Tag Archives: Christie Robb

On the Ropes


by Christie Robb

If Tim Roth is attached to a project, I’m intrigued. In Punch, he’s playing Stan, the alcoholic father of 17-year old up-and-coming boxer Jim (Jordan Oosterhof). Stan’s been training Jim since elementary school. It’s a familiar story—small town kid hoping to get out by nurturing his athletic talent. 

In this case, the small town is located in picturesque New Zealand and what the town has going for it in terms of rolling grassland and beaches is more than ruined by the small-minded racism and rampant homophobia of its residents. 

One day, while blowing off his training to pursue his true passion of shooting footage for music videos, young Jim is stung by a jellyfish and is rescued by Whetu (a resplendent Conan Hayes). Whetu is both Maori in what appears to be a majority White town and openly gay.

Jim will have to navigate his growing feelings for Whetu, the pressure of his dad’s dreams for his future, and the demands of all the various folks around town who want to define the man he will become.

The first feature written and directed by Welby Ings, Punch‘s story and timeline feel a bit uneven. Most of the film has a meandering, dreamy pace that is an appropriate touch for the organic way the boys’ relationship develops.  But, this is set in contrast to the ticking clock established at the beginning of the film with an upcoming crucial boxing match and, later on, by Stan’s growing ill health.

Some of the character development is uneven as well, and sadly Roth is a let down here as Stan veers dramatically from a tyrannical figure to an empathetic shoulder for Jim to cry on without earning that moment. Similarly, the ending seems abrupt and also, perhaps, not quite earned. 

Matt Henley’s cinematography, though,  is atmospheric and gorgeous and elevates the film, especially in the scenes  Whetu and Jim spend together. They are a delight to watch.

Under Pressure

Free Skate

by Christie Robb

That being a professional athlete is not all fun and games probably doesn’t come as a surprise these days. Just look at all the flack Simone Biles took for withdrawing from competition at the Tokyo Olympics, or the years of sexual abuse perpetrated by the U.S. Gymnastics team’s doctor against team members.

Director Roope Olenius’s (Bunny the Killer Thing) Free Skate focuses on the athletes of elite figure skating. It follows an immensely talented young unnamed female skater (Veera W. Vilo, also the film’s writer) as she flees an abusive situation in Russia and attempts to rebuild her life and career in her native Finland.

Olenius and Vilo have elected to tell the story in non-linear fashion, bouncing between the skater’s time in Russia and her new life. There is a bit of a failure in the visual storytelling here, making it tricky to differentiate between the two timelines. There is also the occasional flashback to the skater as a child and her relationship with her mom, but superficial physical similarities between the skater and her mother make these scenes difficult to parse as well. Now, the film does use Russian, Finnish, and English and I’m guessing that folks more familiar with Russian and Finnish would have a much easier time orienting themselves in the story’s timeline. (So, really, I’m just criticizing my own inability to differentiate Russian and Finnish.)

Vilo, who was an elite gymnast, plays the skater with a polished exterior veneer barely covering a fractured center. It’s difficult to assess her overall acting ability as she plays the skater as emotionally disassociated. But Vilo definitely has the physical ability to portray this level of athlete without Olenius having to cut away to a body double very often—super impressive as figure skaters bend in impossible ways while basically balancing on knives.

Slow to begin, the movie increases in tension until it starts to resemble a horror movie toward the final act as almost everyone in the skater’s life demands more and more from her—wanting more cheerful facial expressions, wanting her to lose weight on a frame already too skinny to menstruate, wanting her to share stories about her past, wanting her to let rich men fuck her for sponsorship.

The last act, perhaps, veers a bit too hard toward melodrama, but overall Free Skate is a solid film exploring the unhealthy power dynamics and overwhelming pressures in elite sport.

You Had Me at Miaow

Cat Daddies

by Christie Robb

Apparently, there’s some sort of social stigma attached to men who like cats? Having grown up in a generally pet-loving family with a cat named Mittens that clearly preferred my dad to all other humans, this comes as news to me. But my husband looked at me like I was shocked to find out that people put milk in their cereal when I asked him if he’d heard about this stigma, so I guess I’m the weirdo?


Anyway, Mye Hoang’s documentary Cat Daddies feels like part of a benign public relations campaign to generate increased interest in the felis catus brand.

The production team has identified a possible new target audience for cats: adult men. To help create a positive relationship between the brand and the target audience, a series of charismatic cats who cohabitate successfully with people of a masculine persuasion in a variety of contexts is presented. Some of the cats help their human roommates gain social media attention. Others accompany their bros on hikes or other outdoor adventures, sometimes while wearing little outfits and/or peeking out of backpacks. Several help their dudes overcome the trauma of being first responders or living without permanent housing. The male feline enthusiasts have diverse careers: actor, former construction worker, firefighter, trucker, stunt performer, teacher, police officer, software engineer, and (not surprisingly) advertising executive.

During the course of the beautifully shot documentary, the pandemic begins to unfold, giving the movie additional depth and allowing for an exploration of the critical role pets played as social/emotional support during an exceptionally difficult time. In addition to this, two of the more serious themes investigated are the need for support in efforts to control feral cat colonies by Trap-Neuter-Release programs, and for adoption efforts to get animals off the streets and into loving homes.

The most compelling story of the eight covered is of former construction worker David and his cat Lucky. David, a man out of work who had been living on the streets,  found Lucky as a kitten dying outside of Penn Station. He helped get Lucky back to health and their bond has helped David keep going while dealing with the effects of lack of housing, the pandemic, and his increasing ill health.

Throughout the film, there is a reoccurring refrain almost that it’s ok for men to feel an emotional bond with an animal, to experience compassion, and a wiliness to care about something other than themselves. This is a positive message, but it kind of sucks to be living in a world where Hoang feels the need to hammer home that it is ok to be masculine and care about something.

But yeah, cats are great. And this movie lets you watch some brawny lads snuggle them.

Ghouls Just Want to Have Fun

The Civil Dead

by Christie Robb

Emotional honesty is hard. But it’s even harder when you are someone’s entire social world.

In The Civil Dead, deadbeat photographer Clay finds himself alone for the weekend when his wife goes out of town. He’d promised her he’d do something productive instead of sitting around drinking beer, so he goes out to snap some photos. While taking a photo of a graffitied mattress abandoned on the side of the road, he runs into an old acquaintance from back home, Whit, whom he’s been ghosting since the dude moved out to Los Angeles. They chit-chat a bit, each clearly lying about their successes in the art and film industries. After an awkward night together in which Clay gets hammered and Whit spends the night, Clay tries to get the guy to leave. But Whit won’t.

[Spoiler Ahead. Read At Your Own Risk.]

See, Whit is dead and Clay is the only person who is able to see him.

Unlike other movie ghosts, Whitt can’t move physical objects or float through walls so he’s mostly just wandering around the streets of LA, and he hates walking. He’s stoked to find that Clay has “the shining” and is totally psyched to spend the rest of Clay’s life together and then pal around once Clay shuffles off his mortal coil.

The Civil Dead is a unique entry in the spooky dark comedy genre. The horror comes not from the paranormal, but from the very mundane social awkwardness of someone trying to disentangle themselves from a relationship they never wanted in the first place while the other desperately clings on.

Directed by Clay Tatum, written and starring Tatum and Whitmer Thomas, the two get a lot of mileage out of a simple concept. But it’s a chill kind of milage. There’s no solving the mystery of Whit’s death or helping him step into the light. Instead, they explore the possible advantages of having an invisible friend, the boredom inherent in a life after death, and just how hard it is to communicate honestly with another grown-up.  Tatum’s misanthropic loser is charming, but Thomas really shines, giving a pretty subtle performance as he cycles between submissive affability, existential despair, fear and rage. I, for one, will never feel quite as comfortable in a vacation rental again.

Mission Impossible

The Mission

by Christie Robb

Tania Anderson’s documentary The Mission details the lives of four very young adults as they embark on two-year missions to try to spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to the population of Finland. Finland—a country in northern Europe with a high per-capita income, one of the best educational systems in the world, an extensive social safety net, and one that has ranked number one in every annual report of World Happiness since 2018. Not the kind of place where people are likely to be shopping for a new religious modality.

Barely out of childhood, the two American men and women spend a few weeks in a kind of missionary boot camp in Utah before being thrown into a new country, expected to converse with the locals despite only knowing a few stock phrases (and often stumbling over those) and ultimately convince them to convert. Their lives are regimented. Expected to rise at 6:30 AM each day and begin work, they are assigned a companion—a stranger—who spends all “non-hygiene-related time” with them for nine weeks before the companion is replaced with another. They are only allowed contact with family and friends once per week. And they have to pay for the privilege of doing this. The Church does not subsidize its missionaries.

Anderson emphasizes the loneliness. She lingers on the barren, spare quarters in which the subjects live. She uses long establishing shots of the landscape to show how small they are in this new country. She lingers on conversations that strain the viewer’s ability to handle social awkwardness.

In contrast to the aims of its subjects, the documentary itself is not preachy. It covers enough successful conversions and strengthening of faith to balance out the coverage of those dealing with doubt and existential despair. However, this balance is delivered at the surface level. We don’t really get to know any of the four subjects and what motivates them in any profound way. Their reasons for taking on this task, the logistics of the financial commitments, the cultural differences between Americans and Finns, and the missionaries’ personal struggles are only hinted at or covered at the depth one might expect while making small talk at a church bake sale.

The mission takes place between 2019 and 2021 and, unbelievably, it does not consider COVID-19 and the impact it had on a socially-focused pursuit, at all.  Nothing about the fears these folks had at being stuck in a foreign country when the borders started closing. Nothing about how they reacted when millions of mink that had been culled from fur farms in nearby Denmark started to rise from the grave. There are some shots toward the end where the missionaries are wearing masks, but aside from that, the pandemic is completely erased from existence, much in the same way that you are likely to forget this entirely adequate documentary after you have watched it.

A Signature Challenge

The Seven Faces of Jane

by Christie Robb

The Seven Faces of Jane is an experimental film made using the technique of “exquisite corpse,” an approach developed by surrealist artists in which a piece is made by multiple people.  Each artist contributes a part of the whole without knowing what the other artists are doing. 

Here, eight directors collaborated to make a film in which most scenes were created by directors largely ignorant of what the other directors were contributing. Each director knew where their scene would appear in the timeline of the film and was given instructions as to the setting and major event to take place.  Otherwise, they were given total creative freedom.

It’s a bit like the restaurant wars part of Top Chef, where contestants try to create a pop-up restaurant with a cohesive concept but each is responsible for one dish and must use it to articulate their entire cooking philosophy—to attempt to stand out and “put themselves on the plate.” This is usually fun and dramatic and results in some…inconstancies in the diners’ experience.  Stuff happens like three chefs will collaborate to make a soul food restaurant while the fourth serves up an Asian dish with a chiffonade of collard greens on the top as a superficial nod to the overall concept.

The Seven Faces of Jane generally works in the same manner. It’s fun to go if you are in on the concept and like seeing what professionals can do when faced with a novel challenge. But if you were just a hungry person looking for a good meal, you might lack the patience for this sort of thing.

Gillian Jacobs stars as the titular Jane and directs both the opening and closing frames of the story in which Jane drops her daughter off/picks her up at sleepaway camp. The other pieces explore, with varying degrees of success, who Jane is outside of her role as “mom.” Jacobs’s presence does a lot to maintain a generally melancholy throughline.

The outlier, the General Tso amongst the mac and cheese,  is the first scene inside the frame, “Jane2”, by Gia Coppola. This one reads as an homage to Guy Ritchie films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but with more surrealist elements. It’s weird and makes you think that the movie is heading off in a certain direction, which in the next scene, it just…doesn’t.  But, as “Jane2” occurs so early in the film and is so different from the rest, the jarring nature of it helps establish the kind of Frankenstein’s creation that is being brought to life. To place it elsewhere in the movie’s timeline would have been a mistake.

Not that there aren’t other weird scenes. There’s one where Jane is called in by her agent to audition for a role in a mausoleum where the casting directors mostly seem interested in what her uvula looks like and how she bleeds. There’s another scene that features a lengthy modern dance sequence.  It’s just that these scenes kinda flow better.

Ken Jeong makes his directorial debut in “The One Who Got Away.” Here Jacobs stars opposite Joe McHale and they get to reprise the chemistry and sharp banter that made them so fun to watch in Community. Overall, The Seven Faces of Jane is a fun experiment, and a great way for Jacobs to show her range, but something that a very small audience will likely be into. If you are just looking for a cohesive story to take you out of yourself for a couple of hours, you are probably better served elsewhere.

An Odd Couple in an Even Odder World

Joy Ride

by Christie Robb

A cozy story of mutual self-discovery, director Emer Reynolds and writer Ailbhe Keogan’s Joyride delivers a series of poignant moments but unfortunately not enough of them to result in a believable conclusion.

The excellent Olivia Colman plays Joy, a solicitor that has recently given birth to a late-in-life baby that she wishes to give away to a childhood friend. The delightful Charlie Reid plays Mully, a teenager who has recently lost his mom to cancer and is left with a scumbag dad who wants him to steal money from a hospice fundraiser to clear his debts. Their lives intersect when the two try to use the same stolen taxi.

The transitional nature of a road trip during a transitional period in both of their lives provides the opportunity for each of the two to learn things they never knew about themselves and to grow and mature as individuals. They are doing this while rolling through the Irish countryside, which is quite a pleasurable backdrop.  

The two leads are very talented and their banter is written naturally enough to be believable. However, the plot at times veers into the ridiculous, ignoring so much of the way the actual world works as to leave you wondering if you accidentally got the genre wrong and you are watching a fantasy.

It’s a world in which you can evade the police by simply turning into the first driveway on the side of the road and 13 year-old-boys can function as effective lactation consultants.

But, if you are looking for a movie to attempt to give you heart-expanding holiday feelings without the Hallmark tinsel explosion, Joyride might be the movie for you.

Poetry in Motion


by Christie Robb

A languid, disjointed film about British WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, Terence Davies’ Benediction sets the stage for several exquisite recitations of Sassoon’s poetry.

And the poetry is really the star of the show.

This isn’t to say that Sassoon’s life is boring and without conflict. Not at all. As a lieutenant fighting in France, Sassoon was horrified by trench warfare, and the tone of his poetry shifted from romantic and patriotic to a gritty depiction of rotting corpses, suicide, and a growing sense of futility amidst the mud and gas attacks.

He was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” and then wrote a letter to his commanding officer (forwarded to the press and House of Commons) refusing to return to active service, condemning the motives of an unjust war. Instead of being shot for treason, he was sent to a Scottish war hospital to recover from “shell shock.”

After the war, he had several love affairs with men (writers, actors, and aristocrats). He married a woman, had a son, converted to Catholicism and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Writer/Director Davies doesn’t give the story of Sassoon a clear focus/narrative arc. It bounces back and forth in time, setting the few jewel-like moments in which the poems are performed among a series of vignettes from the author’s life. In these, he searches for authenticity and connection in a fractured world. Sometimes we wander about through tasteful interiors while people in sumptuous clothing shout about relationships that aren’t completely explained. Occasionally this is intercut with archival footage from WWI.

This experimentation in form and use of stream-of-consciousness is a technique employed by literature in the period after the Great War. It allows us to experience Sassoon’s longing and disappointment as he tries to find meaning and salvation in political action, relationships, family, and religious devotion—all of which fail him.

Both the actors playing Sassoon, Jack Lowden (young) and Peter Capaldi (old), give heroic, emotionally vulnerable performances. My only real criticism here is that there isn’t enough of a throughline connecting Lowden’s open-hearted optimism (even post-war and post-breakup) to Capaldi’s cantankerous hatred of all things modern.

Lowden does such a good job of keeping Sassoon’s emotional self locked behind a façade of genteel wit and English manners that, in the scenes from his later life depicted by Capaldi, the Sassoons seem like two completely different people.

Still, the fragmented structure of the film and the character does a superb job of depicting the trauma sustained by a generation who experienced the unprecedented horrors of what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars.

City of Love

Paris, 13th District

by Christie Robb

Director Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is slow. Languorously slow. Like honey oozing off a comb. Like a flower unfurling. Like a relationship evolving over time.

Audiard’s film, which he co-wrote with Nicholas Livecchi and Lea Mysius based on stories by graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, follows the intertwined lives of Emilie, Camille, Nora, and Amber over the course of a year, give or take. Friendships develop and wane. Love affairs start and end.

All is shot in gorgeous black and white except for a bit that’s rather startling and in color.

The cast members are stunning (Lucie Zhang as Emilie, Makita Samba as Camille, Noemie Merlant as Nora, and Jehnny Beth as Amber) and the camera delights in lingering over their often naked bodies.  Their characters are complex and the actors play them with a realism and vulnerability that is frankly impressive.

It’s a realistic portrayal of a set of modern relationships with all the ecstasy and ugliness that makes them complicated and exciting and worth having.  

The plot features dating apps, cam girls, death, real estate,  cyberbullying, and MDMA. To say more about the story would wreck the experience of watching it and trying to anticipate how the characters’ lives will interconnect.

Teenage Wasteland


by Christie Robb

Directors Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart take us on a spin through the life of alienated 16-year-old Abby (Fatima Ptacek) who has always felt like an outsider in her rural California town, certain she has to make it out to find herself.

Writer Cindy Kitagawa nails the egocentrism of adolescence. The arrival of a cool new girl in town (Mia Rose Frampton) and an indie rock band stuck in the area while their tour bus receives repairs precipitates Abby’s first life crisis. She’s thrown for such a loop that she’s willing to alienate her parents, teachers, and childhood friends in order to discover herself and her potential life path.

Is it with Dave (Kane Ritchotte), the sexy front man who tries to sweet-talk her into performing?

Running in counterpoint to Abby’s story is her mom’s (Cristela Alonzo). Abby is now the same age her mom was when she got pregnant. Mom’s hoping the apple falls very, very far from the tree on that one. Now, in her 30s, Mom is drinking a little too much, smoking in bed, and staring down the barrel of a divorce from a husband who got his coworker pregnant. During her job as a night nurse she hangs out with an older patient (played by the great Melissa Leo who doesn’t have nearly enough to do), also a former teenage mom, now estranged from her grown daughter.

At school, Abby struggles to complete a hometown history report. The purpose of the report, as the class frequently recites in unison is because: “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.” The hope is that Abby will come to terms with the past and learn from it so she can choose the path forward that is right for her. A somewhat heavy-handed final act directly addresses this.

Coast doesn’t exactly break new ground in the coming-of-age genre. Far too much time seems to be spent on the thinly-developed stock characters of edgy-new-friend and dreamy-boy when Abby’s childhood friends and her mother seem much more charismatic and potentially interesting. But Ptacek’s Abby believably cycles between the joyful naivete of childhood, the judgmental anger of adolescence, and the more balanced perspective of adulthood. And the soundtrack kinda rocks.