And it misses an opportunity for the girls to gradually turn the screws on Sean. But the climax is absolutely delightful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkQBGb6-5VM

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Small Time

by Christie Robb

Writer/director Naiv Conty certainly does not look back on childhood with a rose colored tint. Her film Small Time follows elementary school student Emma as she pinballs around from unfit home to unfit home.

It’s an emotionally honest portrait of neglect that keeps us uncomfortably aware of the tightrope Emma is unaware that she is walking. She’s constantly suspended above disaster—one overlooked gas stove, one loaded handgun, one move from a leering perv away from lasting trauma.

But Emma’s still sustaining damage all the time, just in tinier, more banal, ways. Hard-core drug and alcohol abuse by the adults around her is a normal part of her life. She’s loaded up with religious baggage. She’s expected to parent the grown-ups in her life. In the whole movie, no one is there to give her a cuddle or reassurance that looks like it is going to truly have a positive effect. But most of the adults do seem to be doing their best. It’s just that their best isn’t that great.

You know you are in for a heavy film when, only 13 minutes in, your pint-sized heroine has attended her primary caregiver’s funeral and tried repeatedly to “wake up” her mom from an OD.

Still, Emma is a scrappy, upbeat, smart little thing, her interior light dimmed surprisingly little by the shit she has to deal with. Audrey Grace Marshall plays her very straightforwardly. There’s nothing saccharine about her, nothing overwrought. She takes things as they come.

The movie plays a little bit with the timeline and shows events somewhat out of order. This didn’t become clear to me until relatively far into the film. It was filmed over a three-and-a-half-year period to give Marshall time to grow and mature between the three major periods depicted.

These chronological jumps are not clearly signaled by musical or obvious visual cues so it can be a bit disorienting. But the lack of exposition does center us in Emma’s experience as she flashes back to previous experiences and tries to make the best of the terrible hand she’s been dealt.

Small Time isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s a good one.

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.

It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Performing Without a Safety Net

Runt

by Christie Robb

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that high school students are dumb.

It’s not their fault. The part of the brain that supports decision-making isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. And that’s ideally why society surrounds the impulsive little beasties with grownups who can model positive behavior and counsel them about their choices.

Director William Coakley’s Runt shows a good kid, Cal, trying to navigate the tightrope of high school and arrive safely at art school. But he’s working entirely without a safety net.

His single-parent mom is either at work or asleep. His teachers are the kind of folks who will yell at him for being obvious when he breaks and lets the jocks cheat off him. His best friend is an increasingly self-destructive embarrassment. His manager at the supermarket is always on his butt. The only living being that has his back at all is his dog, Runt.

Right from the jump, you know this isn’t going to end well.

Over the course of the film, Cal’s relationship with the jock bullies becomes increasingly violent. The tea of toxic masculinity that they are all steeping in leaves no room for apologies. The cycle of violence feeds on the overall negative energy until, toward the end, it feels like you are watching the birth of a supervillain.

Cameron Boyce as Cal is fantastic. You can see all the nuances of the different emotions that play over his features. The mixture of pride, shock, and guilt that flash across his face after he impulsively does something that Cal never thought he would do is awe-inspiring. The entertainment industry truly lost a promising talent when Boyce died in 2019.

The film’s ending somewhat undercuts what seems to be the intended message. There’s a tinge of romanticism in the very final moments that gives Cal’s violence a more heroic feel than what the rest of the movie seems to be going for.

But as a portrait of what’ll make an art kid snap, it’s pretty good.

How the Sausage Gets Made

Ascension

by Christie Robb

If the makers of Black Mirror made a documentary, I imagine it would feel a lot like Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension.

Presented with no voice-over, written narrative, or expert interviews, the film traces Chinese capitalism from cattle-call like recruitment fairs for entry-level factory work, to shots of machines spitting out piles and piles and piles of single-use plastic doodads, through military-inspired company cultural training exercises for middle managers, to seminars aimed at budding entrepreneurs trying to “monetize [their] personal brand.” The film hits its social apex as a group of youngish elites dine on French pastries while discussing exactly how much knowledge a government should allow its citizens in order to be globally competitive.

With arresting and disorienting camera positions, sharp cuts, and an anxiety-producing soundtrack that would elevate any horror movie, the alienating effect of consumerism is more than carried across.

What we are hearing sold is a Chinese version of the “American Dream,” in which there is a promise of wealth distribution to those who “deserve it.” But what we are seeing is the cost of that dream.

It’s a nightmare of repetitive work, managerial corruption, and alienating corporate propaganda. Employees are encouraged to work harder and faster than sanity would indicate is advisable. All knowledge must be monetized. Families must be deprioritized. Relationships are reduced to whether you are influenced or influencing.

At one point, a CEO delivers a presentation and mentions that China has the potential to be five times the consumer that America is. By that point in the film, the line might as well be underscored by the shrieking violin in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

It inspires nightmare images of the future. The human race drooling incapacitated in front of a screen buried in an ocean’s worth of water bottles in the best-case scenario. Or being whipped by a screaming boss demanding you to make more water bottles faster in an unregulated and perilous working environment.

This isn’t to say the film is completely without humor. The funny moments are just…well…dark. At one point a photographer is barking orders while snapping shots of an influencer on the pristine lawn of a resort. She complains bitterly of the heat, “I can get a heatstroke out here.” Meanwhile, a laborer squats a little ways down the lawn painstakingly removing each invading weed by hand.

It’s heavy-handed, but Christ on a container ship, Ascension is effective.